the most frequently performed classical piece? — thoughts on this weekend’s concert of Grieg, Ravel, Sibelius, and Dukas – Matt Cambell

Each year, the League of American Orchestras compiles a list of the most frequently performed works and composers. For last season, 333 orchestras submitted their seasons to the list. So, after all of the numbers have been compiled, what pieces and which composers do you think topped the list?

The most frequently performed piece of last season was, not surprisingly, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor. It was performed nearly 100 times! Overall, Beethoven dominated the list: he accounted for seven of the 25 most frequenlty performed pieces; his other works included the seventh symphony (at no. 2), the ninth symphony, and several concertos. Beethoven was also the overall most frequently played composer.

For this weekend's concert, the program includes Grieg's Piano Concerto, Sibelius' tone poem The Swan of Tuonela, Ravel's Trio (orchestrated by Tortelier), and Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice. So, which of those composers and which of those pieces made the list, you ask?

Grieg's concerto, while definitely a favorite among audiences and pianists, failed to make the list. All student pianists love the opening A minor chords and the fantastic gesture that is essentially Grieg kicking the pianist down the side of a mountain with the tumbling chords that end at the extreme bottom range of the piano. Concertos ahead of it though included Rachmaninoff's romantic second, Beethoven's fifth (the "Emperor"), and Chopin's second.

Sibelius didn't have a single piece on the top-25 list, but he was the 12th most-performed composer with 284 performances. This phenomenon of not having a single piece in the top 25 but being very frequently performed isn't resigned to Sibelius, however: Mozart was the second most-heard composer, but no specific piece made it on the list. That's probably because Mozart has so many great pieces: over two dozen piano concertos and 41 symphonies! Sibelius has lots of great pieces, too, and this weekend we'll hear The Swan of Tuonela. Later in the season, there's more Sibelius: the PSO will perform his sixth symphony when John Adams, composer of the year, returns to conduct this work and his own electric violin concerto with Leila Josefowicz.

Sibelius had been one composer I overlooked in my musical life so far, but I started listening to his music a bit in preparation for this season. His music is really evocative of nature, and the sixth is truly beautiful. Sibelius was Finnish, and his music has an icy, clear, crisp quality. What most fascinated me about Sibelius though was sort of what drives his music. Many composers, like Beethoven and Mozart, built music arguments based on harmony and the tonic-dominant tension. But Sibelius' sixth symphony is wonderful in that it more driven by natural phenomena: the string melody courses like a deep-blue, freezing river traveling at high speed through rocky terrain. It's just melting, and swelling, and the raw power of nature. It's wonderfully liberating.

Ravel, whose music appears on this weekend's program, was the sixth most-performed composer, with 367 performances. I'm sure Yan Pascal Tortelier, this weekend's conductor, is responsible for a bunch of those. I have many Tortelier recordings, and he always brings wonderful color and flair to French music, his native music. He's also recorded most of Ravel's music, and no one does it better than he does. Tortelier has guest conducted the PSO numerous times in the last several years, and he always connects with the orchestra.

Dukas is another wonderful composer, and his Sorcerer's Apprentice was used brilliantly in Disney's Fantasia. YouTube houses a video of that segment, so if you're running low on Disney magic, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD8HDta7Z_4 and watch Mickey get himself into loads of trouble.

Dukas is an interesting composer, but he doesn't appear on either of the League's lists for frequency of performance. That's probably because Dukas was a perfectionist, and destroyed many of his own pieces! The body of work he was confident enough to spare the furnace is tiny!

If you're curious what other pieces and composers made the most-frequent lists, check them out for yourself at http://www.americanorchestras.org/knowledge_research_and_innovation/orr_current.html.

One Response to “the most frequently performed classical piece? — thoughts on this weekend’s concert of Grieg, Ravel, Sibelius, and Dukas – Matt Cambell”

  1. Doug Bauman says:

    Thanks for the link to the list ! I always find it interesting to look at these kinds of lists, but I know they are more than deceiving. What is popular isn’t always what I listen to, either it’s overplayed and stale, or I just happen to prefer some of these less frequented compositions: I saw two roads, I chose the one less traveled. I see that this weekend features the kinds of hidden gems that I always like to explore. Beauty expands in so many ways when overlooked pieces are placed on the program, expressions reveal less frequently played compositions, unraveling their lovely quality for all of us to experience (pun intended).

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Jan 29