BACK TALK

Best Sellers

August 23 2004
BACK TALK

Best Sellers

August 23 2004

DISCOVERING THE CLASSICS

All those composers. All those tunes. There’s nothing to do but dive in.

The Back Page

PAUL WELLS

AS NEAR AS I can recall, it started just before Christmas.

I hauled a recording of Pinchas Zukerman playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto from my CD collection and put it on the stereo. Now, my CD collection is really big, like maybe a couple of thousand CDs big. But it’s overwhelmingly jazz. You want to hear some Miles Davis or Duke Ellington? Come on over. I can set you up. But if you like pop music, there’s only a couple of shelves’ worth. You can get pop music for free off the TV and

radio. Collecting it made about as much sense to me as storing tap water.

As for classical music, I had maybe 30 CDs. Which for me is nothing. At least that’s how it stood in December. But when Zukerman plays Beethoven’s fiddle concerto, he sounds really good. It’s the only concerto Beethoven wrote for violin. The first movement is seriously long, over 20 minutes. There’s not a lot of virtuoso showing off, which in a way means there’s nowhere for the soloist to hide. He just has to stand there and be musical.

After a while I thought, why not interview Zukerman about the Beethoven concerto and write a column about that? Nice change of pace. It wouldn’t be another column badmouthing Paul Martin. Those are getting boring. Zukerman lives here in Ottawa—he’s the music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra—and I would feel bad if he left town someday and I hadn’t used my job as an excuse to pick his brains.

So then I’m imagining myself interviewing Zukerman, and he says something like, “Well, you know Beethoven wrote the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Piano Concerto at about the same time”—and he lifts an eyebrow and looks at me like, you know what I’m saying, don’t you? Except if he ever did ask me that, I wouldn’t have a clue.

Better do some research.

So this is the story about how I became a classical music fan. Lately a bit of an obsessive, if you must know. I’ve always known a bit, of course. Two great high-school music teachers, Mr. Milligan and Mr. Timmermans,

taught me a lot. I dated a singer who got me into the habit of attending symphony concerts when everyone else was at the ball game or at home on the sofa. The secret to attending a concert, I learned, is to not treat it as a big deal. It’s not a wedding. Nobody’s getting sworn into cabinet. It’s just another night out, and the payoff for not letting yourself get intimidated is that the music can be just heart-stoppingly beautiful.

But classical music is so big. Part of the challenge is simply finding a way into it. All those composers. All those tunes, most of them longer than sin, most with numbers for titles. It’s like doing your taxes.

In the end there was nothing to do but dive in. I had Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, so I checked out his concertos for piano. There are five. The fifth one I knew, so I started listening to records of the other four by a French pianist named Pierre-Laurent Aimard who usually only plays 20th-century stuff. He plays like he’s discovering

the music for the first time. Since I was too, we got along fine.

I dusted off Beethoven’s symphonies. Then Mozart’s and some of Haydn’s (he wrote a lot of symphonies) and Schumann’s. Now that I knew something about how Beethoven did “big,” I checked out some “small:” his string quartets. Soon I fell in love with the Emerson String Quartet playing the slow middle movement of the Opus 132 Quartet. Trust me on this one. Emerson’s. Opus 132.

From Beethoven, it’s a short leap to other composers’ violin concertos. Brahms is good, the harmonies spicier than Beethoven, the scale even grander. Bach is great, especially the E-major concerto with its rondo finale. All “rondo” means is that Bach keeps coming back and back to the same bit of melody.

When you get into this music you join a club of people who love it too and worry that the world might be losing it. They’re really excited about spreading the word. On my weblog I wrote nice things about some Schumann pieces for solo piano. Readers emailed me, telling me to check out Sviatoslav Richter’s recording of the same pieces. So I did. They were right. Richter is a whole other ball game.

For the first time ever, I’ve subscribed to a season at the symphony. The NAC’s orchestra is handy to have around when you’re new to the game because Zukerman loves the standard repertoire. In six concerts, I’ll hear two Beethoven symphonies; two Haydn symphonies; two Mozart piano concertos; some Schubert; and the Prokofiev violin concerto, played by a young Russian named Ilya Gringolts. I bought his CD to prepare. You would not believe how beautifully this kid plays the fiddle.

I still haven’t had my lunch with Zukerman yet. But when I do I’ll be ready. Well, readier. ITU

To comment: backpage@macleans.ca Read Paul Wells’s Weblog, “Inkless Wells,” at www.macleans.ca/paulwells