Notes from the underground

There’s been a very good vibe coming from people lately vis a vis my column, and I think I know the reason: the new photo! I have to assume that last year people either did not recognize me or assumed I was a serial killer. As anyone who wears glasses with style certainly knows, it’s nice to switch from pair to pair every once in a while. However, you look completely different in each pair that you wear, so when people see you in a pair of glasses that you’re not currently wearing it becomes confusing.

Now for an amazing segue into this week’s music: just like people change their glasses, people change the type of music that they like to listen to every once in a while. If you meet someone at any given time and listen to music with that person, you do not automatically know the entire history of that person’s musical preferences. So it is with this column. First-years and other students who did not read my column last year have no idea that I am extremely partial to Twentieth Century music because I have been suggesting Romantic music this year.

This week is no exception. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov is about as Romantic as they come, and as soon as you put on the recording of his Scheherazade (CD R55 2), you will feel that you are in familiar territory. Readers of this column with extraordinary memories might recall my review of a recording of Samuel Barber’s First Symphony, in which I said that it was difficult to listen to the piece without being reminded of countless movie scores. The same holds true here; Scheherazade has a tendency to conjure up desert scenes from Lawrence of Arabia or some kitszchy “fantasy scene” from a low-budget film. Or perhaps something else – what it conjures up in your mind is your business.

In any event, it is important to remember that this music was written decades before any of those scores were composed, and that this music (and music like it) is the inspiration for all of the kitsch that followed. I have not yet mentioned the real value of this music for me. When I was just starting to listen to music, I discovered an old tape of my parent’s behind our family’s stereo. It was Erich Leinsdorf conducting some orchestra, performing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. I listened to that tape non-stop for weeks, like in the classic scene from A Clockwork Orange. But nobody forced me – the music was that good!

Scheherazade has instant appeal to the uninitiated listener because there are only a handful of themes throughout the work, and one can become quite familiar with the material. While others might call that “repetetive”, or “boring”, I don’t see it that way. I doubt that any readers who have ever listened to, say, The Ramones will find the music at all repetitive. I’m kidding, of course – Rimsky-Korsakov should not be labeled as “the Ramones of classical music.” I want that label for myself.

Anyway, Rimsky-Korsakov finds a way of making the limited material into something wonderful. The beauty of this piece is the way that the themes appear in different contexts and in different parts of the orchestra; Rimsky-Korsakov is one of the great orchestrators of all time. Scheherazade is a story straight from Arabian Nights, and so it is supposed to conjure up ideas of “foreign mysticism”. Not to exoticize the “other,” but that is what the composer was doing when he wrote this piece. Beyond the amazing and brilliant orchestration, the harmonic language of this piece is rather daring, with colorful sounds and effects thrown in all over the place. Beyond all of this, the work is extremely dramatic, and is not that what music is all about?

Besides Scheherazade, this disc also contains the equally-famous Capriccio Espagñol. I should mention that Charles Dutoit and the Orchestra Symphonique de Montreal play both these pieces with the utmost care, as they do all their performances together. The Capriccio Espagñol is a delightful little suite of pieces. The second movement makes my heart swell, even though I’m not Spanish. For those of you who are Spanish, perhaps you will feel it even more strongly than I.

Most readers have probably heard the Fourth and Fifth Movements at some point in their lives. I suppose I can’t rightly call this “great” music, since I’m too arrogant. But Rimsky-Korsakov was definitely an important composer whose music has lasting appeal. Tell me if you agree, or even if you think he’s “great”. I won’t be offended.

The next suggestion is a surprise! (read: I’m not sure what to recommend yet) And remember, if you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me at 01jsg or otherwise make contact. I may even answer your questions.

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