Making 'classical' music relevant for modern ears

How often in a lifetime can one person listen to iconic hits from the 1960s like "Let It Be" by the Beatles and "19th Nervous Breakdown" from the Rolling Stones? Speaking as a survivor of the British rock and roll invasion, if I let it be and didn't try expanding and deepening my musical repertoire, I sensed, at some point, I would fall off the mental grid.

A few years ago, about the time I had my second hip replaced and a kid at the school where I work asked me if marijuana had been "invented" when I was his age, I took a leap of faith and began listening to classical music. I, like the legion of ancient scientists and philosophers such as Aristotle, can't wrap my arms around why mere sounds can transform us, soothe the beasts within. So I decided to table that question for sages of the future, focusing instead on the masters of classical music — dead European guys.

I asked someone in the know to enrich me about classical music and some of the leading lights of that genre. He's Thomas Hunter, who grew up in North Laurel, graduated from Reservoir High in 2005 and earned a degree in piano performance at University of Maryland.The musician boasts a sterling resume, studded with international awards and a richly textured career teaching music.

"Composers like Beethoven and Mozart," he began, "actually represent a small percentage in classical music, with Beethoven, for example, having lived from 1770 to 1827." Overall, he believes there is too much emphasis paid to music composed and performed 200 or more years ago, "rather than on contemporary classical music, which, I realize, is a bit of an oxymoron, but it's for lack of a better term."

When it comes to compositions like Mozart's "The Magic Flute" or Rachmaninoff's piano concertos, it boils down, Hunter contends, to being too much of a good thing for too long. (Not, perhaps, unlike the playbills from the British rockers?)

"I don't have any particular animosity towards these pieces. They're obviously great," he said. "But there is such an incredibly vast repertoire of music, and it seems a shame to me to consistently program the same pieces."

But the composers of the past still echo loudly in present-day ears.While the number of radio stations nationwide that offer classical music has dwindled, they still do well around here. The two outlets that are within earshot of Laurel, WETA in Washington and WBJC in Baltimore, enjoy loyal, stable audiences. They keep their listeners happy by featuring NPR news, opera on Saturday afternoons, audio snippets on wine plus tours of classical music epicenters like Vienna, London and Paris. While they target mostly people with big homes, big stock portfolios and big cars, they make special exceptions for ordinary working stiffs like me to dial and dream.

"My own favorite solo piano piece is a constant battle between Beethoven's 32nd Sonata (1821-22) and Charles Griffe's Piano Sonata (1917-18)," Hunter said. "A particularly memorable, though exhausting, solo program I was playing a few years ago had both of these pieces on it."

It's no surprise that Hunter has ruminated on why young people don't take a liking to classical music.

"It can be hard to, especially without having seriously studied the stuff," he said. "But this really applies for any age bracket. Music, by say Mozart was written so long ago that I think it has trouble being relevant for a lot of people's lives. It was written in a different time, a different place, around different issues."

Hunter said the current popularity of "reactionary music" stems from its power as social commentary.He said he frequently performs Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time," which the composer wrote while in a Nazi POW camp.

If more people embraced this type of music, Hunter feels, it could point directly toward a wider audience for the past masters.

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