Rock on, John Field

In three months immersed in the classics, I found my rock ‘n’ roll fix in a Field.

Since Jan. 1 I have listened almost exclusively to classical music. On the radio, on CDs or LPs (yes, we own and play wax) my chosen music in 2013 ranges from Albinoni to Zipoli. In the car with my wife and sons, if rock or jazz or Celtic happens to be on, it’s not that I turn it off. But consciously I am restricting my chosen music to that written between about 1600 and 1920.

I do so as a kind of New Year’s resolution, and should detour right now to an admission: Much of what follows will seem pretentious. I don’t mean it to be so; much of the music I have heard is new to me, but at the same time this musical journey builds on one under-attended part of my musical leanings, and the realization that there is much beauty to be discovered, or re-discovered, in the classical area of music.

During late 2012 I found I was increasingly going to classical music rather than rock or jazz, and realized how much I enjoyed the more calm and collected frame of mind that the classics tended to put me in. So I decided this year to choose to listen to nothing but classical, baroque, Renaissance, Romantic and Modern orchestral or chamber music. Even some opera; but that is an acquired taste I am still working on.

(For the most part, my listening spans the Handel-to- Mozart-to-Beethoven-to-Schumann-to-Sibelius 200-year span.)

About the Field I mentioned: it is the Irish composer John Field, 1732 to 1837, who I have read is the father of what we now know as the classical concerto. By chance I came upon his Piano Concerto No. 1, and was amazed.

Field just rocks.

Piano Concerto No. 1 has that slightly off-kilter feel of a Neil Young song, like it’s tripping over itself at times and then gracefully returning

upright; like a Neil Young guitar solo, the power is in what is between the notes; like an Eric Clapton riff, it’s the undercurrent of other styles, percolating through the melody and beat.

I have never heard a classical piece that seemed more suited to rock ‘n’ roll than Field’s concerto: the deep string opening of the third movement feels like big multi-dimensional guitar chords like Pete Townshend would write.

So the Field work created a fun bridge of sorts between the rock that I love and am, for a year, denying myself, and the classical wonders that tell powerful stories and render vivid images. It is that wordless quality of “classical” music (again, it’s that wide range of orchestral and chamber instrumental works) that I find myself increasingly connected to in this rock-less year.

In the midst of all this came Columbia Gorge Sinfonietta, which gave a stirring performance Feb. 26 at Wy’east Middle School auditorium, in what is so far the only live classical music I have heard this year.

And what music: Director Mark Steighner did a marvelous job leading the players through, among other pieces, Beethoven’s Third Symphony. They rose to the challenge of Eroica.

As part of my year of classics I am listening to Beethoven’s nine symphonies, in order, and by chance I had just listened to the first and second when the Sinfonietta concert came along.

I started the year with Albinoni and plan on Dec. 31 to play a sweet and soulful trumpet piece by a 17th century Italian named Domenico Zipoli. It’s on a deliciously scratchy vinyl album and is the only work by Zipoli that I own, but it is simply gorgeous.

In my classical sojourn so far I have learned a few things:

n Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme From Tallis (as gorgeous a work as you will ever hear) lasts precisely the length of time it takes me walk from my office to my home front door: 14 minutes, 41 seconds;

n The Cincinnati and Philadelphia orchestras had a race in 1916 to be the first North American ensemble to play Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony (another early-20th century rocker). Philadelphia won, by 24 hours.

n Some recordings of classical music are boring, truly boring. But most have layers that emerge even with minimal attention. And the more you listen, the better your ear develops the ability to catch the nuances in instrumental music. Less and less needed is the explanatory function that lyrics provide.


Classical music has always been part of my life. I grew up on rock and roll but I did learn to play violin between ages 10 and 14, so I had early exposure to the classics, and as a teenager my father would invite me to sit down when Sibelius or Beethoven came on the radio or he had a record on. Usually, I connected with it.

One night, coming home from a basketball game, Dad asked me to listen with him to Saint-Saens’ Third, and I was transfixed by what has become one of my favorite pieces. I own a copy, but have yet to listen to it this year; I am saving it for some cold November night.

Where do I hear all this music? Fortunately in Oregon we have out of Portland (yes, I did pledge this month) to listen to, or I will pull up YouTube, or select something digital or vinyl at home. The list of musicians and composers, from Gershwin to Geminiani, is inexhaustible.

I have played many of my personal favorites, such as Sibelius, Brahms and Albinoni, from the Modern, Classical and Baroque eras respectively, but also discovered in these first three months, many works and composers I have never heard of, or scarcely knew about, such as Field.

In the past, despite my love of classical music, I could listen to about a half-hour or so at a time, or perhaps one 56-minute, 19-second symphony and then I’d be ready for Springsteen again.

But now, with this continual surround of Ravel, Rameau and Rachmaninov, I have moved beyond the experimental stage to where these styles of music are about all I want to hear.

I am embraced by classical music and feel none of that distraction of other styles as I used to feel when I made a point of listening to a Brahms symphony or a bunch of Vivaldi concertos.

I admit I miss my Van Morrison, my U2, my Chieftains and my Richard Thompson. Now there’s a guy whose guitars play symphonies.

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