February 15, 2006

Classical Music: Not Dead Yet

by psu

We went to a PSO concert last weekend. This is the first show we have been to in about a year. In the past, I used my PSO experiences to show why the cultural position of Classical Music in our modern world is somewhat shaky. However, this is not the whole story.

The program last weekend did not appear to me anything special. A short string piece by Elgar, the Beethoven Second, and a concerto by Brahms for violin and cello which I had not heard before. The soloists for the concerto were Andres Cardenas, the concertmaster, and Anne Martindale Williams, the principle cellist. Both are popular players in the orchestra. I think many of their students were in the audience.

The first few bars of the Elgar snapped me to attention. It seemed to me that the string sound in Heinz Hall was a lot better than it used to be. It's probably just that I have not been to a concert in a long time, but the arrangement of the strings on the stage did seem different. I swear they used to use higher risers. In any case, the Elgar got the night off to a good start. Nothing like a good slow movement in a string symphony to get you interested.

But the surprise of the night was the Beethoven. Since I am an arrogant and jaded asshole, I had generally convinced myself that only the later, odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies are actually interesting. It turns out that I was wrong about that. It turns out that even back in his second symphony, Beethoven was already writing music that would fit well into his Ninth. I still get a bit lost in the long and meandering slow movement, but overall I marveled even though I was sure I would not.

I have this experience once in a while going to concerts with the Orchestra. Typically it will be with pieces of music that I have heard before. The live concert brings a piece into focus better than listening at home. First, orchestras today play at an unbelievably high level of technical excellence, and this is much more clear when you see it live. This does not necessarily mean that the music is always better, but it raises your chances. Second, the live setting forces you to pay attention. This is especially the case when things are going well. If the music is grabbing your attention, don't sit there and read the program notes and let it all pass by.

In fact, if I were writing a beginner's guide to appreciating a concert at the PSO (which, nefariously, I suddenly am), I would advise that before you do anything else, you do the following:

1. Listen to the music in the concert once or twice on CD first. This is especially important for the larger scale works, which are really huge pieces of formal musical narrative and development. It really helps to have some idea where things are going before they get there.

2. Pay attention. Do anything to keep focused on the performance. Some people like to watch the players very carefully. Do what you need to do but don't zone out and read the ads in the program.

3. Do not, under any circumstances, ever in your entire existence as a human being go to a concert with an uncontrollable chest cold. Really, I mean it. One of these days someone will be physically injured over a coughing fit during the slow opening section of the Bruckner Seventh. Don't let it be you.

Happily, there were no cases of pneumonia in the audience this night, and the anticipation was high as the Brahms got started. The Beethoven had put everyone in the mood. We were not disappointed. During the slow movement, I mused about the difference between Brahms and Beethoven. Now, I know nothing about the technical details of music theory and composition. I only know what I have heard over the years. But it seems to me that Beethoven is about rhythm and harmony and development. Brahms is different. What Brahms will do is pull out a melody that makes you feel like you could just tear your own heart out of your chest, and since that melody will be the last thing you ever hear, you can die happy. That's just what I think.

By the end of the night, the concert had given me a warm feeling of optimism. It seemed to me that the music was in the safe hands as long as these people, who could play it so well, were able to continue to do so. The concert also put me into a bit of a buying frenzy. While shopping for a recording of the Brahms concerto, I found to my chagrin that I had no CDs of the Brahms symphonies. So I went to Amazon and looked up no less than two hundred recordings of the Brahms symphonies. I don't think there has ever been a time in the history of recorded music when so many classical recordings were so widely available for purchase. Maybe this is the strongest evidence that Classical Music is not dead yet. Someone must be buying all those records. Hopefully they were inspired to do so by a great performance by their local orchestra.

Posted by psu at February 15, 2006 09:57 PM | Bookmark This

I can't find this concert series on the PSO website--can you provide any pointer?


Posted by Chris Ryland at February 16, 2006 07:02 AM

The Pittsburgh Symphony web site does not seem to list programs and information for concerts that have already happened.

The concert was on Feb 11.

Posted by psu at February 16, 2006 07:25 AM

Oops. I got the date wrong. It was Feb 3.

I also found a list


Posted by psu at February 16, 2006 07:42 AM

I know a little about music theory (degree in music, majoring in Musicology) so I can blab on a bit about differences between Beethoven and Brahms.

Firstly, the come from different eras. Beethoven was around 1780-1820, Brahms pretty much directly followed Beethoven. Though they are both German, they fall in the different categories of what most people call "Classical" music (Beethoven was in the "Classical Period", Brahms was in the "Romantic period") so the musical directions and what they were trying to achieve in their music were seperate.

To use the musical parlance, Classical music is largely about structure formation, through harmonic planning. The Romantic period builds on this, with more emphasis on fluidity of harmonic movement, achieved through chromatic variations and elongation of harmonic resolution. More intricate and sudden key changes were reached, through using 7ths, 9ths, 11ths as voice leading notes.

So I guess that explains why Brahms has the "heart ripping out effect" - stretching out resolution has that effect.

Have you listened to anything more modern at all? Schoenberg/Webern? Any of the Serial composers?

Posted by Paul at February 16, 2006 05:12 PM

I have listened to some of the modern stuff. I find that it ranges from interesting to somewhat compelling to mostly pointless. I have to say that I find the more "neo-classical" 20th century music to be more enjoyable overall.

The 20th century Russians and Eastern Europeans are are great though. Shostakovich, Martinu, Janaceck, Prokofiev, etc.

Since I did take a music history class once, it should have occured to me that Brahms was on the Romantic side of the Classical/Romantic bridge. I just didn't think about it that hard.

Posted by psu at February 16, 2006 06:19 PM

Is there a college in Pittsburgh that does music studies? I'm sure there woud be some composers studying there that would appreciate an audience that likes to hear new music ... I know that friends of mine who did composition struggled to get audiences for their stuff, and I'm all about supporting local composers (unless I hate their stuff that is :)

Posted by Paul at February 16, 2006 09:16 PM

Carnegie Mellon University has a well regarded Fine Arts college and music program. Many of the PSO players teach there.

I'm sure there are others too.

Posted by psu at February 17, 2006 11:49 AM

Pitt's music department has a series called Music On the Edge, which features visiting and sometimes local modern classical composers: http://www.pitt.edu/~musicdpt/performance/onTheEdge.html

Duquesne also features concerts by their student and faculty composers, although I don't know if an online calendar of such things exists.

Posted by april at February 17, 2006 08:09 PM

Everyone underestimates the early masters, especially those versed in classical music. All 9 of Beethoven's symphonies are incredible. [You should try the chamber orchestra variation of Beethoven's 2nd by J.E. Gardiner] Same for Bach. Those 200+ canatas, his masses (B min, G min, F, etc. [see the Herreweghe "Masses and Cantatas 4 disc set]), organ works, etc. are chock full of absolute delights, but when was the last time the radio station played anything besides Toccata and Fugue in D min.?

Posted by Anon at April 3, 2006 02:40 PM

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