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Sound of Charlotte Blog

Who IS the greatest composer?

Originally Posted : January 2011

Classical music critic Anthony Tommasini has got something crazy up his sleeve over at The New York Times. The blogger's newest idea for a story is so daunting and controversial, its consequences could be catastrophic. It has the potential to, in fact, upset classical music aficionados worldwide.
Tommasini has recently announced that he is on a mission to name the 10 greatest composers of Western classical music. Anti-climactic? Hardly! At the end of the day, there must be a Number One to end every countdown. To construct a list leading up to the number one composer of Western classical music -- now that is no easy feat.

Think about it. Is this even possible? Is the winner chosen based on the number of works they composed? Which is more revered pioneering a new style, or being the master of an older one? Does Beethoven get extra points because he was deaf? Or is Mozart boosted to the front because of his child-prodigy status? Then there's the issue of varying types of composition. For instance, how does one compare Wagner's opera to the oratorio of Handel... and then determine the better composer?
Well Mr. Tommasini, I fully support your decision to compile this list. After all, everyone has a favorite piece by a favorite composer what's better than taking the time to really think about why that piece is special, and what it is about that composer that makes him/her stand above the rest? Exploring why you are passionate about something and coming to its defense can make you appreciate it even more.
Now before I make this bold statement, please keep in mind the following: I do not have a PhD in music. I am not a world-renowned conductor, composer, or performer. I hardly know enough about classical music to serve as a critic, or write a book on the subject. I do, however, have fond memories of listening to public radio on long car rides with my father as a child. I am a senior in an undergraduate music program, and survived a grueling year of the most feared course sequence in the curriculum music history.

Based on these things, and my own personal opinion, I must say that my vote for Number One is Ludwig van Beethoven.

Let me begin by saying that I admire Beethoven's unwavering passion for music. Beethoven stayed true to himself, composing music the way he saw fit, and never relinquishing artistic control to patrons or audiences. Music came from his heart and from his personal experiences. He experienced periods of both extreme darkness and triumph. I don't just hear music when I listen to Beethoven, I hear his soul; it's as if the composer is interwoven into every melodic line musical phrase. When I say this I don't mean to take away from the god-like status he has been promoted to over the centuries, but I understand Beethoven on a more personal level. Human to human, we relate.

Like many other great composers, Beethoven altered the course of music history. His radical and revolutionary composition techniques aided in ushering in the Romantic Period. Beethoven broke from and expanded traditional musical forms, expanded instrumentation, and pushed performers of his music to the brink. He also had a knack for taking a theme and hiding it in a piece for the listener to experience again and again. Beethoven's harmonic explorations keep audiences on the edge of their seats, and I for one particularly enjoy the unpredictable nature of his symphonies.

In fact, I will now take this moment to be completely cliché and acknowledge that my favorite Beethoven work is Symphony No. 9. Hey, it's one of classical music's greats for a reason! From the fiery first movement to the recitative of the cellos and basses that introduces the "Ode to Joy" theme in the low strings I love every second of it.

I place Beethoven at the top for his innovativeness, passion, and ability (in my opinion) to have an impact on every composer that followed him. Who is your Beethoven? Who is it that, at the drop of a hat, you are able to say, "Now that is Western classical music's greatest composer of all time!"? Join the debate. Write to me at intern1@charlottesymphony.org and let me know who you think should get that number one spot. After the Charlotte symphony music director reviews the responses, the winner will receive two tickets to a CSO concert of his or her choice and a backstage pass to meet Christopher Warren-Green! Deadline is January 20.

And don't forget to follow Tommasini's countdown on his ArtsBeat blog at http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/.

Liz Weger has come to Charlotte from Westerville, Ohio to serve as the Charlotte Symphony's newest intern. A senior at Otterbein University, Liz is a music and public relations major. With a vocal concentration, Liz studies voice privately and is a member of the Otterbein Concert Choir Otterbein's most select vocal ensemble. She recently accompanied the choir on its tour to China, where students participated in joint-concerts with university students in Beijing, Tianjin, and Xi'an. In 2009, Liz was the education intern at ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, and served on the orchestra's student advisory board. Hoping to soon have a career in arts administration, Liz is thrilled to have the opportunity to experience the arts scene of Charlotte.
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Tagged as anthony tommasini, Christopher Warren-Green, countdown, greatest composer, handel, Mozart, new york times, romantic, wagner.

Preparing for The Creation

Originally Posted: October 2010

"Be a pixel."

That is tonight's instruction from our director, Scott Allen Jarrett, as he prepares the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte to perform Franz Joseph Haydn's The Creation(Die Schöpfung) with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra on November 19-20.

With just a little more than three weeks until the performances, tonight's rehearsal is a physical and mental workout. A successful performance, as with most things in life, lies in the details. That takes work, and even more so with the classical style of Haydn.

Just the other day, I was reading through one of the classical music discussion forums on amazon.com that questioned why Haydn doesn't engender the same kind of passion from classical music lovers that the Romantic era composers seem to.

One contributor surmised that Haydn's music, while beautiful, engaging, and at times profound, rarely touches the sublime. His theory was that to our post-Romantic ears, the classical style doesn't deliver the dramatic tension and release that we crave and typically get from the music of the Romantic era composers. In other words, we love our emotionally-fraught Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, but Haydn is just too...organized. It's nice to listen to, but it never really soars.

Apparently, that contributor has never listened to The Creation. Considered to be Hadyn's masterpiece, The Creation is beautiful, profound, and yes, sublime. The oratorio consists of thee parts. Part I unveils the creation of light, the earth, the heavenly bodies, water, weather, and plant life. Part II unfolds the creation of sea creatures, birds, animals, and lastly, man. Part III celebrates the happy first days of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The oratorio kicks things off with an overture representing chaos. Its initial notes are devoid of perceptible melody. Gradually one instrument after another attempts to extract itself from the chaos, and a sense of order emerges. As the discordance settles, the music gently illuminates the spirit of God moving over the waters. Then, God commands that there to be light, and in response the orchestra and chorus burst forth with the joyous reply, "und es ward Licht!" -- and there was Light! Brilliant. And that's just the overture.

Haydn began composing The Creation in 1796 at the age of 65, after a highly successful tour in England. While in London, he attended several performances of George Frideric Handel's oratorios. These large scale works inspired Haydn, and The Creation became his most personal composition. A deeply religious man, Haydn no doubt reveled in the opportunity to compose something that would enable people to enjoy a musical representation of God. He would later remark, "I was never so devout as when I was at work on The Creation. I fell on my knees each day and asked God to give me the strength to finish the work." Haydn appended the words "Praise to God" at the end of each completed section.

He completed The Creation in 1798. It was the longest time he had spent on any of his 750+ compositions. When urged to bring it to a conclusion more quickly, Haydn replied, "I spend so much time over it, because I intend it to last a long time." In fact, he worked on the project to the point of exhaustion and collapsed into a period of illness after conducting its highly successful premier performance in Vienna.

"Picture an old television set. If you get close enough to the screen, you can see the individual pixels. Step back, though, and you see the whole picture."

The Oratorio Singers and the Charlotte community are extremely fortunate to have Scott Allen Jarrett. His musical taste is impeccable, but he also has the unique ability to convey both the necessary specific musical instruction and the insight into the larger context of the music -- the pixels and the picture if you will. That he does so engagingly and without a trace of personal ego is probably even rarer. (If I had his talent, I'm pretty sure I would have the ego to go with it.)

"...Men, you have to stop the tone at the dot. If you sing into the 16th note, you can't articulate the note and the whole passage gets bogged down...."
"...Women, you need to be sturdier, less dainty here. Make the quarter notes shorter."

Details. Pixels. The classical style of Haydn demands it. The actual notes may not be as hard to sing or to play as those of other composers, but the precision required to perform them successfully is probably more difficult to achieve.

The Oratorio Singers of Charlotte is composed of professional singers, musicians, music educators, music students, and amateur singers like myself who have had musical training but don't make our living in music. It's Scott's job to bring us together as a cohesive ensemble.

He makes a point of apologizing to the chorus for the TV/pixel metaphor, but as with all his illustrations, it's spot on. As he says, it's very difficult for an individual to extract the kind of skill required to honor what is in the score -- to execute the details that unleash the sublime. It's even more challenging to produce that as an ensemble. So our rehearsals are spent developing the focus, the agility, the cohesiveness, and the attention to detail that are required to deliver all the subtleties and all the glory of this music. Individually, we are charged with the responsibility to sing accurately -- in tone, rhythm, diction, dynamics, and emotion -- and to be available to the music and to the director.

To be a pixel. Singularly precise, but part of a bigger picture.

Like I said, it's physically demanding. At the end of rehearsal, my feeling is that of one who has just had a good workout at the gym. Spent, but also fully engaged and energized in body and spirit. And what a thrilling experience it is when you get a glimpse of the big picture. When all the individual voices work together to create a glorious musical portrait of nothing less than the creation of the world. No, not thrilling. Sublime.

My only regret is that I won't be in the audience to hear the whole "picture." But you can, and you should. If you think the music of Haydn doesn't have a place in your life, come and let The Creation change your mind. It will, and you will be forever glad that it did.

Born and raised in Aurora, Illinois, Tim Parolini grew up listening to a wide range of music, but mostly classical, jazz and blues. A graduate of Aurora University, he studied voice with Mr. Sten Halfvarson and performed with the Fine Arts Chorale under the direction of Dr. Elwood Smith. His fond memories of attending concerts as a youth include many Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances under the direction of the late, great Sir Georg Solti. Tim runs a brand marketing and design business that specializes in helping niche-oriented businesses and nonprofit organizations identify and effectively communicate their brand value. He is excited to be participating with the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte and currently serves on its board.
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Tagged as Haydn, Oratorio, pixels, romantic, scott allen jarrett, The Creation.