Music Throughout My Life – 2023 Edition

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Music throughout My Life 2023 Edition
Painting by Alex Katsenelson

At the beginning of each year, I sit down and reflect on the year that closed, looking for lessons to be learned and opportunities for improvement. I plan out what I personally want to achieve and set goals for IMA. 

One thing I do for no practical reason but for pure enjoyment is try to figure out which composer and which music had the most impact on me in the year that just passed. 

This year I was the most impacted by… actually, I have a better idea – I’ll go through the music that was important to me one year at a time in chronological order. 

I must warn you, we are about to embark on a lengthy journey. I suggest you digest this very long list slowly. I’ll specifically link each piece to only one of my favorite performances (that is a lot of fun, and pressure on yours truly). 

I wrote the above in January 2021. I did not realize it at the time, but this started a new tradition. From now on, every January I’ll be adding to and updating this list. 

In this year’s edition, I also went back down memory lane and added summer 1991.

Let the fun begin. The early 1980s belong to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. I feel like this music came to me with my mother’s milk. This is what my parents listened to, and these pieces were probably my introduction to classical music. 

1988 was the year of “Barcelona,” a single released by Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe. 

1989 was the year of Fritz Kreisler. My “American” aunt – my father’s younger sister who immigrated to the US in 1979 – visited Russia for the first time since she’d left and brought me a Walkman and one tape – Kreisler’s “Liebesfreud.” 

1991 was the year of Carmen Suite

In the summer of 1991, I was 18 years old. My family was preparing to emigrate to the United States. I was sent to a summer camp on the Black Sea. A few weeks later, I was expelled from the camp. I only vaguely remember the reason, but I am pretty sure it had to do with my refusal to stay within the camp’s borders, as well as probably drinking and breaking other rules.

When given a choice by camp administrators as to where I should be sent, I chose Saratov. My Aunt Natasha, my mother’s sister and the closest person I had to a mother (my mom passed away when I was 11), lived in Saratov, a 400-year-old Russian city on the Volga River. My mother’s side of the family had been evacuated to Saratov during World War II from Vitebsk, Belarus.

Though my father and mother lived in Murmansk, my mom was from Saratov and she wanted to be close to her parents when she gave birth to her children. So in the last few months of each pregnancy, she’d move to Saratov. A few months after our births, my brothers and I were taken home to Murmansk.

My grandparents did not own a crib, so it made no sense to buy one, as we were going to go back to Murmansk in a few months. Though my brothers and I were born six and ten years apart, each of us had spent the first few months of our lives in the same giant black suitcase.

When my own kids were born, I told my wife about this, hinting that we didn’t need to spend our full paycheck on a crib. After all, my brothers and I had turned out okay, in spite of the suitcase. She questioned my judgment of my “okayness.”

But I digress. Here I am, heading straight for Aunt Natasha, who unfortunately did not have a phone. When I suddenly appeared at her door, almost giving her a heart attack, she told me she was leaving on a four-week business trip in two hours.

I was supposed to spend my time in Saratov with her husband, Uncle Isaak. He and I were left to our own devices. Uncle Isaak was a programmer for a government factory that made something for the military. We had a strange but good relationship. He was an introvert’s introvert. We could go days without exchanging more than a few necessary sentences. He would leave early in the morning to go to work and come back late in the evening.

I was in a city where I had no friends, but I was not alone; I was surrounded by books and music. Uncle Isaak was a collector of books. For decades, every day after work, he would stop by a bookstore and pick up a book or two. Their small apartment was transformed into a giant library; books were stacked everywhere. My aunt Natasha must have loved him dearly; I never heard her complain. They did not have any children, but books made Uncle Isaak happy.

Uncle Isaak made oatmeal (his signature dish) for me before he left for work. My aunt had a country house (dacha) where they grew zucchinis. For the four weeks my aunt was away on business, I ate zucchinis for lunch and dinner. They were the only thing I had any idea how to cook. Today my cooking repertoire has extended to eggs. 

I spent those warm summer days on the balcony reading books. Every few hours, I would take a break from reading and conduct along with my aunt and uncle’s classical music records. The one that I fell in love with was Carmen Suite. Arranged for ballet by Soviet composer Rodion Shchedrin, Carmen Suite is based on George Bizet’s opera Carmen, one of the most popular operas ever written. 

From my perspective today, I must admit that I love the suite much more than the opera. The opera has half a dozen incredible melodies and arias, but it is filled with songs and dances that seem to me to be fillers that subtract, not add to the opera. The suite removes those fillers and just keeps the beautiful essence.

No, I did not have a score in front of me; nor could I read music. Now that I think about it, for me, then, conducting was a very mindful form of absorbing and internalizing music. I would close my eyes and imagine the orchestra arrayed before me. I listened intensely to the music and, as I grew to know the piece, would assign each part of the melody to the appropriate instruments. Conducting, if you can call what I was doing conducting, gave me immense pleasure. I tell my kids that in my next life I want to be a conductor.

This was one the happiest summers of my life. It is amazing how little we need to be happy.

1992 belonged to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Nicolo Paganini wrote 24 capriccios – short, technically challenging pieces composed for violin that tend to have less appeal for listeners than for performers. Rachmaninoff, in turn, created a musical masterpiece for piano and orchestra (think of this as Rachmaninoff’s 5th concerto) based on Paganini’s work – a piece that appeals to both listeners and performers. 

I remember listening to it when I went on my first date in America. I’d been in the US only a few months; I didn’t speak English and my date didn’t speak Russian. It was an odd experience, but we listened to this piece together. 

1993 was Rossini’s Stabat Mater. By this time we had already immigrated to the US, and my “American” aunt’s first present to our family when we arrived was a CD player and a Stabat Mater CD featuring Luciano Pavarotti. 

1994 was the year of the Three Tenors – Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras. I first heard them perform at the opening of the FIFA World Cup in 1990 in Rome, but I was not ready for their music. However, their 1994 World Cup performance in Los Angeles stuck with me. Their comradery, mutual admiration, and respect for each other comes through in spades in this clip

1995 belongs to Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Best Buy used to have a CD rack of $1.99 CDs where it sold recordings by Eastern European orchestras. My CD collection, which has since been donated to Goodwill thanks to Spotify, was dominated by those CDs. 

This was also the year that Queen released their 15th and final album, Made In Heaven, recorded months before Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991. The day Freddie died in November 1991 was one of the saddest days of my life; but this album, to me, was made in heaven. 

1996 was the year for Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 – it was the year when the movie Shine came out, which featured this concerto. This concerto still holds a special place in my heart. I’ve listened to every performance I could find. Ironically, Rachmaninoff himself playing this concerto is my least favorite; it is too fast. 

1997 belonged to two operas, Puccini’s Madam Butterfly and La Boheme. This was the year I fell in love with opera as a classical music genre. (I wrote about how I got into opera here.

1998 was the year of Warsaw Concerto, by Richard Addinsell. He composed it for the British movie Moonlight Serenade. The director wanted to use Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto but could not due to copyright restriction. The director commissioned Addinsell to write a concerto in Rachmaninoff’s style, which is why this piece sounds so much like Rachmaninoff’s 2nd and 3rd concertos. 

In 1999 I was smitten by Edward Grieg’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This was Rachmaninoff’s favorite concerto. He adapted many parts of it in his own concertos. 

2000 was the year of Chopin’s first and second piano concertos. I was in the piano concertos phase of my life. (I go repeatedly through phases from piano to violin concertos to symphonies and then to operas.) 

In 2001 it was time for Eugene D’Albert’s Piano Concerto No. 1 – D’Albert, born in Scotland, is arguably the most underrated composer of the 20th century. 

In 2002 I was obsessed with Saint-Saens piano concertos, all of them. I had a two-CD set with Pascal Roget performing them. I listened to them nonstop. Now they all blend into one long piano concerto, and that is the way I like to listen to them – nonstop. 

The first decade of the century somehow is a blur, except that 2005 was definitely the year of Oscar Peterson. He made jazz accessible to people like me. “You Look Good to Me” and “Hymn to Freedom are the pieces that stand out from that year. But there is one more that is extra special to me: “Just a Gigolo.” I drove Jonah to daycare – he was 4 – and that was “our” music that we listened to in the car. It was a decade mostly occupied by operas. 

Pietro Mascagni composed 15 operas, but today he’s known only for one: Cavaleria Rusticana. The overture to this opera was in Raging Bull, the Martin Scorsese movie starring Robert DeNiro. To this day my favorite performance is in a movie by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, with Placido Domingo and Elena Obraztsova. 

Pagliacci, by Ruggero Leoncavallo, is one of the most-performed operas today. Though Leoncavallo also wrote other music, during his lifetime and today he is known only for Pagliacci. Again, my favorite performance is in Franco Zeffirelli’s movie with Placido Domingo. 

Somewhere in that decade, I think it was 2006, I watched Callas Forever, a film about Maria Callas directed, you probably guessed it, by Franco Zeffirelli. Maria Callas was Greek-born, one of the most gifted sopranos of the 20th century. Zeffirelli and Callas were friends. This movie is a fictionalized story about Callas that is loosely based on Zeffirelli’s interactions with the diva. It features music from Bizet’s Carmen. My favorite aria in Carmen is “La Fleur” (“The Flower”). This was the first time I encountered the out-of-this-world “Casta Diva” aria from Bellini’s Norma. And then there was Puccini’s Tosca. My favorite aria from Tosca to this day is “Te Deum” – one of the darkest, most dramatic arias. 

A little factoid. Callas, while married, had an affair with Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate, who was also married. Later they both got divorced but never married one another. Later, Onassis married Jacqueline Kennedy (JFK’s widow). 

2011 was the year of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 – I visited Australia and heard this symphony for the first time. 

2012 was Tchaikovsky’s again, as I was overwhelmed by his Symphony No. 6, his last. 

In 2013 it was Tchaikovsky’s Evgeniy Onegin. I went to see it with my then-12-year-old son Jonah at a movie theater, in a performance by Anna Netrebko and the Metropolitan Opera. 

In 2014 it was Sibelius’s turn, specifically his Symphony No. 5. I vividly remember when I first heard it: I was boarding a plane from Denver to Miami, and Spotify randomly started playing the finale of that symphony. I kept replaying that finale throughout the flight to Miami. 

2015 was the year of Bach. Bach is the composer that you “arrive” to later in life (at least that was the case for me); his music lacks the drama that young souls seek. Bach’s Piano Concerto in D minor is the concerto I turn to when I need to summon my writing muse. 

My then-nine-year-old daughter, Hannah, and I sampled every performance of Bach’s Prelude in B Minor. Early in the morning, before school, Hannah and I would go play tennis and listen to this prelude. Hannah called it “our song.”

In 2016 there were two Franzs, Liszt and Schubert. They were complete opposites – shy, introverted Schubert and bigger-than-life showman Liszt. Schubert was incredibly underappreciated during his lifetime and died in poverty. Liszt was bigger than Elvis and Frank Sinatra combined in his day. Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 is the piece that I could not stop playing. Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor is a symphony for one instrument – piano. And then there was a piece that unites both Franzs, Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy

2017 was the year for Tchaikovsky piano concertos – Concerto No. 2 (especially part 2) and Concerto Fantasia.

2018 belongs to Edward Grieg, Piano Concerto No. 2, the concerto Grieg only sketched out but did not complete. The year also belongs to Joseph Haydn’s Piano Concerto No. 11 in D minor (part 3). 

2019 went to another piano concerto, Dmitry Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (2nd movement). 

In 2020 I turned to Antonin Dvorak. His Cello Concerto in B minor became my favorite cello concerto. Dvorak, a Czech composer, wrote this concerto in New York City in 1894. I’d argue it is more American than Dvorak’s New World Symphony (which is supposed to be his “American” symphony). If you listen to it carefully, you’ll hear Western melodies, with wagons moving over the prairie. The performance by Jacqueline Du Pre is near and dear to my heart. 

Then in December 2020 I stumbled onto Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, which he composed in less than two weeks in May 1873. I listened to it nonstop for a month. 

I cannot talk about Serenade for Strings and not mention another piece that also became a dear favorite of mine in 2020: Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.

Fleshing out this list for you has spilled into an incredibly rewarding, nostalgic, and therapeutic experience for me. It has also made me realize yet again how important music has been to me throughout my life. It is the texture underlying and accompanying many experiences. Now I am wondering what music will define 2021 for me. All I can tell you is that it has started out with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3

January 2022: I must correct an important omission I made in January 2021: For 2020 I forgot to mention another piece of music by Tchaikovsky, his Souvenir de Florence. This piece single handedly motivated me in August 2020 to embark on one of my most important creative journeys of the last decade, my book Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life (read more about it here). 

In 2021 I was smitten by Francis Poulenc (1899–1863), French composer and pianist. I accidently stumbled onto his beautiful Piano Concerto in C sharp for Piano and Orchestra. Interestingly, this concerto was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to restore the relationship between the US and France after World War II. Poulenc composed it in 1949, and it premiered in Boston on January 6, 1950. Critics did not fall in love with this concerto, nor were they fans of Poulenc. One of them wrote, “Certainly it isn’t a concerto at all but a little picture of manners, done up by a minor master.” Before you take their word for it, listen to the second movement of this concerto and you’ll see why they are wrong and why I could not get enough of it. 

Once I discovered Poulenc’s piano, I moved on to his Concerto for Two Pianos. This is one of the jazziest concertos you’ll ever listen to. The jazziness is often interrupted by romantic tenderness. 

At the end of 2021 I was consumed by musicals. It all started with taking my family to see Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. I was going to write about this musical, but that short journey spilled into a month-long trip down memory lane, from Phantom of the Opera to Aida (and half a dozen other musicals in between). 

In 2022 my heart was stolen by two andantes, “Andante” from Robert Schumann’s Quartet for piano, violin, viola, and cello No. 47, and “Andante” from Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4.

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