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Recently in Music Appreciation Category

The Best Music

Alex Ross, NY Times Music Critic

An Argument for Music

Critic Alex Ross keeps "classical" music current.

by Paul Gleason
Harvard Magazine

The first movement of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto ended, and Carnegie Hall erupted in applause. Joshua Bell, whose dazzling solos and severe good looks had fired the crowd, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped it theatrically across his brow. The audience remained enthralled, but Alex Ross '90, sitting in the critic's traditional perch halfway up the left aisle, jotted down his thoughts in a small black notebook.

Ross was less interested in Bell than in how conductor Kent Nagano was molding his new group, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Already, Ross heard hints of Nagano's signature sound: a cool, elegant balance. But the concerto itself, he noted during the intermission, wasn't quite together. "Bell performed very brilliantly. But I didn't feel he and Nagano and the orchestra were totally in sync," Ross said. "Bell seemed to be in his own world a bit, and the orchestra was a little eeeehhh…" He made a nervous motion with his hands, as if someone were trying to hand him a small, rambunctious animal.

Ross wasn't planning to review the concert for the New Yorker, where he is a staff critic. He simply wanted to keep up with a favorite conductor and hear the American premiere of a piece by Unsuk Chin, a Korean composer whose opera he had reviewed favorably the previous summer. "Absolutely essential to my mission as a critic is talking about living composers," he said. "It wouldn't be interesting to me to spend all my time evaluating the right way to play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I enjoy writing that kind of column, but the greatest excitement is when works come into being."

Read more about this at the Harvard Magazine website:

Best Concert in the Solar System

Planets fo the Solar System

Classical tribute to the planets

By Michael Cameron
Chicago Tribune

It is a conundrum often faced by passionate music lovers. How does one proselytize on behalf of a noble obsession without dumbing down the subject for the sake of the uninitiated?

Chicago Symphony Orchestra's "Beyond the Score" series has been an exemplar of musical outreach, moving past the eat-your-vegetables lectures that can leave a bitter aftertaste on the palate of would-be enthusiasts.

Sunday the series continued with Gustav Holst's "The Planets," a work of grand cinematic scope and arguably a better channel for aural-to-ocular sensation than the touchstones of French Impressionism.

Led by conductor Charles Dutoit, the multimedia spectacle included images from ancient astrological documents, Holst's handwritten score and photographs from the Hubble space telescope. Series director Gerard McBurney wove elements from a number of disciplines into his captivating narrative, with astronomical, astrological and historical references, served up with expert timing even a theater critic would admire.

Read more about this at the Chicago Tribune website:,1,631528.story

The Beautiful Music that Surrounds You

John Work III

Exhibit revives musicologist's work

By John Gerome
Associated Press

When people say John Work III had "big ears," they're not being unkind.

Work, who died in 1967 at age 65, had a gift for finding and collecting black folk music. He traveled the South recording blues singers, work songs, ballads, church choirs, dance tunes, whatever struck him as showing the evolution of black music.

And yet what might be his greatest achievement went largely unnoticed for 60 years, stashed in a file cabinet at Hunter College in New York. Now, with the opening of a new exhibit on Work's life at Fisk University and a companion CD, some say Work is finally getting his due.

"He was seeking out music that many African-American academics at the time had no use for," said Evan Hatch, a professional folklorist who helped compile the Fisk exhibit, "The Beautiful Music that Surrounds You," which runs through May 11.

A classically trained musician and composer, Work taught at Fisk University, a black college founded in 1865 to educate newly freed slaves. He also directed the school's famed Jubilee Singers and ran its music department.

Read more about this at the Louisville Courier-Journal website:

Tales of Music and the Brain

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

The Musical Mystery
By Colin McGinn

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
by Oliver Sacks
Knopf, 381 pp., $26.00

Music is so ubiquitous and ancient in the human species – so integral to our nature – that we must be born to respond to it: there must be a music instinct. Just as we naturally take to language, as a matter of our innate endowment, so must music have a specific genetic basis, and be part of the very structure of the human brain.

An unmusical alien would be highly perplexed by our love of music - and other terrestrial species are left cold by what so transports us. Music is absolutely normal for members of our species, but utterly quirky. Moreover, it is known that music activates almost all the human brain: the sensory centers, the prefrontal cortex that underlies rational functions, the emotional areas (cerebellum, amygdala, and nucleus accumbens), the hippocampus for memory, and the motor cortex for movement. When you listen to a piece of music your brain is abuzz with intense neural activity.

Read the complete review at the New York Review of Books website: