Listening Guide #9: Dreams, Dances & Variations

ELLEN TAAFFE ZWILICH  Prologue and Variations
performed by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
*BONUS: Listen to the composer, herself, speak about the piece!

BOLOGNE de SAINT-GEORGES  Violin Concerto No. 9
performed by Orchestre de chambre Bernard Thomas
*Listen to the first movement performed by the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble in South Africa!

DEBUSSY  Danses sacrée et danse profane
performed by the Singapore Symphony

MOZART  Symphony No. 29 in A major
performed by Camerata Salzburg 

Listening Guide #9


Jonathan Borden, host

This time around, instead of getting technical and explaining a certain musical concept to you, I’d like to share with you a small personal anecdote. Er ok let’s call it a medium-sized anecdote. 

I grew up in a small town in southwestern Connecticut. I guess you could call it a suburb of New York City, which was about an hour and twenty minutes away by car. It didn’t really feel like that, though – before high school, I had only gone to New York a handful of times. My life was centered in Connecticut, in a small town that had one high school and a picturesque main street, the kind with little boutiques that function more as symbols of serenity rather than providers of needed goods and services.

It was all I knew, so I naturally thought that everyone lived in a town like mine. It’s the sort of assumption you make as a kid that sticks for as long as it goes unchallenged. I needed context, an opportunity to compare and contrast. You can’t gain perspective on where you grew up until you leave.

Fortunately for me, that’s exactly what I did. In my senior year of high school I enrolled in the Juilliard Pre-College program, which meant I took the train by myself to the middle of Manhattan every Saturday. Arriving in Grand Central, I had to navigate the cavernous main concourse to find my subway line and get myself up to 65th street.  The term “eye-opening” would be insufficient to describe the experience – I think “world-opening” would be more accurate. The change of environment, it was a shock. The irony, of course, is that I’m writing about my experience as though I had gone to study abroad, when I was only just a little over an hour away from home.

I went on to attend Juilliard as an undergraduate, meaning I called Lincoln Center my home. I was seriously out of place. And yet, that’s exactly what I needed. People often describe the feeling of living in a place like New York City as living in the center of the world: it’s a nexus of activity and important things are happening around you all the time. That’s definitely something I felt and enjoyed, even if it was overwhelming at times. But that’s not what impressed me the most about living there. It wasn’t really what was there, but who. 

Everyone was there. Moving to New York City helped me realize how homogenous my hometown was. Most everyone was white and affluent with traditional families. New York, on the other hand, well… like I said, everyone was there. What’s special about New York is that you have no choice but to come into contact with tons of people every day. The city is dense. If you’re not walking somewhere, you’re taking the subway. Most major US cities aren’t like this, actually: in my experience, cities with less-than-robust public transportation systems are just ones where the residents rely on cars to get around, isolating from one another (side note: this is obviously an advantage in our current situation). 

Sorry, I got into a bit of rant there. Why am I sharing this story with you? Why is it important that I’m telling you “everyone was there” in New York? Because by sharing a place like New York City with millions of people who didn’t look like me, speak my language, or have nearly anything else in common with me, I was truly able to gain some perspective. The world was a much bigger, more diverse place than I had made it out to be. 

Gaining perspective is perhaps the greatest way to grow. Without it, I could not have comprehended how privileged I was to have grown up in such a haven of a town, or be able to comprehend what it would be like to live anywhere else. Living in a place like New York City is an experience I’ll never forget, and I’m incredibly thankful that I had the opportunity to study there when I did. 

Ok, now to the reason you’re here, which is the music. What does the value of gaining perspective have to do with music? This week’s concert is an example of what I’m talking about. You can think of this program as the New York City to my small hometown – there’s a broad diversity of music in there, at least what you could fit within a reasonable concert length. When I mention diversity, I mean it in two ways: stylistic diversity and diversity of the composers. I’ll briefly explain what I mean by both.

The orchestra, and classical music with it, were borne out of the European tradition – this means, too, that those histories are tied to the traditional and structural Western power hierarchy that placed white men at its peak at the expense of all other groups. This program features two composers in Joseph Bologne and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich who do not fit into that system, a feature of this program. A musical culture which does not empower and include these voices is simply a lesser one. Less inclusion means less opportunities for gaining perspective, and therefore less opportunities for growth and development of musical culture.

The other striking feature of this program, and perspective-gaining opportunity, is the stylistic differences among each piece. I’ve championed before the stylistic diversity that exists within the “classical music” umbrella, and I think this program is a prime example. Perhaps the only thing that these pieces have in common is that they are written for the traditional instruments of the orchestra. If all that classical music means to you is music that sounds like Mozart’s, then this concert is surely an opportunity to gain perspective. 

Discussion Questions:

  • Try to describe the stylistic differences between Zwilich’s “Prologue and Variations” and Bologne’s 9th concerto. Besides the fact that one is a violin concerto and the other isn’t, how do they sound different? More specifically, start by honing in on the emotional impact that each has on you, and then try to describe the technical elements of the music that created that impact. Lastly, do the same exercise with Bologne’s concerto and the Mozart symphony.