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Sunday, November 09, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Best books 2003: Know the score on classical-music gifts

Editor's note: It's that time of year again when publishers vie for your gift-giving dollars. Last week, we brought you notable books on rock 'n' roll; this week, classical music, and next week, stage and screen. We'll keep the lists coming through Nov. 30.

By Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times music critic

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"Symphony: Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall" (Abrams/LA Philharmonic, $60)

Love it or hate it (and most people love it), the brand-new Disney Hall has already made a tremendous mark on Los Angeles' downtown, and it bids fair to become that city's Space Needle. This book gives you the history — and it's quite a history — of the hall's lengthy evolution; the development of its acoustics in a chancy, in-the-round design and the musical imperatives that helped shape it. Architect Frank Gehry weighs in with an introduction, in which he tells how tears came to his eyes as he heard the first sounds in the new hall ("even without seats and a stage ... it did sound damn good"). Grant Mudford's photographs document every stage in the design, from Gehry's initial squiggles suggesting the undulating stainless-steel exterior to the hall's completion.

Most interesting of all is an essay by the Finnish-born music director of the L.A. Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who talks about meeting Gehry, deciding on the various possible interior configurations, and explaining his views on what makes a great orchestra and an ideal acoustical environment. This book has a lot more substance than the usual coffee-table book, though your guests are likely to be fascinated by the photographs of the hall's already-famous exterior.

"Mendelssohn: A Life in Music," by R. Larry Todd (Oxford University Press, $45)

Everyone knows what an amazing child prodigy Mozart was — but Mendelssohn, who also provided dazzling early displays of genius, is often dismissed as a musical lightweight. R. Larry Todd makes it clear in this engaging biography that Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was not only a great composer and conductor, but also a remarkable pianist and organist, a terrific sight-reader and improviser, a writer and correspondent of distinction, and a fine painter as well.

Some of Mendelssohn's greatest works stem from his midteens (like the amazing Octet), and Todd analyzes them to show how the composer created the lighter-than-air effects of his Scherzos, the subtle nuances in his orchestrations and the inexhaustible melodic content of his music. We also hear about the important influences in Mendelssohn's life, from his gifted sister Fanny to the vitriolic anti-Semitism of Richard Wagner. This is a valuable book for those who like a graceful biography, and those who are curious about composers beyond the familiar "Three Bs."

"Classical Music Without Fear: A Guide for General Audiences," by Marianne Williams Tobias (Indiana University Press, $19.95 paperback)

Public-radio commentator and pianist Marianne Williams Tobias has put together a little marvel of a book — just 184 pages, but it covers an incredible amount of ground. Tobias gives you a brief history of music, takes you behind the scenes to discover how it works and why musical styles changed over time. There are color plates of great art — works of Degas and Rubens and Magritte — linking their styles to musical works of the same period. There are brief explanations of musical forms (just in case you're wondering what an oratorio really is), and various factoids that demystify classical music. You'll even learn to look at a score and figure out how it's actually a road map of where the music is going.

Tobias tells readers what to expect at a concert; how and why concert programming works as it does. Finally, there's a "classical music sampler" that takes you quickly from Bach to Wagner (listing their greatest works) and pointing out the likely compositional stars of the 21st century. All this with humor, grace and not a single wasted word.

"The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs" (2003-04 Edition) (Penguin, $25 paperback)

Large and heavy enough to use as a weapon, this new version of the guide has 1,566 pages in get-out-your-bifocals small type, surveying the most significant classical recordings over the past two decades. Now the guide also includes DVDs (of opera and ballet) and sound-enhanced SACD, as well as a spectrum of CD recordings from historical performances, period instruments, budget-priced discs, reissues and new discs.

What you'll find here is a long alphabetical list of "key" recordings, representing the editors' choices for each work — but not necessarily just their first choice. Look up Beethoven's Violin Concerto, for instance, and you will get nearly 30 recordings, carefully analyzed and compared (Hilary Hahn's "pure, refined tone" versus Jascha Heifetz's "supreme mastery"). (The top choice in this category, interestingly, is violinist Gidon Kremer.)

This is one of those books that you pick up for a specific piece of information, and find yourself reading on and on because you keep running into more interesting and obscure data: Who has the best performance of Vagn Holmboe's "Requiem for Nietszche"?

The Seattle Symphony is well represented, too, even if one reviewer does call it the "Seattle Orchestra" (in a review of Piston symphonies). Of Hanson symphonies, the reviewer writes: "Gerard Schwarz has proven himself a master of Hanson's Nordic idiom and a consistently convincing interpreter of his symphonies, in which he secures high commitment and playing of the highest quality. ... "

If you've been telling yourself this is the year you're finally going to start a classical CD collection, here is an excellent manual.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com


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