“Music is the universal language.”
I’ve been hearing that line just about all of my life. And I mostly think it’s true. But it’s also true that we need a little help in learning any language. I actually think music is the easiest language to learn. We used to be able to count on the schools and churches. But school music seems to be one of the first things to get cut when budget crunches come along and it’s been three or four generations since most Americans sang and played music as an integral part of their education.
A century ago, a lot of homes had pianos. Now we find home entertainment centers, which are fine things, but flipping on a cd or iPhone is a long way from actually engaging with the music. To make things worse, many people feel uncomfortable around great music. Again and again after concerts I hear people say, “Well, I don’t know anything about music….” Right after they say that, they tell me something very perceptive about what they just heard. Why do they think they don’t get it?
Maybe because we, the performers and teachers and the orchestras and the radio stations, have made folks feel that if they don’t have the vocabulary (half of which must sound as if it’s in a foreign language) that they’re ‘not musical.’
I think its our job to give people the tools they’ll need to listen to music with pleasure and confidence. It’s not that hard to do. And nothing makes human beings happier than learning. You see again and again the delight on their faces when they ‘get it.’ There’s nothing more affirming.
If I were getting ready to take a long hike in the mountains, I’d love to talk with someone who’d been up the hill a few times.
Now it’s true that great music can seem daunting at first. Masterpieces like Bach’s B minor Mass, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony are long, probing, in a language which may seem unfamiliar. And that’s where an experienced guide comes in.
If I were getting ready to take a long hike in the mountains, I’d love to talk with someone who’d been up the hill a few times. In fact, I’d want him along for the first hike — so I’d know where the tricky parts of the climb are, where we could find a break from the wind if a storm came up, which little side path has the most beautiful view.
I think that’s my job. Most of my life I’ve been using orchestras and radio stations to bridge that gap between the great music I love and the great people I wish loved it as much and as easily as I. Here are some concerts that bring audiences inside the music.
Exploring Music, concerts as Outward Bound
Exploring the Symphony — From Franz Joseph Hadyn to John Corigliano
The symphony is the largest, most prestigious and most popular form of orchestral music. It seems as if ninety percent of the orchestras around the world include the word “Symphony” in their name.How’d that happen? Where’d the symphony come from? How do you write one? How do you listen to one? Why can’t you clap between the sections (movements)? What’s your favorite symphony? Can I please hear my favorite part again? Discover the answers in Exploring the Symphony.
The Bard in Concert: Exploring Great Music Inspired by Shakespeare
One of the keys to connecting with audiences is to find common ground. The people who come to concerts know Shakespeare. They know Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. Shakespeare has fired the imagination and passions of composers for centuries. Follow the tales we already know in the music of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Strauss, Dvorak, Prokofiev, Bernstein. An actor brings the words alive while the orchestra plays the magnificent music.
Exploring Hit or Myth in Concert
Composers have created spectacular music based on the great myths. Start with Orpheus, for example — the first musician, so extravagantly talented that he could charm the birds and fish and wild beasts, coax the trees and rocks into dance. Composers of four centuries set the Orpheus legend to music — Monteverdi, Gluck, Offenbach, Philip Glass (It was Offenbach who irreverently introduced the Can Can to Hades in his Orpheus in the Underworld). Throw in pieces from Stravinsky and the vivid Brazilian retelling of the tale, Black Orpheus and you’ve got a brilliant short presentation. Add Berlioz music from The Trojans and Samuel Barber’s Medea’s Meditation and you have a concert of mythic proportion.
Exploring the World of the Great Composers
Suppose we were dropped into an art museum whose directors had playfully removed all the identifying signage from the paintings. Our task is to walk through and make guesses about what we are looking at. I think most of us would do pretty well. We might recognize a Reubens on that wall, or at least guess that it’s a Dutch painting, next to another painting that might be Rembrandt. We’d probably get Monet or van Gogh right away in the next room.
How are we doing that? How are we recognizing the period and nationality of the painter with some accuracy? I’m guessing we are finding clues in subject matter, color scheme, type and period of clothing, some intuitive sense of composition and brush stroke and flow. We may not know howwe do it, but we feel pretty comfortable making guesses.
Now imagine flipping on the car radio. We hear orchestral music. Is that Beethoven? Schubert? Brahms? Probably not Stravinsky or Copland. Most of us wouldn’t do as well as we did making an informed guess at the painters in our anonymous museum.
But we could — with a little help. It takes some listening to a variety of work, and then we start to hear a composers voice, finding the elements that make his work as identifiable as van Gogh’s brush stroke. You could make a really good start in a short concert that tells the story of a composer’s life, starting with the music that he grew up with, following the developments in his style, seeing the composer in the context of the time he lived in, utilizing photos, film where available and commentary to make an age and a composer come alive.
Take for example, two boys from Brooklyn, who were born at the turn of the last century — one went off to Paris, wrote some very ‘modern’ sounding music, stumbled into bringing folk music into his palette and became the composer of our national landscape — Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Fanfare for the Common Man — this is Aaron Copland. The other Brooklyn boy went straight to Tin Pan Alley, worked as a song plugger, wrote shows with his lyricist brother, then knocked the world for a loop with Rhapsody in Blue, before going on to write An American In Paris and Porgy and Bess— that’s George Gershwin.
Exploring the World of …
These concerts are scripted and some employ an actor to tell the story from the inside. For example:
Exploring the World of Gustav Mahler imagines the composer’s wife Alma in 1960, remembering their life together half a century earlier, going back to Mahler’s childhood (before Alma was born), through their time in Europe and then to New York at the turn of the century, where Mahler conducted the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic before his death at age fifty. At the conclusion of the program, Alma crosses the stage to present the conductor with the manuscript of the 10th Symphony, which she’d concealed for fifty years.
Exploring the World of Benjamin Britten is told by the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s companion and the man for whom he wrote some of his greatest works. Accordingly the actor who plays Pears has to first of all be a top flight tenor, who can sing excerpts from the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Les Illuminations, and some of the charming folk songs. He’ll also narrate The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.
There are also scripts for:
Exploring the World of Aaron Copland
Exploring the World of Igor Stravinsky
Exploring the World of Serge Prokofiev (told by an invisible narrator, a sort of Big Brother figure in the age of Josef Stalin)
Exploring the World of Charles Ives (told by Ive’s father George, who at age twenty was proclaimed “the best band master in the Union Army” by Abraham Lincoln)
Exploring the World of Bela Bartok
Exploring the World of George Gershwin (told by his brother Ira)
The whole point of Exploring the World of… is to allow an audience to come to know a composer’s voice, to develop a feeling for his or her life, to come to feel a sense of ownership of the music. And yes, to help you to identify a piece on the radio that you’ve never heard before.
These concerts can be assembled on relatively short rehearsal, with minimal props and technical demands. It doesn’t take a lot to create a sense of theater that stays with the listeners long after they depart the concert hall.