I've listened to quite a ton of music in my 10 years of pursuing music as a student and 14 years of loving classical music. I typically listen to a ton of pop music too. But, in a desert island situation, I would want the classical pieces with me. I've made a list of my Top 50 classical pieces of all time and will be unveiling them every tuesday with commentary and audio links. The commentary will no doubt be something about how I came into contact with the piece, a memory I've had with the piece, or just why the piece speaks to me. I'll primarily be using Spotify so get it if you don't already have it (that goes double for you Lydia!) Anyway, here it goes: 50-46. All audio links at the bottom of the page.
(2 fl, 2 ob, 2 cl, 2 vib, perc, 2 samplers, 2 pianos, string quintet)
I went to BGSU for Music Education and percussion fully prepared to become a Band or Orchestra Director for the rest of my life. I took all the education classes and graduated with the degree which I am incredibly happy I did (because knowing how to teach is different than knowing the information you need to teach).
My Theory IV course at BGSU was dedicated to 20th century music. Not something you often see in undergraduate education. We learned about set theory, 12-tone, and this thing called minimalism (among other things). This piece woke me up. It made me want to be a composer full-time. Up until this point I was just composing as a hobby. I'd had an orchestral performance of my Fanfare for Orchestra by the Toledo Symphony. I'd played my Three Studies for Marimba in an Area Recital. But, I was still very committed to being a Band or Orchestra Director for the rest of my life.
I'd never heard anything like this before. Minimalism, sampled sounds, driving rhythm with relatively no harmonic movement. That last fact made what happens at 2:33 in the first movement so heart-wrenchingly gorgeous. This simple chord progression put the hook in me. Still has the hook in me to this day.
I was introduced to Luigi Nono via Roshanne Etezady in my Music Since 1950 course at the University of Arizona. We studied "il canto sospeso." I was writing a string quartet at the time and was looking for string quartets by various people. I came across this one and it truly impressed me. The relative silence coupled with outbursts of percussive sound juxtaposed with high, fragile clashing tones truly spoke to me at a time when Morton Feldman and John Cage were ruling my stereo.
(mixed chorus and orchestra)
Earlier this year, Ben Krause came back from Paris from a summer program. I cannot remember the name of the composer he studied with but he was asking this guy who he really thought was doing well in Europe. Beat Furrer was a name that came up. Ben introduced me to a few of his pieces and instantly they fulfilled a constant craving I'd been having for a new sound, a new approach, a confirmation of sorts that the music I like, the music I strive to write isn't outdated or outmoded (not comparing myself with Furrer at all).
I Spotified everything I could of Furrer's and this piece has become my favorite. It reminds me of some other famous chorus and orchestra pieces that will turn up on the list later on. Everything about this music, harmony, gesture, orchestration appeals to me. I've always heard composers say that if you aren't going to hear something through the orchestration, than it should not be there. There are times when I would contest that though you are not focused on it, you feel it through the act of listening. The passage would sound significantly different without X. Furrer's music is a prime example of this. It is multidimensional and many sounds are just on the cusp of silence.
(piano and orchestra)
As you will find out over the course of this list, I'm not really a big fan of anything that occurred before the 20th century. Why do I bring it up now? This piece was written in 1962. Though many would agree this piece looks to the past in its general aesthetic and compositional process. However, it hit me a point in life when I was just discovering music that wasn't Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. The second movement is perhaps the most beautiful movement of any concerto. Especially John Browning's rubato performance of the theme when it occurs at 1:15. 1:28 will tug at your heart strings.
Like many of the orchestral works on this list, I was introduced to it through the Toledo Symphony. I was taking percussion lessons from Bob Bell, CEO of the Toledo Symphony at the time in high school. He didn't require me to pay him. He only insisted that we get season tickets to the Classics Series at the symphony (at a highly discounted price). This was an incredible plan of his because it gave me an amazing musical foundation before ever entering college. I heard the masterworks every month and was introduced to (albeit somewhat more tame) a large number of 20th century works.
(solo alto flute, solo cello, orchestra)
Hearing this piece for the first time was a product of my audio hoarding, which Spotify has rendered obsolete. I had this piece on my iPod and I was listening to another track on the album (Nymphea for string quartet). I let kept listening after the track and was simply struck by the lush, sparkling sound world created by Saariaho.
Another thing you will learn over the course of the list is that I am not a huge fan of concertos (even though this post has two of them). Generally, I find them to be dull. The relationship between soloist and orchestra has been played out. You really only have 3 options on how to treat the two. And it usually ends up with technical fireworks which are impressive but not musically interesting to me. I'd rather the fireworks lie in the compositional process and the structure of the music than in the performers hands (kind of a composer-centric view of the relationship between composer-performer-listener. Guess I'm biased.)
However, this "concerto" defies my typical dislike of the genre. The flute and cello offer some of the most beautiful colors the piece contains. I love her music because it mostly explores changing timbres and sound on the verge of silence. It also explores non-ideal instrumental sounds, those that contain noise and aren't pure. Its beautiful.
I hope you will enjoy listening to these pieces and come back every tuesday for more entries on the Top 50. Share your thoughts, stories, opinions about the music in the comments. As you have read, many of my favorite pieces come from those shared by friends. S0, share away!