For twelve years I have been composing this column. Sometimes I wonder if many people read it. Then I remember that I have seldom, if ever, written to columnists I regularly read. So why should anyone write to me? During my broadcasting career, I suffered similar doubts when I was on the air daily to far-flung corners of the world. Was anyone listening? Who knew? Then, one day, the audience relations office sent up a missive from India. The writer was commenting on the tone (mine) in which the editorials were delivered. He said: “The voice is peremptory, imperial, and arrogant, but since the United States is the last superpower in the world, this is as it should be.” I never got a better review.
Since my e-mail address has always been listed at the bottom of this space, I have enjoyed hearing from Crisis readers on the rare occasions they have been moved to write. Here, I will share the substance of some of those exchanges in the hopes that they are of wider interest and may answer some of your own questions.
A reader recently wrote to say that it has taken him years to find some of the CDs I have recommended. I understand. Sometimes it takes me years to find them. No doubt, this is due to my interest in what may seem to be musical esoterica. I have gone way beyond the basic repertory because, for example, another version of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, when there are already more than 200, does not capture my immediate interest. An overlooked genius does. Thus, in the last Crisis issue, I enthusiastically recommended two stunningly good Requiems by Richard Wetz and Asger Hamerik, two composers of whom I knew practically nothing.
This kind of review is only fun if you can find the CDs and listen in. I will try to be more diligent in giving the sources for my discoveries so that you can do just that. Unfortunately, the music source is seldom a retail store, my formerly favorite browsing spot. Classical music stores seem to be going the way of the dodo. Every time I walk into Tower Records here in Washington, D.C., the classical section seems to have shrunk, always on the defensive from new encroachments of jazz, “world,” or some other variety of music. Soon, Tower itself may disappear, as it is filing for bankruptcy. The Internet has conquered. That may be a mixed blessing, but it is still a blessing. If a CD exists, you can find it on the Internet somewhere in the world, usually at a better price than at retail stores. There are exceptions. My love for the music of Belgian composer Joseph Jongen drove me to commission a friend in Brussels to go to a CD store and buy the Cypress recordings of Jongen’s work, which were otherwise unavailable, and mail them to me.
TowerRecords.com will at least survive as one of the Internet sources, and it is there that I have often found what I was looking for. Sometimes it has taken multiple attempts, such as for Hendrik Andriessen’s lovely chant based Missa Sponsa Christi from 1932, on Erasmus (WHV 076). I hesitate to recommend it because it was so hard to locate. Other Internet suppliers include ArkivMusic.com, which has the most comprehensive selection and sterling service. You can find almost anything there (but not the Andriessen). My secret budget source is BerkshireRecordOutlet.com, where
I go before buying anything to see if it’s available at Berkshire’s sometimes ridiculously low prices. This is the place from which to assemble a beginning collection for a pittance. If you are desperate, you can also Google a CD maker’s Web site to see if it sells directly to the public. Many CD companies do, usually at a premium price.
Of course, the Internet may soon make CDs themselves obsolete, as more and more music is directly downloaded. Last year, the BBC conducted an interesting experiment by offering, for a limited time, a set of Beethoven symphonies on the Internet for free. There were more than 1.4 million downloads, proving that not everyone is brain dead. No doubt in the not-too-distant future, most, if not all, classical music will be purchased online and downloaded. As a sign of things to come, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra now sells its recordings for around $4 through online music stores like Rhapsody and Napster.
My interest in musical esoterica has been rewarded and reinforced by messages not only from Crisis subscribers but readers who find the articles on the Internet or by some other means. For instance, I received an e-mail from Russia asking for more information about Russian composer Sergei Taneyev. More surprisingly, a Chinese student contacted me to share his enthusiasm over Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. The most startling, and satisfying, contacts have come from family members of 20th-century composers. The son of the late, great Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt wrote to express his delight at the attention Tveitt received in Crisis. Gene Rochberg, George Rochberg’s widow, sent a Crisis article about her husband to the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, where the Rochberg archives are maintained.
In a letter that almost melted me, the widow of Swiss composer Frank Martin wrote to say I had gotten to the spiritual core of her husband’s oeuvre. I was delighted to hear that Weinberg’s surviving daughter in Moscow had asked for several copies of the Crisis issue in which I wrote about her father.
Then, of course, comes the great joy and privilege of communicating directly with contemporary composers and being able to discuss their work with them. Sometimes they receive my review from the CD company that provides CD review copies; sometimes they simply happen across Crisis on the Internet and send me a message. Steve Gerber first reached me that way, and he ended up volunteering to write a fanfare for the 60th anniversary of the Voice of America. I met him when he came down to Washington for the world premiere. He has since incorporated the fanfare into his Second Symphony, inaugurated in Chicago this past summer. I also treasured a friendship with Stephen Albert that developed in this way. There have been other such gifts.
Not all is wine and roses. Occasionally I get blasted by a dyspeptic composer who is not entirely pleased with my perspective. This does not happen often because I almost never write bad reviews. Why bother? There is so much great music in good performances to cover that it is not worth the ink to trash the bad music, except when it becomes widely accepted for something it is not. Then I attack. My most unpleasant exchange was with a composer whose work I had reviewed in a generally favorable way. However, my suggestion that his piece was stronger without the movements that he himself had marked as optional led to an outburst of vituperation that was hard to believe. I finally ended the correspondence by telling him that his reaction was so out of proportion to the matter at hand that it was obviously about something else, and good luck in dealing with it.
Since I so often address out-of-the-way subjects, I receive queries from readers interested in obtaining reliable guides to the basic repertory. I am always confident in recommending Ted Libbey’s superb The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection. Its second edition begins with a quote from Hilaire Belloc, a sign of the fineness of Libbey’s mind. Now he has trumped himself with The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music, a 1,000-page work eleven years in the making, for the absurdly low price of $19.95 (Workman). Libbey must know how Samuel Johnson felt writing his dictionary. He must also feel similar satisfaction after the Herculean effort of producing this book. This work does not replace Libbey’s Guide, but is an indispensable supplement to it. One does not exactly “read” an encyclopedia, but I found flipping through this work irresistible because of the gems it contains. The entries on composers, musicians, compositions, and musical terms do not skimp, there is something of substance in each, offered with concision and style. You will need this by your side as you explore classical music. The 1,500 entries include more than 2,000 recommended recordings. A little disc icon in the text signifies that you can listen to the music Libbey is writing about by going to a dedicated Web site at www.Naxos.com/Workman. This is the best thing of its sort that I have encountered.
Keep those letters and postcards coming.