Defined by specific time periods, with distinct styles and notable composers, classical music’s progression over the last 500 years has been more revolutionary than evolutionary.
That’s according to Scott Speck, music director of the West Michigan Symphony. With its March 10 masterworks concert, the symphony will examine the history of classical music, ranging from medieval music to a third world premiere by composer-in-residence Austin Wintory.
Speck’s love of the genre prompted him to co-author the now-20-year-old book, “Classical Music For Dummies,” which provides a solid introduction to classical music that’s both humorous and easy to understand. WMS will present concerts inspired by the book over the next few seasons.
“Seriously, it is my life’s work,” he said. “It’s become my life’s work to spread the good word that classical music is for everyone.”
The upcoming “Classical Music For Everyone” show is designed to increase the audience’s understanding of classical music and in turn enhance enjoyment of it for many seasons to come. The program covers pieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and more, and is loosely based on the book’s chapter, “The Entire History of Music in 80 Pages.”
Classical music often is divided into the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th Century periods, based on when the works were created. The concert will take the audience on a journey through these different periods using many of the same examples in the book.
Next season’s concert will concentrate on the Romantic era, a time when every country “sort of came into its own and asserted its national pride” and developed music with a distinct sound. That was true in Russia, the Czech Republic, Finland and more, Speck said.
The “Classical Music For Everyone” program features short pieces, most ranging from two to 10 minutes and highlighting the first movement of longer pieces. It’s music that has withstood the test of time and been vetted — true masterpieces from each period, Speck said.
The concert opens with a Medieval Gregorian chant mysteriously heard through the hall.
“Then we segue into live pieces of music and one of the earliest orchestral pieces by Monterverdi,” Speck said.
Following Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo Overture,” the symphony will cover the Baroque period with Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, Mvt. 1,” then the Classical era with Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Mvt. 1.”
The piece by Mozart is one of his most famous. It’s tuneful and easy to recognize, yet very lighthearted and less passionate, he said.
The Romantic period is captured through several works, including Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3, Mvt. 1,” Brahms’ “Symphony No. 4, Mvt. 3,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Marche slave.”
“A lot of times … the evolution of music was more like a revolution. There was a pendulum swing,” Speck said. “Classical (period) music was very polite. Mozart and Haydn were full of emotion, but it’s all very restrained, the way that it’s expressed, whereas Romantic music is hard on your sleeve, hard on your emotions. Beethoven said, ‘Enough with just being polite. I am going to tell the world how I feel.’”
After intermission, the symphony returns with more romanticism from Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” then moves into the early 20th Century, featuring Igor Stravinsky/Jonathan McPhee’s “Rite of Spring” and Neoclassical Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella.”
The 20th Century period did not express as much feeling and had a more cool and detached approach.
“The main thing is, some of these shifts in style were actually violent shifts,” Speck said. “For example, the ‘Rite of Spring’ is not the least bit romantic. It follows the romantic period but suddenly it sounds very brutal.”
Closing out the program, the symphony will move into more modern-day music: Aaron Copland’s “Saturday Night Waltz from Rodeo,” John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” and John Williams, one of the great composers of the 21st century. Wintory’s “Balaenoptera musculus” from ABZÛ, an underwater adventure video game similar to Journey (which Wintory also scored), will bring the show full circle with music of today.
“Balaenoptera musculus,” the simple genus/species name for the Blue Whale, is from a moment in the game where the player finds herself swimming alongside a pod of these magnificent and gigantic creatures in a sort of dance, Wintory said.
“It’s a visually spectacular moment, and the hope was always that the music be extricable for live performance,” he said. “I’m immensely grateful for Scott Speck’s interest in performing it and making that dream a reality!”
Masterworks “Classical Music For Everyone”
425 W. Western Ave. #200, Muskegon
March 10, 7:30 p.m., $18.75-$49.75
westmichigansymphony.org, (231) 726-3231