Monthly Archives: October 2014

10 Spooky classical faves for Halloween


It’s Halloween, and you’re looking for that perfect spooky Halloween music that’s a little more sophisticated than “The Monster Mash” and “Thriller” and “Werewolves of London.” Look no further, friends. I’ve done my own hopping around over the past two days to see what others consider to be their Top 10 classical spooky faves. My list is a little different; some are deliciously spooky, or quirky, or even just in a minor key, but they all are still melodic and easy to listen to. What didn’t make my list are the kind of pieces you might find in horror films, with jarring dissonances and icky, creepy, in the house alone at night, what-was-that-noise-and-don’t-turn-around-right-now-whatever-you-do music. If you are looking for that, cool, go to the bottom of this blog and I will share others’ suggestions and links to others’ sites.

Here’s my list, in no particular order. Click on the title to go to the link unless otherwise specified.

  1. Paul Dukas, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (link below)
  2. Camille Saint Saens, Danse Macabre 
  3. Sergei Rachmaninov “The Isle of the Dead” 
  4. Jean Sibelius, The Tempest, Act II, particularly “The Oak Tree” and “Caliban” (link below)
  5. JS Bach, “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor” 
  6. Saint Saens, Symphony no. 3, first movement 
  7. Carl Orff, Carmina Burana “O Fortuna” 
  8. Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet “The Montagues and Capulets”  (or “The Dance of the Knights”)
  9. Modest Mussorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain  (Also known as Night on the Bare Mountain.)
  10. Joseph Suk, “Scherzo Fantastique,” op. 25 (link below)


A few comments on some of these. I’ll start with #10, Joseph Suk’s “Scherzo Fantastique,” op. 25, which is not tenth on the list because it’s my 10th favorite. Far from it. Suk’s piece isn’t dark, really, but it’s so delicious. There is both sweetness and sorrow in it. Classical music factoid: Suk was Dvorák’s son-in-law. Story has it, however, that Suk’s wife, Dvorák’s daughter, died early in their happy marriage, and the grieving Suk (his father-in-law had recently died too) composed this in her memory, incorporating a folk tune she used to love. It’s not a complicated piece, and the key melody repeats frequently, but it’s such a infectiously delightful repetition. I just love it. So, if you like your spooky music to be on the cheerier side, check this one out. A lot of classical music fans, upon hearing this for the first time, are just agog that it’s been around all this time and they’d never heard it.

Several pieces on my list you might have heard before, but not known by name. Orff’s “O Fortuna” is in a lot of commercials; it’s strikingly theatrical and intense, very Wagnerian. Night on Bald Mountain, too, has a distinctive, memorable motif it keeps returning to, which, in the end, makes it kind of a cliché for “scary moment” scenes over the years. Give it a listen for 20 seconds and you’ll nod and say “got it.”

Night on Bald Mountain is particularly famous, as is Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, for being part of Disney’s Fantasia. I guess JS Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor is also part of the movie, as well. What a great movie, really. Here’s a trip down memory lane for many of us:  Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. (PS: the introduction is in Spanish; it’s brief, don’t fret. You don’t have the wrong embed.)

I’m a big fan of Sibelius and Saint Saens and really, you can’t go wrong with any of their music. Although the two composers don’t sound anything alike, they both seem to imbue their music with a distinct character, flavor, personality. Like Grieg and Dvoràk, you hear their music and even if you’re not familiar with that piece, you can guess the composer. Saint Saens delivers a flirtation with the otherworld (maybe even the occult) that is so deliciously Halloween-y. And Sibelius is a Finnish composer (Finland’s pride and joy, for good reason), who lived in a region that is dark and cold much of the year. His music carries a brooding power that leaves room still for folkloric whimsy, and boy, do I love the melding of the two. Here’s the link to Act II of The Tempest that I promised.  (It starts with “The Oak Tree,” which is great, and so is “Miranda,” at around 17 minutes. Be on the lookout for “Caliban,” too. Gorgeous visuals on this YouTube.)

And of course, Sibelius’ violin concerto just screams “October” and deliciously fragile, wintery nocturne. It’s got its own blog you can find here:

All right. That’s my list, and like I promised, here are “scarier” classical tunes for you, below, and a few links to other great articles and lists. Enjoy! And Happy Halloween to you. Hope you have a perfectly spooky evening at whatever level of pathos and evil you so desire.


Scarier Halloween Classics …

  • Bela Bartòk, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
  • Franz List, Totentanz
  • Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique
  • Joseph Ligeti, Atmosphère

Here’s a great list/blog for scary classical music by Limelight Magazine:

Here’s Stephen Klugewicz’ list from The Imaginative Conservative:

Great article about horror in classical music:

And in case you’re in the mood to play the Halloween music yourself with instantly downloadable sheet music, check out Virtual Sheet Music’s collection of classical Halloween tunes HERE. Best of all, it’s FREE!

Madness, SHINE and the Rach 3


It’s impossible to watch a live performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 without thinking about the 1996 Australian movie, Shine. A few Sundays ago I attended the San Francisco Symphony and took in Garrick Ohlsson’s excellent performance of the concerto. Movie reference aside, I love this piece of music. I love all the Rachmaninov piano concertos. They are all sweeping, cinematic, heart-on-sleeve, emotion-packed compositions, yet intelligent, highly detailed, intensely memorable. The San Francisco Symphony last presented the Rach 3 (its nickname in music-speak) in 2012, featuring pianist Yuja Wang. It was a different experience from this year and Ohlsson, who is older, a longtime veteran of the concertizing circuit and better known for his mastery of Chopin. His clean, lyrical performance was restrained to the point of maybe being a teeny bit underwhelming. Or maybe that’s what happens when you’re compared to the propulsive exuberance Yuja Wang brings to her playing. She’s a firecracker, who throws her whole being into the performance. (

But back to my point. I simply can’t watch a performance of the Rach 3 without remembering Shine. Did you see it? Here’s a tickler:

Shine, directed by Scott Hicks, was inspired by the story of Australian David Helfgott (and please note, it was merely inspired and thus had plenty of wiggle room for interpretation and artistically softening of hard fact). The story in a nutshell: the young David’s prodigious talent on the piano makes his Holocaust survivor father enormously proud until the next step in David’s instruction means leaving the family and Australia. His too-controlling, authoritarian father, forever traumatized by family loss in the camps, says “never,” and from there on out, it’s a struggle between music and family for David, with hard choices the whole way. Forced to turn down an invitation by Isaac Stern to study in the U.S. as a teen, David ultimately ignores his father’s dictate when he’s invited, a few years later, to study at London’s Royal College of Music. There, he trains among the masters, and works obsessively at his entry for the school’s prestigious concerto competition. He’s chosen the Rach 3, one of the most difficult piano concerto in the repertoire, the one his father insisted he wanted his son learning at a too-young age. Way too much for a young student. And, well, you can see the conflict building, right? Not to mention that the young David is already starting to show troubling signs of schizoaffective disorder, on top of the trauma of defying his father to leave the family and live alone, halfway across the world, utterly sucked up in the world of music and the über-challenging Rach 3.

What a film.

Since the release of the film, however, which won dozens of awards, including the Oscar for Best Actor for Geoffrey Rush, there’s been contention. Members of the real Helfgott family have disputed the claim that Dad was the too-controlling, abusive father he was depicted as in the movie. Further, in real life, apparently David’s time in and out of mental institutions was interspersed with plenty of positive: lots of family support, a first marriage, plenty of local performances. But, hey. There’s that “room for interpretation” I was talking about. The movie sort of fast-forwarded through those twenty years in question, instead depicting only scenes of therapy inside the institutions, which was director Scott Hicks’ choice. If you’re curious about the “real” version of the story, check out sister Margaret Helfgott’s memoir, Out of Tune: David Helfgott and the myth of Shine. And note that there are disputes to her claims as well, particularly, as you might imagine, among Scott Hicks’ team, who claim to have interviewed scores of people who knew David and the Helfgotts throughout that time period.


There’s another point of contention as well. The truth is, Helfgott, who resumed concertizing after the movie, to sellout houses, is not a technical master. He drops notes. He personalizes the music beyond what Rachmaninov intended. This, of course, infuriates musicologists, pianists and classical music purists. Or, perhaps, what infuriates them is when audience members rave afterward about Helfgott’s genius, his mastery. It should be made clear: Helfgott delivers a powerful performance in part because his life, this return from the almost-dead, artistically speaking, is such an empowering story. But looking at the music, Yuja Wang, Garrick Ohlsson, Martha Argerich—these are masters (among many others) of the Rach 3. In the classical music world, these are the horses you’d bet on for the best rendition of the Rach 3. But audiences have gone crazy over Helfgott’s performances and interpretation. Millions, millions own a copy of Helfgott playing the Rach 3 (including myself—and it’s not nearly as flawed as the outraged musicologists would have you think, certainly not to the average ear). I will argue that it’s better for those millions of people to have a single classical music CD in their music libraries, even if it’s a sloppy performance, even if Helfgott is not a genius, a master, a top-notch technician. The thing is, the performance of it stirs them. Makes them think of Shine and its theme, this triumph over terrible, terrible challenges, both internal and external. It’s an intelligent, feel-good thing, and it’s accompanied by great classical music, and the mainstream is embracing it all.

I love stories like this.

Give the Rach 3 a listen. Virtuoso pianist Martha Argerich gives a gorgeous, nuanced performance that seemed to find that happy medium ground between Garrick Ohlsson’s restraint and Yuja Wang’s fire.

In the end, it’s best to treat the subjects—the music, the movie and David Helfgott’s real experience—separately. But what a piece of music. And what a movie. Do yourself a favor and go indulge in both. And join me in offering a heartfelt “bravo!” to Sergei Rachmaninoff, the composer and concert pianist who gave us this memorable work of art.


Smuin Ballet goes untamed


Untamed. Uncorked. Unlaced. The Smuin Ballet wins the prize for coming up with the cleverest titles for its season’s dance series. Last year, the company’s 20th anniversary season, they presented their audiences with XXtremes,  XXmas and XXcentric. (Get it? XX=20?) I particularly like this season’s holiday performance series name, “Uncorked.” Does that sound like a party or what? 

Last weekend the Smuin Ballet opened its 21st season at San Francisco’s Palace of the Fine Arts Theatre with its “Untamed” Dance Series. The image above describes it perfectly: this beautiful, elegant ballet dancer in costume, hair corralled into a bun, executing a precise arabesque en pointe, while her shadow has morphed into a wild, untamed thing.

Welcome to Smuin Ballet, where the two find an equal fit.

Ben Needham-Wood and Terez Dean in "Serenade for Strings" Photo by Keith Sutter

Ben Needham-Wood and Terez Dean in “Serenade for Strings” Photo by Keith Sutter

You can read my review of the Friday, Oct 3, 2014 performance at Bachtrack. ( I tried to think about what highlights I could mention here, which of the three ballets offered I liked especially. Turns out I liked them all. Artistic director Celia Fushille programmed this series well. Here’s what we saw:

  •  The West Coast premiere of “Serenade for Strings” choreographed by Garrett Ammon, artistic director of Colorado-based Wonderbound, set to Tchaikovsky’s score of the same name.
  • “Objects of Curiosity,” choreographed by Amy Seiwert (Smuin Ballet’s choreographer-in-residence), set to collaborated music by Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso.
  •  “Frankie & Johnny,” choreographed by Michael Smuin, music featuring a compilation of Cuban and Latin American musicians. (NOTE: this ballet contains material that is intended for mature audiences. Which means, it’s seriously untamed. Which I seriously enjoyed.)


Sarah Nyfield and Robert Moore in "Serenade for Strings." Photo: Keith Sutter.

Sarah Nyfield and Robert Moore in “Serenade for Strings.” Photo: Keith Sutter.

I love Tchaikovsky’s music and loved that “Serenade for Strings” was vastly different from Balanchine’s iconic Serenade, which uses the same music. And yet, the classicism at the core of the contemporary choreography was solid, and worked soooo well with the musical score. I greatly enjoyed “Objects of Curiosity” partly because I lived in Africa for two years and love African music, and much of this intelligent ballet featured music of the kora (an African harp) by Gambian kora master (and Griot and composer) Foday Musa Suso. I also liked that this ballet was performed en pointe, whereas “Serenade for Strings” had been off pointe (a “slipper” ballet). And as for “Frankie & Johnny,” well, dang, that was enormous fun to watch. Great dancing, great Cuban music, great theatricality. Very Smuin. Loved it.


Eduardo Permuy and Erin Yarbrough in "Frankie & Johnny," photo: Keith Sutter

Eduardo Permuy and Erin Yarbrough in “Frankie & Johnny,” photo: Keith Sutter

There are four newcomers to the company this year:  Sarah Nyfield, Dustin James, Kevin James (no relation) and Robert Moore. Great dancers. I didn’t notice Rachel Furst on the roster last fall, but there she is now, and looking great as well. I especially enjoyed watching performances by Dustin James and Sarah Nyfield, and some nice pas de deux work between Nyfield and Robert Moore. While we’re at it, I’ll shout out “nice job” to Erica Felsch, Joshua Reynolds, Terez Dean, Jonathan Powell, Erin Yarbrough and Eduardo Permuy (the latter two just nailed their Frankie and Johnny characters) and Jo-Ann Sundermeier. Actually, every one of the dancers I saw Friday night was wonderful. There is not a weak Smuin Ballet dancer in the company, certainly not one during Friday’s performance. Kudos to you all, and especially to artistic director, Celia Fushille. Well done, on every level of the game. Smuin Ballet seems to be growing stronger with each passing year – a real pleasure to observe.

The “Untamed” Dance Series plays tonight and tomorrow, October 11th, at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. Tickets ($24-$67) are available at or (415) 912-1899. If you can’t make it, this program will also be presented in March 2015 in Walnut Creek,  Mountain View, and Carmel.

And if you’re new to “the world of Smuin” and would like to know more, check out my review from last year, where I offer a little background on the late Michael Smuin and his company.


San Francisco Symphony’s Tchaikovsky No. 5


San Francisco Symphony’s performance on Sunday, September 20th aimed for variety through the centuries. From J.S. Bach’s 1721 Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, to Henry Brandt’s wild and weird 21st century Ice Field: Spatial Narratives for Large and Small Orchestral Groups, culminating with one of the earliest symphonies I remember hearing and falling in love with, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. You’d think that something that stirred you as an adolescent might be a little too sentimental or overwrought for the ears, nearly 40 years later. Surprise. I fell in love all over again. But first things first…


You’re not going to ask for a review of Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 3 first, are you? It was nice. It’s always nice. Very pleasing to the ear. There. Onto heartier fare, now. Henry Brandt’s Ice Field: Spatial Narratives for Large and Small Orchestral Groups was commissioned for the San Francisco Symphony by Other Minds, a San Francisco-based organization devoted to the music of pathbreaking composers. It’s worth mentioning, as well, that the piece won the won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2002. Allow me to share a splendid (and witty) description of Brandt’s work from San Francisco Symphony’s program notes, written by James M. Keller.

“[Brandt’s] orchestrations are somewhat daunting, the sort of combinations that can be assembled only on very special occasions. How often can we realistically hope to hear his Kingdom Coming, for orchestra, circus band and organ? Or Orbits, for soprano, organ, and eighty trombones? Or Meteor Farm, scored for Indonesian gamelan, jazz band, three south Indian soloists, two Western sopranos, and West African chorus with percussion? It would take some doing to revive the Stern Grove Grand Ceremonial Overtures, for two chamber orchestras, jazz drummer, and three karate martial artists, not to forget Fire on the Amstel, in which three mixed choruses, 100 flutes (four boatloads of twenty-five), three bands, four hurdy-gurdys, four drum-sets, and four carillons pealed out over Amsterdam’s canals in 1984.”

Need I say more? *

Likely, for this reason, the Tchaikovsky was so rich, so lush and romantic and nuanced. Some might argue it’s too sentimental and overplayed. And, indeed, I think I’ve got the slow movement on two different “Romantic Music for That Romantic Night” and “Music to Fall Asleep By in the Dead of Winter” compilations CDs. The copy of the entire symphony I have from my youth is on an audio cassette (remember those?), taped from my dad’s stereo and LP recording (remember those?). This has been my Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 listening source for the past thirty years. And I’ve enjoyed it. But you can imagine how hearing it live, and performed by the peerless San Francisco Symphony, was for me.

Oh, my. It’s been two weeks and the memory still sends prickles down my spine. And while I can’t share that particular performance with you, give this one a listen. It’s gorgeous. (Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Fedoseyev conducting.)

After the performance, I scrawled out my overwrought, emotion-laden thoughts, and several days later, sat down to edit and dignify the writing a bit. In seeking more information on Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony, I came upon Wikipedia’s page, which proved to be my own writing’s polar opposite. Really, it’s hilarious, the two side by side. And I’m all for hilarity here at The Classical Girl. So, at the risk of offending myself (and the Wikipedia authors), here are my unedited thoughts, in comparison to Wiki thoughts. You’ll have to tell me which one you found more helpful (or entertaining).

Them, 1st movement: “In the exposition of the first movement, one can observe that the initial condition (e-minor) is relatively unstable. The D-major tonality slips in and out of the e-minor sonority, since it is only a V of relative major (G major), but not until mm.128-132 does one hear this as an antagonistic to e-minor. The exposition concludes in D-major, after integrating part of the PT1 into its cadential moment.”

Classical Girl: Oh, the rush of pleasure in just hearing those first few opening notes. So gorgeously Russian, so instantly evocative, making every other thought and sound fade to insignificant periphery. Memories, wow. Symphony No. 5, I do believe, was the first symphony I really bonded with, back when I was a teen. Oh, this stuff flooding back. Like all the magic of adolescence (that teeny minority of emotions amid an otherwise exhausting, confused, depressing, dull time) sweeping over me while the music played. I don’t know if this sounded particularly sweet because we’d just been subjected to the circus that is Ice Fields or what. I just know this was the sweetest music I’ve heard in a long time. No, wrong word. It connected deep inside me, so that it was both unutterably sweet, and painful, somehow. 

Them, 2nd movement: “The second movement begins with the continuation of the tragic sonority in b-minor, as if the movement will be in the minor dominant of the tonic of the symphony. Instead, a common tone modulation leads to a D-major theme first introduced by a solo horn. This movement is in a standard ternary form with A section in D-major, B section alluding to F♯ minor, then a restatement of A section with different orchestration. Compared to a stable A section, the B section exhibits instability in many ways. For example, the theme begins and remains in V7/F♯ minor, even though it could be easily resolved to F♯ minor. Moreover, the segmentation of a theme, fugato texture, and rapid shift of hyper meter contributes to the instability of this section.”

Classical Girl: Oh, tears. What is it about Tchaikovsky that presses all my buttons? Are his sensibilities so perfectly suited to the ballet that it’s inevitable? Is it because I’m so comfortable with his ballet music that this feels familiar? Possibly not. Although I was doing ballet in my early teens, classical music was, in truth, the greater passion, the world I slipped inside to escape. When I listen to stirring music like this, I feel all the drama and beauty and pathos of life as if I’m experiencing it firsthand. But I can be comfortably ensconsed in my room throughout. I’m not proud of this pathetically anti-social, slacker approach, but hey. Honesty. Besides, in my room, no one can see me double over and weep with the intensity of the listening experience. It is very tiring to cry through the entire second movement and not display any sign of it on my face aside from the tears that roll down my face like an irrigation sprinkler, tears I vow not to wipe away during the movement because that will surely give me away to the other audience members. Ah well. At least I didn’t double over, there at the symphony on Sunday.

Them, 3rd movement: “The third movement is a relatively ordinary waltz. Some elements of absurdity can be observed, for example, hemiola and unbalanced phrase structure at the outset of the movement. These elements takes over the movement in the trio section, whose nature is that of scherzo. The scherzo theme initially played by the first violins can be seen as a superimposition of 4/4 over 3/4. Hemiola is used as a transitional technique (mm. 97-105). The return of the valse (waltz) is accompanied by the scherzo texture from the trio.”

Classical Girl: The third movement is so light and fluffy, it’s a bit of a jolt. Almost like someone gave Tchaikovsky a nudge and said, “Lighten it up, will ya?” Very, very ballet. It’s no wonder so many ballet peeps name Tchaikovsky as their favorite classical composer. Even when he’s doing symphonic work or chamber music, it is so danceable.

Okay, enough snickering over the Wiki. You get the idea. I do absolutely love this part of the Wiki entry, however

The Fifth was very popular during World War II. One of the most notable performances was by the Leningrad Radio Symphony Orchestra during the Siege of Leningrad. City leaders had ordered the orchestra to continue its performances to keep the spirits high in the city. On the night of October 20, 1941 they played Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 at the city’s Philharmonic Hall and it was broadcast live to London. As the second movement began, bombs started to fall nearby, but the orchestra continued playing until the final note.

Oh, I am so touched by that story. Give the Symphony No. 5 a listen again, knowing this story. It  makes it sound even better.

A heartfelt “thank you” to the San Francisco Symphony musicians and Michael Tilson Thomas for their spectacular rendition on Sunday, September 12th.


*If you want to know more about the performance of Ice Field: Spatial Narratives for Large and Small Orchestral Groups, here’s a fine review of the performance by music critic Joshua Kosman:

PS: Thank you, Wikipedia!