Hooked on Classics

If I am to believe certain lists, there are over forty different genres of music in the world today. The more common ones come to mind quickly: “Rock”, “Pop”, “Hip-Hop”. But now we have “Industrial” and “Tex-Mex” as well.  Indeed, definitions of music are becoming as diverse as the cultures from which they took flight.

Among music genres – the list of which inflates to hundreds if you include sub-categories – “Classical” looks a little lost. Classical music’s definition is broad and complicated, but most of us would acknowledge its “golden age” as the time frame between the lives of Bach and Beethoven (effectively, the 18th century). The volume of symphonies and concertos and sonatas created in that period is so vast, even those with no interest cannot deny a familiarity with the genre’s most famous compositions.

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The absence of orchestras (or music programs altogether) in today’s schools and universities is a tragedy.  Attendance at classical music concerts is down.  Even classical radio stations lack the advertising revenue to survive, depending instead on the generosity of their donors.  But here’s the good news: the genre still finds its outlets.

Consider the movies.  Year after year Hollywood produces fairly forgettable films, yet certain scenes are worth the watch if only to hear the accompanying classical music.  Some examples:

1) Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Danny Ocean’s gang of thieves finally completes the heist at the Bellagio Hotel, and gathers outside at the fountains for a moment of reflection.  The enchantment of that scene is as much about the fountains as it is in the soaring strings of Claude Debussy’s mesmerizing “Clair De Lune”.  Watch and listen here.

2) If I Stay (2014). Chloe Moretz’s character Mia performs “The Swan” (from Camille Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals”) on solo cello at a community concert, and the music continues through several more scenes.  “The Swan” is elegant and lullaby-soft.  Listen here (performance by Yo-Yo Ma).

3) Somewhere in Time (1980).  Christopher Reeves’ character’s obsession with the lovely Jane Seymour leads to a desperate time-travel effort to find her in her youth.  When the couple is finally reunited (in his dreams, of course),  we are treated to Sergei Rachmaninov’s powerful “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”.  This scene would be nothing without Rachmaninov.  Listen here.

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Hollywood once created an entire movie about classical music.  The Competition (1980) – an early film in the careers of Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving – explored the rigors of the real-life Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.  Watch the movie and you’ll hear excerpts of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 and Sergey Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.  Listen to the glorious Prokfiev piece from start to furious finish and you’ll wonder how anyone can play the piano with that kind of speed and dexterity.

Even a child’s story can be uplifted by classical music.  In the stage production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” Schroeder plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on his toy piano while Lucy accompanies him in song.  The lyrics are creative and work surprisingly well for a sonata created over 200 years ago.  Watch and listen here.

This post would not be complete without a begrudging nod to the album “Hooked on Classics”, created and performed in the 1980’s by Louis Clark and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  “Hooked” is a mash-up of familiar classical pieces, attached to an annoyingly robotic drum track.  It’s a ten-minute audio nightmare for anyone who truly respects the genre.  Remarkably, the title track made it to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982 (alongside Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”).  If you must listen, go here.

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My campaign for the survival of classical music stems from years of childhood piano lessons, including a teacher who demanded strict adherence to the genre.  Thus I didn’t practice “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Frere Jacques”, but rather Bach’s “Solfeggietto”, Beethoven’s “Ecossaises”, and Albert Ellmenreich’s “The Spinning Song”.

Listen carefully the next time you’re at the movies.  Lend an ear to the classical strains of an orchestra or philharmonic.  Flip the radio dial to something instrumental every now and then.  Classical music lives, and still deserves a prominent place among the music genres.

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Every time I get into my car and go for a drive, I have six friends who always keep me company.  They’re small enough to fit in my front seat.  In fact, they live permanently on my dashboard.  They are my six AM preset buttons.  But here’s my plea: I need more of these little guys; maybe another six.  I am greedy when it comes to my presets.  I am downright rapacious.

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AM radio and I have a love/hate relationship that is rekindled every time I step into my car.  I love AM radio for its variety of programs and voices, not to mention the up-to-date news/weather/sports.  I love the endless flavors of talk radio: financial advice, political banter, consumer tips, etc.  I can get lost in any of these shows while the world passes by at 65 mph.

The “hate” side of my relationship with AM radio deserves more explanation.  In a nutshell, only a fraction of a given hour of AM radio goes to the program at hand.  The rest of those minutes?  Commercials, promotions, and other blah-blah-blah designed to keep you tuned in instead of choosing another preset.  The moment a program moves from substance to advertisement, one of my other presets cries out, “hey Dave, choose me!  I’m not advertising anything right now!”  Alas, certain times of the day every one of my presets misbehaves and I have no good choice.  They are all in advertisement mode.

One of these days I will endure a single AM preset for a full hour.  I will sit there, stopwatch in hand, and I will stop the timer every time the broadcast moves away from the actual program.  “Click” when a commercial comes on”; “click” when the hosts thank their sponsors; “click” when the government steps in to test the emergency broadcast system.  My guess is my stopwatch will report a measly twenty minutes or less of actual “program”.

Here are some radio habits that really irk me.  Talk show hosts have taken up the baton of advertising.  Instead of a “we’ll be right back” or “stay tuned for these messages”, the host switches gears from one sentence to the very next.  You’re listening to the program and suddenly the same voice is telling you about the best brand of energy-efficient windows for your house.  What?  Or here’s another one.  News show hosts like to tease you about what they’ll tell you later.  They’ll say, “Coming up after the break, how tomorrow’s storm will affect your evening commute”.  Really?  Why not just tell me now?

Candidly, I need to be a little less rapacious about my radio preset buttons.  I need to accept that radio stations require their constant breaks to fund the very programs I want to hear.  But most importantly perhaps I need to remember I have another twelve friends collectively referred to as “FM radio”.  Those presets are all about music instead of talk; surely a better tonic for the soul of this restless driver.