Classical Covers

How classical music has more in common with pop than you might think.


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Sadly, at age 22, it is not an exaggeration for me to admit that I have no one my own age willing to discuss my greatest passion with me: classical music. I’m sure there must be other millennials out there who scrimp and save for yearly orchestra subscriptions or who’d prefer to party with Poulenc instead of P. Diddy (is that who the kids are listening to these days?), but I have yet to meet them.

Many people shy away from classical music the same way they do fine art or quality wine. It seems an art form that you need to know something about in advance to enjoy it. I admit I have a hard time understanding this sentiment. To me, classical music is a simple experience — just sit back, listen, and take in your emotional response. Where, when appreciating abstract painting, for example, it helps to know painters were attempting to better depict reality by trading in traditional images for abstract, there’s no similar historical detail anyone really needs to enjoy any form of music.

But this is where the divide between classical and popular music finally establishes itself. Classical is grouped off. People don’t feel that it’s easy to listen to if they don’t know the composer or the piece. You might recognize The Beatles from the moment the song begins, but identifying Ravel — or even knowing who he is — is a lot harder, simply because of lack of exposure. Perhaps if we dedicate some time to exploring how classical can be listened to just like any other genre of music, we can view it as an art form that’s easier to confront and enjoy.

Last November, I was lucky enough to cross my number one lifelong dream off my bucket list. Yes, even this young, I could die a happy woman. The Philadelphia Orchestra was performing Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto (the dueling pianos played by twin sisters, no less), and I had tickets. But, in the days leading up to the performance I found myself oddly nervous. This had been my favorite piece of music since childhood; I could play the entirety of the work in my head because I listened to it so often. What if the live performance didn’t sound like I expected it to? What if it sounded like… a bad cover song?

Classical music may seem regimented, but it’s actually extremely variable. From era to era, works were composed differently, orchestras were arranged in varying sizes, instruments were tuned on other notes. With most of our famous composers no longer around, it’s up to each orchestra and conductor to decide exactly how a piece is played. The differences between a performance of the same work by the New York Philharmonic as compared to the London Symphony Orchestra can be tantamount to Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” versus David Bowie’s original.

Double Piano Concerto, First Movement. Performance by Orchestra National de la RTF and conducted by Georges Prêtre.

I was lucky; the Philadelphia Orchestra performed the work exactly as my most loved version by the Orchestra National de la RTF. Considering the Philadelphia Orchestra actually performed the United States premiere of the piece in December 1935 under the direction of conductor Leopold Stokowski, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Philly has a proud history backing Poulenc.

This isn’t always the outcome, though. Many people who consider themselves baroque lovers are floored when they hear a proper version of Bach or Vivaldi (or, at least, our closest modern approximation of a “proper version”). Most groups perform these baroque works using their regular orchestra, i.e. usually over 80 musicians. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, though, only chamber groups were utilized for performances, i.e., less than 50 musicians. I grew up infatuated with the full resonating sound of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto performed by a full orchestra. The first time I heard the comparatively delicate version from a chamber group, I was shocked.

But the notoriously strict scores of the baroque era aren’t the only pieces that have this problem. If anything, it’s almost more difficult to reinterpret a baroque piece since that particular era of music comes with the unwritten rule that the notes should be played exactly as they’re written on the page. But what about more modern compositions?

Violin Concerto in D Minor, First Movement. Featuring soloist Hilary Hahn.

I have always adored violinist Hilary Hahn’s performance of Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D Minor. Sibelius is a Finnish composer from the Romantic period. Yes, one of those periods where musicians have a little more leeway in how they perform. A soloist such as Hilary Hahn has the luxury of stretching out her tempo in certain measures, bowing emotionally wrought phrases more legato than others, etc.

Sibelius certainly had an opinion on how his Violin Concerto should be performed. He wrote a letter of congratulations to violinist Ida Haendel after hearing her performance in 1949. Comparing Hahn’s performance to Haendel’s, the differences are apparent after just a few notes ring out. Haendel is very controlled, very structured. Hahn, the younger of the two, is more generous with her bowing and timing. Haendal’s trills are neat and tight. Hahn’s trills are loose and flowing and she is also far more liberal with her vibrato. You can even see the differences in their stance — Haendal is rigid where Hahn is relaxed.

Violin Concerto in D Minor, complete work. Featuring soloist Ida Haendel.

I still prefer Hilary Hahn’s performance, likely because it is more impressionist in style. With the likes of Poulenc and Shostakovich leading the ranks of my favorites, I’ve always preferred a more modern sound that channels personal emotion in favor of the neatly structured ink presented on the score. But, certainly, there is a disappointment in knowing that the composer himself would not have agreed with me.

Gymnopédie No.1

It gets even more difficult to hear different versions of classical pieces the farther up through history you move. The post-impressionist Erik Satie was famous for leaving out the bars that denote measures in a score. He found measures and timing to be too limiting. (Granted, this was the same eccentric guy known for wearing a full-velvet silver suit day after day, going by “The Velvet Gentleman.”)

Gnossienne No.1

As a pianist, this is what makes performing Satie wonderful. There is nothing so enjoyable as sitting down to play one of his Gymnopedies or Gnossienes. It’s different every time, depending on your mood. But this is also what makes him impossible to listen to; I have yet to find a recording I can stomach — they all sound so static, as if the musician is trying to impose a consistent rhythm that we know Satie would not have wanted.

It may sound nitpicky, even obsessive, to discuss the minutiae of classical performances. Not many people are willing to indulge me in a debate on chamber orchestras versus modern full-sized. But really, how is it so different from discussing what Beatles album is best or what group represents the pinnacle of 80s New Wave? Your hipster friend might judge you if you’ve never heard of The Decemberists, but I can promise the classical community isn’t so damning. If you want to learn more about Sibelius or Poulenc, we’ll just be happy you asked. • 6 June 2013


Mary Sydnor was managing editor of The Smart Set and is now a writer based in Baltimore. She has also written for Table Matters,, and the Philadelphia Daily News. Follow her on Twitter @_MarySydnor.