Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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Free Live Webcast:  Tchaikovsky’s 5th, Stravinsky, and a New Work by Wynton Marsalis; or, Cossacks, Elephants, and a Hootenanny

On Friday, June 2, 2017 at 10:45AM EDT (GMT -5), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will offer a free live online concert that will include a new work by Wynton Marsalis featuring violinist Nicola BenedettiHere is her official website.  Here’s the program:

Stravinsky: Circus Polka
Wynton Marsalis: Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5.

The circus polka was composed for a ballet choreographed by George Balanchine for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.  It was performed by fifty elephants and fifty ballerinas.  Balanchine said he phoned Stravinsky:1

“I wonder if you’d like to do a little ballet with me,” Balanchine said.
“For whom?”
“For some elephants.”
“How old?” Stravinsky asked.
“Very young,” Balanchine assured him.
There was a pause.  Then Stravinsky said gravely, “All right. If they are very young elephants, I will do it.”2

I have to hear this now.  By the way, the elephant ballet was only performed for a short time, after which it became popular among solely human dancers.

I’m also eager to hear Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto.  From the reviews I’ve read, it is a thoroughly American concerto, with movements titled Rhapsody, Rondo, Blues, and Hootenanny.  Marsalis packs the work to overflowing with musical ideas and notions, and the work you hear on Friday may differ from previous performances—it seems to be a work in evolution.  A documentary has been created, The Making of a Concerto, which you can see at the link.  Here is the trailer.

Rounding out the program is Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, in which Tchaikovsky wrestles with the concept of fate.  And in the finale, the wrestling becomes fierce.  Check out this wild review from 1892, written by William Foster Apthorp, who was no great fan of “modern” music:8

In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian steppes.  The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker.  Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!9

Wow.  Elephants, a hootenanny, and pandemonium.  Don’t miss it!


  2. Krista, Davida. George Balanchine: American Ballet Master. Minneapolis: Lerner Publication, p 72.
  9. Boston Evening Transcript, October 24, 1892 via

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Music History as Entertainment

I recently came across some entertaining and captivating music history series produced by the BBC (and was reminded of a few others from the past).

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music.  Howard Goodall is a composer and a lively presenter (American PBS fans: he wrote the themes for the tv shows Red Dwarf, Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley, and Mr. Bean, as well as film scores, choral music, and musicals).  This six-part series covers music history from prehistory to modern times, with modern examples used in earlier periods to illustrate the timelessness of certain musical techniques.  Unfortunately, the only official venue to see the series is on the BBC site, which offers only clips.  A shorter version was also produced for use in schools.  I have an inquiry in to the BBC to find out if they will be releasing it on DVD, but have not yet received a reply.  The material of the series is also available in book form, available at the usual venues and possibly at your local library (The Story of Music, Howard Goodall, 780.9 G).  Here’s the BBC page with clips.  Sadly, this other BBC clip page doesn’t seem to be working at this time (or perhaps because I am not in the UK).  Here Howard Goodall talks about the making of the series.  One of his inspirations was Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts (more on that later).

Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs is a more commercially accessible series.  The five-part series, instead of covering the panorama of musical history, focuses on key moments in music history:  the invention of notation, opera, equal temperament, the piano, and recording.  This is available on DVD and in book form.  No clips are available on the BBC website.

Goodall is not the first to use video to bring music history to the public.  Leonard Bernstein was a trailblazer here in his production of the Young People’s Concerts series and his Omnibus tv broadcasts.  Both series are available on DVD (and possibly at your library, 780.15L) at the usual venues and at the Leonard Bernstein website.  Here’s a trailer to give you a taste.

A slightly different and equally compelling approach was taken by Wynton Marsalis in his Marsalis on Music series.  This series focuses more on jazz, but also covers fundamental concepts like rhythm and meter.  My favorite title is Tackling the Monster-Practice.  The series has a companion book.  The DVD and book are available at your favorite seller and on his website.  If you’re a Marsalis fan, he has a lot of video clips on his website.   Here’s the trailer for the series.

One more BBC series and I promise I’ll stop, but this is the most musically beautiful of them all, though more narrowly focused.  It is Sacred Music with presenter Simon Russell Beale.  If you get a chance to see this, you’ll be blown away by the music of The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.  Stunning, gorgeous choral music.  In the first series, the first program covers plainchant to Bach, the second Palestrina, the third Tallis and Byrd, and the fourth Bach.  A second series covers Brahms and Bruckner; Fauré and Poulenc; Gorecki and Pärt; and modern UK composers, including James MacMillan. Only the first series is available at present on DVD.  No clips are available on the BBC website for the seriesAn interview with Beale on the second series was published by The Guardian.  Here’s the trailer for the series Sacred Music.

I hope you’ll get a chance to take a look at these series.  You’re sure to enjoy them.