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Issues: Is it alright to kick back and laugh a little at a classical concert?

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John Barbiroilli in 1947
John Barbirolli in 1947

Gramophone magazine has posted an opinion piece written in March of 1931 by Sir John Barbirolli, one of the great British conductors of the 20th century, in which he chastises people who get too caught up in making distinctions in art music.

“For the highbrow [it was a noun back then], should not be confused with the true music-lover, broadminded in tastes and outlook alike. On the contrary, he is a self-opinionated, disgruntled individual who adopts a patronisingly possessive attitude towards music, musicians, and the public that might be considered amusing were it not so often definitely harmful.”

There has been so much debate recently over the things that keep so many people away from concert halls. So it’s great to have a respected voice from the past be resurrected to remind us that these discussions are not new.

“It is the highbrow who drives the ordinary man, in sheer self-defence, to avoid concerts and opera like the plague, laugh at the very idea of buying a ‘classical’ record for his gramophone, and switch off his wireless set at the sound of the words ‘Symphony Concert’. And to those of us who love music sincerely and would wish all the world to share our own intense joy in it, this is a saddening thought,” concluded the maestro, who would have been aged 30 when he wrote this (he died in 1970).

You can read the whole article at the Gramophone site, here.

To me, it all comes down to our over-eagerness to create slots and categories for everything and everyone.

This is the perfect excuse to listen to some music I heard on Thursday afternoon at Walter Hall, in an excellent recital presented by our very own Duke Trio — violinist Mark Fewer, cellist Thomas Wiebe and pianist Peter Longworth — for the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto.

The recital was bookended by two canonic trios by Haydn and Mendelssohn. Sandwiched in between was a trio by Armenian composer Arno Babajanian and Café Music by American Paul Schoenfield.

If I were a Barbirollian highbrow,  I would sniff that, as a Soviet-era composer, Babajanian had succumbed to pressure from above to not write avant garde music — something Soviet authorities inevitably denounced as “formalism.” The piece dates from 1952, but, if Babajanian had lived in Paris, he would have heard this sort of music four decades earlier.

But is writing in an old style a fatal flaw in a piece of music? Of course not. J.S. Bach was desperately behind the times by the time he reached his dotage — the same dotage that gave us The Art of the Fugue.

Here are violinist Sami Merdinian, cellist Ani Kalayjian and pianist Sofya Melikyan performing the three movements of Babajanian’s F-sharp minor Trio — I. Largo – Allegro espressiveo, II. Andante, III. Allegro vivace (if you only have time for one movement, go to the slow one, which starts at the 11-minute mark):

Paul Schoenfield, who teaches composition at the University of Michigan, wrote Café Music for the St Paul Chamber Orchestra 25 years ago. He was inspired by his days as a pianist at a Minneapolis steak house. The result is more pop and jazz than classical.

But is borrowing from popular styles a fatal flaw in a piece of art music? Of course not. Just think of all the late-19th and early-20th century composers who included folk music in their art pieces — and of Giuseppe Verdi sprinkling songs heard on the street into his operatic melodies.

The programme-opening Haydn trio had Hungarian dancing in its final movement, for goulash sakes.

And, as Thursday afternoon’s audience discovered, it’s fun to just kick back and laugh a little, even at a classical concert.

Here is Trio Orleans having fun with Café Music at a Houston concert two years ago:

John Terauds


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