Wed., May 11, 2011:Taking It Apart

Taking something apart to see how it works: the 'aha!' moment


A weekly radio show called St Paul Sunday Morning started it all.

I would lay on the floor in front of the radio in my little Iowa house and listen to Bill McLaughlin discuss classical music with professional musicians. They’d play a tiny fragment of a piece and explain it, sometimes even laughing and joking. Then they’d play the entire piece.

(That’s partly what helped spark the inspiration for this online magazine about Czech classical music, opera, and ballet.)

Last week another inspirational spark lit up the sky where I live.

I was listening to the bassoon section of the Prague Conservatory Symphony Orchestra practice a tricky phrase in Smetana’s Má Vlast. Again and again.

I was amazed.

Even though I’ve listened to the piece several times in my life, this was first time I heard the unusual pattern of notes that the bassoons must play.

Now I know why everybody says Má Vlast is so difficult, even for professional musicians. It’s a towering deck of layers of music — layer upon layer upon layer.

Part of the Conservatory's winds section in rehearsal of Má Vlast

So, thinking of my earlier, satisfying radio listening experience, I asked Aleš Kaňka if any orchestras ever play only little sections of a piece for an audience. “No,” the Prague Conservatory’s deputy director said, “that would be like performing Hamlet with only three actors.”

A good analogy, but I respectfully disagree. It should be possible — fun, even. Remember the very first Shakespeare play you read (probably in lower secondary school)? It wasn’t the entire work, without a glossary, without footnotes, without an introduction of the cast of characters.

It was probably a very stripped-down version. You probably learned about the setting, historical era, and terminology before you even started reading the play. You may not have read it in English — and definitely not in the original Elizabethan English.

So why don’t we do the same for classical music?

I asked conductor Jiří Bělohlavek about it. He’s the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor for the Conservatory Orchestra’s performance tomorrow of Má Vlast at the Prague Spring International Music Festival.

The parts, whole

“Some orchestras do that,” he told me. The Prague Symphony Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic have special concerts for young people; parts of a piece are analyzed and played for the audience, followed by the entire piece, he said.

That’s great! But why is it limited to special concerts, or concerts aimed just at young people?

Why can’t a musical appetizer — even just a 15 minute nibble — be an automatic ‘warm-up’ for every orchestra and audience, before every concert? More people might come to performances, more regularly. It could even be a kind of supportive social gathering for people ‘afraid’ of classical music.

And they might even get to the concert hall early.

– Mary Matz, editor

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

One Comment

  1. Lynne DeMichele
    Posted May 12, 2011 at 12:41 am

    oyezz! I agree! Enjoying a work of art/music as a whole is the ultimate, however, it would be a treat to have one special section analyzed so as to appreciate it more — minutely.

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