Music to Lift Us Up in Challenging Times
I hope everyone is staying healthy, in body and mind, during these uncertain times! If any of you are like me, you’re no doubt finding it hard being cooped up and unable to do the things you’d normally do to stay in good spirits: going to a show, enjoying the boardwalk by the lake, taking the kids to the science center, or simply spending time with family and friends. For my part, I miss the satisfaction that comes from performing great music with good colleagues for wonderful audiences. But even though we can’t be there to share the music with all of you, music is always here for us!
I have put together a list of some of my favourite pieces – in no particular order! – to share with all of you, in the hopes that they will lift your spirits during these long weeks of isolation. I’ve tried to come up with an album’s worth, so you have lots of music to shuffle on your media player of choice. It is by no means exhaustive – I could add another fifty tunes to this roster! – but it’s an eclectic and fun mix of music that I hope will surprise, delight and inspire you to stay positive. May it also serve as a reminder that we aren’t alone in these challenging circumstances; music is always with and in us, and those who share it with us are never far away when we need them.
Here is my Pandemic Playlist. Enjoy!
1. Danzón No. 2 – Arturo Marquez
This piece became an instant classic upon its premiere in 1994. It is based on a Mexican partnered dance called a “danzón,” and is full of the usual syncopations, melodic flourishes and rich, melancholy harmonies which are often associated with Latin music. For me, this piece evokes a mixture of nostalgia and jubilation; it’s hard not to get moving to this tune! This video recording with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra is particularly lively.
2. “What’s Opera, Doc?” – Merrie Melodies
Those of you who like to take your German romantic opera with a spoonful of silliness might enjoy the other version of Wagner’s Tanhauser (the real one is here, in case you’re interested) featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. I’ve also provided a link to its companion piece, “The Rabbit of Seville.” Both are skillful send-ups of traditional opera favourites.
CAUTION: these cartoons are not exactly PC, as they were made in the 1950’s, and there are numerous utterances of “kill the wabbit!” … just in case little ones are watching!
“What’s Opera, Doc?” https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2vbbh3
“Rabbit of Seville” https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x301k1t
3. Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70 – Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Yes, the Nutcracker is charming, and Swan Lake is beautiful, but THIS PIECE rocks. I love this performance by virtuoso violinist Janine Jansen and friends; when there are broken bow hairs all over the place, you know you nailed it!
4. “Choose Something Like a Star,” from Frostiana – Randall Thompson
It so happens that my conducting class began working on this movement just before the COVID-19 disruption began; they all fell in love with it. I have chosen it for this list primarily because the music is absolutely gorgeous, but the lyrics – from a poem by Robert Frost – are also deeply moving and uplifting in their own way. This link will take you to a video recording featuring the New York Choral Society (and includes some beautiful visuals from the Hubble telescope!) Enjoy.
5. Soundtrack from The Mission –Ennio Morricone
When I was a kid, I found a cassette tape of this soundtrack in my parents’ collection, so perhaps I’m being a bit nostalgic here. But I absolutely love this score. Those of you familiar with the film will note that it doesn’t have the happiest ending, but the music, which fuses elements of traditional liturgical music, traditional native South American instruments, and Spanish folk guitar, is stunning. I have included two tracks: the first is a clip from the movie itself, featuring the main theme. The second is a live performance of the final movement of the score, conducted by the composer himself. The audience reaction to this one speaks for itself…
“The Mission” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gonKhSIBP54
“Gabriel’s Oboe” and final theme, live https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oag1Dfa1e_E
6. Soundtrack from the original Star Wars trilogy – John Williams
… because Star Wars.
7. “If ye love me” – Thomas Tallis
Thomas Tallis was, among other things, a composer of music for Catholic mass up until the time of the reformation, when he was forced to change his tune, so to speak. In this Anglican motet, Tallis sets words from Tyndale’s translation of the Gospel of John to music that is warm and serene. It reminds us that in times of strife, there will always be comfort in the divine. My favourite recording of this piece is by La Chapelle du Roi, found here:
8. “Diamonds on the Souls of her Shoes” – Paul Simon
Graceland was released in 1986, and it rose quickly to number one on the international charts. Part of the appeal of the whole album was its ingenious infusion of traditional and modern African music, and this track in particular is a good example. It features Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who were collaborators on the album, singing in the mbube dialect with their signature, chorale-like style. The result is a whimsical and groovy song that I have loved since childhood. Just one more personal note: I had the pleasure of seeing Ladysmith Black Mambazo on tour in New York about twenty years ago, and their show was cleaver, funny, energized, and completely alive with music. So, I was especially saddened to hear that Joseph Shabalala, the group’s founder and musical director, passed away last month at the age of 79. Please listen to this song, as well as any you can get your hands on by this fantastic group of musicians.
9. Soundtrack from the original Indiana Jones trilogy – John Williams
… because Indiana Jones.
10. Symphony No. 2 “The Resurrection” – Gustav Mahler
Ok, I can almost hear the collective eyeroll at the suggestion of sitting through a ninety-minute mammoth like this one, and it’s true that there are many other symphonic/choral works that would fit the bill – Beethoven’s 9th, Mozart Requiem, Brahms’ Deutsche Requiem, Verdi’s requiem, Handel’s Messiah; nothing wrong with any of those! – but this one is special. The piece opens with what Mahler originally intended as a funeral march, and in the sketches for the original program notes he finishes the movement by asking, “Is there life after death?” The rest of the symphony is an attempt to answer the uncertainty and fear of the ultimate unknown, as listeners are taken through stages of self-doubt, despair, hope and, in the final movement, rapturous renewal and rebirth. Mahler gives the following text to the chorus: “Rise again, yes! Rise again!” and “O Pain, You piercer of all things. From You I have been wrested! O Death, You conqueror of all things. Now, are You conquered!” The piece reminds us that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dark or long; fitting message for our times. I have provided a link to a performance by the London Symphony under Leonard Bernstein, and if all you watch is the last few minutes of the video, seeing him conduct with utter jubilation by the end of the piece will be worth it.
Allow me to cheat a bit and throw in another famous work by Mahler which makes it onto all the lists of “top pieces of classical music,” the Adagietto from his 5th symphony. You really do need to hear it.
… and since I brought it up, here’s Beethoven’s 9th, Maestro Dudamel once again with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. A most joyful performance.
11. Soundtrack from the original motion picture “Jurassic Park” – John Williams
… because dinosaurs.
12. Auyuittuq Sunrise – Chris McKhool
I’ve been fortunate to work with Chris and his Juno-nominated ensemble The Sultans of String on a couple of occasions. They are simply wonderful folks, exceptional musicians all, and just being around them somehow makes one feel instantly happier. Chris’ music is a true blend of styles from around the world, but played with a unique flavour and energy that never fails to get toes tapping. I’ve included one example here, but I recommend finding the Sultans of String’s album Symphony! for a great cross section of their work.
13. Pines of Rome – Ottorino Respighi
One of a set of three tone poems from his “Roman Trilogy,” (Fountains of Rome and Roman Festival are the others and are equally stunning works) this is the one that people would most recognize thanks to its appearance in Disney’s Fantasia 2000. Expansive, exciting and exotic, the opening always gives me goosebumps. Listen for the bird calls – yes, actual bird calls are in the score – about two thirds of the way in. I’ve seen the pines and fountains of Rome for myself, and they, like all of Italy, are beautiful and timeless. Let’s keep Italy – indeed all the terribly afflicted parts of the world – in our thoughts at this time. Enjoy this recording of a true master, Seiji Ozawa, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
14. String Quartet in D, Op 76, No. 5 – Franz Josef Haydn
I first played this work as an undergraduate student in New York, and the gorgeous second movement has always stuck with me. But while that movement is breathtaking in its simple beauty, the last movement is breathtaking – literally! – because by the end we were all sweating from the sheer speed of the work and the effort required to pull it off. Here is a link to the Jasper Quartet’s performance, but there are many recordings of high quality out there.
15. Song for a Winter’s Night – Gordon Lightfoot
The Sudbury Youth Orchestra performed this tune (skillfully arranged by Brenda Arrowsmith, I might add!) as part of its tour of Portugal last summer, and everywhere we played it, it was the hands down favourite. It’s one of my favourites, too. This song is almost universally loved, and no wonder: it’s a beautiful melody with poignant lyrics. It’s a song about longing for companionship, and while we may just be emerging from the cold and lonely nights of winter ourselves, I think there may be those who still feel isolated and missing loved ones of their own. The first suggested track is a live performance of Gordon himself, and the second – for those who enjoy a somewhat more country feel to your love songs – is a cover by the Good Lovelies. Enjoy.
16. “The Chairman Dances,” from Nixon in China – John Adams
I love this quirky, charming and clever take on a traditional foxtrot. It’s hard work for the orchestra but, speaking as a musician who has performed it, it’s very satisfying once accomplished. For listeners, I think the fun of this piece lies not just in the imagery – imagine Chairman Mao leaping out of a painting and dancing with his wife – but in the sweeping, diving, angular directions the melody takes throughout. The piece ends with the sound (simulated by percussionists) of a record player skipping its grooves and slowly winding down. This recording features the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle.
I’m sneaking another one by John Adams in here: Short Ride on a Fast Machine. It’s a proper rollercoaster of a piece, highly demanding but tons of fun to watch and hear. This is a clip featuring one of my favourite conductors, Marin Alsop, at the BBC proms in 2014. If the first one didn’t perk you up, this one will!
17. Touta – Maya Youssef
I had the opportunity to perform with Maya as part of the London ensemble Notes Inégales, and her musical talent, insight and intensity were inspiring and humbling. She is a true virtuoso of her instrument, the Syrian Qanun, and this groovy, soulful piece displays that talent in full. For Maya, making music is more than an artistic calling; in her words, “the act of playing music is the opposite of death and destruction; it is a life- and hope-affirming act and an antidote to what is happening, not only in Syria, but in the whole world.” Worth us remembering that while we are preoccupied with “what is happening” to us here, there are still other challenges facing the rest of the world.
18. Arabian Waltz – Silk Road Ensemble
You may not have heard of this group, but chances are you’ve heard of its founder, cellist Yo-Yo Ma. His vision of an ensemble which crossed musical and cultural boundaries continues to thrill audiences with performances that are true journeys through exotic realms, musical and otherwise. The first track here features Yo-Yo Ma with the ensemble playing their “Arabian Waltz,” and the second I’m sneaking in features the ensemble performing a traditional Roma tune called “Turceasca.” Both are pretty darned cool.
19. Octet for Strings in E-flat major, Op. 20 – Felix Mendelssohn
My favourite piece of music by one of my favourite ensembles, Hausmusik London. It speaks for itself. Enjoy!
20. Three Little Birds; Bob Marley
How could I not? But really, it’s a great tune by a great musician.
Take care folks, and remember that everything will be alright!