classical music is stuffy? pshaw! classical recs for fans of pop/rock/electro/…

In my experience, people tend to think of classical music as one huge, static genre. Far from it– there is some classical music I love to death, others, meh, not so much. In a lot of ways, classical music can be very similar to the popular music that most people listen to nowadays, but it can be hard to find that particular classical music you click with.

Thus, in alphabetical order, I have listed popular genres and based on the genre, underneath I wrote some suggestions of classical music for you to listen to. Of course, being a pianist, this will be a little heavy on the piano side. If you have any suggestions for me or would like me to add a category, please let me know!

In popular music, country is a genre which can encompass many idomatic sounds of the American region– but true country has a deep soul; nonetheless, it also has levity and is loose and free. Personally, I am in a mature stage of loving American composers, so this corresponding genre of classical music is very dear to my heart. Though to European ears, the American sound may be uncouth and very loud and brassy, but it is so adorable and kitschy it is hard to fight back a smile.
(1) An American in Paris, George Gershwin. A perfect summer piece to dip your toes in.
(2) Rodeo: Hoe Down, Aaron Copland. This. This piece is amazing live. If you ever get a chance to see the Philadelphia Orchestra play this, you must go. In fact, if the Philadelphia Orchestra is playing anything remotely American, just go. They are the best orchestra in the US where American music is concerned.
(3) Piano Concerto in G major, Maurice Ravel. An impressionistic composer, Michelle? Really? Yes. This piece was heavily influenced by jazz, and its presence in this concerto is whimsical and floating and altogether very beautiful.
(4) ‘American’ String Quartet, Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak composing in a field in Iowa. Best idea ever. Also one of the pieces the Emerson String Quartet played when I saw them.
(5) Excursions Suite: no 1, Samuel Barber. Every piece in the suite hearkens to some American idiom. When I listen to the first piece, I think of trains. What do you think?

Dance / Electronic
Unless you get into the really hairy avant-garde in classical music, classical music does not use much electronic elements. However, I am interpreting this genre as ‘upbeat’. Some upbeat pieces you could (theoretically) dance to.
(1) Caprice no. 24 in A minor, op. 1/24, Niccolo Paganini. Probably the most well-known piece in virtuoso violin repertoire.
(2) Concerto for Two Cellos in G minor, RV 531, Vivaldi. Love at first listen.
(3) Moonlight Sonata, Ludwig Beethoven. The third movement is definitely a head-bopping moment.

Easy Listening / New Age
A great genre for some relaxation and contemplation.
(1) Adagio for Strings (choral version), Samuel Barber. One of the seminal pieces of the twentieth century; even DJ Tiesto made a remix.
(2) Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I and II, Johann Sebastian BachGlenn Gould is the go-to pianist for Bach. His interpretations are fantastic to listen to (however, once you start playing Bach, you realize sometimes Gould is a bit crazy at times). Bach is amongst the most cerebral composers I know, and it is a pleasure to play his works, if only to get a mental workout. I also like Maurizio Pollini‘s interpretations.
(3) Dolly Suite, Gabriel Faure. A cute and light set of piano duets (four hands, one piano).

Constantly listening to sad ballads? Want to cry your tears out?
(1) any Frederic Chopin– some choices: Nocturne op. 9 no. 2, Piano Sonata no. 2, Fantasie-Impromptu op. Posthumous, Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. Chopin is mindbogglingly beautiful, but many times, I cannot handle the level of emo and would rather hack away at something aggressive. However, if you are super emo, do some soul-searching in Chopin.
(2) Pour le piano: Prelude, Claude Debussy. I’ve played this before in eighth grade. Why? Because it was emo.
(3) String Quartet in G minor, op. 27, Edvard Grieg. The first movement, Un Poco Andante, Allegro Molto Ed Agitatomight be a little more hardcore emo than you bargained for, but you cannot deny the entrance as one of emo anguish. If you like heavy metal, definitely grab onto this.

Epic / Soundtrack
I love listening to the Transformers OST and the Bourne trilogy OST, and sometimes having epic music on hand while racing through bus terminals is quite fun (I have no life).
(1) Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, op. 18, Sergei Rachmaninoff. Certainly one of the most recognized openings of all piano concertos.
(2) Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16, Edvard Grieg. Play me that beginning chord anywhere and I can recognize it immediately. This piece is iconic– it was even featured in a Li Yundi Nike commercial!
(3) Transcendental Etude, no. 4, Franz Liszt. Not ashamed to say, I first heard this in Nodame Cantabile. I also discovered that Boris Berezovsky sweats a lot (watch the video).. unsavory..
(4) Cello Concerto, op. 22, Samuel Barber. The beginning, gargle. The cello cadenza, gargle. For this concerto, my bias is Paul Tobias.

Hip Hop / R&B
This is a genre that I listen to infrequently, but nonetheless, a genre with lots of soul. And lots of bass.
(1) Julie-O (special beatbox arrangement), Mark Summers. The original is amazing, as well– as it is played by the composer himself.
(2) Libertango, Astor Piazzolla. If Yo-Yo Ma is playing it, it is automatically gold. No questions asked.
(3) Romeo and Juliet: Dance of the Knights, Sergei Prokofiev. Yes, this definitely has a lot of bass; could fit in the emo section as well.

Basically, the genre for us snobs who like saying, “I listened to them before they became popular.”
(1) Paganini Variations for two pianos, Witold Lutoslawski. Yes, I blather a lot about this piece. But still– people still do not appreciate it enough. It is also rather avant-garde, so you can brag about that too, hipsters.
(2) Tzigane, Maurice Ravel. Everyone who plays an instrument classically has a phase of liking impressionistic composers like Ravel and Debussy. I was in the phase in high school, but now I have thankfully gotten over that. Even those who profess to love Ravel oftentimes have neglected this amazing virtuoso violin piece.
(3) Simple Symphony, op. 4, Benjamin Britten. A twentieth-century composer who does not get enough love at all, even in the classical music lovers’ circles. I would have a listen to his cello concerto as well.

Catchy, catchy, catchy. Hook, hook, hook. Infectious and fun.
(1) ‘Trout’ Piano Quintet in A major, Franz Schubert. Another piece I heard at the Emerson String Quartet concert— the most well-known chamber piece. In China, one of my roommates’ ringtone was this annoying MIDI version of Trout, so boy, was I glad to stop listening to it after I moved out.
(2) Bolero, Maurice Ravel. Yes, this is used in the opening of SNSD’s Paparazzi music video (you can guess a certain someone was frowning). However, Ravel’s Bolero on its own is indescribably beautiful, though it is the same thing over and over again. Pity, Super Junior’s artistic directors should try learning from this piece.
(3) The New World Symphony, Antonin Dvorak. The last movement could go under “Epic / Soundtrack” very well, but overall, it is an amazing piece of music, filled with memorable melodies. If you have a chance, listen to the four-hands one-piano version arranged and played by Duo Crommelynck.

Rock / Heavy Metal
For those of who love a good head-banging with strong rhythms. Bitches love Shostakovich! Heh.
(1) String Quartet no. 8 in C minor, op. 110, Dmitri Shostakovich. The allegro molto (second movement) is an absolute thriller. You can never go wrong with the Emerson String Quartet.
(2) Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 67, Dmitri Shostakovich. This trio’s melody was actually based on the previous string quartet’s melody. However, this arrangement is so amazing that it deserves to be mentioned. The allegretto (fourth movement) starts off ‘slow’, but once you reach the climax, grip the seat because you probably will not survive.
(3) Cello Sonata, op. 8, Zoltan Kodaly. I recently got into cello, but I really must listen to more Kodaly. His name is so fun not to.
(4) Firebird Suite, Sergei Prokofiev. The first time I heard this was in sixth grade– our teacher had chosen a snippet of it to be played in our band concert– and I fell in love immediately. Plus, there is this awesome Disney Fantasia movie to go along with it. Fetch me some tissues.


[piano] Leif Ove Andsnes and the self-consciousness of movement

On Saturday, 14 January 2012, I had the great opportunity of seeing Leif Ove Andsnes play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Here is my flimsy attempt at a mini-review: it was pretty good. Not mindblowing; sometimes I thought the orchestra and piano were not well-balanced with the orchestra being a shade too loud. Nonetheless, Mr. Andsnes had wonderful and clearly articulated lines which is especially needed for early Beethoven.

After briefly thinking this, I then became very fixated on his body movements while playing the piano. I saw a lot of what I do in his playing– the gentle and graceful, almost affected, lift of the hands at the end of a delicate passage; the epileptic moment when a large ending chord is played; the hand conducting to yourself when it is free; the downward movement of the neck at downbeats, and many more.

If you would like, watch the following video (Grieg’s Piano Concerto) to acquire a general idea of how Mr. Andsnes moves:

Why do pianists, or musicians in general, beyond the general motor requirements, move while playing?

“Several features may interact in the musician’s body movements – the motoric elements of the physical execution of any piece of music, plus physical manifestations of affective states, and intentional changes to the music for particular musical effects. As well as conscious changes to mood and the music, unconscious states may also become apparent though the performer’s movements.”

The article states that movement is caused by physically playing the music, the feeling which the musician is trying to achieve, intentional decisions on how to move, and personal feelings at that time. The author makes a separation between the unconscious and conscious movements.

Mostly, pianists discourage conscious movement, but the argument for intentionally movement goes thus:

“…the idea that the performer can add a level of movement to the performance that is not of direct necessity to the production of the musical whole, but assists the perceiver’s understanding of the performance. In other words, there may be a ‘surface’ level of movement that can be explicitly taught, but is not intrinsic to the intention of the performance, although there will clearly be a congruence between the surface and intrinsic elements as it will be the performer’s explicit intention to use these gestures to make the performance intention clearer.”

Movement may actually enhance the audience’s understanding of the music. It certainly explains why Lang Lang is able to have such a captive audience after all his theatrics. Yet, I would say such theatrics are unnecessary, because for every Lang Lang, there is a statuesque Martha Argerich who get along their points just fine without having to move much. Especially for amateur pianists like me, it is easy to get caught in the movement and being showy instead of playing the piece correctly.

I play with the belief that you should not move more than necessary. Therefore, all of my movements are spontaneous and unconscious. However, ironically, I belong to the camp of ‘excessive movement’. In addition to the moves I mentioned above, I will sometimes look up at the ceiling, to the side, my body will do this circular movement going towards and away from the piano, sometimes I will get extremely close to the keyboard so my face is about horizontal, my hands will stay suspended for long seconds after launch.. the list is endless. Often, I will only realize how silly I may look after I complete the action– play the cadence, a few seconds later: wait, I should put my hands down now!

I am afraid of looking deranged and weird, trying to act like a big-shot concert pianist with a lot of fancy flourishes. Naturally, I talked to my piano instructor about this, and she told me that body movement is fine as long as it does not hinder my playing. She has even coached me on adding body movement, which makes for totally awkward moments because since my movements are largely unconscious, doing them consciously makes me feel, well, self-conscious! At times, my instructor holds my ponytail to keep my neck from moving on downbeats and giving the notes accents. Otherwise, she has largely refrained from talking about my body movement.

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on body movement, as a musician or as a spectator. For example, I cannot stand to look at people who nod their head at every downbeat, and I think one of the great things about an orchestra is that you can watch all of the bassists playing at the same time. Do you feel musicians with more movement are more expressive? Do you move around a lot? Is it conscious?