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Love Classical Music? Anthony Tommasini Recommends Contemporary Composers

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Gilbert asks: I have to say when I hear you describe these performances I miss the size of a concert hall as much as I miss the size of a movie screen. Part of experiencing art outside of my home is the potential to be overwhelmed, and as many speakers I have or as big as my TV, it obviously doesn’t feel that way. I’ve only really started watching live classical music in the last three or four years. You have been doing this for much longer and I have to imagine that the longing is deeper.

You recently wrote a wonderful piece, Notes Toward Reinventing the American Orchestra, which is full of clever suggestions on how classical music organizations could change after the pandemic. What don’t you want to change

Tony replies: Ah, what I don’t want to change about classical music, which in my opinion will never change, is the pure sensual pleasure, even ecstasy, in the sound of a large orchestra, a fine string quartet, a radiant soprano. And to experience that you have to experience this art form live.

As a child I got to know countless pieces through recordings. And during the pandemic, it often feels like we just have recordings. When I was growing up, I was enthusiastic about the pianist Rudolf Serkin and the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein in the Carnegie Hall in Beethoven’s mighty “Emperor” concert. and as a young teenager having a standing ticket to hear the famous soprano Renata Tebaldi in her voluptuous voice as Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” at the Metropolitan Opera; or a little later, when I hear Leontyne Price’s soft, sustained high notes rise up in “Aida” and surround me on a balcony seat in the Met. I only vaguely knew what these operas were about. I didn’t care.

And what I say also applies to more intimate music. Only when you hear a great string quartet performing works by Haydn, Shostakovich or Bartok in a hall with only a few hundred seats do you really understand what makes “chamber music” so overwhelming. But hearing a symphony by Mozart or Messiaen in a lively, inviting concert hall makes a big difference.

Gilbert asks: You’ve proven this to me several times over the past three years – I think about the time it took you to listen to “The Rite of Spring” at Carnegie Hall and I walked out amazed. (I know, such a newbie.) Or when my eyes flashed at the end of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville Summer 1915” at David Geffen Hall. I just don’t think I would have had the same feelings if I’d heard these pieces at home.

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Robert Dunfee