These dog days of summer, when concert halls are terribly quiet around here, are a perfect time for classical music fans to do a little homework that will pay off in the new season.
Folks who have never heard, say, Leonard Bernstein's "Kaddish" Symphony, or any other off-the-beaten-path works scheduled in the months ahead can get a lot more out of those experiences with some preparation now.
Let's face it: Audiences don't spend much time diligently reading their program books before a performance starts. They're more likely to schmooze in the lobby or the aisles of the theater until the last possible minute. (No wonder that, just as the lights are dimming, you often overhear someone say, "So what are we hearing tonight, anyway?")
Better to spend a few leisurely hours in advance getting ready for music that is new to you. In most cases, it is not difficult to track down a recording and some reading material about the piece and the composer. This way, you'll arrive at the performance fully alert — and entitled to look ever so smug.
As for music you may already feel very familiar with — things like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and any number of the other standard items on the 2012-2013 calendar — the off-season is a great time to pick a well-worn piece and check out some of the many different ways of interpreting it.
This exercise in comparative listening can heighten the senses considerably. Then, when the live performance comes along, you'll be reacting more keenly not just to the notes, but to how the musicians are shaping them.
In our terribly advanced age, all of this homework couldn't be easier to do. You don't have to spend a penny buying CDs if you don't want to (sorry, An die Musik and any other record retailers still holding on out there), or run to a library. You don't have to purchase downloads.
All you need is a computer. Thanks to the apparently bottomless wonder called YouTube, almost anything is available at no cost, with just the click of a mouse (and some patience).
So there's no reason not to create your own music appreciation class, where the graduation present is a much more involving experience during the concert season.
Take a closer look at all the brochures that have been lying around the house, or go to the websites of your favorite music organizations. Pick out something you've never (or rarely) heard, then plunge into your studies. Here are a few suggestions on how it can work.
Consider the Bernstein piece mentioned earlier — Symphony No. 3, "Kaddish," for speaker, soprano, chorus and orchestra. This challenging piece from 1963, which addresses faith on personal and universal levels, will most likely be new for many listeners attending the Baltimore Symphony's performance next month. Even those who have heard it may still be struggling with it.
Bernstein struggled with it, too, and the first step in approaching the piece is to read up on what the composer set out to do and why. Learn more about the texts, the structure of the score. Then consider performances.
In this symphony, the biggest variable is the speaker. It's intriguing to hear how diverse artists approach what is essentially a one-sided, sometimes heated, occasionally over-the-top conversation with God. The delivery can make all the difference in how listeners accept the text. (Claire Bloom will do the honors with the BSO.)
How well a conductor coordinates all the vocal and instrumental forces, not to mention all the stylistic jumps, in Bernstein's symphony is also a key issue to consider while listening.
An ideal introduction is either recording Bernstein conducted — the first with his wife, Felicia Montealegre, as speaker (Sony); the other, using the composer's revised version of the score, with Michael Wager delivering the monodrama (Deutsche Grammophon).
You can find at least parts of a Bernstein-led performance on YouTube, but the sound is iffy. Better bet: Brno Philharmonic, Caspar Richter conducting.
Coming in November at the BSO is Elgar's Cello Concerto, which is not nearly as popular on these shores as it should be.
There are technical things to listen for in any cellist playing the Elgar concerto, of course — purity of intonation, clarity of articulation (the writing for the instrument can get thick at times, but shouldn't sound like it).
More important is the matter of expression. The trick, especially in the tender Adagio and the wistful recollections before the finale wraps up, is to convey deep sentiment without turning sentimental.
A great entry into the bittersweet beauty of this concerto is the definitive recording Elgar himself conducted in 1928, with soloist Beatrice Harrison (EMI). This seems to be out of print at the moment, but it's on YouTube. Even with dated sound, it's priceless.