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Amy Bishop’s Top 10 List!
1. The Moldau – Bedrich Smetana: (Forgive me for being a little long-winded for this first one, but it’s a piece that has much meaning to me.)
I still remember the first time I ever heard this piece. While studying as an exchange student in Germany in my early twenties, I picked up a few classical CDs on the discount rack from the local music store. One of them featured music by Czech composers, with Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. “Hmmm,” I thought. “I like Dvorak, but who’s this Smetana? Well, I’ll give a nod to my Czech ancestry and try it out.” When I got home, I went about my usual routine of opening up the window in my flat and was brewing some coffee as a late afternoon storm was approaching the little town where I lived. I lived on the tenth floor of one of the ugliest, most dilapidated student dorms in the town, which sat in a valley of the Swabian Alps… But it was on one of the highest hills and had a breathtaking view. You could see storms roll in from miles off. It was just beginning to drizzle when The Moldau started playing. The sweeping music, the aroma of French-press coffee mixed with the smell of fresh rain, the backdrop of charcoal gray storm clouds cutting through the pale blue sky… My senses were intoxicated. I’d just visited Prague for the first time about a month prior and I could see it all – The Charles Bridge stretching across the river, the Vysehrad castle sitting high on the hill, the pastoral beauty of the Bohemian countryside. Years later, I again took the train that follows the river from Germany into Prague and cued up Ma Vlast on my iPod. I wanted to take the journey along the Moldau through each of the tone poems as Smetana intended. It’s amazing to think that Smetana was stone deaf at the time he composed the piece, which so perfectly captured the spirit and beauty of his native land.
2. Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major (the “Emperor”) – Ludwig van Beethoven:
When it comes to Beethoven’s piano concertos, The Emperor is king. I love the seamless transition from the second movement into the third, when the tranquility suddenly leads into that romping theme of the rondo.
3. The Light – Philip Glass
I adore almost everything by Philip Glass, but this is the first piece that I’d ever heard by the composer, so I have a particular fondness for it. He wrote the piece to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Michelson-Morley experiment. In Glass’ own words, “This is a portrait not only of the two men for whom the experiments are named but also that historical moment heralding the beginning of the modern scientific period.” I think that moment is most apparent about six minutes into the piece as the slow introduction makes way for a rapid, driving movement. I always visualize a dimly glowing, low wattage light bulb that becomes whiter and brighter as the music progresses.
4. Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis – Ralph Vaughan Williams
One word: Lush. Lush strings that evoke lush, pastoral images of the English countryside. Vaughan Williams drew inspiration from the English Renaissance for much of his music; this is my favorite example. I picture the golden warmth of dappled sunlight in the late afternoon, with the stone ruins of an ancient castle on the horizon.
5. Symphony No. 7 in A, Opus 92 – Ludwig van Beethoven
It’s all about the second movement. Though highly fictionalized, I still like the 1994 movie, “Immortal Beloved.” The second movement was used in a very dramatic scene and it has always stuck with me. I got goosebumps when it was again used in the climactic scene of the 2010 film, “The King’s Speech.”
6. Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) – Felix Mendelssohn
Another piece that’s all about imagery. Mendelssohn paints through music here. A result of visiting Scotland, supposedly Mendelssohn said that the music came to him as he stared out at the Hebrides, the cluster of islands off the west coast of the country. For me, it evokes the churning waters of the Minch strait and the Sea of the Hebrides, the waves crashing against the basalt columns of Fingal’s Cave, and fierce winds whipping the clouds of a gun metal gray sky.
7. Appalachia Waltz – Mark O’Connor
All of Mark O’Connor’s music appeals to my love for traditional American dance, especially contra dance, waltzes, and reels. While you can’t really dance to this waltz, it still captures the spirit of one of the U.S.’s most lovely regions. There’s a sort of wistful melancholy mood to this music that almost seems to reflect on simpler times.
8. Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D, BWV 1050
Best. Cadenza. Ever. Bach wrote this piece not only with the intent of showing off a fine harpsichord, but also for the soloist to show off. There are so many great recordings, but I’m partial to the Rinaldo Alessandrini/ Concerto Italiano performance. The solo cadenza in the first movement never ceases to mesmerize me.
9. Shaker Loops – John Adams
I love the minimalists. I love the repetition. I love the minimalists. I love the repetition. I love the minimalists. I love the repetition. I love the minimalists…… (You get the idea.)
10. Carmina Burana – Carl Orff
Gluttony. Gambling. Drinking. Lust… medieval style! Funny how things haven’t changed much in nearly 700 years. Orff wrote the piece in the 1930s, but it was based on 24 medieval Latin poems he came across. I saw it performed live at the Meyerson with Jaap van Zweden conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus a couple of years ago and look forward to someday hearing it performed by the Houston Symphony.