My good friend and coworker, Bes Nievera, enjoys a diverse life outside of work. He's a chef, radio DJ, election judge, volunteer, and bike rider. He has so many interests, I don't know how he fits them all into his schedule. Bes also possesses widespread musical tastes. So it comes as no surprise that he is the first guest writer to put together a column about his kinship with classical music.
My own experiences are few. I was fortunate in the late 90s to pick up about 40 Classic Records RCA and Mercury reissues. I had my feet firmly planted in the classic-rock camp at the time, and playing those records opened my eyes to the pleasure of classical listening. I still rely on people in our industry and good friends for recommendations as I attempt to sift my way through all the different performances of the great works. I always wondered how interesting (and difficult) my life would have been if hundreds of different performances of Dark Side of the Moon or Rubber Soul existed – and I needed to navigate such terrain to find my favorites!
The first classical album that really got under my skin is the Mercury pressing of Stravinsky's The Firebird, conducted by Antal Dorati leading the London Symphony Orchestra. The dynamic swings are vividly intense, going from extremely quiet passages to tremendous crescendos. When we read about real dynamic range in recordings, it's in the world of classical where it truly resides – and thrives. This Mercury Living Presence title is one of those LPs that has it all. Incredible performance and amazing sonics. No wonder it has been on practically every audiophile's must-own list for the last six decades. And it is the score for a ballet!
I'm grateful for Bes taking the time to write up a classical performance. It made me think how we can all try to relax over the weekend with the sounds of strings and brass. Possibly some chamber music to help soothe our souls? Maybe now, more than ever, we all need the comforting sounds of a few great classic pieces to help us settle in to the new normal. I hope you all have a wonderful weekend. I'm grabbing my copy of The Firebird to get started.
"Start the Revolution!": Appreciating Classical Music Through the Lens of Sir Georg Solti
By Bes Nievera
As we weave our way through this unusual time, it comes as no surprise that we may be unconsciously unlocking memories of past events. Without warning, they can move you, spur goosebumps, or cause a tear to fall. Equally important to our identity, these recollections can shape the way we think and pave the way for how we evolve. Music, at the heart of my career, is one of the emotional keys that opened a portal to areas of my life that had been relatively quiet and tucked away under the bed.
As a child, searching for music was secondary as opposed to the whims of television and its cathode-ray-tube allure. As I grew older, listening to music became a necessary, powerful vaccine against the pressures of the world around me. Along with usual popular fare from the likes of the Beach Boys, Beatles, and Rolling Stones, conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Eugene Ormandy – each with their baton to respective orchestras (New York and Philadelphia) – showed me music had more than just a beat to which you can dance. Its pulse began in part with Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Beethoven. They began to expand my view of music, almost as much as my father's work in graphic design transformed his view of art beyond the advertisements and marketing documents he photographed or drew.
A pivotal moment came when I watched a broadcast with Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing the Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1943 by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. It was originally simulcast in the early 1980s over WTTW (PBS) and WFMT. Bartok was uncharted territory for me, and Solti's command of the legendary composer's work proved an immediate punch in the gut from the first bar. And rightfully so: He was taught under Bartok. Clearly in command of the piece, Solti finds drama in every movement, starting with the expressive use of instruments in more minor keys and ethnic music symbolism that dug deep into Bartok's Hungarian roots – challenging the conventional wisdom that most compositions were traditionally tonal. The final movement is memorably visual in scope – and far more dramatic than any composition I had previously heard. In retrospect, I saw Solti move the CSO's energy through the concerto with the same kind of mentorship he had received from Bartok, breathing throughout each of its five movements.
With Bartok (and Solti) firmly etched into my memory bank, later pieces would follow, first Wagner's Ring Cycle, then circling Solti's celebrated Beethoven symphonies, and rounding out with his stint as founder of the World Orchestra for Peace. He once wrote of the latter's creation: "All my life I have grown up in war, in revolution, both fascist and communist. It taught me to believe in peace. When we started the concert idea, I wanted to prove- which I prove now so brilliantly – we are about 40 nations in this orchestra together. We're living in such harmony, playing so beautifully, we prove we can live in peace. I wish politicians, left or right, could do the same."
Bravo, Maestro. Bravo.