How Important Are Conductors?

“Is the conductor really doing anything, or is he/she just for show? I mean, couldn’t you guys play without someone standing on a podium and waving their arms?” This is the unexpected question once posed to me by an audience member after a Richmond Symphony concert. It’s pretty much the same question that comes up in this classic comedy bit from Seinfeld. Recent news that the Dallas Symphony Orchestra paid outgoing Music Director Jaap van …

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The Joy of Wrong Notes

The element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out. For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto …

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Music and Humor

Leonard Bernstein masterfully explored the subject of humor in music in one of his Young People’s Concerts. The episode takes listeners on a musical tour from Haydn and Rameau to Brahms, Mahler, Prokofiev and Shostakovich and offers insight into why we find certain music funny. To this day, no one has done more for music education than Bernstein. Watching these programs, which originally aired on CBS in the late 1950s, you can sense Bernstein’s passion and …

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Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major

Great composers are never born out of the smug, comfortable bubble of academia. School has its place when it comes to perfecting the essential technical craft of composition (Beethoven studied with Haydn). But in the end, the greatest composers largely have been outcasts. Their bold, exciting and disruptive visions are usually misunderstood and rejected by the ruling establishment of the day. They hear things that others cannot. The story of Maurice Ravel’s String …

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Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Can you imagine how shocking the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op.67 must have been for audiences at the first performance in 1808? While the classical style of Mozart and Haydn was rooted in elegance and balance, Beethoven made the orchestra growl. There’s a sense of struggle, as if he’s impatiently pushing the classical orchestra to its limits. The entire symphony springs from the first ferocious four notes. It’s a study …

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Five Musical Sunrises

Natural cycles, from the change of seasons to the predictable routine of day turning to night, shape our sense of time. Can you imagine how our perception of time, and subsequently music, would be different without these events? Nature’s visual grandeur has also been an inspiration to composers, especially the eternal drama of the sunrise. Here are five musical depictions: [typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Haydn’s “Sunrise” String Quartet[/typography] Haydn’s String Quartet in B flat …

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“Hey Nick…Can We Go Home Now?”

That’s pretty much what Franz Joseph Haydn said to his employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, except not in those words. Instead, Haydn found a clever musical way to get his point across. As this article explains, in the summer of 1772 Prince Esterházy decided to extend his vacation at his country palace. The court musicians in Haydn’s orchestra were missing their families back home. Haydn gave the prince a gentle musical nudge. The final movement …

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