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Nick has some great advice and a book recommendation for classical music newbies!

A friend – who’s just been going to classical music concerts for three years – usually prefaces his opinions with some self-deprecating remark such as ‘I don’t really know enough…’, as if conceding that his opinion can’t be as good as someone who has been going to concerts, or involved in the art form, for much longer. My argument always is that such ‘innocent’ opinions should be accepted as equally valid, perhaps even preferable, given that they are not tainted by prejudice and entrenched views built up over years of concert going. The thing is, music is not a finite art: there are no (or perhaps few) rights and wrongs in deciding whether a performance is liked or not, just differences of opinion. Its appreciation is just as much determined by the listener as the performers: beauty, as you might say, is in the ear of the beholder. Having said that – and, as a programme note writer, you’d expect me to say this – the more you find out about the composer, the context (you’ve heard me talk of that before) and the genre of work, the more you might get out of hearing a particular work, or a combination of works.

But how do you do that learning if you’re a beginner?

Well, the answer is out there and not necessarily at great cost. Nowadays, in addition to radio stations devoted to classical music (where would I be without BBC Radio 3?), there is a plethora of classical music websites – composer websites, music publisher websites, recording company websites etc. – where you can get lost (hopefully in wonder). And with streaming websites you can get to hear not only specific works, but also different performances of the same work, which helps build both knowledge and appreciation. It need not, in the first instance, be an expensive pastime, even though there’s a danger of you falling in hook, line and sinker if you find lots to like – which is what happened to me.

And if classical concerts are regarded as sometimes impenetrable for the beginner, what about opera? Expense and perceived exclusivity has sometimes blighted the recent history of the genre, but with the introduction of surtitles/subtitles and live-to-cinema screenings I hope the barriers are now coming down.

But apart from the few operas that have made it into popular consciousness – Carmen, Tosca, Madam Butterfly, which admittedly are regular features in most operatic seasons – where do you find out about the thousands of other operas that have been composed and may occasionally come your way? Well, now there’s a handy solution – The Opera Guide: 100 Popular Composers available as a Kindle. It started life in hardback book form in 1993 as The Viking Opera Guide (still a treasured possession, as are its two subsequent print editions), and now it’s easily transportable. Since the New Year I’ve seen Cavelleria rusticana and Pagliacci as well as Pelléas et Mélisande and, courtesy of editor Amanda Holden and her expert contributors, my enjoyment has been enhanced by the succinct but knowledgeable entries, which quickly introduces the composer, sets the scene of the opera and points out what to look for.

This new Kindle edition, boasting a marvellously combative foreword by opera director David Pountney, has judiciously chosen 102 composers (the subtitle just slightly undersells it!), from (John Adams) to (Bernd Alois) Zimmermann, which is indication enough that it doesn’t shy away from modern and contemporary opera. Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick (2010), Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole (2011) and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (2012) are the most up-to-date full entries. It even references (in Birtwistle’s other works) The Cure, premièred in 2015. But Baroque, bel canto, Grand French, Grand Italian, verismo, Wagnerian and expressionist operas (265 of them!) are all covered, so you can’t really go wrong.

More anon.

© Nick Breckenfield, 2016

Nick Breckenfield has worked in and around the classical music industry over the last 25 years - at venues, agencies and as a programme note writer and marketeer. He was Classical Music editor for Whatsonwhen for 13 years, and current clients include the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.
Author: Nick Breckenfield
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