I've been attending American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) concerts for several years. I especially enjoy attending the Classics Declassified series. Each concert of the series features an informative and entertaining lecture by the ASO's Music Director and Principal Conductor, Leon Botstein, concerning a famous composition that the orchestra then performs after a short post-lecture intermission. Botstein frequently calls upon the ASO's musicians to help him illustrate his points during the lecture, having them perform brief segments from the featured composition or other works.
As is evident in each lecture, Botstein, who is also longtime President of Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, is erudite and possess an excellent dry wit.
One thing I've noticed over the years while attending the Declassified concerts, which are afternoon weekend performances and have an informal air compared to regular ASO concerts, is sartorial—and thus rather ridiculous, I admit. Botstein, who is partial to bow ties, sometimes wears a high-buttoned, unstructured black jacket with a shirt-like collar. Now, there are many worthy things to focus on regarding a Botstein lecture, and I've enjoyed discussing them with fellow subscribers over dinner after the concert. But, I'll dare to delve into the trivial: what's the story with that jacket and where can I get one?
It's unfortunate that Botstein's Declassified lectures are not available online. The lectures would be excellent teaching tools for furthering music appreciation. But, I suspect there are contractual and legal constraints.
Botstein's lectures always place the featured composition in a larger musical context.
For example, in one lecture about Schumann, he discussed the War of the Romantics, which was a mid-1800s feud regarding the aesthetics of music. On one side were those aligned with Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms who preferred conservative forms of music and, as I understand it, looked to Beethoven as the fount of inspiration and source from which music should evolve. On the other side were those aligned with Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner who preferred new musical forms and looked to Beethoven and his symphonic ancestors as geniuses, of course, but also as an influence to break away from, so that music could go in more modern directions. (Given that, in general, I prefer the orchestral music of Schumann and Brahms to Wagner and Liszt, I guess I would have been in the conservative camp.)
Here is a short video clip of Botstein talking about Beethoven's 5th Symphony, "a castle of four notes"; "it never wears out its welcome.... whatever tempo you take it, you can't kill it". In Beethoven's 5th, the symphony as a musical form becomes a dramatic essay.
Botstein's lectures also often touch on the composer's personal life and how it may or may not have affected, indirectly or directly, the music the composer wrote. For instance: the question of how much or how little Brahms's music was influenced by Brahms being in love with Robert Schumann's wife, Clara (who, it should be noted, was a musical child prodigy, pianist, and composer herself).
The Classics Declassified series is also one of the best deals in town. Only $25 a ticket if you subscribe to the series.
If you ever get a chance to attend a Classics Declassified lecture, I highly recommend it.
And keep your eye open for that jacket.
ASO on Twitter: @asorch
A new Web site: Leon Botstein Music Room
Lower image: Brahms and Wagner.