Hans Christian Andersen once said, “Where words fail, music speaks.”. For those who have classical music fused into their everyday lives, it is hard to imagine a life without its presence. For many others, the appeal seems unfathomable. But perhaps now is the time to place a different lens on the way we view this typecasted musical genre. The Cultural Aficionado discussed the pioneering efforts of Bonnie Simon of Maestro Classics, who have crafted a canvas of products designed to break down the learning barriers. Context and a little knowledge might be the difference and make classical music fashionable for the next generation.
Could you describe your job?
As the creator of the Maestro Classics series of recordings for narrator and orchestra, I oversee the company and determine how to keep up momentum and where we go from here. The new age of Internet marketing has enabled us to reach tens of thousands of young people and their parents. Indeed, it has fulfilled my wildest dreams.
The origins of the series lie in the concerts that my late husband, conductor Stephen Simon, and I created at the Kennedy Center. The works for narrator and orchestra were developed as companion pieces to our annual Peter and the Wolf performances. People always came backstage saying, “We came to hear Peter and the Wolf, but we really loved your Swan Lake. Where can we purchase a recording?” And our answer was, “Unfortunately, you can’t.”. And then, in 2004 we took a deep breath and decided that this recording project would be our gift to the next generation. Our family concerts would embody our commitment to outstanding performances with the London Philharmonic, additional educational tracks, a bit of humour, and some participation. The reception has been extremely gratifying and we have won over 50 national awards.
What drew you to classical music, to begin with?
I grew up in a family where everyone played an instrument. We had a family orchestra from Thanksgiving until Christmas so that we could play carols for all who came to visit on Christmas Day. My parents played string quartets every Thursday night. I even remember the sound of the stack of 78rpm records as they worked their way through a Beethoven symphony when I was very, very young. When I went away to college, I was astonished to discover that everyone did not play an instrument. I did miss out on a lot of popular cultures; we were allowed to listen to the top 100 on the radio on Saturday mornings where my sister and I did the dishes, but classical music was merely the music that I knew.
What message is Maestro Classics trying to promote?
Maestro Classics endeavours to bring classical music into the lives of families through excellent performances, stories, educational information, and just plain fun. We want to introduce children to the sounds of the symphony orchestra and have them discover that classical music can express all kinds of emotions. Maestro Classics is trying to show both parents and children that classical music is neither a bitten pill, listened to because it is right for you, nor a humourless experience, endured because someone said you should listen to it. We also believe that listening to our recordings can be a multigenerational educational experience. Our mission statement says, we want people to hear together with family and friends, be educated as well as entertaining, and as the final notes fade discover that you have a new musical memory.
What is the biggest misconception about classical music?
The greatest misconception about classical music is that it is dull. One problem is that some classical music is boring – there are reasons why some composers have largely been forgotten – but I find that usually, it is the performance that is dull, not the music itself. This becomes a problem when someone goes to a concert perhaps for the first time and it is very flat performance, but in the end, everyone around them applauds wildly. The person walks out, often never to return to the concert hall again, saying, “Well, I guess I just do not understand classical music.” Now, almost everyone in that audience would feel free to tell you that the movie they just saw was horrible, or the art show had paintings that their child could have done, but when it comes to classical music, we have the emperor’s new clothes syndrome. No one feels that they can have an opinion. But knowledge is power and having watched my conductor husband explain what was going on in the music to our children; it became quite clear that children enjoy more in the music if they had some guidance. That is why all of the Maestro Classics recordings (except The Nutcracker) have a track where the conductor talks about what to listen for with musical examples. It is interesting, and people are always surprised at how much more they hear with a little more information.
Could you tell our readers how best they approach classical music and Maestro Classics for the first time?
How do you approach Maestro Classics for the first time? Put on one of our recordings. Each recording is meant to be a ‘Lesson in a Box’; namely, it is self-contained, giving a parent enough information to become the instant expert who can discuss the story and the music with the child. Each recording is meant to be evergreen, saying that there are parts for every age and that the child will hear and learn different things when they listen at age five and again when they are ten.
As to beginning the journey into classical music, my favourite website is Kickass Classical who have chosen the most popular 100 and now 200 classical music pieces and found excellent recordings of movements and short pieces. Click through the samples until you find something that appeals to you viscerally. Buy it for 99 cents or put find it on your Amazon Prime or Apple Music playlist. Listen to it for a week and then try another. You will begin to develop a music vocabulary and re-listening, like rereading a book, invites you to hear lots that you missed the first time.
Finally, if you have the time and the wherewithal to learn an instrument, or go back to where you were when you quit your piano lessons, or enable your child to take up an instrument, you will enrich your life in ways you can hardly imagine.