For the past two seasons PBS Great Performances has been interrupting its usual fare of operas, ballet and other, shall we say, acquired tastes for something that almost any music lover can appreciate.
One of the classical world’s liveliest ambassadors, Scott Yoo, has been leading a master class in music appreciation called Now Hear This. One part travelogue, one part history lesson and one part America’s Got Talent, the four-week mini-season of Now Hear This has been knocking the starch out of classical’s stuffed shirt and making Western civilization’s most enduring sounds relatable to an AutoTune culture.
Yoo, a violin virtuoso and peripatetic chief conductor of the Mexico City Philharmonic, among other gigs, has introduced viewers to some of the greatest composers of all time with enthusiasm and genuine curiosity. Not content to rehash the history you could find online, Yoo and his wife, concert flautist Alice Dade, have been trotting across Europe making new discoveries about such greats as Bach, Haydn and Scarlatti.
Whether because of COVID or because the show's budget has shrunk, Yoo stayed at home for this season of Now Hear This, and it proved to be a brilliant idea. Presenting a slate of American composers — only one of which I had heard of before — Yoo and creator-writer-director Harry Lynch have produced the most accessible season of Now Hear This yet.
The show works for two reasons: Lynch uses sound, light and venue to create gorgeous visuals; and Yoo seems to love talking with people about music almost as much as he loves making it.
This week’s episode explores the world of Amy Beach, considered the country’s greatest romantic composer. Yoo and Dade travel to a woodsy artists’ retreat in New Hampshire where, 100 years ago, Beach sought refuge and inspiration. In the retreat’s light-filled library, Yoo performs Beach’s Romance with pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute.
Classical music too often is presented as a parade of composers from different eras, seemingly unconnected except by the durable cord of longevity. Now Hear This takes pride in showing the way that composers and cultures influence the next generation — because, after all, every work of classical music was once considered new music.
Amy Beach’s influences include Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’s sister and a heavyweight composer in her own right. Yoo explores this connection, somewhat improbably, by flying to the West Coast and listening to a string quartet perform one of Mendelssohn’s works at the home of a wealthy patron of the arts (because some things haven’t changed since Bach’s time).
Next week’s episode looks at Florence Price, the African-American composer whose greatest works were discovered only about 10 years ago in an abandoned house near Chicago. It’s a reminder of how Jim Crow racism was double-edged — yes, it chased a lot of talent out of the South, but the resulting Northern migration brought together gospel, blues and European-trained musicians and resulted in a new sound that might not otherwise have come to be. Tune in, if for no other reason, than to hear legendary gospel singer Lou Della Evans-Reid, now in her 90s, absolutely crush the classic “Precious Lord.”
In two weeks, Yoo explores the Jewish roots of Aaron Copland; in three weeks, he spends time with two talented contemporary composers whose influences span the globe but who are American through and through.
Now Hear This begins its third season as part of Great Performances on PBS starting Friday April 8th. Episodes will stream for free on PBS.org beginning the nights of their premieres for four weeks. After that, episodes will be available to subscribers on PBS Passport.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.