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] how I can tell China is still a developing country

I am rather a weird tourist– the first thing I did when I arrived in Shanghai was to visit bookstores. I have visited quite a few since then and plan to visit more. Another thing I did was visit Jinling East Road, or Shanghai’s “music” street, where in approximately one square kilometer, there are around 100 stores selling instruments, 50 or more selling pianos. In my life, I have not played too many piano brands (alphabetically: Baldwin, Boston, Chickering, Kimball, Mason & Hamlin, Pramberger, Steinway & Sons, Yamaha, Young Chang), so as an amateur pianist, I was excited to have the opportunity to look at other brands.

some of the pianos that I played on Jinling East Rd.

I went into at least twenty of these stores and sampled various pianos. I do not have a great memory, so I just mainly played the beginning two sections of Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations for two pianos, which was my main repertoire piece in the spring. Doing this, I could hear a good range of the piano, from the top of the register to the very bottom. Playing scales, I also fiddled around with the damper pedals– the damper pedal is the ‘seasoning’ and ‘spice’ of piano– while the sostenuto and una corda pedals are important, the damper pedal must be first-rate.

In China, importation of European and American brands are extremely expensive, almost amounting to a 40% tax. Therefore, in Shanghai, top-notch European and American brands (e.g. Fazioli, Steinway & Sons) must be specially ordered and cannot be “tried” in the stores. Therefore, I only could try Chinese brands and a few Japanese brands like Kawai and Yamaha. With the exception of Yamaha (used by most Chinese conservatories), everything else was terrifyingly terrible. One of the important things that a piano should have is a long sustain period– that is, after a key is pressed, the sound should not immediately dissipate but should still be held for a reasonable length of time. Sustain was minimal in the majority of Chinese-made pianos. Second, the responsiveness of these pianos was all together too uniform– for example, if I hit the key faster than usual or if I hit the key slower than usual, the tone still came out relatively the same. (Hint: they are not supposed to sound the same. I like to describe the former more as “angry” and “sharp”, and the latter more as “resonant” and “full.”)

After I finished my examination of the pianos, the most common comment was, “Are you a piano major?” accompanied by looks of awe.

The most prescient salesman said to me, “Where did you learn piano? You don’t play like you came from a Chinese conservatory.”

The most disappointing salesman said, “Stop playing. It’s too loud.”

The first and last comments bothered me a lot.

First, any piano salesperson worth his or her salt knows how to differentiate customers– including how proficient they are in piano. At this time, I had not touched a piano for almost a month and kept missing notes. Plus, I was bound to be missing notes anyway, as I was playing one part of a two-person piece. I became very embarrassed when they asked if I was a 钢琴专业, or a piano major.

Second, any piano salesperson worth his or her salt knows that the most important thing before buying a piano is playing the piano. We are not all filthy rich, so chances are that we will only buy one piano at that window of time. So committing to buying a piano is like saying you will eat only this type of vanilla ice cream for the next forty years (the approximate lifespan of a well-maintained piano). We need time to explore its subtle flavors and find out what it goes well with (I like vanilla ice cream with red velvet cake), before finally settling down with it. Moreover, no two pianos are the same. I can buy two Steinway Model Ds, made in the same year with nearly identical materials, made by the same craftspeople, but they can have fundamentally different touches and sounds. If one is serious about piano, it is foolish to buy a piano without playing it. Therefore, when I was asked to stop playing, internally, I was seething.

These two observations bothered me for the greater part of the night. Perhaps with the exception of the one prescient salesman, the majority of salespersons I encountered had no freaking idea about pianos. At one store, in my limited Chinese, I tried talking to one of the salesmen I encountered, saying that the Pramberger was “harder to press” than what I was accustomed to. He just nodded, having nothing else to say– whereas a piano salesperson in America would then ask me what touch I preferred and usher me to another piano. The Chinese salespeople simply looked on, not quite sure what to do with someone who knew her way around the piano– they were just selling pianos because it was just another business, it was not something they liked, it was not something they knew much about, it was something that they just happened to do.

Between the horrid quality of the Chinese branded pianos and the clueless salespeople, I began to understand where China is in terms of music education for the masses. Yes, there is a very beautiful veneer, very beautiful storefronts, but behind the facade of technicalities, the artistry and dedication is still missing. I respect the business of piano selling, but there is something extra that goes into it, something beyond just the economics.

That night, as the ebbs of irritation from the impolite salesman died down, it hit me– China is still so obviously a developing country. For China, pianos are just another cheap good of dubious quality to be manufactured and hawked, indeed, many of the pianos I saw were unplayable– for they were still shrink-wrapped in plastic. Unconsciously, my mind changed direction, and I thought about the Steinway Model D that I performed on this spring multiple times. I thought of its warmly responsive keys, allowing me to produce the closest possible thing to magic on earth.

China is still so obviously a developing country.

I cannot wait to have a Steinway beneath my fingers again in the United States.