Culture 101: Build a Great Classical Music Library for $20 (or Less)

Our first taste of super cheap, super classical music recordings was an 89 cent uncredited MP3 album of violin concertos. It was about an hour's worth of music, all smashed onto one track with no title or performer information at all.

During a recent visit to Amazon, we noticed the most expensive CD set of music by Mozart on Amazon was The Mozart Collection by Karl Bohm. It listed at just about $190. That's 20 CDs (or the MP3 equivalent) totaling some 23-plus hours of music, putting it at about $8 per hour of tunes. Not a bad buy if you've got that kind of money and happen to really love Mozart.

Mozart was a great composer and the Bohm collection includes some fabulous, landmark recordings of his music, but we're not willing to part with $190. Actually $19 is closer to our weekly music budget. Thanks to some "big box" mp3 sets of classical music, we can get some 84 hours of music by slightly less well-known performers for less than $20. We'll use Mozart albums as examples here, but each of the series we mention include at least eight composers, with most including a dozen or more.

What to look for: Several labels specialize in budget priced releases of classical music. There's the Bach Guild. It has a nice series of MP3 albums grouped according to composer or, in some cases, type of composition. There's also a 111 Amazing series released by X5 Music Group, and the 99 Must Have series by Cobra Entertainment. Most prices range from 99 cents to $5.99 for an album that contains anywhere from 30 to 300 tracks.

What to watch out for: You can easily buy duplicate sets of music. The 40 songs on one album might be included as part of the 99 songs on another release. Of course at $1 or $2 an album mistakenly buying duplicates won't be as costly as if you were buying $20 CDs, still if you pay a little attention that's easily avoided.

In an effort to avoid duplication, we bought series according to composers first. Later we bought a few releases that were focused on music on a particular instrument, such as piano or violin. We stayed away from the "Music to Read To" or "Best Music for Winter" sorts of collections.

Read the customer reviews. We look for notes about any audio problems rather than comments about performances. Also it's not unusual for fans research and post the complete title, composer, conductor and orchestra information for albums which is often missing or incomplete on budget buys.

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Jazz Masters of Houston: Hubert Laws

Above: Hubert Laws exhibiting his incredible facility at classical music with a jazz touch

While Houston is loaded with talented musicians, flautist Hubert Laws is probably the only one who performs annually at Carnegie Hall. A child prodigy born into a family of musicians in the Studewood area, Laws has gone on to be considered, along with Herbie Mann, the modern master of the instrument.

Courtesy of the Defender
The young Crusaders in Los Angeles circa 1959.
After proving his knack for flute at 13 when he filled the flute chair in the high school orchestra, Laws was already well on his way in his performing career when, in 1960 at age 20, he came to a crucial fork in his road. Laws' decision: Whether to continue playing jazz with the up-and-coming -- and eventually historic -- Jazz Crusaders or to attend Juilliard.

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Joshua Bell 101: How to Treat a Superstar

Photo by Bill Phelps
The last time famed violinist Joshua Bell appeared in Houston was January, 2012. Along with accompanist Sam Haywood, Bell brilliantly performed a dynamic program of works by Brahms, Ravel, Ysaÿe and Mendelssohn. The audience, however, pretty much just showed its ass. True, the crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative. It was also rude, impatient and remarkably uninformed.

The night started with Mendelssohn's Violin Sonata in F Major, a work with three movements. Normally, an audience waits for the entire work to be completed before applauding (that allows for the movements or sections of the work to flow together to form one cohesive statement). During the Friday night performance we attended, the crowd happily applauded after each movement destroying the flow of the music. Bell, ever gracious onstage, kept any displeasure he felt to himself.

See our review of Joshua Bell's 2012 performance.

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5 Most Overrated Composers of All Time

Check out Art Attack's other pieces from the overrated series.

5 Most Overrated Paintings of All Time

5 Most Overrated Photos of All Time

5 Most Overrated Art Movements of All Time

5 Most Overrated Statues of All Time

5. John Williams (1932 - )

After the American wrote the stirring soundtrack for Jaws, Williams, who's widely considered to be the best film composer ever, fell into the formula of writing a catchy ditty that repeats for a few bars before a tidal wave of brass and strings sweeps through the dramatic soundscape.

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Carl Stamitz: Music, Failure and Alchemy

Today is the baptismal anniversary of composer Carl Stamitz, who would have been 268 years old and a day today if he had succeeded in the last act of his amazingly productive but wholly disappointing life. You see, in addition to being a brilliant creator of music, Stamitz studied alchemy as death approached.

First some background as Stamitz isn't one of the best-known names to the casual music listener. Born in Germany in 1745, he was the son of an equally badass musical genius, Johann Stamitz. He rose quickly through the world as a composer of symphonies, operas and a really spectacular series of clarinet concertos. That's the No. 3 up there in the video, and it's an objectively powerful piece of music that remains a standard repertoire work even today. Think of Stamitz as like a somewhat underground version of Haydn...minus the corpse desecration.

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The 10 Worst Films Scored by John Williams

Rebel scum.

News broke last week that John Williams, the prolific film score composer who's one of maybe three film score composers you've ever heard of, will almost definitely lend his talents to the all-new, all-Disney Star Wars film set to be directed by J.J. Abrams.

It was Abrams himself who threw out some strong hints as to Williams' involvement, but it would have been a pretty safe assumption even if he hadn't. Williams' "Main Title" theme and "Imperial March" from the original trilogy are among the best-loved music in film history, and Star Wars wouldn't be Star Wars without him.

The soundtrack to George Lucas' space opera is only one of many blockbuster feathers in Williams' cap, of course. He's equally well-known for the memorable scores to epics like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Superman: The Movie and even the Harry Potter flicks. Chances are, if you can hum the theme music to a billion-dollar film franchise, Williams penned it.

Despite his towering homeruns, however, he ain't exactly batting 1.000. Williams has written the music for dozens and dozens of films in his long career, including more than a few turds you've likely long since flushed from your memory. Just for fun, let's break out the toilet snake and dredge a few back up, shall we?

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Mercury Baroque Gets Hip New Name and Image

Along with the new name of "Mercury - The Orchestra Redefined," the circa 1999 group (formerly known as Mercury Baroque) is revamping its image with an updated logo and website.

Of late, this has been the trend for classical-music organizations that have expanded the repertoire outside of their namesakes. For instance, in 2008, the Phoenix Bach Choir, which stuck heavily to performing Bach madrigals, changed its name to the Phoenix Chorale and outfitted itself with a hip new insignia and website.

Mercury artistic director Antoine Plante says a similar thinking went into its realignment.

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Hilary Hahn Spends the Weekend with Prokofiev and the Houston Symphony

Hilary Hahn 2 credit_Peter_Miller Short CROP.jpg
Photo by Peter Miller
Hilary Hahn
Violinist Hilary Hahn has a special regard for Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, which she'll be playing with the Houston Symphony during a four-day stint at the end of March; as a young man, her teacher, Jascha Brodsky had performed the then new concerto in a competition and subsequently met Prokofiev. "I really, really love this piece," Hahn told Art Attack. "It's a nice reminder of how things connect through the generations."

The concerto has several sudden swings in mood. "There's lots of lyricism, lots of delicate details. It has these ethereal moments and then these wild, really brash moments, and then back," says Hahn. "It's fun to play because it stops all of the sudden. Not the sound, but the momentum. As a player, it feels like that Olympic sport where they ski and then they shoot. They're going, going, going and then suddenly they have to lie still and control their breathing. In certain parts, it's so exciting to play. My heartbeat goes up and then I have to play something soft right after that and I'm thinking, 'Okay, control the right arm, control the right arm.' It's really interesting for me, I just really get caught up in the momentum and the surprises that the music has."

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Texans Figure Heavily on Northern Lights, One of the (So Far) Best Albums of 2012

If it was in question before, Ola Gjeilo is now officially a rising star, thanks to the release of the album Northern Lights: Choral Works by Ola Gjeilo.

Over the past few years, the 33-year-old, Norwegian-born Gjeilo (pronounced Yay-lo) has been a constant presence in classical music, ranging from performances in more than 30 countries to numerous commissioned and published works.

Locally, Houston audiences were hipped to the Juilliard-schooled composer last May during Cantare Houston's one-night-only presentation of Introducing Ola Gjeilo at Houston Baptist University's Dunham Theater. (His Texas premiere of "Across the Vast, Eternal Sky" will be sung by Cantare on March 6 and 10 during the group's Remembrance concerts.)

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Vienna Boys' Choir: Guarantee You Weren't This Productive When You Were 13 Years Old

Kingwood's First Presbyterian Church, a.k.a. the scene for classical-music rock stars on Saturday.
He's only 13, but Edis Levent is basically a rock star in classical music.

Raised in New York City, Edis is the only American soloist in the Vienna Boys' Choir, known as one of the best singing ensembles in the world. He's been with the group, which features close to 100 choristers (most of them Austrian), since he was nine years old, living in Austria and attending the Vienna Boys' Choir boarding school.

When he's not rehearsing music for two hours a day as part of his curriculum, Edis and his singing mates are traveling for three months of the year, presenting concerts all over Europe, Latin America and the States.

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