By Tim Munro
The world of classical music is rich and varied. Scanning across the centuries,
we can cry at a Schumann song, be hooked by a Monteverdi opera, or find
ourselves slapped in the face by a Stravinsky ballet. But all that richness and
variety can be intimidating for a first-timer. Where to even begin?
The musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra were asked to name
the five minutes of music they would play to a classical music newbie. Their
answers ran the gamut, from intense drama to quiet beauty.
Erik Harris, Principal Double Bass
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Movement 4: “March to the Scaffold”
Orchestre de Paris/Daniel Barenboim
“I would encourage first time listeners to read the program notes on this one. It’s a real ‘feel good’ story. [The music depicts, according to Berlioz, ‘the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution.’] Every time I play it (or hear it) I feel like my heart is going to burst out of my chest. It’s hi-octane classical music, and I suggest cranking this up to 11 when listening.”
Thomas Jöstlein, Associate Principal Horn
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs, “September”
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano. Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Ackermann
“For me as a horn player, and as a lover of composer Richard Strauss, art song, lyricism, and of German poetry, one of the greatest five minutes of classical music is his “September” from the Four Last Songs (from 1946, surely influenced heavily by the war).
“The song shows the transformation of the world from summer into autumn, as the text and music vividly paint, with words by Hesse:
Summer smiles, amazed and exhausted
on the dying dream that was this garden.
Long by the roses still it waits, yearns
Slowly closes its great weary eyes.
“There are countless great performances, but two that stay with me are those by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf with the Philharmonia, with a sublime use of color and wistfulness by legendary hornist Denns Brain, and by Renée Fleming with the Philharmonia Orchestra.”
Felicia Foland, Bassoon
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major. Movement 2,
Alicia De Larrocha, piano. St. Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
“Ravel’s music can evoke magical realms in nature. The slow movement to his G Major Piano Concerto is an example. Starting with a simple ostinato rhythm (think Bolero), it unfolds, blossoms, catches the wind, and floats away with a simple farewell at its end. If a painting could be a piece of music, it would be this treasure.
“The late Maestra De Larrocha plays this ravishing score without any imposed sentimental or romantic veneer. Her offering allows the listener to have their own experience by letting Ravel speak to you directly. The orchestra isn’t bad either!”
Kevin McBeth, Director of the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto. Movement 1
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano. Rotterdam Philharmonic/Valery Gergiev
“One of my favorites is the first movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto. The dramatic opening with the full orchestra chord and the dazzling piano part is thrilling every time!”
Diana Haskell, Clarinet
W.A. Mozart: Clarinet Concerto, Movement 2
Robert Marcellus, clarinet. Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
“Mozart’s love for the clarinet is shown very clearly in this whole concerto, but the second movement is truly one of the great moments in classical music. Sit back and listen to the excruciatingly tender clarinet melodies soar seemingly unimpeded by time, as the strings quietly move the music forward with a continuous pulse. Several great recordings are available, but the gold standard is Robert Marcellus with the Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell conducting.”
Amy Kaiser, Director of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Sergei Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky, “Alexander’s Entry into Pskov”
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Leonard Slatkin
“The final movement of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky sounds like movie music, and it is! [Prokofiev originally wrote the work a 1938 film directed by Sergei Eisenstein.] Bigger than the big screen, it’s filled with noble songs of triumph, joyful dancing, and the miraculous realization of peace. Just when you think it’s ‘over the top’, it gets even more brilliant at the end: music in full technicolor.”