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Saturday, October 12, 2013

For the serious music aficionado

In September this little blog celebrated its seven year anniversary. Little did I know in Sept. of 2006 that this would turn into a source of information for an audience I didn't even know existed then.

The whole thing was an experiment of sorts. I just sat down and began to write. I didn't even know if anybody would read it, and in fact I believed that if anyone did read it, that number would be very, very few.

I was right. I think that for the first six months I averaged 10 readers per day. Things began to change after that, and now I have a nice little group of faithful readers. I want you to know that you are deeply appreciated and valued for stopping by here day after day to avail yourselves of my navel gazing. I consider many of you to be friends.

One of the things I have enjoyed about this blog is that it has been more than just a political blog. True, I write mainly about politics, and one of my favorite subjects, gun rights and liberty. But the original "mission" or objective was to write about the modern culture as well. I have written about religion, singers, philosophy, history, movies, and most everything else that effects the modern American culture.

Music has been one of those subjects.

Most of you know by now that I cut my musical teeth on Southern Gospel Quartet Music. I love the harmony that is produced when four men who know what they are doing blend their voices in tight-knit harmony. I have written extensively here and over at the ministry site about this music and its impact on my life.

I like lots of different types of music -- jazz, pop, rock, blues, easy listening, bluegrass, and country. But I also love what is known as "classical" music.

I am convinced that the changing culture in America is missing something significant and life-altering by ignoring the great classics as played by the great orchestras, violinists, pianists, trumpeters, bassoonists, etc.

John F. Kennedy stated, "Above all, we are coming to understand that the arts incarnate the creativity of a free people. When the creative impulse cannot flourish, when it cannot freely select its methods and objects, when it is deprived of spontaneity, then society severs the root of art."

Creativity is at the heart of the artistic endeavor. And some artists have been able, almost miraculously so, to unleash their creativity to a degree that the ages have pointed to their work and proclaimed it exceptional.

Who can look at Michelangelo's breathtaking work at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican and not come away from it overwhelmed, knowing that one has been in the presence of sheer greatness and genius?

Who can listen to one of Beethoven's symphonies and not experience the very same thing?

Such creativity reminds us of the fact that God Himself created Man to be free, and when the human spirit is set free and is not shackled by the false and oppressive chains of human slave-masters, Man is free to soar above the clouds. This is of utmost significance that has broad ramifications for all of human life from politics, to education, to business, to architecture and to every other human endeavor.

Unfortunately, this society has somehow decided that these things are unimportant, unnecessary, and peripheral. But let me remind you than in history great civilizations that moved the dial forward toward liberty and greatness in the political and social realm also gave us the greatest music, painting, sculpture, and architecture of the world. The two go hand in hand. When creativity in music and the arts is squelched, other areas of human endeavor are also squelched.

This is why it is important that students in America today learn the arts. They need to know something about Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, as well as da Vinci, van Gogh, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.

A student that can go through 12 years of primary and secondary schooling yet knows nothing of these things is woefully uneducated, no matter what he can do in other fields.

Great music is one of the keys to unlocking the door to the arts. Great music has withstood the test of time over countless generations. Great music has not been discarded but revered. That is why after the passing of the centuries the music of Brahms, Hayden, Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Wagner is still being played and cherished.

So, with these things in mind, today I wish to highlight and celebrate the greatest of the artists who play and have played the greatest music of all time. I offer this not only as opinion but as informed opinion. I have sung and performed many of these pieces myself, and I have conducted some of it as Music Director for various churches. I have studied these things and immersed myself in the work of those who have performed these great works.

I would like to highlight the very best of these performers, not merely to say congratulations for a job well done but to offer a suggestion to those of you who may be new to these things, particularly the young. If you want to get started in listening to the great works of art as described above, why not go to the very best?

First of all, one must start with a good orchestra. The orchestra is key to the overall sound. And in addition, a good orchestra will over a period of time employ the services of the very best instrumentalists in the world as guest performers.

You will note that in some of the categories listed below, I will make only one or two choices rather than a ranking of several. This is due only to the fact that the persons named are unequaled.

I. Best Orchestras in the World in terms of overall quality, balance, sales, volume of work, and overall acclaim.

1. The Philadelphia Orchestra.
This orchestra is the best, hands down, due to the fact that for over 40 years it was considered the world over to be the very best orchestra in existence, particularly under the tenure of conductor Eugene Ormandy. The Orchestra under Ormandy also outsold all other orchestras combined and received three Gold Records as well as other honors. The Philadelphians recorded on the two top record labels in the world at the time -- RCA and Columbia. They traveled extensively and were the first American symphony to be invited to play in the Soviet Union and in China.

The orchestra was known for what came to be called "the Philadelphia Sound," the groundwork of which was laid by Ormandy's predecessor, Leopold Stokowski, and perfected by Ormandy with his heavy emphasis on strings.

In terms of fullness of sound, lush harmonies, and balance, it gets no better than the Philadelphia Orchestra. And, given that Ormandy's tenure was the longest of any conductor on record, they played and recorded the complete works of almost everybody. Columbia Masterworks, under Sony, has remastered and reissued many of these recordings on CD for the new generation to enjoy. A young person would never go wrong in making a purchase of anything played by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

But make sure that when you make such a purchase that either Ormandy or Stokowski is named as the conductor. The years following the Ormandy tenure saw a disintegration of the sound for which the orchestra became known and loved, although my sources in Philly say that the orchestra is now getting its old sound back with its lush, full tones.

2. The Vienna Philharmonic
This venerable orchestra has been a mainstay in Europe for many years, and the quality of the sound has been consistent throughout. Even in the modern era one can count on the Vienna to produce high quality and balanced music that is unsurpassed  by most orchestras. As far as recordings go, CDs may be hard to come by, but YouTube has a library of vids of this wonderful orchestra. There you may be able to find info on where and how to purchase their music on CD.

3. The New York Philharmonic
For several decades the New York Philharmonic was considered by many to be the best orchestra in the world. Although I strongly disagreed with that, no evaluation of great music could possibly be considered seriously without citing the New York Philharmonic. Its most famous conductor, of course, was the great Leonard Bernstein who put his unique mark on everything he touched -- sometimes to the orchestra's benefit, and sometimes to its detriment. But Bernstein was Bernstein, and his contribution to serious music cannot be overstated.

One interesting tidbit about this orchestra was a little experiment I conducted back in the 1970s. I was most familiar with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra's rendition of Handel's Messiah. It is absolutely wonderful. I had never heard the NY Phil. do the piece, but I ran across it in a music store, and I decided to buy it to compare the two.

Bernstein's interpretation of The Hallelujah Chorus was very different from Ormandy's. Bernstein played it slowly, deliberately, and with a great dramatic flare. Ormandy, on the other hand, played it at normal pace, some would say too quickly, and he used woodwinds at places where Bernstein used trumpets. I have to say I enjoyed the N.Y. Phil. rendition, and I could just envision Bernstein conducting the piece with his usual dramatic flare. It was very interesting to see the difference. I still think the Ormandy version is better, but I did enjoy the N.Y. Phil. version as well.

4. The Chicago Symphony
When Eugene Ormandy retired and was given the position of "Conductor Emeritus" in Philly, at the age of 80, he did a gig with the Chicago Symphony that was most remarkable. This great orchestra's star seemed to rise as the sun began to set on Philadelphia and the N.Y. Phil. Today they are considered one of the best in the world.

5. The Pittsburgh Symphony.
Probably the most underrated symphony in the world, the Pittsburgh is simply wonderful. I had the opportunity to hear them in person on one occasion, and I can only say I was pleasantly surprised. They never got the recognition they deserved. They simply played their pieces to perfection and let the chips fall where they may. They had excellent balance, they could do the string thing with great skill, but they could also blast forth with the trumpets with the best of them. It was a great listening experience, definitely worthy of top five standing.

Honorable mention: The Boston Symphony, The London Symphony, The Beijing Symphony, the China National Symphony Orchestra.

Next, we shall evaluate and rank the great conductors. A good conductor is key to the success of an orchestra. I admit I am appalled by the modern practice of orchestras to contract with several different conductors throughout the year. When I was coming along an orchestra hired one main conductor who was responsible for the group, its sound, and its musicians. Today, there is no point person, and thus, all orchestras tend to sound the same. There is no uniqueness of sound that is associated with that orchestra and that orchestra alone.

At one time you could recognize an orchestra by merely listening to it. You could listen to a record and know immediately, by the sound, that it was Ormandy and the Philadelphia or Bernstein and the N.Y. Phil. The conductor shaped and molded the sound of his orchestra according to his own interpretation of the individual piece before him.

Thus, you won't find many modern conductors on my list, if any. Ormandy was the last of a kind when we lost him 1987. And, not surprisingly, sales of classical music began to plummet, and the great orchestras such as Philadelphia lost their recording contracts with the major labels.

Of course, a big part of the plummeting sales is attributed directly to the retirement and subsequent death of Eugene Ormandy. As the top selling conductor of the top selling orchestra in the world, his passing from the scene in itself accounted for a major part of plummeting record sales. But other factors were at play, such as the revolving door of conductors who have no individual, emotional stake in an individual orchestra and city. Ormandy, for example, was heavily involved in the life of Philadelphia, and the fans knew it. Even long after his death, a foundation still exists in his name that gives grants to educational institutions for the specific purpose of teaching and advancing the cause of classical music.

So, here are the top orchestra conductors of all time.

1. Eugene Ormandy.
Ormandy was the only conductor on record to so shape the sound of an orchestra that it was able to rise to the top of the music world, rivaling the best sellers in other musical genres. His three Gold Records prove it.

"The Philadelphia Sound" was his. And he would tell you so. When reporters would ask a question about the Philadelphia Sound, Ormandy would either quip, "C'est moi," or "the Philadelphia Sound! That's ME!!"

And he was right. Some wanted to give the credit for the sound to Ormandy's predecessor, Leopold Stokowski. And indeed, Stokowski laid the foundation for it, but Ormandy expanded it and perfected it.

I admit I loved the man. His story of leaving his homeland of Austria-Hungary due to what he saw happening in Europe, which eventually led to Hitler and WWII, is inspirational. He had received acclaim as a violinist, but he left it all, came to America, and changed his name (his family were Hungarian Jews). He started over here at the bottom of the ladder and worked his way up. It all happened quickly because Ormandy was a certified genius, and it was not long until the movers and shakers in music noticed his gifts and abilities. In no time he was filling in at Philadelphia, took a job as sole conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, and then accepted an offer by Stokowski in Philly to be his assistant. In two short years Stokowski was too ill to continue, and Ormandy was promoted to the sole conductor and music director.

He was an immediate sensation. He conducted his pieces by sheer memory.

I never cease to be very deeply moved when I watch him conduct. His live performances on video of works such as "Scheherazade" by Rimsky Korsakov, Beethoven's 8th Symphony, and others, are full of the depth and breadth of human emotion, all brought forth from the musicians by the maestro's touch. No one, or at least very few, could do that as effectively as Ormandy.

2. Leopold Stokowski
Stokowski was Ormandy's predecessor at Philadelphia, and he essentially put the orchestra on the map as a major symphony. It was Stokowski who developed the full, lush sound for which the Philadelphia became known and which was a mainstay of their music for the next 55 years at least. His recording of The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky is done to perfection.

When Ormandy assumed the reins at Philly he expanded the sound Stokowski had developed. Ormandy, being a violinist, emphasized strings, and he wanted a sound in which the strings were predominate, although he also used the full sound of the trumpets and other brass instruments as well. Even then, the violins and strings equaled the volume of the brass. Ormandy did this by sometimes doubling the size of the string section.

This is not to undercut the significance of Stokowski, however. Stokowski had laid an important foundation which Ormandy later took and ran with.

3. Arturo Toscanini
Toscanini is perhaps best known as one of the early conductors of the New York Philharmonic. He also served as music director of the Metropolitan Opera, and was founding conductor of the NBC Orchestra.

Toscanini was known for his photographic memory who, like Ormandy, conducted his pieces without music, from rote memory. It was also Toscanini who had considerable influence on a very young Eugene Ormandy who, while in his 20s, would study Toscanini and learn the techniques of conducting from him. No doubt Ormandy developed his own unique style, but from Toscanini he learned poise and dignity on the conductor's podium, and, although the two could express and call forth deep emotion to be discovered in music, absent was the dancing around and the antics that came to be associated with Leonard Bernstein and modern conductors.

Toscanini's influence cannot be overemphasized.

4. Leonard Bernstein
His creativity and ultimate passion for what he did makes Bernstein a shoo-in for the top five. While Bernstein was never my cup of tea, I have to include him in the top tier because of his uniqueness and the sound he produced from one of the finest in the world -- the New York Philharmonic.

Bernstein was also interested in education, in exposing the young to the intricacies of classical music. Most students who came along during the 50s and 60s can remember his "Young People's Concerts" which were played by a generation of teachers for their students. Here, Bernstein would explain in detail the musical piece in question, its composer, and the historical context. This alone made him a force in the music world.

5. Herbert von Karajan
Many music teachers and other conductors consider Karajan to be the greatest of all time. While I will argue with that, I definitely think he belongs on the top five. Most closely associated with the Berlin Philharmonic, Karajan was highly popular in Europe, reportedly having sold 200 million records, though that figure is understandably in dispute. I highly doubt that any orchestra sold that many records, not even Philadelphia, which was cited as the top selling orchestra in the world.

Not all were impressed with Karajan, interestingly for the same reasons many dislike Ormandy. His recordings were polished to perfection. He was known for drawing out beautiful sounds from an orchestra, and the common people loved him for it.

It is almost as if the music professors and many conductors believe that if your music is popular and actually sells, then you are automatically excluded. Ormandy is not even mentioned in the top 20 of many lists of the top conductors of all time, which, to me, is an outrage and points to nothing but sheer childish stupidity and professional jealousy.

Ormandy and Karajan actually got the music out to the most people. Isn't that what we want?

III. Top individual musicians

1. Strings
a. Itzhak Perlman -- violin soloist
b. Norman Carol -- concert master, the Philadelphia Orchestra
c. Maya Beisar
d. Alisa Weilerstein

2. Piano
a. Arther Rubinstein
b. Vladimir Horowitz
c. Sergei Rachmaninoff

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