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Love Classical Music? Anthony Tommasini Recommends Contemporary Composers

Gilbert asks: I have to say, hearing you describe those performances makes me miss the grandeur of a concert hall, sort of in the same way I miss the largeness of a movie screen. Part of experiencing art outside my home is the potential to be overwhelmed, and as many speakers as I might have, or as big as my TV might be, it obviously doesn’t feel the same. I’ve only started to go to see live classical music in earnest in the past three or four years. You’ve been doing it for much longer, and I have to imagine the longing is deeper.

You recently wrote a wonderful piece, “Notes Toward Reinventing the American Orchestra,” which is full of smart suggestions for how classical music organizations might change post-pandemic. What don’t you want to change?

Tony answers: Ah, what I don’t want to change in classical music, what will never change, I’m convinced, is the sheer sensual pleasure, ecstasy even, of being immersed in the sound of a great orchestra, a fine string quartet, a radiant soprano. And to experience that you must experience this art form live.

As a kid, I first got to know countless pieces through recordings. And during the pandemic it often feels like recordings are all we have. But growing up, what finally hooked me on classical music was hearing the pianist Rudolf Serkin and the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein at Carnegie Hall in Beethoven’s mighty “Emperor” Concerto; and having a standing-room ticket as a young teenager to hear the celebrated soprano Renata Tebaldi, with her sumptuous voice, as Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” at the Metropolitan Opera; or, a little later, hearing Leontyne Price’s soft, sustained high notes in “Aida” soar upward and surround me in a balcony seat at the Met. I only vaguely knew what these operas were about. I didn’t care.

And what I’m saying goes for more intimate music, too. Only when you hear a terrific string quartet performing works by Haydn, Shostakovich or Bartok in a hall that seats just a few hundred do you really understand what makes “chamber music” so overwhelming. But it makes a huge difference to hear a symphony, whether by Mozart or Messiaen, in a lively, inviting concert hall.

Gilbert asks: You’ve proven this to me several times over the past three years — I’m thinking of the time you took me to hear “The Rite of Spring” at Carnegie Hall and I walked out gobsmacked. (I know, such a rookie.) Or the time I found my eyes welling up at the end of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville, Summer of 1915” at David Geffen Hall. I just don’t think I would have felt those same emotions listening to those pieces at home.

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