And what exactly does the conductor do? Collect fares?
January 15, 2009 7:38 AM   Subscribe

Philharmonic Filter: Novice goes to see a great night of orchestra music in Oslo. Bolero was the finale, now I feel captivated and ready to explore. Which direction should I take and how can encourage my auditory palette to grow?

Ideally, any recommendations towards best approach for learning more on orchestra, history and composition are appreciated. This includes links to live performances or even a primer on the subject.

Plus - which city has the best orchestra? I travel extensively and to understand more on the individual qualities each group would be fantastic.
posted by Funmonkey1 to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Try listening to classical radio stations; most medium- to large-sized cities have one, and there are several good classical internet radio stations as well. Have a pen and paper handy; when you hear a piece that really interests you, jot down its name and the composer. Once you have a few composers you find interesting, you can start buying CDs — or, alternately, see if your local library lends them out.

Broadly speaking, classical music can be divided into four periods: Baroque (Bach), Classical (Mozart, early Beethoven), Romantic (late Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky), and Modern (Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev.) Many people find that their tastes primarily lie in one or two of these periods. I would personally consider Ravel to straddle Romantic and Modern, though "Bolero" is perhaps more on the Romantic side of things.

which city has the best orchestra?

Oh lawsy, that's a big old can of worms you've opened there. In the United States, the orchestras of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cleveland are often considered "world-class".1 Chicago is particularly famous for the "Chicago sound", which emphasizes the brass and winds more than many other orchestras do. If you have the opportunity to see them play something by R. Strauss, Mahler, or Shostakovich, do so.

1 By no means an extensive list. Please don't hurt me.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:13 AM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Start by buying a bunch of Debussy and Ravel CDs. Hard to go wrong there. They're very similar composers, but just different enough that it's worth listening to them together to appreciate their distinctive qualities. Both were masters of orchestration. Each has a relatively small body of work, so you can easily/quickly/cheaply build up a pretty impressive Debussy/Ravel collection.

I also recommend Vaughan Williams' Symphony #5 (better than his more famous "London" Symphony).
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:23 AM on January 15, 2009

I thought about your question for a little while, and I felt compelled to answer it because, as I am a 'classical' musician (I hate the term, but there it is) I should. But where to start? I was thinking about what books your local library might have on the subject, but it's been so long since I read any of them. Then I thought of searching for something like this. I haven't read it, but it might not be a bad place to start as a general overview and apparently it contains a cd of examples. That might not be a bad basic primer and then you could move on from there. As I do this professionally I realize that I'm not the best person to answer a question about getting a general overview of this vast subject, so others may have much better suggestions, but that book should provide you with the very basics.

It's certainly true that if you like Ravel you should like Debussy, so I'll give you a couple of suggestions as well. If you like 'Bolero' you will probably like 'La Valse' and as far as Debussy is concerned, why not try 'Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune'? Then if you like those you can move on from there, probably backwards in time, rather than forwards (although you might like later 20C music.) Anyway, I hope that the voyage of discovery is fun!
posted by ob at 9:41 AM on January 15, 2009

Um, if you liked Bolero, you might like Ravel's Pictures at an Exhibition. Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestrations are beautiful, maybe try Scheherazade? And perhaps Respighi's Pines of Rome.

I don't know if reading a book would be the best way to go about teaching yourself about classical music. This is a great radio program, which I think would do exactly what you're looking for. Unfortunately you can only listen to the most recent episodes, and probably the earlier (and broader, more basic) episodes would be more useful for you to start with. Still, it might be worth listening to what you can, and keeping an eye on the page in case they start uploading the older ones.

I think the best way to learn more would be to just go and see as many concerts as you can. Just go and see whatever's on, and if you particularly like something, look it up after, have a read about it, listen to a few different recordings if you can. It's probably not the same everwhere, but at least in Australia, because of diminishing audiences, the trend for programming seems to be to include one big famous work per concert, combined with something contrasting and less well known, plus a concerto, so you probably can't go really wrong. In Europe, the Berlin and Vienna Phils are very well regarded... I personally love Il Giardino Armonico. They're a lot more niche than most orchestras, but I heard their recording of the Four Seasons, and suddenly 'got' the baroque. From my own shores, the Australian Chamber Orchestra is brilliant, and tour overseas a lot. But yes, a can of worms it is... Honestly, you have to be freaking good to get a job as an orchestral musician, so I doubt to a novice's ears the best orchestra in the world will sound appreciably 'better' than the 50th. Just keep in mind that different orchestras have different sounds - see as many as you can and savour it.

I seem to recall Simon Rattle did a doco on 20th century music which you might find interesting.

Actually, i think the best way to learn about classical music would be to learn an instrument and eventually join an orchestra yourself. But that is probably more investment than you're willing to make. But maybe you could convince a good amateur or semi-professional orchestra to let you sit in the middle of the orchestra during a rehearsal. If you can, shift around a bit and sit in a few different places (1st violins, basses, woodwind, brass) to get an idea of how the different lines work. I think it makes so much more sense by being a part of it, but ymmv. If you're not willing to go to this extreme, many orchestras have open rehearsals, which are either free or very cheap, and depending on how the rehearsal goes, it might help you to break down how things work a little.
posted by Emilyisnow at 6:16 AM on January 16, 2009

Debussy's music for the ballet "The Rite of Spring" (in French, "Le Sacre du Printemps") is also majorly listenable. It's the soundtrack for that bit of Fantasia with the dinosaurs. In fact, it might be a fun idea to get hold of a copy of Disney's Fantasia to watch-- it's also got Beethoven's 6th, Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," some ballet music from Ponchielli and Tchaikovsky, Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and a bunch of other stuff. Leopold Stokowski was a decent conductor, too, and they let the animators get seriously creative. Also, you've seen Amadeus, right? Just checking.

You might, in all seriousness, try to find a version of Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra online. The only version I found is without narration [Part 1, Part 2], but the narration text is here for reference.

(Actually, that site has quite a lovely learning resource on the symphony orchestra. Aimed at kids, but useful nonetheless.)

So, Which city has the best orchestra? Maybe a better way to phrase this would be "Which cities have good orchestras?" I live in London, and we have several very good symphony orchestras: The London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, and the BBC Symphony. My personal faves are the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, who tend to play instruments appropriate to the period of their repertoire. Then there are all the smaller ensembles and early music groups... so London, on the whole, is a very good music city. Birmingham to the north also has a very good orchestra, the CBSO, who were essentially buit from the ground up by fluffy-haired genius Sir Simon Rattle, who now conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. If you ever get a chance to hear Rattle conduct anything, drop everything and go-- he's that good. Other British conductors I particularly like are Mark Elder, Sir Colin Davis, Jane Glover and Sir Charles Mackerras. Foreign conductors who have been "adopted" by the British include Bernard Haitink, Antonio Pappano and the late, great, fantastically awesome Sir Georg Solti.

Every European capital, and many non-capitals, will have a very good orchestra. The Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic are probably the most famous, but you'll have good luck in Amsterdam and Prague too. (Paris is great for opera, and great for baroque music, but straight-up symphony orchestras not so much. Similarly, I've heard great work by smaller Italian groups like I Solisti Veneti, and of course Italian opera is fantastic-- but it's not so much of a symphonic place. I've never been to Spain, but the same thing seems to apply: I can name a good few Spanish opera houses without thinking, but Spanish symphony orchestras draw a blank.)

Germany in particular has a history of government financial support for classical music, with the result that most big cities will have an orchestra that they can be proud of: I'd single out Leipzig Gewandhaus and the various orchestras of Munich (especially the Bayerischen Rundfunks), though there are many other good ones.

I just found this article, a survey from Le Monde de la Musique listing what a panel of stuffy critics think are the top 10 orchestras in Europe. Their findings:

1. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (86 points)
2. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (85 points)
3. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (79 points)
4. London Symphony Orchestra (55 points)
5. Dresden Staatskapelle (48 points)
6. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (47 points)
7. Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig (37 points)
8. St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra (31 points)
9. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (12 points)
10. Philharmonia Orchestra [London] (9 points)

The question's meaningless, of course: "best" for what? For big mid-to-late 19th century symphonic works, sure, Berlin and Vienna are your go-to guys, but for Mozart-era stuff or more modern music, you'll have to do a bit more homework about who specialises in what.

Since I'm a singer myself, I hope that your quest eventually broadens to include music with voices. Mahler used voices in many of his symphonies; I recommend starting with the 3rd if you're interested. And of course, there's always Beethoven 9...

Good luck and happy hunting!
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:56 AM on January 16, 2009

« Older Learning Unfamiliar Cultures   |   Kicking out a roommate not a lease in San... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.