Here's the second half of my top ten:
6. 'Cello Suite #1 by J.S. Bach. Now, I'm not a huge Bach fan. I find most of his music too pedantic - it's like listening to someone solve a math problem - and when it comes to the Baroque era, I gravitate toward the Italians. If given my choice of Bachs, I will side, without hesitation, with C.P.E. That said, the first 'Cello Suite is something I can really get behind, because there's a real playfulness and room for expression among all the mechanical gears and levers of the piece. My favorite parts are the remarkable Prelude, with its propulsive push and pull, and the set of minuets in the middle, which I have nicknamed "Betty" and "Veronica" (the first is bright and happy, the second is dark and sultry). The thing that impresses me the most, though, is how perfectly executed the piece is. Every note that Bach chose is perfect in its placement, making the unaccompanied 'cello line simultaneously melodic and harmonic. Then it transcends both and achieves a deliciously expressive musicality. The interpretation options are infinite.
7. Short Ride on a Fast Machine by John Adams. Way back in the 1700's the stuff we call "classical" music was synonymous with "popular" music. Over time, though, a distinction has developed and the "classical" tradition has become associated with elitism while "popular" music is for everyday folks to enjoy. The rift reached its zenith in the 1950's when blues-based music became the dominant popular form and Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone composition technique became the favored style for classical composers. This dissonant style is hard to listen to and largely alienated audiences, making "classical" music more unpopular than ever. There were attempts to reconcile the two worlds, but to no avail. Then came John Adams and his "Short Ride on a Fast Machine:" tonal, consonant, uplifting, and fun. Written for the concert hall, but sounding like a film score. Minimalist music had been around a while, but Adams gave us something that was new and cutting-edge and still understandable to the untrained ear. My sincerest hope is that modern composers continue to create approachable works and draw larger audiences to concert halls and I feel that in time, history will credit "Short Ride" as a turning point in the re-popularization of classical music.
8. Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad" by Dmitri Shostakovich. This symphony was the soundtrack to my Junior year in college. It opens with broad chords, like a sunrise over St. Petersburg. Then the trouble starts. A funny little march tune in the flutes. It grows slowly, getting closer and closer and as it approaches, it gets more worriesome. Before you know it, the troops are upon us with terrifying force. That harmless little tune has become, brutal, unforgiving, and destructive. Air raid sirens howl in the violins, bombs explode all around, and machine guns rattle away in the percussion section. When it's all over, the city is a crumbling ruin and death is all around. Shostakovich had originally intended to depict the siege of Leningrad in one movement, but later decided to expand it into a four-movement work. These later movements expound on his ideas and offer hope for the rebuilding of the city. The best part, in my mind, is the subversive nature of the piece. Shostakovich told Russian censors that he was depicting the Nazi invasion of the city, but secretly felt that it was the communists who had destroyed St. Petersburg from the inside, long before Hitler's army showed up.
9. The Planets by Gustav Holst. Such a great tone poem - each movement expresses the character of a mythological god or titan for which a planet is named. The style of each movement is pitch-perfect and the vibrant and colorful orchestrations are really exciting. My favorite parts are (in order) Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter. Mercury whizzes by in a flash of colors and crazy polytonality, the lopsided, relentless march of Mars is truly scary (and often copied - it's a touchstone for tons of movie music) and Jupiter, "the bringer of jolity," is full of joy and is tempered with just a touch of wistful sadness. The other movements are pretty great too, from the broad solo horn that opens Venus to the clamoring chimes of Uranus to the spooky chorus in Neptune. The whole work is so consistently excellent that it never fails to impress. It's also really fun to play.
10. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy. The piece that defines the entire "impressionist" movement, this luminous one-movement work is like a snow globe - a miniature, self-contained fantasy world. The simple augmented scale that opens the piece leads to incandescent harp runs, glowing horns, and wistful, lazy melodies that waft throughout on a cool breeze of violin harmonics. The orchestration is an integral element in the piece, everything in soft edges that just don't translate in a reduction. Also, this prelude is unmistakably Debussy - no one else could have created it and it remains a singular musical achievement.
So that's my top ten. I should note that I limited myself to one piece per composer - otherwise you'd see The Firebird, Mozart's Piano Concerto #20, La Mer, and many others. Hope you enjoyed!