What exactly is "light music"? Can a piece that is "serious" fare in midwinter become an entertaining diversion when performed in the casual ambiance of summer? The New York Philharmonic's Summertime Classics series presents four programs that embody the idea of light music: "Russian Fest" (June 30 _July 2), featuring Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture; "Born on the Fourth of July" (July 3 _4), showcasing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Sousa marches; "From the Rhine to the Danube" (July 7 _8), which includes Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier Suite; and "Bol_ro and Other French Delights" (July 9 _10), with Ravel's famous Bol_ro as well as arias from operas by Bizet and Saint-SaêŠns.
In the following conversation, moderated by Kenneth LaFave, the series' conductor, Bramwell Tovey, and its four soloists : pianists Vladimir Feltsman, Marc-Andr_ Hamelin, and Simone Dinnerstein, and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves : speak about music in summer.
Why is music-making generally lighter in the summertime than during the winter?
Bramwell Tovey: The audience changes in summer. A concert in the "regular" season is a bit like a dinner party: people only come if they blend with one another. Summer concerts are more like picnics : everybody comes.
Vladimir Feltsman: It's definitely more of a mixed crowd, more cosmopolitan and laid back.
Denyce Graves: Summer audiences have a different spirit and are much more open. They expect to be entertained and to enjoy themselves. They don't come with their swords drawn.
Is the choice of repertoire in summer affected by this shift in sensibility?
Marc-Andr_ Hamelin: It's certainly true that the summer is often reserved for more accessible fare.
VF: It's not a good idea to play, for instance, a Brahms concerto in a summertime setting. The Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is ideal for a summer concert, because people know it.
M-AH: Directness, simplicity, melodiousness, and rhythmic vitality are all elements of so-called light fare. A large portion of "light music" is the kind of repertoire that's already familiar to audiences.
BT: Yes, they are the sort of pieces where, when people hear them, they say, "I know that tune but I didn't know it was from that piece." In Britain, a whole strand of light music was written by people like Eric Coates. But that's mostly gone by the wayside now, replaced by pieces such as those on the Philharmonic summer programs. Summer music should be stimulating but not overly challenging.
Simone Dinnerstein: I'll be playing the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2, which has plenty of virtuoso fireworks for a summer program, but substance, too. It stretches harmonic boundaries until it foreshadows Wagner.
BT: But not all music has to be challenging. That would be like going to church and getting a hellfire sermon from the vicar every Sunday!
DG: When I plan my own concerts, I like to present music that's new to audiences, mixed in with the chestnuts. But for a concert like this one ["Bol_ro and Other French Delights"] there's no avoiding Carmen and Delilah.
So, relaxed audience expectations in summer make a shift to light music advisable. Does that affect how you make the music?
SD: Well, this is my Philharmonic debut, so I won't exactly be approaching it in a relaxed manner! In any case, I make the same effort to play, whether it's in Avery Fisher Hall or at a retirement home.
DG: "Lighter" should not imply easier. I'm still using my voice and my technique. If I have to sing, I have to sing. It's a marriage of heart and mind.
BT: In that sense, "light" music is a bit of a misnomer. Great light music is as difficult to play as any Bruckner or Mahler symphony. And great musicians make music with the same dedication, no matter the repertoire or circumstances. The New York Philharmonic plays every concert as if it's the most important concert the Orchestra has ever played.
For more on the Summertime Classics series, visit New York Philharmonic.
Kenneth LaFave composes and writes about music.