Countdown Lists

The other day I drove up to Cleveland.  I tuned in to Sirius XM’s Symphony Hall for the drive, and learned that they were counting down the Top 76 classical recordings, as voted by their participating listeners.  I caught the countdown at number 11, which was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.  I was immediately intrigued by the countdown notion, and then was immediately astonished when the countdown continued and I learned that Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue came in at number 10.  Rhapsody in Blue, over Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony?  Seriously?  In what universe?

1200x600bfBy the time I reached Cleveland the countdown was at number six — Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons — and I was sorry that my drive had ended.  When I got home that night, I checked out the final few songs that rounded out the Top 10.  Beethoven dominated, with three pieces in the Top 10 and the Ninth Symphony coming in at number one, but the more modern composers did pretty well too, with Rachmaninoff, Barber, and Copland — as well as Gershwin — all getting Top 10 slots.  But wait a minute . . . no Bach?  No Handel?  No Haydn?  No Boccherini?  The baroque era and Haydn got horribly short-changed by Symphony Hall listeners, in my view.  You can check out the Symphony Hall list here.

Why are people like me interested in countdown lists?  Those of us who grew up listening to Casey Kasem doing American Top 40 every week, to see which songs were moving up, which were moving down, and who was up there at number one, are pretty much conditioned to pay attention to countdown lists.  But ultimately, the lists are just a way of keeping your finger on the pulse of the world at large and what other people are thinking, and liking.  They don’t really mean much in terms of actual quality or lasting significance — after all, the Pipkins’ Gimme Dat Ding reached the American Top 10 in 1970.  Retrospective lists, like the Symphony Hall list, provide great fodder for argument, though and you might just learn something or try something new as a result.  I’m going to give a listen to some of the unfamiliar pieces on the Symphony Hall countdown list.

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The Wonder Of Beethoven

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Last night Kish and I got our Beethoven fix.  The Columbus Symphony Orchestra was putting on a Beethoven Marathon, and we caught the three principal performances — of the Second Symphony, the Triple Concerto in C major (shown in the photo above), and finally the fabulous Seventh Symphony.  (The Symphony also offered a pre-concert performance of the Quintet for Piano and Winds and a post-concert String Quartet in C-sharp minor, but we missed those two additions due to dinner on the front end and increasing age on the back end.)

The program was wonderful.  I’m always fascinated by the live performance of a symphony orchestra — to see so many diverse instruments working together to produce a coherent sound, rather than cacophony — and by the creative impulses that moved a genius like Beethoven to create such magical music in the first place.  I think the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, for example, is simply one of the most deeply moving pieces of music ever composed, full of tension, straining and stirring and soaring and humble all at the same time.  How did it come to him?  Someone who has no musical talent (like me) cannot begin to guess what it must be like to hear such melodies in your head.  That Beethoven was able to create such music while his hearing was failing just makes the whole creative process more brilliant and astonishing.

Interesting, isn’t it, that long after the leaders and issues of his day have been consigned to the dustbin of history and then forgotten, Beethoven’s music — and Mozart’s, and Bach’s, and Wagner’s, and Haydn’s — lives on, to be performed anew and enjoyed and loved by new generation?.  The same is true of artists, and authors, and playwrights, of course.  We don’t remember the Popes, minor nobility, doges, kings, queens, and wealthy patrons who supported Michelangelo, da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Beethoven, but we know the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa, the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and the stirring first chords of the Fifth Symphony.

Politics is ephemeral; art, music, and beauty are eternal. When you have the opportunity to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, that is really what you are hearing.

Sad About Pops

Recently SiriuxXM cancelled its over-the-air Pops channel that I listened to in my car.  That channel played a steady, commercial-free selection of terrific popular classical music selections.  That decision sucks in more ways than one.

I listened to the Pops channel regularly.  In fact, it was my favorite SiriusXM channel, and part of the crucial classical music rotation that I could quickly shift through to find something I really liked.  That included SiriusXM 74 (Met Opera Radio), 75 (Pops), and 76 (Symphony Hall), as well as WOSU-FM, the local classical music outlet.  Sure, the Pops channel self-promotions were kind of mindless and irritating (“Bassoons and oboes and cymbals, oh my!”), but it was a reliable refuge that could be counted on to play some baroque or Strauss when Symphony Hall was playing an interminable Brahms piece or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue when I felt like listening to something other than the theme music for a United Air Lines commercial.

It’s pathetic that SiriusXM has only one real classical music channel, as well as the Met channel.  After all, this is a satellite radio service that has dozens of pop and rock stations, each specifically devoted to a particular kind of music — say, music from the ’60s, or acoustic stuff, or heavy metal.  They’ve even had a station devoted to Billy Joel.  Billy Joel!  I think Piano Man is a perfectly good pop song, but how about some actual piano music from Beethoven or Mozart?

Can it really be that there are so few classical music fans out there that classical music is less in demand than Billy Joel?  My God!  What does that tell you about the state of our country?

Beethoven’s Birthday

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized on December 17, 1770.  That probably means that he was born on December 16, 1770 — by tradition, babies were baptized within 24 hours of their birth — but no one knows for sure.

The Sirius XM Symphony Hall channel has been celebrating the occasion by playing all Beethoven, all the time, for the past few days.  It sounds like it would be boring, but it isn’t.  If anything, the extended playlist reveals, instead, the sweep and scope of his compositions and his musical interests.  It’s amazing that one man, who lived only to age 56, created such a staggering body of work.

When I was a kid, my parents had a “Beethoven’s Greatest Hits” record that included a tiny fraction of his work.  I loved listening to that record and looking at the brooding, almost angry picture of the composer that appeared on the back cover.  I wondered how that intense man created something as delicate and lovely as Fur Elise.  I also remember that, in the liner notes, they quoted a musical scholar as saying:  “He was a titan, wrestling with the gods.”  As I grew older, and listened to more and more of Beethoven’s music, I began to appreciate the accuracy of that statement.

For those of us who love music, but can’t play a note, the most amazing thing about professional musicians and songwriters is the notion that they could just hear a song in their heads — a song that no one else had ever thought of.  With someone like Beethoven, of course, the impulses that spurred the creative process seem even more impossible, because his works largely reimagined the prevailing compositional forms and were remarkable for their daring and innovation.  We can only wonder what it must have been like when the stirring strains of the Ninth Symphony were first heard in the head of this profoundly deaf genius, who then presented this colossal piece of music to a world that has relished it, and its creator, ever since.

Happy birthday, Mr. Beethoven.  You changed the world.

Tea Time

One of the many distinctive touches you find at The Greenbrier is tea time.

The tea time concert

Every day at 4 p.m., a pianist sits at the grand piano in the garden room to play a march.  Then, uniformed waiters and waitresses come striding into the main lobby to the  cadence of the music, carrying silver trays groaning with cookies and sweets.  The trays are placed on a large central table in the main lobby, tables with silver canisters of steaming hot tea and iced tea are moved into the room, and the guests descend to enjoy the feast.

In the meantime, the pianist gives a 45-minute concert to all who prefer to take their tea with musical accompaniment.  It is quite pleasant indeed to sit in the beautiful garden room with the pianist, sipping tea and milk, nibbling on an almond cookie, and listening to the strains of Beethoven’s Fur Elise or a medley of Disney movie tunes.

Good vacations are made, I think, of little moments like this, where you do something fun and unusual in a distinctive place and then can recall the moment with pleasure after you return to your ordinary routine.

Looney Tunes And The Gateway To Classical Music

This morning I had my Ipod on “Shuffle Songs” and the Overture to The Barber of Seville began playing.  As I listened to the music I immediately thought of . . . Bugs Bunny.  Yes, I thought of the classic Looney Tunes cartoon where Bugs and Elmer have an encounter in a barber shop, chasing each other with axes, applying hair restorer, and engaging in other tomfoolery while snippets from the score of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville played.  The actual cartoon is here:

It made me think about how much I learned about classical music, and for that matter a bunch of other things, when UJ and I sat in front the TV on Saturday mornings, watching the Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck comedy hour as we ate our bowls of cereal.  For me, at least, Bugs Bunny cartoons were a gateway to the world of classical music.  I would hear a portion of, say, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony as background music during a thunderstorm scene and think that it sounded pretty good.  Later, when I began to try to find those pieces and started to regularly listen to classical music, I was amazed at how many portions of classical pieces I had heard before — in cartoons, as theme music for news shows, as music in a commercial, or in some other form of popular culture.  The painless exposure to the songs through popular culture, as opposed to being dragged as a kid to some concert hall, had conditioned me to enjoy and appreciate classical music.

The downside, of course, is that I can’t hear the Overture to The Barber of Seville without thinking of Bugs Bunny, but I suppose that is a small price to pay.