I recently attended a piano recital given by an extraordinarily talented friend. His program included a solo piano version of the first part of Igor Stravinsky’s groundbreaking ballet, THE RITE OF SPRING. It was the second time I’d heard my friend play this challenging work, and for the second time I was blown away. The transcription captured the powerful essence of the orchestral work, and the performer — whose technical abilities are otherworldly — conveyed nuances and instrumental timbres that one would think impossible. How can one piano sound like a lone bassoon, a brass section, or a woodwind section? And yet, he did it convincingly, and it was transforming to me in emotional, psychological and even physical ways.
When I attend a particularly moving or impressive musical performance, I find myself with an urgent need to play my flute. It’s like the kid who looks out the window and sees friends playing in the street and feels compelled to drop everything and join them. It’s an itch that must be scratched. So I went home and tackled some music I’m preparing for upcoming performances, and I felt transformed again.
As music lovers, we know and take for granted that music can be such a powerful force, affecting one’s emotions in so many ways. But why? How? What’s that all about?
Speaking recently with some outstanding teenage musicians who’d won a local orchestra’s concerto competition, I asked each of them: Why does music matter? They ranged in age from 13-17, and every one of these wise young people said some version of this: it’s the best way to connect with emotions and express feelings. One told me it’s better than words and that, even though he aspires to a career as a surgeon, he will never give up his music. Another told me that music matters — all genres of music — because it affects people’s lives and makes people happy. One young musician said that after a long day, music provides a means to shed stress and go to “another world.” She passionately explained that music is a “universal language that connects everyone.” They spoke as performers and as listeners, and they referred to not just classical, but jazz, pop, and other genres. The common thread was MUSIC.
So now it’s your turn: Why does music matter to YOU? Why does music matter in general? What unique experience do you get from music, whether it’s from listening or playing music yourself?
Have you ever heard the word “earworm”? It’s a melody that gets into your brain and won’t go away — a tune you keep humming over and over until you eventually find a way to dislodge it, or it mercifully evaporates on its own. “Air conducting” is the reflexive waving of arms that happens when you hear music that is so compelling it engages your invisible conductor’s baton to keep time.
I was thinking about earworms and air conducting recently when I heard the Fanfare from THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA (most familiar from the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) by Richard Strauss. This particular music has the power to generate an earworm, inspire air conducting AND cause spontaneous air-timpani-playing, too! (At least it did for me!) It brought to mind other music with especially strong magnetic powers: George Frideric Handel’s HALLELUJAH CHORUS from his oratorio MESSIAH, for example. Handel had a particular gift for writing catchy tunes that draw listeners in and make us want to sing along. I have been on road trips during which everyone in the car joined in to sing along with that one. If you have ever attended a performance of MESSIAH, you probably experienced the audience spontaneously standing up when the HALLELUJAH CHORUS began. That’s because, according to legend, when King George attended a performance of MESSIAH he stood when the HALLELUJAH CHORUS began. Since protocol dictated that when the King stands, everyone stands, everyone in attendance rose to their feet. Was Handel’s music so compelling to the King, so mesmerizing, so dramatic, that he couldn’t help himself? Or did the King just need a stretch break during the long oratorio, which lasts around 2 1/2 hours? We’ll probably never know for sure, but either scenario is plausible.
The main theme of Franz Schubert’s UNFINISHED SYMPHONY is another composition that tends to lodge in my brain. (Forever edified, for better or worse, by the words superimposed to help generations of people remember it: “This is the Symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished …”) It can feel fun and cathartic to sing along or air conduct with a snippet from a monumental piece of music! The downside of earworms, though, is that they are not always generated by great works like Handel’s HALLELUJAH CHORUS or Schubert’s UNFINISHED SYMPHONY — sometimes they are commercial jingles or other insipid tunes.
What music typically gives you an earworm? Are there particular compositions that draw you in, or is there a “type” of music that does it? Do you have any tried and true methods of dislodging earworms? Do you ever find yourself air conducting and, if so, what kinds of music creates that impulse? Have you ever been “caught” playing air timpani (or guitar, or violin) when you didn’t realize you were doing it? Please share your experiences!
One of the many enjoyable aspects of my work is getting to interview interesting people. Often these are musicians, and I love asking them how they got interested in music and what inspired them. Recently, a violinist I interviewed told me he saw Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street, and all these years later he still vividly remembers the excitement and wonder he felt when he saw the legendary musician on the children’s show. I recall that, as a very little girl, I listened over and over (and over) to my parents’ LP of pianist Garrick Ohlsson playing Chopin’s two piano concertos. The American pianist had just won the Chopin International Piano Competition, and I was completely consumed with that music. It sparked something in me, and helped shape the path of my life and career. Decades later, I had the chance to meet Garrick Ohlsson in the green room after an orchestra concert for which he was the soloist, and those memories of listening to his Chopin LP came flooding back to me. It reminded me of how deeply and profoundly inspiring great music can be, and of the many and varied sources of inspiration there are.
What inspired you to love classical music? Whether it was Sesame Street, a family LP, cartoons, or a chance encounter with a radio program as you scanned the dial … how did you start and cultivate your love of music? Please share your story!
I recently attended a memorial service for the mother of a friend and musical colleague. She was a woman in her late 80s — an accomplished and beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, neighbor, and philanthropist. For about an hour, people shared stories of her sense of fun, generosity, hospitality, directness and kindness. I knew this lovely lady primarily from her consistent spot in the front row at my performances with her son. She and her late husband were enthusiastic fixtures at every concert, no matter the weather or their schedules, and even as their health declined in their later years.
One speaker at the memorial summed up her life in a way that truly resonates with me. She said that she would often seek her grandmother’s advice about how to proceed with something in her life. “Grandma, should I [fill in the blank]?” And Grandma’s reply was usually an enthusiastic, “Why not??”
So as this new year begins, I hope you will consider this wise and beloved woman’s advice. If you’re thinking about learning something new (a musical instrument, a language, a job skill), trying something different (a food, exercise routine, home, concert), or pursuing some dream on your wish list … ask yourself, “WHY NOT??” Take a first step, and see how it goes!
Over the past few weeks I have been busy … how about you? My days have been joyfully filled with baking, entertaining, playing holiday concerts, and listening to special music to program on Sunday Baroque for the holidays.
Many people have favorite family treats that are synonymous with the holidays; maybe you’re like me and you both serve them at your holiday parties, as well as give them to friends as gifts. Perhaps your holiday traditions include decorating your home and yard, listening to certain beloved holiday music, or watching favorite films.
Although the whole idea of traditions is to pass down important or endearing activities, items or foods — to replicate them generation after generation , it’s inevitable that traditions morph as the years go by. Our holidays have been delightfully energized and broadened by the addition to our family of a 16-year-old exchange student! We are loving the opportunity to help her enjoy some of her beloved holiday traditions while living so far from home, as well as to introduce her to our family traditions. (Let’s just say she is quite pleased by all the baked goods being produced in my kitchen!) We look forward to seeing this time of year anew, as we see it through her eyes.
How are you spending these weeks? What are some of your holiday traditions? How have you blended your traditions with other, newer traditions? What music are you listening to? What special, meaningful things do you look forward to at this time of year? Let’s start a new tradition of sharing what is most important and satisfying to each of us at holiday time.
Just before the winter holidays each year, I hand-pick some of my favorite recent recordings and compile them in a list for you to consider giving as gifts to the music lovers on your list. The Sunday Baroque Holiday Gift List has become an annual tradition stretching back many years!
I seek out a variety of recordings by world-class performers, including a few familiar baroque compositions, as well as some less well-known selections. This year’s “greatest hits” list includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s new recording of all six of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, as well as a snazzy recording of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Concertos by violinist Rachel Podger with Brecon Baroque. In the fresh and new column, there is Chatham Baroque’s recording of music written in the so-called “fantastic style” by composers such as Antonio Bertali and Johann Hermann Schein, as well as Stile Antico’s gorgeous performances of sacred music by 16th century Spaniard Tomas Luis de Victoria, and Ronn McFarlane’s lilting performances of Celtic lute solos.
Each of these recordings is a gem because it combines technical virtuosity, imaginative repertory, and well-informed artistry. It is thrilling that this is Yo-Yo Ma’s third recording of Bach’s iconic cello suites, spanning more than four decades of his career. Just as Bach’s music has endured the centuries, staying relevant and becoming more revered, the cellist still has so much to say musically, too, and he says it so beautifully.
Every week through the end of the year you will hear some selections from this year’s Sunday Baroque Holiday Gift list on the Sunday Baroque broadcast. It’s a risk-free way to audition the CDs or, if you’re not planning to give them as gifts, an opportunity to kick back on the weekend and savor some excellent recent recordings. Give yourself the gift of great music, and may it enhance your enjoyment of the holiday season.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays! It’s not the food (since I’m not especially fond of turkey), it’s the overall spirit of the occasion. I love that we set aside time to get together with others and acknowledge the good things in our lives.
My parents hosted the family Thanksgiving gatherings when I was growing up, and those meals typically included an extended guest list of friends, too. The conversations were interesting and lively, and they provided a great example of hospitality in my formative years. I have continued that tradition of an extended guest list, and it may be my favorite part of the holiday. Last year our Thanksgiving table included family from all over the United States, as well as local friends and colleagues, and visitors from India. It was especially fun to treat the Indian guests to their first- ever Thanksgiving meal — cranberry sauce! pumpkin pie!
This year, we will have another international group gathered around our table to share a meal and acknowledge our gratitude. The guest list includes a new colleague from Mexico, a dear friend who grew up in the UK, and our beloved 16 year old exchange student who was born in Hungary, but whose family now lives in Vienna. We look forward to the rich and interesting conversation that we know will ensue, and the connections that will be made across cultures and generations.
I hope you have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, and I hope you have the opportunity to be with others to share that feeling of community and gratitude. Thank YOU for loving music, and for listening!
Since it’s Halloween, it seemed the perfect time to share this. I just returned from a visit to Transylvania. Yes, THAT Transylvania. Cluj, Romania, to be more precise. My late mother was born there, which means I have some Transylvanian blood in my veins.
Cluj is a lovely city (my Hungarian family uses the Hungarian name: Kolozsvár) — charming and easy to walk around. They have a lot of fun with the Dracula association, just as my family always did, but I did not encounter any vampires (family or otherwise). Instead, I met some warm and gracious locals who are rightfully proud of their city and their culture. I also saw beautiful architecture, ate delicious regional foods, toured the Hungarian Theatre, and learned more about the history of this faraway, storied place where my relatives once lived. I even drank … wine!
Recently, a friend posted something on Facebook that initiated a flood of replies from her FB friends. The friend in question is a prominent and highly respected professional musician, and the gist of her post was to express her “guilty pleasure” of loving a handful of well-known orchestral compositions. She sheepishly listed several of those familiar pieces, aka “warhorses.” To a person, we all replied with some variation on the same theme: don’t apologize for liking what you like, AND there are good reasons these compositions are well-known and well-loved. It’s because they are enjoyable!
The whole exchange illustrated a long running tussle I have noticed that can occur between people who are experts and, well, almost everyone else. (It’s not unique to the classical music world, either.) Maybe it’s a different way of looking at the world in general — some of us see the things we learn and experience as part of a greater whole or continuum, while others see the world in a more linear fashion, passing milestones without “looking back.”
So, some who are experts in classical music and are familiar with a vast repertory mainly want to hear music they’ve never heard before. They perceive those so-called “warhorses” as redundant, and unnecessary to hear again. They forget that few people have their level of expertise or familiarity with the repertory. It’s a normal human inclination — we assume our peers have the same frame of reference.
One of the most important lessons I learned when I started in classical music broadcasting is that every time we broadcast a piece of music SOMEONE is hearing it for the first time. Yes, even Bach’s BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS and Vivaldi’s FOUR SEASONS. They are beautiful, exciting, entertaining and lasting works of art, and people like them. What’s wrong with that?
I enjoy revisiting lots of things I’ve experienced before — not just music, but also books, movies, restaurants, recipes, and vacation destinations. I welcome the comfort and familiarity, as well as the anticipation of experiencing them differently on the next pass. I also seek out and enjoy the discovery of new things! I love the BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS and FOUR SEASONS, and I’m equally thrilled to learn about composers and music I’ve never heard before.
Which camp do you fall in? Are you someone who prefers the familiar or do you prefer to experience the new and unknown? What are some of your musical “guilty pleasures”?
My seatmate on a plane recently was a middle-aged man on a business trip. We struck up a conversation, which included the range of usual topics: jobs, families, home cities, and frequent flier status. When he heard that I am a radio host and trained musician, he told me about his own background playing several instruments as a young child and teen. He even expressed his hope to resume playing at least piano in the near future. As our conversation evolved, the man explained that he also likes to learn languages — he has been learning Mandarin (!) using a variety of programs, apps and, eventually a tutor. He plans to tackle Italian soon. And he enthusiastically promised to listen to Sunday Baroque!
It warms my heart to meet people so personally committed to lifelong learning and so open to seeking out new experiences. This busy person with many responsibilities MAKES time to pursue things that keep his mind nimble, feed his curiosity, and expand his knowledge. Despite a demanding job and challenging travel schedule — or perhaps because of it — he remains committed to his personal growth. What a great example he set for his now grown children, who are pursuing their own dreams and goals in meaningful, take-charge ways.
I believe this kind of open, positive attitude is an important component of a happy, healthy life. Rather than making excuses for why I can’t do something, I try to seek ways to do things I love, to keep learning and growing, to challenge and exercise my mind and body, and to broaden my horizons. They range from simple, low- and no-cost things to bigger “bucket list” aspirations. I try not to defer these important goals because I am keenly aware that “some day” may not come.
So I offer YOU this encouragement to tackle something you’ve been meaning or wanting to do — read that book languishing on your nightstand, pick up the instrument gathering dust in your closet or the one you’ve always wanted to play, learn something new (a language, ballroom dancing, knitting?), take a walk or run, write a letter to a friend … do that “thing” you’ve been putting off indefinitely, making excuses for why you can’t or why you don’t have the time or energy. Take a first step, whatever it may be.
And then … please check in here and tell me about it, so I can give you more encouragement!
Sunday Baroque Blog
Host Suzanne Bona occasionally shares something interesting with you that is too timely or doesn't quite fit on the weekly broadcast. It might be to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the program, tell you about a terrific new recording, share information about a group's concert tour or latest award, or inform you about the passing of an important musician. Sometimes it might be an observation about the musical scene in general, or a reaction to a news item that relates to the world of music or the arts. Check in with Suzanne's blog to see what she has to say and join the conversation.