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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Idagio

I’m admittedly something of a cheapskate, and my cellphone is pretty much app-free as a result.  I’m willing to pay for music, however, and when my old iPod started to show signs of its age I began looking for a new, reliable source for music to listen to on my walks.

220px-beethovenAfter doing some research, I decided to subscribe to Idagio, a classical music app, and it has been a great choice for me.  I really enjoy classical music, but I feel like my knowledge — of the scope of the works of different composers and of pieces from different genres and periods — is both narrow and shallow.  When your exposure is confined to the stuff you’ve personally added to your iPod, it’s going to be limited by definition.  For the cost of only a few bucks a month, Idagio has fixed that problem.  Now I’ve got access to a sweeping library of works by composers I’ve never really listened to before, and I feel like I’ve been launched on a pleasant voyage of discovery.

I like how Idagio is organized.  The “discover” section of the app highlights new works from artists, new albums, and playlists that have been created for Idagio.  When you go to the “browse” section of the app, you can choose among composers, ensembles, soloists, conductors, instruments, genres, or periods,  If you pick a favorite composer, you can listen to the composer’s “radio,” which is a random selection of pieces by the composer, or you can listen to their work sorted by popularity or pieces that were recently added.  If you like baroque music, as I do, you can focus on that period, listen to an assortment of music, hear composers you’ve not heard before, then do searches of the “composers” library to take a deeper dive into what they’ve created.  If you then hear something that you like, you can download it and create your own library of personal favorites.  The app also organizes music into “moods” — like “gentle,” “happy,” “exciting,” “passionate,” or “angry” — and the Idagio-created playlists include a range of options, from collections designed to increased concentration and focus to composer-specific and period-specific options, like Mozart piano music or “baroque meditation.”

In short, there are lots of different ways to hear the music, which increases the ability to use Idagio as a tool to broaden your exposure to the sprawling world of classical music.  And that’s a big reason why I’m a fan of this app.

Getting Goosebumps

I’m a goosebump kind of guy.  Put on the right piece of music — preferably opera or a stirring piece of classical music — and I’ll be reacting with the familiar chills running up and down my arms, leaving the little hairs vibrating.  The selection above from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or a beautiful Puccini aria from La Boheme, or Wagner’s Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, among many others, will do it every time.

What causes goosebumps or, to use the more elegant French term, frisson?  (Either of which, incidentally, is preferable in my book to the description used by some researchers —  “skin orgasms” — which makes a pure, deep, emotional reaction to music sound a little bit tawdry and embarrassing.)  Scientists aren’t quite sure.  It’s pretty easy to identify the kinds of music that provoke the reaction; typically the selections involve soaring notes or unexpected changes in volume, tone, or harmony.  But why do some people experience a noticeable physical reaction to such auditory stimulation?

Some scientists theorize that there are evolutionary roots to the reaction, because the arm hair response would help to warm our much hairier ancestors, but that doesn’t make much sense to me.  After all, a significant portion of humans — somewhere between 20 and 40 percent — never experience goosebumps, which seems like a pretty big percentage if you’re positing that the reaction is somehow significant to evolutionary success.  And I can’t exactly picture early hominids listening to Mozart or Bach or their prehistoric equivalent.

Other researchers think the goosebump phenomenon is tied to personality.  The goosebump group will like this:  some research studies indicate that those who shiver with frisson tend to get high marks in a personality trait called “openness to experience,” which is linked to a lot of positive characteristics like unusually active imaginations, appreciation of beauty and nature, intellectual curiosity, interest in trying out new experiences, and enjoyment of variety in life.  That makes us goosebumpistas sound pretty superior, but I honestly doubt that there’s really a big difference between us and the frisson-free folk.  I think it’s simply that people react to music differently.

There’s a reason why music was developed in the first place, after all.  It enriches our existence and makes us feel good — a sensation that some of us experience physically.  And we should be glad for that, too.  Who knows?  Maybe we wouldn’t have had the rich human tradition of beautiful music, in all its forms, if our ancestors hadn’t experienced a shudder of frisson once in a while.

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.

Atonality Aversion

On Friday we’ll be going to another performance of the Columbus Symphony.  Part of the Symphony’s American Roots Festival series, the performance will mix familiar pieces — such as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and an overture by Antonin Dvorak — with some works that are totally unknown to me, including George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony and Kurt Weill’s Little Threepenny Music.

I’m always game to listen to a new musical composition, but I approach such performances with a mix of anticipation and apprehension.  I love classical music and enjoy just about everything from the baroque era forward — until we get to the “modern” classical music of the mid-20th century.  Atonal and jarring, discordant and squawking, the modern compositions are just not pleasant to hear in my view and suffer by comparison to the richly melodic and beautiful compositions of the masters.  It’s as if the classical music world hit the wall around 1950 or so.

Some people suggest that those of us who don’t like the modern stuff simply aren’t sufficiently refined and sophisticated in our musical tastes.  Their arguments remind me of the scene in Defending Your Life where Albert Brooks and his after-life guide are eating a meal.  Albert’s steak looks very tasty, while the guide’s plate is filled with what looks like elephant droppings.  When Albert asks about the difference, the guide explains that because Albert only uses a tiny fraction of his brain, much less than is used by the guide, he can’t possibly appreciate the exquisite and nuanced flavors in the plate of crap.

So perhaps my brainpower isn’t adequate to the task of enjoying modern symphonic  music — or maybe I just like steak.  I’ll be interested to listen to what Friday brings.

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?

Happy Bachday

Today is Johann Sebastian Bach’s 328th birthday.  He was born on March 21, 1685 in Eisenach, in what is now Germany.  Today, Sirius XM marked the occasion by playing all Bach, all the time, on the Symphony Hall channel, and it made my commutes to and from work delightful indeed.

It isn’t difficult for Sirius to program all Bach for a 24-hour period, because Johann Sebastian was astonishingly prolific.  He wrote hymns, church music, concertos, cello suites, cantatas, and organ music, among other pieces.  He also was an accomplished organist who also played the harpsichord, the violin, and the viola.  His works helped to define the distinctive baroque style of music that prevailed in the early 1700s.  Interestingly, Bach’s works apparently fell out of favor after his death, and his compositions did not become highly regarded until the early 1800s.  Now, of course, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest composers in history, and his music is a staple of every classical radio station around the globe.

I love Bach’s pieces, and my iPod is filled with dozens of his compositions.  His works are so rich and expressive of a mood that it makes me wish I had met him to see whether his personality matched his music.  Bach’s compositions are vast and intricate, but at its core there is a certain radiating peacefulness.  If you’ve had a tough day and want to unwind and calm down, Bach is a good choice.  You can quickly get lost in his complex, intertwining melodies and the serenity that comes from well-ordered music that suggests a well-ordered world.