Music News

Love, Classical Style

The Phoenix Symphony's Finova Classics concert on January 8 was titled "Love Duets." Keith Lockhart, famous as the Boston Pops Orchestra's conductor, led the PSO in a program that included love duets from opera and ballet, as well as purely orchestral music. The opera portions were sung by a Canadian husband-and-wife team of tenor Benoit Boutet and soprano Kathleen Brett, while dancers from Ballet Arizona performed to ballet and non-ballet music. The theme, loosely tying together all the disparate selections, was love.

Welcome to the marketing of classical music in the 1990s. Some 700 years' worth of music--the great majority of all the music ever written--falls under the rubric of "classical." Now it's just another niche in the wild-and-crazy music market, and a relatively small one at that. If you wanted to bemoan the decline of civilization, it would be easy to compare the public's worship of Beethoven two centuries ago to the current Spice Girls vogue. But it would also be snobbish and simplistic.

Music, like any other art form, requires new ideas and works to energize it. Playing Mozart and Beethoven allows you to understand their greatness, but culture isn't something to be kept under glass. For better or worse, classical recordings compete with reggae and country CDs for shelf space, and they're all subject to the same laws of the marketplace.

As a result, record labels feel a need to market classical music for today's record buyers and concertgoers, who are often unfamiliar with classical music. For people who don't call themselves experts and want to learn more about classical music, CDs featuring collections of familiar tunes are starting points. They offer exposure to a variety of composers, and they help you identify classical pieces on hearing, so you can keep up with the snobs. And, as Stefan Dollak of Borders Books & Music says, "When [record labels] market things like this, it's like bait. They're hoping the customer will hear something they like and then go out and buy a recording of the whole piece."

A theme ties a CD's tracks together and distinguishes the recording from the others on the shelves. Love is a perfectly good theme, having inspired a wealth of music, classical and otherwise. Of course, it can have a number of variations: disappointed love, fatal love, love turned to hatred, obsessive love, and so on. But most classical-music collections based on love are perfectly content to take the hearts-and-flowers approach.

It's to PSO and Maestro Lockhart's credit that their concert didn't. The evening started out rather conventionally, with the singers essaying duets from Mozart's Idomeneo and Cosi fan Tutte, paying no heed to the latter number's darker dramatic context (the incognito tenor is testing the fidelity of his friend's wife, who, along with his own wife, is failing said test). There followed a rather overly tasteful pas de deux from Theo Adam's Giselle, danced by Lisa Gillespie and Qisheng Zhang. The concert took flight, though, with a turbulent duet from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, finding both singers in impressive dramatic form, in contrast with their otherwise lyrical music. It was especially good for Boutet, whose tenor was patchy early in the program but improved as the evening went on, while Brett remained consistently in good voice throughout. Then came a soaring balletic interpretation of the balcony scene in Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, with dancers Gia Firicano and Andrew Needhammer in pleasing romantic splendor.

Relieved of the need to accompany the singers, the orchestra and Maestro Lockhart proudly displayed their talents, investing the Prokofiev with an unexpected radiant glow. They then rendered Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances" from West Side Story with great dramatic timing and a fine flourish from the percussion, though it could have used some more grit and lustier shouts of "Mambo!" from the players. The concert took a welcome comic turn with a dance number choreographed by Michael Uthoff to Rossini's William Tell Overture. The knockabout boy-girl meeting performed by Cynthia Leigh Lewis and Sergei Perkovskii was the evening's highlight, though what it had to do with William Tell was anyone's guess. Having been adventurous enough to break up the parade of blissful lovers we might well have gotten, the concert then reverted to form by ending on the Brindisi from Verdi's La Traviata, an encore of which allowed the dancers to emerge for a well-deserved curtain call.

Love may have dominated the PSO concert, but when it comes to classical-recording sales, it is only one of many gimmicks that labels use. Dollak says, "A lot of [theme-related marketing] is a by-product of the recent slump in classical sales." Nowadays, record companies constantly look for new ways to repackage the recordings they have in the vault. You can find CDs built on pre-stereo recordings, satanic classical music, classical music from hit movies. Then there's the most successful current trend, relaxational CDs that use mostly slow movements from symphonies and concertos. Doug May of Tower Records sums it all up this way: "Since there's so many theme-related CDs, [listeners] know the sort of mood they like."

Look through any decently stocked record store's classical section and you'll find CDs devoted to love. Most of these anthologies concentrate on opera, since the singers' voices render the lovers' presence palpable--no need to try to conjure up ballet dancers in your head.

Some combine love and relaxation, like Vivaldi for Valentines. A new trend has seen classical-album covers move from gauzy pictures of starry-eyed lovers to more blatantly sexy fare.

We're not just talking about musicians who have posed for sexually suggestive cover art (like violinist Lara St. John, soprano Lesley Garrett and pianist Tzimon Barto). There's Sensual Classics and Sensual Classics II, which feature black-and-white cover photos of scantily clad men and women torridly embracing. Sensual Classics II, by the way, is not to be confused with Sensual Classics Too, which is part of the same series but instead has two men on the cover in a similar embrace. This is post-Ellen America, and May confirms that aside from "crossover" CDs aimed at pop-music listeners, "the biggest trend is CDs targeting gay audiences." They often feature the works of great composers who were homosexual themselves, but they can also include operatic selections that appeal to gay listeners. Which music attracts a gay audience and why is open to question. The reasons often have nothing to do with sex, yet the CDs give the same implicit message: Regardless of your sexuality, classical music can help you get it on.

The trend toward theme-related CDs and pops concerts represents an easy-listening format for audiences, but once you become acquainted with the great works of Western music, sound bites heard out of context lose their appeal. Dollak says it best: "I think the more satisfying experience is to hear the whole piece."

But although listening to classical music can inspire you to great spiritual heights, it shouldn't be like attending church. Classical listeners who disparage pop music often forget that much of classical music was pop music in its time. Haydn and Mozart wrote their symphonies for aristocrats who wanted something to listen to after dinner to help them and their guests digest the meal. Liszt wrote his superhumanly difficult piano pieces so people could gawk at his ability to play them. Italian opera was an authentically popular entertainment written for a mass audience.

Most of the time, we listen to music because it's pleasurable, and if Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture or "O soave fanciulla" from Puccini's La Boheme puts you and your loved one in the mood, there's no breach of taste going on. As arts education grows increasingly scarce in public schools, any means of introducing people to classical music becomes more essential. If nothing else, pops concerts are a way to tune your ear and make the world of classical music less intimidating. And even if you haven't learned much about music, if it helps you spend quality time with your loved one, that's just as valuable.

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Kristian Lin