5 Classical Music Stories That Prove 2016 Wasn’t a Total Loss

 

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image: @christhebarker

I read the news this year, oh boy…

And so the Year of Death and Brexit and #MAGA comes to a merciful end. Yes, it was a horrific year for unity and truth and famous people staying alive. The awfulness extended to the classical music world as well. We said goodbye to far too many titans this year: Pierre Boulez, Auréle Nicolet, Steven Stucky, Louis Lane, Otto-Werner Mueller, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Brian Asawa, Jane Little, Huguette Dreyfuss, Gustav Meier, Inocente Carreño, Gregg Smith, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Neil Black, Sir Neville Marriner, Zoltán Kocsis, Jules Eskin, Pauline Oliveros, Karel Husa, Heinrich Schiff, and many many others.

But 2016 wasn’t all bad.

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1. A new work by Igor Stravinsky was performed. That’s right, music by Stravinsky from 1908 that most scholars believed lost forever, was discovered last year and given its first performance in 2016. You can watch/listen to it here.

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2. Three Berlin orchestras performed a free concert for refugees. It was a rare joint appearance by the greatest of the Berlin orchestras: the Berlin Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin. The concert was titled “Welcome in our Midst,” and featured performances by all three orchestras and their principal conductors Sir Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, and Iván Fisher, who addressed the audience in Arabic at the beginning of the concert. “As musicians, we feel welcome anywhere in the world,” the three conductors said, in a joint statement. “We hope that this also applies to people who have been hit hard by fate and who were forced by war, hunger or persecution to leave their homeland.”

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3. For the first time in 113 years, an opera written by a woman received a performance at The Metropolitan Opera. It’s a gasp-worthy stat that represents a reality at The Met that is wholly indefensible and which led composer Kaija Saariaho–whose opera L’Amour de Loin received a highly-successful run this December–to declare with a certain amount of exasperation, “You know, half of humanity has something to say, also.” Are you listening, arts org admins?

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4. An orchestra, comprised entirely of refugee musicians, gave its first performance. The Refugee Orchestra Project was founded last year, but gave its concert debut in May, 2016, and its second performance a month later on World Refugee Day. The ensemble, led by conductor (and refugee from Russia) Lydiya Yankovskaya, performed music by composers who also were forced to flee their countries as refugees. Yankovskaya says, “I hope to demonstrate just how many refugees are around us each day and what we bring to the world.”

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5. Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) had a banner year. The orchestra of young musicians (many of whom come from extremely challenging circumstances) celebrated its 10th anniversary year in a major way. (YOLA is a partnership among the LA Philharmonic, Expo Center, and Heart of Los Angeles.) In October, they capped off the party with their very first tour on their own, with a finale concert in Oakland conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Earlier in the year, members of YOLA had the honor of performing at the White House at a dinner honoring the previous year’s National Medal of Arts winners. YOLA musicians also traveled to London to lead a symposium on music education and performed new music at the venerable Ojai Music Festival. Oh…and you may have also seen them at Super Bowl 50, alongside Coldplay, Beyoncé, and Bruno Mars.

So, yeah…2016 wasn’t a total loss. (And there were many more incredible classical music stories this past year that are not listed here.) Tonight, I’ll raise a glass to more inspiration and uplift via classical music in 2017. Happy New Year!

Conductors Conducting the Climax of Mahler 2

The Symphony No. 2 by Gustav Mahler is the biggest, most epic symphonic statement since Beethoven’s 9th. It’s subtitled “Resurrection,” and the work climaxes with the words:

O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!

Mahler wrote the text himself and set it to the most glorious, heaven-storming music that had ever been written.

Here’s what it sounds like:

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No doubt, Bernstein is the best. He seems to be genuinely reacting to the ecstasy of the moment. As you can imagine, such an epic musical and poetic statement elicits an incredible amount of podium histrionics from various conductors. A close second to Bernstein, in terms of raw emotional choreography, is Sir Simon Rattle.

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You’d think Gustavo Dudamel would have a similarly crazy reaction to this music–after all, one of the great inspirations in his life is Leonard Bernstein–but here, he is remarkably restrained.

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Oh, sure, he’s still into the music, but not with his trademark unbridled passion.

If there’s one general consistency throughout conductors’ interpretations of Mahler 2, it’s that the mouth must be open. From typically reserved Claudio Abbado…

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…to the exuberance of Zubin Mehta.

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Valery Gergiev (not famous for being a Mahler conductor) tries to keep his mouth closed…and, it seems, choke back some tears.

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Myung-whun Chung has ice in his veins and wields his baton with the precision of a surgeon.

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Pierre Boulez has steely resolve that borders on stoicism. (Would you expect anything else from Pierre Boulez?)

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Mariss Jansons wins the award for Best Facial Expression.

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Christoph Eschenbach wins the award for Best Head Movement.

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And Riccardo Chailly wins the award for Most Deranged.

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So, there you have it. The many faces of the ecstasy and bliss that is Mahler’s Second Symphony. Now, go listen to a complete performance of it. I suggest this one:

LA Phil 2016-17: By the Numbers

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I do this every year: leave the punditry to others and tally up the stats. Here’s what 2016-17 looks like at the LA Phil. Unlike in years past, I have only included performances by the LA Phil–no visiting artists.

  • 21 commissions, 14 world premieres, 5 U.S. premieres, and 5 West Coast premieres. This beats last year’s world premiere record by two and shatters the commissions number from last year, which was 12.
  • In 2016-17, the LA Phil will present music by 1 Baroque composer, 7 Classical-era composers, 24 Romantics, and 46 composers from the 20th/21st Century. (Yes, I realize that “20th/21st C” is a broad category that doesn’t tell the whole story.)
  • That’s 1% Baroque, 7% Classical, 24% Romantic, and 46% 20th/21st Century.
  • Of the 78 composers on the 2016-17 season, 7 are living. That’s 9%. If you include the Green Umbrella concerts, that number increases to 17 of 88, or 19%. This represents a steep decline from the current LA Phil season, which features 42 living composers out of a total of 107, or 39%.
  • Of the 78 composers on the 2016-17 season, 0 are women. If you include the Green Umbrella concerts, that number increases to 2 of 88, or 2.3%.
  • The LA Phil will perform 97 different works in 2016-17: 1 Baroque, 9 Classical, 36 Romantic, and 51 20th/21st Century.
  • That’s 1% Baroque, 9% Classical, 37% Romantic, and 53% 20th/21st Century
  • Of the 9 Classical-era works, all are either by Haydn or Mozart.
  • The most-performed composers of the season will be Schubert (8), Sibelius (6), Mahler (5), and a bunch of composers tied at 4, including Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel, Brahms, and Stravinsky.
  • Of the 42 different programs (including Green Umbrellas), 41 will be conducted by men. The one female conductor is the LA Phil’s Associate Conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.
  • 74 visiting artists: 43 men; 31 women. Of the 31 women, 22 share the solo spotlight with a male soloist. Nine get the stage to themselves (all with male conductors).
  • In 2016-17, the LA Phil turns 98 years old, Walt Disney Concert Hall celebrates its lucky 13th birthday, and Gustavo Dudamel has five years remaining on his recently-extended contract as Music and Artistic Director.

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How to Fix Classical Music

old pianoMoney (1950). Lascivious musicians (1530). The gramophone (1930). Money (1969). Claude Debussy (1902). The violin (1740). Money (1683). YouTube (2013). Ludwig van Beethoven (1827). Money (1903). Popular music (1324). The compact disc (2009). Money (1987). Figured bass (1609). An aging audience (1960s-present).

For centuries, classical music has been on the brink of death. Over the years, many things have been blamed for its imminent demise. Two years ago, a writer for Slate finally called it. Time of death: 11:52 p.m., January 21, 2014.

There were swift and vigorous responses from all corners of The Internet. “Classical music isn’t dead! Because Dudamel.” “Classical Music can’t be dead–I just saw Classical Music last night at a club in Brooklyn. He was drinking a cocktail and grinding on Bryce Dessner.”

Now, nearly two years to the day since Slate proclaimed classical music to be dead, Medium just did the same. (As Charles Rosen once quipped, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”) This time, though, the culprit was rather odd.

Classical music was killed by classical music.

That is, the term “classical music” has too much baggage and is contributing to a negative perception of the art form. Therefore, we must stop calling classical music classical music.

The solution?

“Classical music” should be called “composed music.”

Here’s why (according to the term-coiner):

  • it’s inclusive, covers all eras
  • avoids stigma of “contemporary” or “modern”
  • it’s plainspoken
  • celebrates the composer
  • refers to how audiences should listen (i.e. in a state of composure)

So……..I disagree with this assessment/terminology for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that ALL music is composed. Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Rage Against the Machine, Kanye West, Juanes, Tom Jones, Beyoncé, and the Kronos Quartet all perform composed music. Even the great jazz improvisers perform music that is composed. It’s just that the composing is happening right there in the moment.

The term “composed music” subtly prioritizes music that is written down over music that is not written down. The author even went so far as to suggest that improvised music be referred to as “semi-composed music,” as if that doesn’t at all smack of notation privilege. This name change accomplishes little besides removing the monocle from an elitist, rebranding him slightly–dogma’s got a brand new bag.

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I could go on, but my beef isn’t specifically with the term “composed music” so much as it is with the continually-recurring premise that gave birth to the new term: classical music is dying/has died and I’m going to breathe new life into it with some slick new marketing.

You want to know how to fix classical music? Stop trying to fix classical music. Stop believing the myth that classical music is dying. Stop lamenting that the average age of a classical music audience tends to skew high. (Who cares? It always has.) Give credit to young people (yes, millennials) for their open-mindedness. Allow them to come to classical music in their own way.

The term “classical music” is indeed problematic. It doesn’t fully or accurately describe all the music associated with it. But language evolves naturally–you can’t force change. When the time comes for a new term for classical music to be deployed, the right one will arise.

Or maybe it won’t.

Because using words to talk about an art form that transcends words is hard and sometimes sucks.

At least we still have music.

A Classical Christmas

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Let’s face it, most Christmas music is lame. And it’s that same lame Christmas music that gets blared over loudspeakers in shopping malls all across this great country of ours. Ask most people about classical Christmas music and they’ll probably say something about that horrifying version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D by an electronic group that calls itself an orchestra.

Ugh.

But fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all classical fans. For unto us is born this day in the City of Angels a playlist, which contains more than five hours of actual classical Christmas music that doesn’t suck.

It’s embedded below. I’ll point out a few of my highlights:

  • There are a few of my favorite bits of The Nutcracker because it’s The Nutcracker and The Nutcracker is undeniably awesome.
  • Bethlehem Down is a Christmas carol by Peter Warlock and Bruce Blunt who got totally plastered on Christmas Eve 1927, wrote this carol, sent it in to The Telegraph’s annual Christmas carol contest, and won.
  • Since there are so many great choral recordings of classical Christmas music…and since they’re so easy to find, the choral stuff I’ve included on this particular playlist is off-the-beaten-path choral stuff. For example, Charles Ives’ “A Christmas Carol” and the two Sibelius carols “Jouluna” and “En etsi valtaa, Ioistoa” are all just absolutely stunning. (And you won’t encounter them on the stereo system at your local Target store.)
  • I’m sure you know Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” quite well, so instead of that, I’ve included his “A Christmas Festival,” which is a delightful medley of popular Christmas tunes…and the “Sleigh Ride” I *have* included is one by Frederick Delius. Don’t worry, there are plenty of sleigh bells throughout.
  • My favorite thing on this playlist is probably the least-known work as well…and I say that not as a hipster who “liked it before it was cool,” it’s just that “Une cantate de Noel” by Artur Honegger is not the most popular Christmas tune. But I think it’s worthy of 20 of your minutes. What Honegger does is harness the power of the darkness before the birth of Christ in the first few minutes of the piece and then turns that into blazing light and glory upon the angels’ announcement of the nativity. The work ends in a truly awe-inspiring mash-up of familiar Christmas carols, each sung in its original language. To me, this is wonderfully moving…and a reminder that we are all connected together as one species, regardless of race, gender-identity, class, or religion.
  • Throughout, I’ve interspersed selections from one of my favorite Baroque Christmas albums, “Bright Day Star” by the Baltimore Consort. Some familiar things, some not-so-familiar things. Including the final selection on the playlist: “Hey for Christmas!” sung to the Dargason tune, about a drunken party gone wrong (what other Christmas carol contains the line “the sweat down their buttocks ran”?)
  • The last piece I’ll point out is, I think, the smartest one. “Die natali,” (pronounced DEE-ay nah-TAH-lee), by Samuel Barber. This is an incredibly intricate tapestry of seven well-known Christmas carols that never ceases to surprise and delight me when I hear it again for the first time each Christmas season.

Enjoy!

Kicking Brass: An Interview with the LA Phil’s Andrew Bain and Thomas Hooten

Thomas Hooten and Andrew Bain. Photo by CD Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

Thomas Hooten and Andrew Bain. Photo by CK Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

This week’s LA Philharmonic radio broadcast on Classical KUSC features two concerto performances by two LA Phil brass principals. Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet, will play Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat. Andrew Bain, principal French horn, will play Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4. Before the performance, which was recorded in February 2015, I sat down with Hooten and Bain backstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall to ask them about life in the LA Phil and their upcoming solo appearances with the orchestra.

I began by asking them each what they liked best about each other’s playing.

Andrew Bain: One of the great things about Tom—I mean, he plays with a beautiful sound and is incredibly musical—but his attention to detail and his constant desire to get the best result out of any sort of situation is really inspiring. It inspires me and it inspires the colleagues around him and definitely his section. I think it’s a really great part of his personality and a great trait. We aspire to that level as well.

Thomas Hooten: The first thing that comes to mind about Andrew’s playing is, I always get this sense that he’s in the moment of the music. He’s not in any rush. He seems really concerned about making the phrase as good as it can be. And I think that, for me—in relation to what he said about me—I’m always striving and driving to do the best I can, but it’s a nice reminder when I hear him play to take time, to make sure that you’re in the moment. And I think that’s really important for the listener. You can tell when Andrew comes in, in the orchestra we get this sense of, I wouldn’t say calm, but of breath. And it’s nice.

BL: How important is camaraderie and chemistry among the principals in the brass section?

Andrew Bain: That’s a good question, actually. I think a good, cohesive working environment is really important. And if people are friends outside of that, than that’s an extra advantage. But, I think more important is that people are striving for the same goals and that we’re working together to achieve a really great result. And I think we’re very fortunate that we have that. I think we have that in the entire brass and horn section. Everyone’s really wanting to see the growth of the section as we add new people. With the influx of new principals, that can be a challenging change for members of sections and for the rest of the orchestra, but everyone is definitely invested in getting the best result that we can.

Thomas Hooten: I would say, throughout orchestras in the country, there’s a wide variety of high artistic product and varying degrees of camaraderie. I would think, in the most logical outlook of it, that the more you get along, the more potential there is for greatness. I think orchestras are really good at hiring the best people—we have a process in place that makes sure there’s lots of vetting out—but, the potential after that of somebody actually learning to communicate with others in a way that inspires each other and also is a conduit for discovery: I think we have that here [at the LA Phil]. Through this process of us acquiring new people, I think that’s something that we’re looking for. Looking for new people that not only play great, but become citizens of the orchestra and what we want to do together.

BL: You guys both make your living at the back of the orchestra. What’s it like to take a turn up front in the soloist’s spotlight?

Thomas Hooten: I remember the first time I played a solo with a professional group—it was with the United States Marine Band—and we played From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific, by Herbert L. Clarke. The band started and I just remember jumping out of my skin because I hadn’t been at the very front of a group and heard that much sound, and I’ll never forget how juiced I was: “Wow, this is going to be amazing!” So [with the LA Phil] I’m looking forward to that and getting really close to the violins and hearing all the energy from them.

Andrew Bain: For the horn player it’s really fun, because we’re always at the back. To be up at the front and to actually be able to see the faces of the audience—that’s fun. And to see them when you empty the little bit of water, to see the look of panic and to feel the violins move back three paces when you play the first note, because the horn is loud, and it points backwards so they end up in the slipstream a little bit. It’s a lot of fun.

Photo by CD Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

Photo by CK Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

BL: Tom, the Trumpet Concerto by Joseph Haydn that you’re playing with the LA Phil…as I understand it, this was a piece that was designed to show off a bit of trumpet valve technology, is that correct?

Thomas Hooten: Almost right. The trumpet it was written for was a keyed trumpet, so it was very close to when they developed valves. That’s one of the interesting parts about this piece: when it was written, this keyed trumpet was a new invention. The horn didn’t actually sound that good. It was basically like a natural trumpet that had keys in it that would help certain pitches come out, which is why you can play half-steps and more partials in the lower harmonic series. This piece was written in 1796 and wasn’t premiered until 1800 and then wasn’t played again for, like, a hundred years. … I think probably why it didn’t get played that much was because it just wasn’t that good of a sound yet. But the subtleties of half-steps and stuff are absolutely interwoven into the piece itself and, in that respect, it’s a pioneering piece for the history of the trumpet.

Markus Würsch playing the keyed trumpet.

Markus Würsch playing the keyed trumpet.

BL: Thinking about that idea: even if it didn’t sound great on that instrument [the keyed trumpet], these are sounds, musically, that people weren’t used to hearing from a trumpet either. So, the concerto was super-new, modern music in its time.

Thomas Hooten: Right. The first notes of the concerto show you, “I can play an E-flat scale now.” And people probably said, “Wow, that’s amazing! This is so exciting!” Haydn has these whole themes throughout where the trumpet is going from a note in the harmonic series and then a half-step away. So, the significance of that, hopefully, isn’t lost on the audience. … The other thing I’m excited about is I commissioned a new cadenza for this concerto, written by James Stephenson, a composer who has been incredibly prolific in the last 10 years for brass in general. So, I’m excited about that. It’s a really fun cadenza: pushes the limits of what I can do. I’m excited about offering a new addition to Haydn cadenzas and hopefully people will like it and trumpet players will try it and not curse me for making it hard. [laughs]

BL: Andrew, the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 4 that you’re performing has an interesting story behind it as well. Who was this cheese shop-owning, French horn-playing Leutgeb guy anyway?

Andrew Bain: Leutgeb and Mozart had this banter-ful relationship, so Mozart tended to write a lot of [messages to Leutgeb] in the score—mostly abusive to poor Leutgeb. [laughs] Basically, the Mozart horn concerti are very fun, playful pieces. The fourth concerto is, in many ways, the deepest musically. It’s just an incredibly fun, happy piece. The slow movement is incredibly beautiful and has lots of lovely lyrical lines. But, yeah, Mozart just found this cheese monger guy that could play the horn and he wrote some pieces and that’s what it is. It’s not incredibly deep, serious music, but it’s incredibly beautiful and very much the essence of Mozart’s writing.

BL: Mozart seemed to always know what worked for a specific instrument. He obviously didn’t play the French horn, but does it sit nicely? Does it fit well?

Andrew Bain: Yeah, absolutely. It’s written in the key of E-flat [major], which always at the first rehearsal, at least half a dozen of the violinists will come up and say, “Ugh, E-flat?!” Because E-flat for the strings isn’t the most comfortable key. But for the horn it sits beautifully. In terms of the register, it actually works very well for the instrument. On the modern horn, it works very well because the fingering combinations actually work very well. On the natural horn, of course, you don’t have to worry about that, but it actually lies very well on the instrument. There are many ways you can play it. As the horn has evolved, the piece seems to for any sort of combination of generation of instruments that we use.

BL: And you use a modern horn?

Andrew Bain: Yeah. A modern double horn with three valves and a thumb valve. Blow in the small end and hope that it works! [laughs]

Photo by Gennia Cui via andrewbainhorn.com

Photo by Gennia Cui via andrewbainhorn.com

BL: Back to the orchestra…who is sitting in the hotter seat? Principal trumpet or principal French horn?

Thomas Hooten: I think it depends on the week. In all honesty, some of the things that Andrew has to do: the delicateness and going between being on top of the horn section and an incredibly loud brass section to literally seconds later blending with the woodwind section in the most delicate transparent [music]. That’s pretty scary. That being said, sometimes the trumpet seat can be just as scary. But, I look at his job and I think you got to have nerves of steel to be able to navigate that. That’s one of the things I really admire about Andrew is that he really goes between those roles in a beautiful way. Not in an ego-driven way, but really what serves the music best. So, I don’t know. I’m not going to say. Except maybe him. [laughs]

Andrew Bain: [laughing] I mean, I wouldn’t want to play the [trumpet solo in the] opening of Mahler 5. That’s some scary stuff.

Thomas Hooten: Especially since you don’t sound good on trumpet.

Andrew Bain: Yeah, I know! And Tom has actually heard me play the beginning of Mahler 5 on the trumpet, so he can categorically state how bad that sounds.

Thomas Hooten: Was that on a horn mouthpiece or was that a trumpet mouthpiece? I can’t remember.

Andrew Bain: It was actually a trumpet mouthpiece, but the thing is, I actually played it on a rotary trumpet, but it sounded like a piston trumpet. [laughs] I have a unique gift when it comes to trumpet playing. … It’s so difficult to compare [the principal horn and principal trumpet seats]. I mean, I like my job because of the flexibility and because I get to play a lot of the stuff with the winds and with the brass and with the strings. And it’s good fun to be adjusting to whatever’s going on in the orchestra. But I certainly think, there are moments when the trumpet is sitting on top of the orchestra and if things don’t sound how they’re supposed to sound, 2,300 people are going to find out about it. [laughs] And that, in itself, is exciting as well. This is where I think you need a special character and a special personality to be a principal trumpet player. You need to want to have that moment. We’re very fortunate that we have Tom because he loves that role and it really suits him and he sounds fantastic. So, they’re different roles and they’ve got their different scary and rewarding parts and I think you could probably say that about several other positions in the orchestra too.

The KUSC Classical Top 100 Analyzed

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Well, the KUSC Classical Top 100 has been fully revealed and with it, some predictable results…and more than a few surprises as well.

To recap, we asked KUSC listeners to vote on their favorite pieces of classical music and then we counted down the top 100 vote-getters on the air. You can view the entire list here. Before I get to what surprised me the most about the results, here are a few things that did not shock me at all. Continue reading