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Sunday Feature: What Music Would you Recommend to a Classical Neophyte?

This article is reblogged from the blog On An Overgrown Path. The article poses some interesting questions about how classical music might seek new audience members. I was delighted to be invited to contribute to the article.

Is classical music asking the right questions in its search for a new audience? Should we be debating the way musicians dress, the style of lighting used in concert halls and the rights and wrongs of applause between movements? Or should we be spending more time deliberating over what music will appeal to that elusive new audience? As the name of the game is classical music, my vote goes unequivocally for deliberating over what music to recommend and promote to new listeners. Which is why the following Facebook exchange sent me off down a path that is worth sharing.

Reader – Hey there. I am a big fan of On An Overgrown Path and a friend of mine wants to start off listening to classical music. I wanted to know some recommendations for beginners
Me – You ask a very important question, and one to which there is no easy answer. Can you give me a brief biographical sketch of your friend to help me? With some background I will make some suggestions.

Reader – Brief bio: Female. Educational background: Marketing and IT. Age: 27. Occupation: IT Consultant. Hobbies: Singing pop rock. Favorite movies: The Hunger Games saga. Music they currently listen to: Joan Baez, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and have heard a bit of Wagner.

Max Hole and the other new classical gurus are curiously quiet on the crucial question of what a classical beginner should start by listening to. Current concert programmes suggests that Mahler, Shostakovich and Sibelius are the only games in town, while Classic FM and BBC Radio 3 playlist programmes favour the ‘Tchaikovsly’s greatest hits’ approach. None of which, I feel, would hook our 27 year old pop rock singing Nick Cave fan on the classics. So I enlisted the help of four ‘virtual’ friends, all of who are professionally involved in classical music, to recommend music for this specific classical neophyte. Here are their responses.

Frances Wilson: pianist, blogger and piano teacherI’m basing my suggestions partly on my idea of “lateral listening” and also on the premise that everything is “new” if you’ve never heard it before – i.e. a new listener will, hopefully, approach his/her listening with open ears and few preconceptions. Here goes…..

Baroque – Bach French Suite V, 1st Partita, some of the Chorales

Moving laterally to ‘Variations for Judith’ (various living composers). A set of variations on Bach’s Bist bei du Mir. An excellent intro to contemporary piano music and all the movements are very individual and brief. This might pique an interest in variations, in which case back to Bach and the Goldbergs…..

Chopin – Preludes (even if one doesn’t know them, they are “familiar” in their idiom and soundworld). Moving laterally to Syzmanowski (Etudes, Metopes) and early Scriabin (Preludes, Morceaux).

Liszt – Annees de Pelerinage, 1st year. Fountains at the Villa d’Este – and laterally on to Ravel Jeux d’Eau and Ondine

Debussy – Preludes and Children’s Corner. Clair de Lune. Again, I think this music will seem “familiar” even if it is not instantly recognisable. From Debussy early Messiaen (Prelude: La Colombe)

Prokofiev – Visions Fugitives. Brief, varied, accessible. And an intro to more atonal music

Shostakovich Preludes Op 87 – varied, short, melodic, rhythmic, colourful

Cage – In a Landscape, Dream. And thence to Philip Glass – piano Etudes, Metamorphoses (I find my students love Glass’s music because it is familiar from film and TV scores)

Ligeti – Musica Ricercata. Proof that 20th-century classical music can be witty and fun. Which leads us back to Bach….and now perhaps the Goldbergs and the 48….

James Weeks: conductor and composerHow about

Machaut chansons (virelais, rondeaux, ballades)
Beethoven symphonies
Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind and Rite of Spring
Varèse Amériques
Riley IN C
Cage Sonatas and Interludes
Andriessen De Staat or Hoketus

for a start?

Vanessa Lann: composerI would say that a good start might be to listen to any Hildegard von Bingen; then Bach’s Matthew Passion or B minor Mass; I’ll let other people recommend everything in the next century and a half; then maybe Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; then maybe Google “composer non-white” and “composer female” for a selection of more modern works. I’ll leave out the ten-page list I could write including all the amazing work written by composers of all sorts (classical and otherwise) in the last century and a half, as I would not want to limit a new listener – and I would not know who to include, and who to leave out – and it is a bit too close to home…

Ian Sidden: baritone at Dortmund Opera

I became somewhat obsessed with this project. In fact, I might have gone a bit overboard with it, because I’ve written a long blog post with a playlist both on YouTube and Spotify along with short annotations to each of the contained pieces. As I acknowledge in the blog post, I don’t consider this frozen in place, and I will update the playlist and annotations as I think of new appropriate music or as people suggest music to me.

What does “appropriate” mean? The blog post goes into much more detail, but there were six criteria:

Sense of story or place.
Brevity (as much as possible).
Novelty.
Opens doors to more music.
Easy to enjoy.
Quality without condescension.

I began with “story” because of my own experiences with classical, and from what we know about this young professional who wants to learn more, “story” seemed relevant to him as well. From there I considered what challenges new listeners face to flesh out the other criteria.

And the resulting playlist (as of now) is too long to post here entirely, but it’s 40 selections as of now. It has composers like Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven, of course, but also Barber, Victoria, Puccini, Bernstein, Josquin, Copland, Schubert, Britten, Wagner, Hildegard, Scriabin and Prokofiev. There are some modern composers like Larsen, Adams, Tavener, Whitacre, and Salonen. And Gottfried Huppertz is in there as the composer of the Metropolis score, which opens many doors into to the present day and to the past.

The pieces chosen from them tried to satisfy the criteria and offer a doorway inside the composers’ world. Sometimes that meant ignoring dominant genres in which particular composers composed (opera for Britten and religious vocal music for Bach, for examples) to find an easier path in. Sometimes it just meant finding the shortest expression of characteristics of a composer (Symphony no. 5 Allegro con brio from Beethoven, for example). But sometimes it meant challenging even new listeners to something unusual and potentially difficult (“Der Leiermann” from Schubert or “Helix” by Salonen).

Some major names were left out who I hope to add later, and additionally I’d like to add more diversity to this list of names. It’s a start though. You can read the aforementioned blog post via this link:

Please feel free to contribute to this interesting discussion either via the comments box below or over at On An Overgrown Path

One thought on “Sunday Feature: What Music Would you Recommend to a Classical Neophyte?”

  1. It’s such an interesting and almost imponderable question, isn’t it? Since becoming excited by contemporary classical music several years ago, I’ve “made it my business” to see what bridges I might build that would encourage others to cross. I’ve found the most reliable entry point has been Arvo Pärt. For me, one of the earliest pieces that caught and held my attention was John Metcalf’s Mapping Wales, after which I snapped up I think every CD with his work–and I’ve generally found, for myself and others, that a good approach can be to find a composer you like (as you might an author you like) and start your explorations there. Metcalf’s advice generally, when I wrote to him to say how much I liked Mapping Wales, was to follow my ears–though he did suggest Peter Sculthorpe, whose work was also an immediate hit for me. Other 20-21st Composers to try out to see if they catch one’s ear might be Steve Reich (perhaps Tehillim, The Desert Music, Music for 18 Musicians) John Adams (perhaps Dharma at Big Sur, Nixon in China, Harmonielehre), Kyle Gann (perhaps Transcendental Sonnets and Private Dances), Shostakovich (perhaps the 4th, 10th, and 15th Symphonies), Sibelius (perhaps the 5th and 7th Symphonies), Britten (perhaps Sinfonia da Requiem, Spring Symphony, the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, and the operas Peter Grimes (perhaps the Aldeburgh on the beach production on DVD) and The Turn of the Screw), and Nielsen (perhaps the 5th Symphony)

    Here’s a few other miscellaneous thoughts on music new and old:

    Watch any video by Jeremy Denk demonstrating music on the piano–a good place to start here is Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

    Go to a live concert and sit close up. I sat next to two young people in the third row at a concert at the NY Phil. They’d got an offer of discount tickets and decided to give it a try. They’d hardly heard any classical music, didn’t know anything about Shostakovich, and the concert they chose was Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony! They were absolutely thrilled (as was I).

    Go to a zany opera in a zany production, like Shostakovich’s The Nose (William Kentridge production) or Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (Jonathan Miller production). The first time out, try an HD performance at a movie theater with a great sound system.

    Watch some Luciano Berio on YouTube: try the Sinfonia and some of the Sequenzas, say Sequenza III with Kathy Berberian or Sequenza V.

    Find a local “contemporary classica/new music” ensemble that plays music you enjoy and follow its lead to discover new pieces and composers you might like. Contemporaneous, here in New York, has been that ensemble for me, introducing me to, among others, the work of Tamzin Elliott, Yotam Haber, Shawn Jaeger, Dylan Mattingly, Andrew Norman, and many, many more.

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