Entertainment Music

I Guess Classical Radio Is Dead After All

[edited to add…]
My fears were exaggerated. WQXR is actually better than what it used to be. The music they’re playing is consistently interesting and not at all trivial. I find I’m listening to it at least as much as I am to the new (crappier) XM classical lineup.

[This was the original post:]

Once upon a time, when I first moved to this part of the country, New York City had three thriving radio stations for classical music fans. WNYC was the long-established public radio station, with live broadcasts, no commercials, and a fresh approach. WQXR, owned by The New York Times, was the stodgy “Radio Free Park Avenue” source for classical-as-background sewing-machine baroque string music, with the occasional major symphony live broadcast plus the Metropolitan Opera every weekend. And WNCN was the adventurous choice higher up on the dial, though with more commercials.

WNCN went bust a long time ago. WNYC has been in the process of moving into an all-talk format for some time. They’d already given up on classical during the time I was most likely to listen, weekends during the day. And WQXR was about to go under as well, until WXQR bought their license and promised to keep their classical format. That way, WNYC could go, at last, to all-talk; while still preserving one classical choice for New Yorkers.

The hope was that WQXR’s format could be livened up a little, some of the stodgier announcers shown the door, cut down on the endless commercials, and in the process make their programming choices less, well, commercial.

Alas, it’s not to be. The headline in the Times’ article this morning is, “More but Selective Music for the New WQXR.” Some excerpts:

Don’t expect to hear much vocal music. Vivaldi? “Just about anything.”

I’ve already got a problem. No vocal music is one of the most-common symptoms of weak classical programming, based on some focus group or survey or something of blue-haired stay-at-homes. And I’m so tired of Vivaldi I can’t tell you. If I hear “Winter” from “The Seasons” one more time it’s not going to be pretty.

WNYC officials were clear that much of its music would remain safe and on the traditional side in an effort not to alienate its longtime listeners…there may indeed be times when the more radical and unfamiliar pieces work, but we will not favor them over the work that speaks directly to the needs of uplift, beauty and contemplation.

While I completely understand why early Penderecki or anything by Xenakis might not be ideal choices for the commercial radio dial, I don’t put much hope in whatever their superficial notion of “uplift” might mean. Sometimes I want to contemplate the complexity and variety of serious music, and not just treat music like the painting over the sofa while I contemplate something else. Apparently, the more adventurous stuff will wind up on their internet stream; but I don’t get the internet in my car, at least not yet.

The programmers also provided a sample list of “core composers” and the works that would most likely play on the radio versus the internet…Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner were there. So were Copland, Janacek, Gershwin, Satie, Sibelius and the ever-popular Vivaldi. Mahler was missing.

Now I’ve really got a problem. Why do I think that we’re really going to be hearing the most dumbed-down repertory?

Sibelius’ symphonies but not his tone poems; Janacek chamber works but not operas. Brahms symphonies but not choral works; Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos but not the late piano sonatas, songs or chamber works.

There’s the smoking gun: not the late piano sonatas. It’s clear they’re aiming for “pretty,” and leave “interesting” out of the picture as much as possible.

Vivaldi had sweeping approval. Except for “shorter sacred works.”

There you have it. I wonder if I’ll get around to even making it a pre-set on my car radio. Well there’s still satellite radio, right?

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Well, ever since the Sirius/XM merger, the classical programming has been about as deep as a coloring book. One would get the impression that Grieg was the most important composer of all time. And the once-fascinating “Vox” channel for vocal music is now Metropolitan Opera Radio. I play a little game with myself when I switch to that channel — Which Verdi opera will they be playing? I’m seldom surprised. It’s really not been worth the subscription fee lately.

Well there’s still the CD changer…

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