Mozart, Brahms’ Piano Concerto Number 1 and a personal journey into classical music

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Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall (Credit: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic)

Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall (Credit: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic)

When everything seemed tired and stale, Getintothis’ Rick Leach discovered and was enthused by classical music.

I take the CD out of the jewel case and stick it into the player. There are hundreds of CDs to choose from yet this is the one that I’ve picked. By far, most of the CDs and nearly all of the music I could have picked was written and recorded within the last 60 years or so. Most of it in the last thirty years. There’s a smattering of stuff from the 1960s and earlier; the usual suspects – Elvis, Dylan, The Beatles etc.. You know how it goes. There’s a bit of pre-rock and roll stuff – some jazz and blues but most of this lifetime’s accumulation of music spans a very short period of time. Certainly less than a hundred years. Nearly all of it was written within living memory; that of myself, my parents or grandparents.

But there are a few CDs on the shelf – just a few, but a growing number over the last few years – which contain music that is old. Old as in written a long time ago. A long, long time ago and certainly not within living memory. Music that is hundreds of years old. Centuries old.

However, I’m beginning to realise that this old music is possibly as vital and as exciting as most of the other stuff that I’ve got and certainly has more passion and can move me more on an emotional level.

And that CD I’m listening to now is music that was written in the 1790s. That isn’t one of my (frequent) typos. Not the 1970s, but the 1790s. Over two hundred years old and it’s not something dry and dusty, but something challenging and vibrant and makes you glad to be alive.

This is Mozart’s Requiem. And it is brilliant.

It’s taken me a long time to not only find a way into classical music but also to learn to love it as much as I do anything else; all the other music – Dylan,The Fall, Prince, Swans, Stevie Wonder, Beefheart and the rest. It’s been a bit of surprise. I never thought that I’d be listening to say, a Mahler Symphony over the latest hotly tipped and hip album by 2016’s Bright Young Hope (take your pick) but I have and I do.

Classical music wasn’t for me; it was boring. It was expensive and elitist; a dead white man’s art form, dry and dusty, fossilised. The real music was what was happening now; what I read about in the music magazines and latterly picked up on the internet. I didn’t need to hear anything that was old and ancient – I was constantly looking out for the next big thing. Classical music wasn’t for me; it was for other people. In my more magnanimous moments, classical music was reserved for those people who could understand it and when I was less kindly disposed, classical music was for those people who couldn’t see the rebellious appeal of most of the music I listened to. It was a difficult art form; hard for mere music fans like me to understand and appreciate and appeared to be very much a closed world. My only real exposure to classical music was an annual dose when I happened by bad luck to stumble across what (still) appears to be jingoistic flag waving at the Last Night of the Proms on TV. If that was classical music, you could keep it.

I suppose, like most of us with a more than a passing interest in music – and that’s why you’ve clicked onto Getintothis – music plays a major part of my life and has done for a very long time. For as long as I can really remember. For me it’s now at least forty years of listening to music, buying records, tapes, CDs etc, reading about music, talking and arguing about music, writing about music, thinking about music. Thousands of hours at least.

And I know for sure that I’m not alone. We are all well versed in the intricacies and fine points regarding popular music of the past half century or so. We should be really; we devote too much time to it all. If we spent as much time, effort and money on other things then everything might be slightly different, but that’s a debate for another time. Needless to say, we all know sub-genre from sub-genre and we can debate the relative merits of unreleased lost albums or what is the best live act ever till the cows come home but what we know is just a thin sliver of music, historically speaking. We’re experts in what we know – we should be – we have spent a lot of time in learning it all; but outside of that, we are relatively ignorant. I say “we”; maybe I should temper that and say “I”.

So however well I know popular music – and I’m going to have to call it that for now, just for the purposes of differentiation, even if some of the music I like isn’t really all that popular – there are times when I’ve got bored. Bored of listening to the same old stuff over and over again, bored of waiting for the next big thing and then when it turns up, finding out that it isn’t all that special, new or groundbreaking despite what the hype had made me believe. Bored of hearing the same old clichés totted out over and over again, bored of seeing the same old stuff rehashed over and over again (as much as I love them, The Velvet Underground have to shoulder a lot of the blame here.) Bored of seeing the same old stuff at gigs; formulaic to the extreme. Just bored. Is it just me?

I kept plodding along, listening to the same old stuff, but I knew needed to hear something different.

Something really different.

Classical music. Why not?

I could dip my toes in the water, at least. Give it a little go. What did I have to lose? A bit of time. A CDs length of time. An hour or so at most. And a few quid. The cost of a CD.

So, on a bit of whim and knowing nothing about classical music, and instead of buying the new album that was being raved about as something ‘challenging and groundbreaking’ or some other such bollocks, I plumped for a classical CD. I wandered into the back of HMV – classical music is always kept at the back – and at random, picked up and bought the first thing that caught my eye; Brahms Piano Concerto Number 1.

And this is where the first of my misconceptions about classical music was broken. It’s not expensive. Classical recordings can be picked up for a song, for buttons. Great recordings from the past, by renowned musicians cost a lot less than new recordings by your favourite band or artist and certainly a lot less than the current vogue for reissued and expanded editions of ‘classic’ albums; see the forthcoming 4 CD set of The Ramones debut as a prime example of studio floor dregs being peddled to us consumers as if they are a nugget of gold at the end of a rainbow as opposed to a crock of shit that wasn’t good enough in the first place.

Go to any record shop that stocks classical music and I guarantee you that you will be spoilt for choice and you’ll be surprised at how cheap it can be. You can pick up great recordings for less than a fiver. What have you got to lose? The price of a couple of drinks or a couple of coffees.

And was the Brahms CD worth it? Was I bored? Did the dipping of my toes in the waters of classical music have me scurrying back to the shore for the comfort of The Fall’s Dragnet album or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life? I did half-expect to only last ten minutes or so before switching it off and casting the CD aside as a bit of failed experiment on my part, but to my surprise, the CD played through to the end. And it wasn’t boring, it wasn’t predictable, it wasn’t obvious. It was so good that I listened to it again. And the next day. And that day after that. It’s still one of my favourite classical pieces. Maybe it’s first love and all that, but it still manages to send a shiver down my spine every time I play it. And that’s what music should do, whether it’s something that’s hundreds of years old or just from last week, isn’t it?

I feel I should stress a couple of important points at this juncture, a bit of an aside and a bit of an explanation. On hearing that Brahms Piano Concerto and although my eyes (and ears) had been opened, I didn’t suddenly go for a Year Zero nuclear option and cast all my carefully collected ‘popular’ music into the wilderness. I didn’t take armfuls of CDs to the charity shop, wipe hundreds of mp3s off the hard drives, stop buying music magazines and unbookmark (if there is such a word) all the music sites from my laptop. I didn’t stop listening to The Fall and Stevie and Prince and Sonic Youth and Lee Perry and the rest. Although I had seen the light, I had not ‘seen the light’ and become a born-again classical afficicando forsaking all forms of popular music. I really think that it’s a fallacy and a trap to think that both ‘sides’ of music are mutually exclusive and it’s impossible to enjoy and appreciate both. This plays to both the elitists on both sides. After all, it’s music, but just different and I’ll like what I like. The best things that I’ve discovered this year are Liverpool’s very own and ace Pink Kink and Glenn Gould Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Just different, that’s all.

So the other thing about classical music being seen as expensive; live concerts. It took me a while to go to a classical concert after buying that Brahms CD. For some reason I thought that seeing a live concert was prohibitively expensive and maybe this was a misconception I’d half-picked up from hearing about the price of tickets to see opera at Covent Garden or something. Maybe I’d been led astray by the fact that classical concerts seem to happen in venues that appear somewhat opulent. Whatever it was, I thought that it wouldn’t be like taking a cheap punt on a CD.

Like a whole lot about classical music, there is a huge yawning chasm between perception and reality.

The first classical concert that I went to was back in 2010 at The Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool – a truly beautiful venue. The cost of the ticket was £15. Not cheap; but certainly not prohibitively expensive either. It was a good enough seat as well; in the circle and I could see everything that was going on.

And this was not some lower division concert either. This was The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, performing Mahler’s First Symphony and led by Vasily Petrenko. A world class orchestra, in an outstanding venue, playing an incredible piece of music and with one of the brightest young conductors around for fifteen quid!

There were more expensive tickets of course, but so what? I managed to see something special (and different for me) at a cost equivalent to seeing many bands go through their routines at, say the O2 Academy. It was certainly a lot cheaper than seeing something at a stadium gig (Echo Arena, Etihad etc). Two tickets to the cinema. Miles cheaper than going to the match. (And more entertaining than the latter, to be honest. A lot more passion.)

I’m writing this six years later from that night and have been to a few more classical concerts since 2010 and it’s still relatively cheap. The RLPO have just released their September 2016-2017 programme and ticket prices haven’t changed that much, if at all. Petrenko and the Phil are performing Mahler’s 5th Symphony on April 2 2017 and you can still get tickets for £15. Worth a try. What have you got to lose?

Another myth to dispel.

When I mentioned that Petrenko is a young conductor I do mean young. Although age is relative and I realise that, the idea of classical music being performed by “old” people is wrong. Petrenko, who has been with the Phil for 10 years, is still only just 40 years old. A lot, lot younger than the aforesaid Dylan, Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and the rest. He is not a one-off. Some of the brightest and most innovative conductors in the world are young enough to be the children – or indeed grandchildren – of The Rolling Stones (but that’s most of us.) Gustavo Dudamel from the LA Phil is just 35; Andris Nelsons from the Boston Symphony Orchestra is 37 and they are far from being alone.

Leading on from seeing that concert in 2010 brings up something that is possibly not a myth and yet is worth dispelling.

The accusation of elitism.

This is a tough one for sure, but the more I think about it, the more complex it becomes, although like many complex problems, the solution is relatively simple.

I sat in that concert wearing an old Sonic Youth t-shirt and jeans and being blown away by the sheer power and majesty of Mahler. Thurston Moore would have approved. All around me, by and large, the audience were not Sonic Youth fans. There were a lot of well-dressed and clearly well-heeled people. Not all of them, yet a fair majority. I did feel a bit like a fish out of water. Not only that, but I was sitting next to someone who had the full score in front of him and was nodding very ostentatiously and  knowledgeably at certain points throughout the concert. I had no idea why. I didn’t know what was when the bar was being raised and something special was happening. I was just letting the whole experience drift over me; it was all special. I didn’t have the knowledge or background or comprehension to ‘appreciate’ it in that way and I still don’t, but it doesn’t matter.

There’s a lot of guff spoken about classical music and it is undoubtedly off-putting to a novice listener. A lot of it goes over my head and I’ve realised that the only way to deal with it is to ignore it all and just listen to the music. If I like it, I like it and if I don’t, well that’s the way it is. I have no clue what’s supposed to be good or bad really; what the finer points are or what’s cool or not. There’s so much music out there that I could spend the rest of my lifetime trying to understand it all. Sometimes it’s best just to listen.

So all these self-appointed experts can be intimidating and it’s not pushing it too far to see an elitist, upper class, white and ageing audience for classical music as putting up barriers to keep the rest of us out. This is their culture and they’re keeping it to themselves etc. Very simplistic and heading towards David Icke levels of conspiracy theory I know, but there may be a grain of truth in there.

However, in historical terms, classical music being reserved for the few rather the masses, is a largely recent post-industrial phenomenon. Mozart, Beethoven, Handel and many more all composed and performed music for everyone. It was performed in concert halls where instead of being listened to in reverential silence as now, where even a cough or tickly throat is frowned upon, riotous applause or booing rang out not only between the individual movements of a symphony, but mid-performance as well. Drinking, talking, laughing and even fighting would break out while performances went on. Sounds familiar? Maybe classical music is the old rock and roll.

I’m not advocating a return to those wild days of yore, but the only way to wrest control of classical music away from an elite audience is to change the audience by actually being part of that audience. Last time I looked I couldn’t see anything on the Philharmonic’s programme that mentioned anything about a dress code or being able to ‘understand’ classical music – and to be honest I don’t think that many of the traditional classical audience do much more than I do and simply enjoy the music.

(Before I get overly self-righteous, I should point out that an elitist attitude is not exclusive to classical music. I’ve turned my nose up at the sight of a cheap Miles Davis compilation rather than the expanded and frankly essential 4 disc expanded edition of Bitches Brew or not very successfully held back a snigger when hearing a work colleague refer to Dire Straits Brothers in Arms album as a classic. You know the score. People in glass houses and all that.)

However, it should not be a case of ‘their’ culture or ‘our’ culture; and if it is, then we have every right to be part of it and not exclude ourselves from it in some forlock-tugging, cap-doffing manner.

It’s easy.

Go to a concert. If you live in a city there’ll be a concert hall somewhere. There’ll be an orchestra playing somewhere. It’s not difficult nor that expensive. There’s even free concerts; the RLPO are playing free concerts in Liverpool this summer and I’m sure that it doesn’t happen just in Liverpool.

And you won’t be alone. Recent figures show that 25% of the Phil’s audience for classical music are under 25. (I’m therefore excluded from that data.) Every classical orchestra has realised that they need to attract a younger and demographically wider audience, because without that they’ll wither on the vine.

Music audiences are very tribal. We like being in own self-imposed and safe silos. Yet this is the odd thing; it only seems to be the audiences. There’s always been an interplay between classical music and popular music; Stravinsky lived in Hollywood and wrote and performed music with jazz artists. The Velvet Underground had well-known ties with modern classical composers. Lines between different genres are becoming increasingly blurred. The rise and popularity of new classical artists such as Nils Frahm and Max Richter should not be underestimated nor should the influence of classical music upon artists as diverse as Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar. It’s becoming a melting pot and so much the better for it.

Blurred lines : when the RLPO played Cream Classics at the Cathedral

While the elitist problem is one that needs tackling, the boring and/or difficult one doesn’t.

Because, for me, classical music is neither difficult or boring.

Hearing a full orchestra live and in full flow is far from boring; it’s fascinating. And loud! When I went to see that first concert in 2010 I was staggered by how loud it was. Not My Bloody Valentine or Swans levels of loudness and not one where earplugs were required, but loud enough. And with regard to not being boring, try to hear the last movement of that very Mahler symphony that I saw. It ends on a note that takes your breath away.

Difficult? Classical music is difficult to listen to? Another myth.

You may have to listen to it in a different way at times and for ears that are used to three minute pop songs that might seem a bit strange. You may have to let it sort of drift over you and let your mind wander a touch.

But we’ve moved on from three minute pop songs, overloaded with melody and hooks and those things we know (and love) so well. We are well-versed in the reading of those that it’s become second nature. It’s not that we don’t love them anymore – we can still fall for the charms of a Beach Boys song or something by Little Richard or The Clash or Britney Spears or ELO and we always will do – it’s just that we can listen to an Aphex Twin or Godspeed You! Black Emperor for example and still get as much out of it.  We are adept at listening to music and therefore a bit of Steve Reich or Mozart or Xenakis or Philip Glass or Beethoven should not present any difficulties at all.

I’ve tried (and possibly failed) to avoid becoming too evangelical abut classical music in this piece. If I have, then please accept my apologies.

I’m personally only scratching the surface as far as classical music is concerned and all I really know is that there’s a lot of it to hear out there and I don’t want to be left out. Our time on this earth to hear music is, by definition, limited and why therefore should we limit ourselves?

The next time then that you find yourself skimming through your well worn collection of CDs, or vinyl or scrolling through your hard drive and wondering what to listen to because it’s all a bit well…stale, go and get a classical CD or turn on Radio 3 or even decide to go to a classical concert.

At the very worst you’ll hate it, be bored and then you can blame me.

Or at best, it might just be something different and may just change the way you look at music.

Forever.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2016/17 concert season commences at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 15 September which includes Mahler’s 5th Symphony on April 2 2017. See full concert and event listings on line at www.liverpoolphil.com 

***UPDATE***

The BBC Proms season starts on July 15 and runs to September 10 featuring 91 concerts over 58 days; broadcast on BBC Radio/Televsion and iPlayer.

The Royal Liverpool Phiharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko play on August 25 and feature a world premiere of a work by Liverpool composer Emily Howard as well as Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto  No 1 and Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 3. Details here. 

While every concert is worth a listen of course, the Bowie Prom on 29 July, celebrating and reinterpreting the music of David Bowie featuring John Cale, Marc Almond, Anna Calvi and many others may well be of particular interest.

 

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