Accessible Arts 3: streaming sounds

Multnomah County Library services provide free access to classical and other music from your computer

by DAVID MACLAINE

I began collecting records in earnest almost as soon as I got my first glimmers of the astonishing range and power of classical music. Some came from a couple of those old “Record Clubs” that sent you recordings in the mail; most were acquired on visits to an array of now-defunct record stores. When I divorced some decades ago the most wrenching episode of the entire process was the split of our records, when I played the part of the mother in that Solomon story about cutting the baby in two and gave up the entire Brahms collection rather than break apart that lovingly-crafted creation.

Last year I revisited one of those recordings whose custody I had so painfully ceded. I did not have to track it down in one of the surviving record stores, or order it online, or indeed pay anything at all. Instead I simply brought up my bookmark for one of Multnomah County Library’s music-streaming services, searched for “Brahms Violin Sonatas” and among the album covers was that lost stepchild: Pinchas Zuckerman and Daniel Barenboim playing the Brahms Sonatas for Violin and Piano plus those for Viola and Piano. I clicked “Borrow,” then “Play,” and was soon immersed in the beauties of performances that had formerly been delivered by a box-set of LPs. For several nights running this was the music playing on my headphones while I wound down my evening on the computer.

Multnomah County Central Library provides access to music from home.

After one of my Facebook friends shared a New Yorker story that focused on three Wayne Shorter albums from 1964, I simply opened my music folder, clicked “Hoopla,” punched in the jazzman’s name, and quickly found all three albums. They became the music I played on headphones from my phone for a couple of my sessions of cardiac rehab exercises, an energetic soundtrack for the spinning of wheels on exercise bikes, and the heave and slide of the rowing machine. And when Willamette Week reviewed a new album by Kamasi Washington I was delighted to discover that the same service allowed me to seek it out to find out what all the fuss was about.

There’s no substitute for the live music experience, and as you might guess from the first two parts of this series, about Arts for All tickets and wheelchair access, I’m dedicated to the proposition that the concert experience belongs to all of us. ArtsWatch’s Gary Ferrington has also described the increasing number of Oregon concerts now being live-streamed: another way to access this experience. But there’s no genre of music I know where the dedicated fan doesn’t want to supplement the live experience with recordings by one’s favorite musicians.

If your tastes run to the past, whether the riches from various decades of the 20th-century or the vast treasures laid by over the centuries before that, you will find it especially important to supplement your live music experience with recordings. But while paid streaming services have found a way to reduce the performers’ payoff to an even smaller pittance than in the old days when producers siphoned off most of the loot, they have not yet reduced the price to consumers sufficiently to make recorded music cheap enough for the large potential audience that cares–or might care, if they got the chance to explore a little–about music such as jazz and classical that lacks a mass-market hype machine. But if you’re a debt-saddled twenty-something, or are just discovering how how “fixed” your Social Security really is, you’ll be happy to know that our splendid local library system has your back, with albums in the tens of thousands you can access anytime your want. Here’s an overview of the free options available to Multnomah County library card holders, and a how-to guide to using them.

Expanding Horizons

Over the last half-dozen years I have spent hundreds of hours delving into the enormous collections of recorded music provided free of charge by our superb library system. My musical horizons were already wider than most, but month by month new vistas opened up. Composers I had all but dismissed leapt forward in my estimation when I exploited my new ability to explore them at depth — without spending money on spec. No longer was I dependent on the happenstance of finding a CD available on the library shelf.

For example, when I realized that the service provided all of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings of The Winter’s Journey (Die Winterreise), which had been the subject of some serious critical attention, I decided to work my way through them, clearing my palate with versions by other Schubert singers. My appreciation for this masterful cycle is now far deeper than it ever was before, thanks entirely to the Library’s largesse.

Multnomah County Library offers an assortment of streaming services, but they differ dramatically. The services are not especially easy to find via the drop-downs on the library’s web site. Under “E-books and more” you may stumble upon one called the Library Music Project, which has the valuable but narrow mission of providing access to albums by local musicians. It offers an intriguing assortment of album covers by performers I don’t know anything about, but its 128 recordings are a microscopic fraction of the total number available to stream.

This story shows you how to use Hoopla and Alexander Street Press — the mother-lodes that provide more free music than you can listen to in a single lifetime, indispensable resources for any Portland area resident whose income is limited, but who nevertheless wishes to enjoy to the full the incredible treasures of our collective musical heritage.

The two services employ different systems for displaying and playing the recordings they provide, and each has peculiarities the user needs to understand. The most striking difference is that Hoopla employs a rental system, which currently limits the user to ten recordings every month, each with a one-week check-out. Alexander Street offers no such restriction; anything in the collection is at your disposal any time you choose. Because the same recording is sometimes available on both services, it pays to take a couple of extra minutes when you spot one on Hoopla to search Alexander Street just in case it’s on offer there too. Otherwise you may burn a “rental” for no good reason.

Using Streaming Services

• From the library home page, click on “Research tools” in the drop-down under “Research.” Select either “Hoopla” and/or “Music Online from Alexander Street Press.”

• Enter your Multnomah County Library card number and the same password you use to check out books at a branch or renew them online. (Metro residents who live outside Multnomah County in three neighboring counties in Oregon, and four in Washington apply at their local library to secure a Multnomah County Library Card as part of the Metropolitan Interlibrary Exchange). Let’s start with Alexander Street.

• At the entry of the Alexander Street site, scroll down to a series of tutorials on how to use the audio and video players, how to search, how to make clips and create and share a playlist.

• Or skip ahead to “search,” enticed by the news at the top of the screen that the site offers 82,838 albums, 1006 videos and over half-a-million pages of documents. Your guide is found in the first tab on top at the left labeled “My Collections.”

• Click the link for “Music Online: Classical Music Library” (if it’s classical music you’re seeking), where you will discover 18,329 albums available for your enjoyment. All the effort we old-timers put thumbing through record bins to build our collections, all the sore muscles from moving the hundreds of albums we acquired now seem as quaint as your grandparents tales of trudging miles through the snow to get to school.

Which service you use on a given occasion depends on what you’re looking for. Alexander Street is the weaker of the two when it comes to the standard repertoire of symphonies, operas and chamber music by the traditional “great” composers and the most popular conductors and soloists. There’s a reasonable selection of them, to be sure. If you search for Beethoven Symphony No. 5, you will find performances led by Karajan and Klemperer, Busch and Boult, and Markevitch and Sawallisch, but also names such as Yondani Butt, and Fernando Lozano, the latter leading the Orquesta Filarmonica de la Ciudad de Mexico, which may, for all I know, be an under-rated ensemble, but which certainly lacks the cachet of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics or the Chicago Symphony.

Hoopla, in contrast, offers an assortment of performances of the Fifth by these great orchestras: Furtwangler and multiple Karajan versions with the Berlin, Solti and Barenboim with Chicago, Solti, Abbado, Böhm, Rattle, Bernstein, and Eric Kleiber with the Vienna. You will find more of these options if you search merely for “Beethoven Symphonies” than if you go for “Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5” because the Hoopla cross-reference system is so sketchy it omits not only the versions buried in complete sets, but also in an assortment of other recordings where they chose another keyword for the release. Also, to find the recordings by the Vienna Philharmonic you need to type in “Wiener,” the German version of the city name that Hoopla copies direct from the album covers. If you want the old “Basic Repertoire,” Hoopla is by far the better service.

If, on the other hand, you wish to immerse yourself in the spectacular beauty of the Renaissance choral masterpieces, Alexander Street will overwhelm you with first-rank options. Search for “Palestrina” and Alexander Street’s 103 results will take you on a survey of the most distinguished ensembles in the field. You can winnow them according to your preferences by noting the record company. The service offers access to the Hyperion and Gimell labels, so you can compare and contrast the tight sound of Peter Phillips’ crack ensemble the Tallis Scholars on the latter, and the larger, more diffuse style of the Westminster Cathedral Choir on the former.

If you want more of the Big Hall approach you can try the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on Nimbus, or the Choir of King’s College Cambridge on Warner Classics. But the service also carries the Coro label, which provides superb small-choir interpretations by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen and performances by the older Pro Cantione Antiqua can be found on Helios and Musical Concepts. Search for “Josquin” or “Ockeghem” or “Byrd” and you will find superb surveys of those composers’ work by these and more obscure groups of surprising quality.

As you scroll through the options on Alexander Street you will become acquainted with the advantages and disadvantages of their format. You need to do more clicking of links on Alexander Street than you do on Hoopla, because the former offers albums at a rate of ten per page, while the latter provides fifty at a time. On the other hand, Alexander Street offers superior access to the details a searcher needs. Your screen view may be a bit cluttered sometimes because it shows every album that includes a five minute track of your chosen composer’s music, but you can at least find out without a magnifying glass who the performers are and what they are performing.

Words & Music

You also often have access to the texts that would have come with the album in question, with the notes on the music, texts and translations. Hyperion, Gimell and Coro are all very good at this. Others are not. While no fan of Medieval music will want to miss the Warner Music reissue of David Munrow’s pioneering collection The Art of Courtly Love, the value of the online version is severely impaired by the absence of the lavish packet of background information available in the original LP release.

It is wonderful to have the massive survey of Schubert’s Lieder by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau available on Alexander Street, but you will need to bookmark, say, the Schubert page of the LiederNet Archive if you want the German text and translations. If you choose instead the series of Schubert’s Complete Songs on Hyperion–reached quickly by searching “Schubert Songs”–you will notice a series of tabs ( to the right on your computer, below “Related Items” on your phone) for “Details”, “Tracks” (the default) and “Related Documents.” The last provides a PDF file of the invaluable insert from the CD set, with lavish historical background on the composition of each song along with text and translation.

Caveats & Glitches

On the Alexander Street service, if you search for something new from the screen you used to play your previous selection you may find yourself with a different catalog selection than the one that brought you in. Your search for “Palestrina” suddenly produces 980 results, and you quickly realize that the extra options are links to texts like Baker’s Biological Dictionary of Composers or a printed score for one of the composer’s hundreds of motets. These are valuable resources when that’s what you want, but if you’re just out to listen they badly clutter your search. Backtrack to the “Music Online” link to avoid this problem.

On one recording of music by Ockeghem, the “Tracks” list insists that every piece on the record is really by Robert Morton, a more obscure composer whose version of the famous song the Ockeghem used in his mass leads off the recording. Occasionally I notice that the track listings are out of sequence, and different music is playing than they claim. Once I found myself working for an hour to decipher the correct order of tracks on a recording of Handel’s Partenope where the three-disk set was apparently transferred by taking the first track of each disk, followed by the first track of the next, the first of the last, and then proceeding in the same manner with the second track of each disk, then the third, and so on to the end.

But blunders on this scale are rare, and hardly unique to streaming services: I know of an old 78-era recording of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony that mistakenly pressed a section from his Triple Concerto instead of the next bit of the symphony that side was supposed to provide.

A more modern recording of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, cello and piano was one of my earliest acquisitions on LP. You can find that version with a superstar team of Russian soloists on Alexander Street if you know what you’re looking for, but you need to know that Karajan is the conductor, click on the CD reissue that pairs the work with the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 4, and dig down in the track listing that finally tells you that this is indeed the classic recording with Oistrakh, Rostropovich and Richter.

On Hoopla I can find the recording with a single glance at the screen, as three different reissues show the original album cover, two of them in insert because the album has been coupled with a work by Brahms. (The reissue found on Alexander Street is there too, at the very bottom of the screen). For quick scans looking for familiar recordings the Hoopla display is quite convenient: you scroll down through the album covers with a title (often truncated) and if you’re lucky, a key performer’s name: four of the five packages with the Triple Concerto say simply “Various Artists” while one says “Mstislav Rostropovich. If you were a Sviatoslav Richter fan searching under his name, you would have a rougher time of it, but it shows up eventually, after 145 albums or so, including a false positive of the same soloists with a different orchestra.

Mistaken Identity

In classical music more than other kinds, many recordings often exist for the same composition — and the differences matter. But the streaming services sometimes make it difficult to figure just who is performing on a recording, and sometimes even what pieces are on it. The limitations of the Hoopla information array cost me about fifteen minutes of wasted effort the other night. I had been trying to make my way through the crucial 20 year span that defined the classical core of the string quartet repertoire, from Haydn’s Opus 33 in 1781, through Beethoven’s Opus 18 in 1801. The first was no problem: I own a copy of the old Vox recording. Next up was the set of quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, likewise no problem, as I quickly found a set on Hoopla I hadn’t explored before, by Kuijken and company, with gut strings and historically informed lower frequency tuning.

But when I reached Haydn’s Opus 50 set, the limitations of the Hoopla array bedeviled me. I knew the service wouldn’t provide the detail I needed for a search, but my success finding the Mozart set lured me into a wild goose chase using the same basic technique of typing in “Haydn String Quartets.” Perhaps one in four of the little square displays of album covers had enough information on it for me to peer closely and determine that it wasn’t what I was looking for. For the rest I had to click on to examine the track display. Most of these did indeed tell me what the works were, but a significant minority did not. Intriguing titles such as the Emerson Quartet’s The Haydn Project yielded only movement titles–Moderato, Menuet, Adagio etc.–with no indication which quartet these movements were from. Checking Amazon later I confirmed that none of them were from the quartets I was seeking, but at the time I simply scrolled onward in frustration. The quartets I was looking for were listed in the complete Vox set, but two other complete sets had the same infuriating display of movements designated by tempo, but not by the actual work they came from.

I finally gave up and tried Alexander Street. I typed in Haydn Opus 50 Quartets and got “no results found.” My second try, “Haydn Prussian Quartets,” finally got a single hit; the Lindsay Quartet playing the first three of them. I also discovered why my first search had failed: Alexander Street had “Op. 50” instead of spelling out “Opus.” Such are the joys of having artificial “intelligence” create our shopping catalogs.

The “movements but no works” problem for Hoopla is especially acute when you try to take advantage of their assortment of mega-collections. The problem mentioned above for two of the three complete sets of Haydn Quartets also applies to the classic complete set of his 100-plus symphonies conducted by Antal Dorati. I suppose you might binge the 12 hours and 58 minutes of music during your one week rental — there are certainly worse fates than a couple of hours of Haydn every day– but if you want to know what symphony you are hearing while you work through the 425 tracks you will need to cross-reference some online source with better track annotation. The two volumes of his complete operas under the same conductor offer the same challenge, to which you may add the task of tracking down the appropriate librettos. (My first stop on that search is this site.)

The same omission of basic information occurs in the bigger collections of Wagner’s works on Hoopla. Wagner, the Great Operas from the Bayreuth Festival gives you 394 tracks almost all with assorted German quotations, but no indication of the works they come from. I suppose you could use them to assemble a nice quiz for the fanatical Wagnerite wanting to show off his knowledge of the operas–sorry, “music dramas”– but the average fan will probably draw a blank at such intro-to-German snippets as “Hier bin ich, Vater” and“Kenntest du mich,” which are offered without any indication of whether they are from Lohengrin or Siegfried. The same problem afflicts Solti Wagner Operas, The Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle, and Volume 2 of Wagner Complete Operas. And after you have figured out what work you are hearing, you will also have to find your own libretto and translation.

This shortcoming means that you have to put in a little extra work to exploit the astonishing wealth of music available at no other cost. As the astute collector might deduce from the titles I have already listed, a great deal of what Hoopla offers comes from what those of us who worked in record stores back in the day think of as the “Polygram Catalog” which included some of the most prestigious mainstream classical labels: Philips, London, and Deutsche Grammophon, plus the early music spin-offs of the last two: L’Oiseau-Lyre and Archiv.

The Warner reissues provide important works from the old Telefunken label, including the pioneering set of Bach Cantatas directed by Harnoncourt and Leonhardt, well worth the effort of sorting out the two different approaches to their repackaging. There’s also a lot of the EMI-Angel label and the French Erato brand. (These are also available on Alexander Street, so again, check before you burn a rental.) Those nostalgic for the budget labels of yore will be happy to hear that the old Vox boxes and large-scale repackagings of the Vanguard catalog are also on tap.

Omissions

There are important classical labels whose catalogs you cannot explore via these free resources. The RCA label, a mainstay for opera stars such as Leontyne Price and star instrumentalists such as Jascha Heifitz and Artur Rubenstein is nowhere to be found, nor is the grand old Columbia label, the home of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, and of pianist Glenn Gould, just to mention the most obvious greats whose main recorded output you must seek elsewhere. Fans of early music will soon realize that the deep catalog of Harmonia Mundi is among those missing from both these services, so devotees of Anonymous 4, Philippe Herreweghe, or Nicholas McGegan will still have to pay (or trust to the vagaries of YouTube) to explore their discographies in depth.

Nor are the catalogs on tap from the services always complete and up to date. I have paid steep import prices to buy several installments of the Orlando Consort’s ongoing project recording the music of the great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut, released on the Hyperion label whose older offerings Alexander Street provides, but which has yet to make an appearance on the site. In this case I was at least able to do a bit of preview work to decide whether I wanted to try their set, because before the big project began they had recorded a selection of Machaut Chansons on Archiv available for me to try out on Hoopla.

Oregon Connections

The library services can sometimes provide a helpful supplement for the local live-music fan who wants more from favorite artists. If you are still a bit depressed at the retirement of Helmuth Rilling after his decades at the Oregon Bach Festival, you may find some consolation in the fact that his complete survey of the Bach Cantatas is among the 293 recordings under his leadership that Alexander Street provides. Recorded with his home town chorus and orchestra in Stuttgart, Germany, they often feature soloists you will recognize from their festival appearances. The big choral works Rilling offered each year as the Festival’s main attraction are likewise almost all to be found there under his direction, including — to mention a couple I remember from Festivals past — Mendelssohn’s St. Paul (Paulus) and Handel’s Saul. The last of these offers another local connection as the role of David is sung by Daniel Taylor, a counter-tenor who also sang in the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s “Messiah” 25 years ago during the launch phase of his career.

You may likewise find recordings from the early years of PBO director Monica Huggett’s distinguished career, including her work with Trio Sonnerie, and her album of select Vivaldi concertos with Roy Goodman that I used to recommend to classical novices back when I worked in a record store. You can even retrace a key strand in the history of early music in Portland by taking in two different recordings of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, one by Huggett, (available on both services) the other (via Hoopla) by Sergiu Luca, the founding music director of Chamber Music Northwest who offered Portland audiences our first regular exposure to “authentic” baroque violin.

Many of the top touring ensembles and piano soloists who have visited Portland over the years also have recording catalogues available on the streaming services. The Takacs Quartet, which plays Portland in December (and have visited regularly for a couple of decades) shows up on Hoopla with 22 recordings, from which you can track down half the works on their two latest programs. None include the two Shostakovich quartets on offer, but you can preview (or follow up on) those works with the Emerson, Borodin, or Fitzwilliam Quartets.

If you’re kicking yourself because you missed that complete Beethoven quartet cycle by the Pacifica Quartet your friends keep gushing about, you may take comfort from one or more of the ten complete sets of those quartets on Hoopla performed by ensembles including the Emerson and Fine Arts Quartets, or the two other complete sets offered by Alexander Street.

If your more jaded companion responds to your enthusiasm over the recent production of La Traviata by Portland Opera by suggesting that he’s heard more brilliant versions of “Sempre libera,” you can pop into Hoopla and seek evidence by streaming interpretations by Callas, Moffo, Sills, Sutherland, Cotrubas, Te Kanawa and Netrebko.

In May, Portland Piano International brings back Angela Hewitt for two programs of Bach; Alexander Street provides the pianist’s complete survey of the Bach Preludes and Fugues as well as her recording of his English Suites, allowing a good preview of her second program, surely enough to whet your appetite for her latest take on those works, as well as the Toccatas (not available on the Library stream) she will play on the first night.

I have already mentioned the lavish supply of music from Alexander Street by the Tallis Choir, which will visit Portland in April. And if, like my partner, you attended your first Kalakendra concert this fall and were wowed by the virtuoso drumming produced by masters of the tabla, you may fill the gap until their spring programming of Indian music arrives by trying some of the 306 results that come up in the Contemporary World Music category of Alexander Street’s Music Online when you type in “tabla.”

Democratizing Discovery

For decades I have seen it as my mission to dispel the myth that this music belongs only to a select class. I would cheerfully inform those put off by the notion that classical concerts imply a posh dress code that I have been attending such events for over fifty years without ever wearing a tie. But even if you can convince people that the music belongs to all of us, there is an understandable reluctance to pay $20 for a concert ticket, or $15 to buy a CD, just to try out music you’re not sure you will like. The Arts for All tickets I covered in the first installment of this series will help alleviate this problem for those in the bottom bracket, but even if you’re well enough off to do without food stamps you might still decide that dabbling in this artsy stuff is too rich for your blood.

The free music streaming courtesy of Multnomah County Library has now removed that obstacle. You can find out what the fuss is about without spending anything except a little of your time. Some of that time will no doubt be devoted to finding a bit of advice on where to start. Novices tend to overestimate by a great deal how much knowledge is required to appreciate “serious” music, but it can certainly be daunting to have thousands of choices at your disposal and few ideas about where to start.

Luckily the same Internet that allows you to stream the music now provides the information about that music we formerly sought out on the newsstand. When I thought decided to have another go at Bach’s organ music, one of the last major bodies of his work that still left me a bit blasé, I plugged into the search engine the name of the complete set on Hoopla I was thinking I might try, and up came this thorough review of the set from the same Gramophone site I had used for my deep dive into Schubert’s Winterreisse.

It turned out that some of the rival performances of some of the repertoire preferred by the reviewer was also available from the Library streams. So I took the plunge, and by the end of that week of heavy immersion I had finally crossed the threshold and become a genuine fan.

Sources like this are geared more toward devotees than to listeners early in their journey. Yes, they offer links such as The Fifty Greatest Beethoven Recordings, but you will discover that it assumes you have already figured out which Beethoven compositions matter most and are ready to dive into comparisons of different recordings of the Piano Concertos. Beginners are more likely to find useful overviews such as this introductory survey of Mozart’s orchestral music. The inevitable quibbles some of us might make with particular choices on such lists is perhaps less important than the fact that almost everything on this list can be found on the Library streams. So too can a great many recordings by pianists on this list from the same source.

The aim of this series has been to ease the path to great music of the sort of people traditionally assumed not be its target audience. But if you are on food stamps, Arts for All has got your back. Need a wheelchair to get around, and there is still access available at almost every prime venue. And if you don’t know enough to get started, or perhaps already know and love the music but have found yourself confined to home, the greatest music ever written is there to keep you company, just a few clicks away, on smartphone or computer.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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