Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I don't understand Classical Radio

This is not the first time I've ranted about classical radio.  I have been fortunate to live in some places with really good classical radio stations (I grew up with KUSC in Los Angeles, where I heard many great pieces and performers for the first time, and, here in Boston, WGBH is one of the best).  However, I am often perplexed at the programming choices, and I wonder if anyone else feels as I do.

What confuses me is the amount of second-rate music being programmed.  I understand that there would be *some* interest in hearing lesser-known music.  But today in the car - during morning "drive time," when I assume competition for radio listeners is particularly keen - we had, in succession, works by: Antonio Salieri; Lennox Berkeley (who?); Jean-Louis Tulou (again, who?); Ottorino Respighi (a known composer, though not of the first rank); and Bernhard Henrik Crusell (who??).  I know a lot about classical music and had never heard of these composers.  And trust me, there was not a single piece among these that I need or want to hear a second time.

Who, among the listeners of classical radio, would rather hear that much garbage without being interrupted by SOMETHING by a great composer?  Today's experience was not an isolated one - I have noticed this time and time again during the morning when driving to Boston Conservatory, when I am made to wonder, "Is Classical Music really this boring?" only to realize that there have existed, throughout history, mediocre, uninspired composers, and fortunately I usually don't bother to listen to their music.

Now I understand that people are excited to discover something "new," though the Spohr Violin Concerto I managed to miss hearing this morning (thankfully) was written 200 years ago - we've had plenty of time to figure out that this is not important music.  

On this very same radio station in the afternoon, the programming was MUCH better - a Brahms Symphony, a Beethoven Quartet, and yes, the occasional novelty, but one that had been carefully selected as a neglected but worthwhile piece (say, the Poulenc Flute Sonata, or a less-played Tchaikovsky orchestral piece).  Am I the only one who doesn't like having my time wasted?  And was the programming better in the afternoon as a response to different kinds of listeners?  Are the afternoon listeners more discriminating, or less forgiving of banality?

I think the reason I am so worked up about this is that some people in the world - most, probably - see classical music as dull, sleepy, a relic of bygone eras.  I KNOW that it isn't this way - and when radio stations play @#)$(* like I heard this morning, they are losing the opportunity to open people's eyes to the Beethoven "Appassionata" Sonata or Schubert's "Winterreise."  It is only confirming those listeners' impression that classical music is irrelevant, when they hear the Tulou Nocturne for harp and flute.  Little do they know what they are missing when they don't know the Shostakovich 10th Symphony, or the Bach Chaconne.  

By the way, I should clarify that I don't mean music always has to be serious.  I don't mean to suggest we should only be dining on steak, but there is such a thing as a great dessert.  I do NOT usually enjoy Saint-Saens (that's like ordering a steak at Denny's) but I certainly enjoy the music of Fritz Kreisler, for example.


Jason T said...

To your point, those crazy guys at WQXR in New York are, right at this moment, playing a recording of Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances performed by some guy named Max something...

Jason T said...

OK but to make a real point (obviously I was joking), how much of this is commercial in nature? Of those no-name composers you named, how much of that music fills the "easy listening" desires of some of the audience the radio station is trying to get to boost its numbers? (I am totally unfamiliar with those composers, so this is not a rhetorical question). I think commercial stations are really struggling, and even non-profit operations like WGBH need to attract enough listeners to justify their classical programming to their management.

So what I wonder is, could it be they think this is actually increasing listenership, and doing it out of desperation between the more worthwhile works they are programming?

Max Levinson said...

Mr T - So glad to get your input here. And glad to hear QXR has the good sense to play that Bartok recording, haha.

The "easy listening" issue is actually a separate one, I think. On paper, I expect that classical stations, desperate for listeners, will turn to whatever seems less "challenging" to their listeners. In general, I think familiarity is less challenging, so I would have thought playing a very short playlist of familiar pieces would do more to make it "easy listening." This is, I think, the approach of Top 40 format stations, and even of your typical "classic rock" station, which while saying "every day is a no-repeat day," they end up playing pretty much the same songs each day, just in a different order.

So it surprises me that a radio station would go to a lot of trouble to program mediocre pieces that were best left in obscurity, when daily "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" is what I would assume would keep the "marginal" listeners tuned-in. But I must be wrong, because I am sure you are right that the programming decision IS somehow designed attract listeners in a world with too many entertainment choices. Elsewhere on this blog I have wondered whether mediocrity is somehow more conducive to fulfilling the function of background music for people's lives. In other words, maybe (and this is just a thought) Beethoven is just too interesting an engaging, whereas a person can read the newspaper without being distracted by a shlocky piece for flute and harp.

By the way, as if to prove me wrong, the station I was writing about originally has included some great morning programming in the last couple of days, including Wagner's "Tannhauser" Overture.

Max Levinson said...

Oh, and one more thing - the station YOU (JAT) used to slave away at continues to have good, solid classical music programming (I think during the afternoon and maybe evening), even if many of those supposedly well-educated hosts sometimes seem to have trouble pronouncing "Mozart" properly.

Tim Black said...

KVOD Denver disappeared from our listening area about 3 years ago and is sorely missed. My beef is often stations don't play all the movements of a work. Some the Brahms piano quartets 30+ minute long. I'm thankful to have them on vinyl.

Enrique Sanchez said...

Max, Max...Don't waste your time with local radio stations. I am a devotee of Sirius/XM satellite radio and the choices are obvious; Three classical stations! One called Symphony Hall, another Classical Pop and the third Metropolitan Opera. There is enough there to keep my mind entertained which mood I am in. I don't work for them, by the way! It's about 12 dollars a month and you get nearly 100 other type stations to choose from.