Nine symphonies for a desert island

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Daily News/Daily Breeze/Long Beach Press-Telegram

CK Dexter Haven, who writes “All is Yar,” one of my favorite classical music Blogs, has presented a nice challenge HERE: Choose nine symphonies for a “desert island survival kit.” He hooked me with his choice of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (see my reasons below) and he threw in a few interesting rules:

• You can only pick one symphony per composer
• You must choose numbered symphonies 1 through 9 only. No Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc.
• Once you choose a numbered symphony, you cannot choose another similarly numbered symphony by a different composer (i.e. no choosing both Beethoven’s 7th and Sibelius 7th).
• Use only current numbering conventions; so if you were to pick the New World Symphony by Dvořák, you’d have to put it in the 9th Symphony spot, not the 5th Symphony where some folks 50 years ago may have put it.

Bonus point for including symphonies by composers who actually composed at least nine numbered symphonies.

Many people have chimed in and here’s my list. Remember, these are for a “desert island survival kit,” which doesn’t necessarily mean they are “the best,” whatever that means. Moreover, I would certainly eliminate some of these for choral works, concertos, and unnumbered symphonic works.

1: As noted above, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 (“Of Rage and Remembrance”), which narrowly edges out Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 1 (“A Sea Symphony”). I settled on the Corigliano because of its emphasis on the AIDS crisis, which at the time it was written 1988-89 was just coming to the forefront of consciousness. Plus I really want my choice for No. 5.
2. Howard Hanson Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”). I have loved this piece since I first heard it more than a half-century ago. It was one of the pieces that hooked me on classical music.
3. Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Indelibly etched in my mind is a performance with Zubin Mehta leading the L.A. Philharmonic; the ending left me breathless! I’ve never lost my love for the piece since then.
4. Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, particularly for the percussion sections.
5. Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5, for its sheer melodic beauty, particularly in the final movements. However, I hate to leave off Tchaikovsky’s 5th, which is my favorite of his works.
6. Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”), narrowly over Beethoven’s “Pastoral.”
7. Shostakovich No. 7 (“Leningrad”). The first movement always blows me away and the rest is also gripping.
8. Dvorak No. 8 with Giulini conducting the Chicago Symphony or Bruckner No. 8, especially the last time Mehta conducted the work with the L.A. Phil in Disney Hall. Probably the best Mehta concert I’ve ever heard, even more than Mahler’s 3rd, which was in the Pavilion. I know, this violates C.K.’s rules — too bad!
9. Dvorak’s No. 9 or Bruckner No. 9 (depending on the choice for the 8th). But either of these would be the first off the island in favor of some choral works or concertos.

One bonus work: Gustavo Dudamel conducting his Simón Bólivar kids in “Mambo” from “West Side Story.” Sheer magnetism.

(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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