Our Favorites


Andy Warhol pictures at a Tate Modern exhibition, 2011

I was recently asked to name and describe my favorite classical works. It was a difficult question to try to answer. There are works that I certainly enjoy studying or hearing over and over again, but I don't think they are necessarily better than others. 
 
In classical music there are hundreds of pieces available to performers. There are the usual warhorses in the repertoire, the Beethoven Symphonies or the Chopin Nocturnes. There also many lesser known gems. Take for example, the Handel Keyboard Suites (notable pieces in their own right which are often superseded by those of Bach, another Baroque composer).  
 
When I think of my favorite works, I also have to think about their memorability.  What  impact have these made on me as a student and performer of music, or as a human being? Ever so often these favorites are so because they are tied to endearing experiences. 
 
I was about seven years-old when I first heard Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. I had come into a CD store (compact discs had just come out) and unassumingly picked up my very first classical recording. I didn't know anything about the piece or the composer, but I was drawn to the picture on the cover: a mysterious, yet inviting gate. I was hooked, and then I listened.

It was easy to imagine pictures to the music. Pictures at an Exhibition was the only piece of music I listened to for months (I played the CD on a shiny Magnavox boombox I had gotten for my birthday that year).  I was continually drawn to the music's primal beauty; the shimmering sounds, the ominous sounds, the consonant and dissonant sounds. It wasn't until much later that I learned that Mussorgsky had composed the piece inspired by a series of watercolors and drawings from the memorial exhibition of a dear friend, that the movements or musical events depict an imaginary gallery tour, or that it was the French composer Maurice Ravel who had orchestrated his original piano version. 

I have to believe that a work of art is as powerful as its ability to give us reasons to come back to it, and if it pushes us to pause to think about and reflect on what it could mean in the context of our own lives. I often come back to the Mussorgsky. I play it on the piano, conduct it, and listen to many of my colleagues’ interpretations. Coming back to it also means connecting with unencumbered emotions if you will, fishing a memory or two from those first listening experiences. 
 
In music many of us have our favorites, and mine might be different from yours, because each of our experiences will be unique when living with them. And that is what makes art a crucial instrument to recognize that everyone, regardless of position or creed, is entitled to an opinion. Classical music, as complex as it may sound to be, is that simple, it is that democratic. It is an experience to be had, and it is within everyone's reach. 

For your enjoyment: "The Great Gate of Kiev" from Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) / Valery Gergiev, conductor · Berliner Philharmoniker / Recorded at the Berlin Philharmonie, 22 December 2010

Leave a comment

    Add comment