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July 14, 2009

Introducing a new feature: Music we've been missing

When you consider how much classical music has been created over the centuries, it's kind of pathetic how little of it we actually hear, especially in concert halls and opera houses. An awful lot of programmers and audiences, and far too many musicians, prefer staying largely within a narrow path of the tried and true, the familiar and already popular.

I understand box office concerns, of course, but there should still always be room for something different, something that takes the blinders off our ears and wakes us up to what we have been missing.

So I'm starting a humble little feature on the blog that will regularly highlight an example of the musical trove that, for one reason or another, has been widely overlooked. I won't just focus on music of the past; there are many living composers whose valuable work is ignored in favor of the well-worn stuff that comes back year after year. (Feel free to make your own suggestions along the way.)

To start, I let today's date -- July 14 -- determine my choice, since this happens to be the birthday of ...

a British composer whose beautifully crafted music is all too rarely encountered on our shores: Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). When was the last time you went to a concert and found his Eclogue on the bill? I've never heard it live, and only rarely on the radio. This gentle work for piano and strings deserves much more attention. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:37 AM | | Comments (9)


BSO programs I'd like to see:
1. Jonathan Carney plays the Berg concerto, followed by (a sort of pre-programmed encore) one of the Ysaye solo sonatas. Second half: some other piece that references Bach.
2. Mahler 3
3. 9/11 memorial concert: Paert Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten; Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms

Great suggestions. The Bach-Berg connection offers all sorts of possibilities; the 9/11 program would be most affecting. I'd like to have Mahler 3 back, especially as part of a cycle (the 2010-11 season would span the 150th anniversary of his birth and 100th of his death, so playing all the symphonies, Das Lied, and more throughout the season would be heaven. TIM

Well, in honor of Bastille Day I nominate Roussel's opera Padmavati - a gorgeous score that deals with a ruler's struggle between his conflicting duties to his people and his wife. There is an excellent recording featuring Marilyn Horne, Jose Van Dam and Nicolai Gedda, and Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires once produced it for Jon Vickers (I wish a tape of that had survived!), and has had a well-received production that originated in Paris and traveled to Spoleto, Italy, but I can find no record of a US performance.

I am an Enescu nut, so I would like to nominate his 3rd Orchestral Suite - extremely complex score yet very accessible to the listener - and his 3rd Symphony for the beginning. And of course his magnificent opera Oedipe.

Thanks. He's definitely an unfairly ignored composer. Even his once popular Romanian Rhapsodies are hard to come by in concert halls now. TIM

One thing to add that I agree with Mr. Mike who nominates Roussel's opera Padmavati - with the caveat that the Horne / Gedda / van Dam recording is from Theatre du Capitole in Toulouse. And speaking of unknown French opera, I am looking forward this October when Leon Botstein will conduct d'Indy's Fervaal in concert at Lincoln Center.

Great new feature! I look forward to discovering music that I've been missing and being enlightened as well as entertained. Thanks!

Don Ciccio,
You are, of course, quite correct that the recording comes from Toulouse - the other mentions of Padmavati are of live productions - the latest being one that originated in Paris and traveled to Spoleto. But I would be happy with Enesco's Oedipe as well (or Leoncavallo's last opera, a one act Edipo Re, after Sophocles).

The dearth of French music is particularly a problem. I would (actually have) proposed two superb works for the BSO to undertake: the Saint-Saens' Symphony Number 2 and the Roussel Symphony Number 3- indeed they could be on the same program!

I'm on the same wavelength. There's so much French rep we do not get here. I'll have some suggestions to add to yours in next week's installment. TIM

Since you mention Gerald Finzi, if you hadn't seen this already, you might be interested in Prom 7 from the 2009 Proms, with Finzi's Grand Fantasia and Toccata on the program:

Moeran: Symphony in G minor
Finzi: Grand Fantasia and Toccata (for piano and orchestra)
Elgar: Symphony No.2 in E flat major

The Moeran symphony is also a very fine piece, much like an English version of Sibelius (down to the 6 orchestral block chords at the end). I would love to be able to hear this work live at the Proms, but no such luck.

But yes, there is definitely so much music away from the "classical top 100" that deserves to be heard. The practical considerations also of rehearsal time for the orchestra and score rentals (and copyright fees) factor in as well, not to mention marketing unfamiliar works to audiences who want their Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, etc.. I did a radio show at university where I got to air all the offbeat stuff from what recordings I could find, which was admittedly mostly for an audience of one.

Thanks again. That Proms program sounds great. As for the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky rut, I think that could at least be partly corrected by playing pieces by those composers that aren't over-exposed. Marketing could focus on emphasizing the popularity of the composers, while audiences would gain the benefit of, say, the Manfred or Polish Symphony, instead of the same old 4, 5 and 6. TIM

Speaking of Roussel, I do indeed love his 3rd - and 4th - symphony but I would like to put a word for the underrated 2nd. I am awaiting Tim's further suggestion for French repertoire.

The interesting thing about the 2nd is that Christoph Eschenbach has recorded it and declared that it was one of his greatest discoveries (guten morgen, Herr Eschenbach!) but he never programmed it in Philadelphia. Indeed, Roussel in the last few seasons in Philly was conducted by Stephane Deneve. Hopefully, Eschenbach will program the work in Washington.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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