Saturday, November 06, 2010

AMS Indianapolis 2010: Apologies, Musings, and Summaries

First, I'd like to issue a public apology to Ryan and Drew for missing amusicology's gathering on Thursday night. That tops the list of regrets I always seem to accumulate at every AMS conference, due to too many plans and not enough time.

Secondly, I apologize AGAIN to Ryan for missing what I'm sure was an absolutely spectacular paper: "Rewriting the History of (Symphonic) Jazz: Duke Ellington's arrangements of Rhapsody in Blue."

My list of regrets is rather long this year due to several cross-schedulings that I wish had not been (Elizabeth Morgan's paper on Haydn's C Major Fantasia (Pianism session) against the Haydn and Mozart session?? It would have been nice if she had been on the second half of the Pianism session and therefore at least up against Mozart, instead of Haydn). Apologies to Elizabeth.

And Phil's very thoughtful post on Michael Broyles paper, "Beethoven Was Black. Why Does It Matter" was MUCH appreciated since I couldn't make it to that session.

On the flipside, I did get to hear Dean Sutcliffe talk about the "shapes of sociability" and the 'gracious riposte' in Haydn's music. This was followed by a presentation on Haydn's lesser known second opera house at Esterháza, bringing together the work of a musicologist, theater historian, and an acoustician.

Tim Carter's paper on Kurt Weill and the Federal Theater Project was illuminating and certainly the most engaging paper in terms of delivery that I've yet to see this year. I also enjoyed YouYoung Kang's offerings on the WPA and the sort of political overtones/current state-of-affairs ushered in by the audience comments.

Danielle Fossler-Lussier's paper, "'The right and best ambassador': Marian Anderson, Louis Armstrong, and the U.S. Reception of Cultural Diplomacy" was eye-opening in the way it demonstrated how being a cultural ambassador abroad can often be a "no-win" situation here at home, where "representation" is such a muddled mess of a concept.

Now, I'm gearing up for the Haydn Society of North America meeting--looking forward to fruitful discussion!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Critiquing the Critic: The Don Rosenberg Ordeal

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that we agree that music criticism (and arts criticism, in general) is, in itself, an art. Certainly it takes a measure of creativity to mold “It stinks” into:

While we are enjoying the delight of so much science and melody, and eagerly anticipating its continuance, on a sudden, like the fleeting pleasures of life, or the spirited young adventurer, who would fly from ease and comfort at home to the inhospitable shores of New Zealand or Lake Ontario, we are snatched away from such eloquent music, to crude, wild and extraneous harmonies…(Review of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, London, 1825—See Nicolas Slonimsky: Lexicon of Musical Invective, 44).

While we might chuckle at the historic evaluation of a Beethovenian masterpiece as “crude”, there is certainly no question that the reviewer is engaging in the act of music criticism. The critique is an expression of opinion---in the above example we learn, in addition to Beethoven’s Ninth, the writer is also not disposed toward the shores of New Zealand.

All of this is my opening salvo to, what I hope, is a springboard for further discussion and dialogue surrounding the Donald Rosenberg case. I will offer several links in this piece to people who have been covering this conflict from the beginning, but will give a quick snapshot from the New Yorker for those who may not be familiar with the case:

The Cleveland Plain Dealer created a scandal when it demoted its staff classical-music critic, Donald Rosenberg, to general arts-reporter status because of his overwhelmingly negative reviews of the Cleveland Orchestra-specifically its conductor, Franz Welser-Möst. Now Rosenberg is suing the conductor, the Plain Dealer, the orchestra, and specific staff members of both organizations, detailing a conspiracy in which the orchestra put massive pressure on the newspaper.”[1]

In a nutshell, the lawsuit happened, and Mr. Rosenberg lost. Read Anne Midgette's (Washington Post) take here. In an engaging and all-too-brief TweetChat last night, Peter Friedman (law professor at Case Western Reserve) commented on the frivolity of the lawsuit from a legal standpoint. The chat, conducted on the social networking site Twitter, formally featured Friedman, Tim Smith (classical music critic at the Baltimore Sun), and Janice Harayda (novelist and editor of One-Minute Book Reviews). Several other “tweeps,” including this writer, also chimed in. The discussion can be tracked/read on Twitter using the hashtag #DonR. Friedman has admirably covered the legal issues, or lack thereof, and has offered his opinions on the aforementioned at his blog.

While I tentatively concur, given my admitted lack of legal expertise, that Mr. Rosenberg did not have legal grounds to file suit against the Cleveland Orchestra and Plain Dealer, I do think the larger issue bears examination by anyone interested in arts criticism, either from the reader’s perspective, the writer’s perspective, or that of a performing organization. Mr. Rosenberg does indeed have the “right” to criticize Maestro Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting. The Cleveland Orchestra also has the “right” not to like it. No one questions the “right” to have opinions, or at least, I hope not. But what happens when your occupation is defined by your ability to give your opinion?

Let’s remove the sense of “art” from criticism and look at it as a bare bones employment issue. WANTED: Music Critic JOB DESCRIPTION: To give subjective and ‘informed’ evaluations of music and the performances thereof. This is an over-simplification, I realize. I also don’t know what the Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s job description looked like. But my point is this (and it has been made by others as well): Is the success of a critic based solely on giving good reviews? Certainly, if a critic seems to have an unreasonable axe to grind with a specific performer or organization, it might then be best to divide the criticism responsibilities, as Tim Smith suggested in the TweetChat last night: “I hate to second-guess an editor, but SG [Susan Goldberg] could have gone all Solomon and divvied up Franz reviews between Don and Zack [Lewis].” Barry Johnson, who has also blogged about the situation, offered another suggestion: “You could even [arrange] live encounters (Ali v. Frazier) and employed recordings of various versions of the music,” implying that even negative criticism can provide an opportunity to enlarge engagement with the arts.

The ramifications of this (and other similar cases) are frightening in an age where arts criticism is being cut from publications at an alarming rate. One point that did not get addressed in last night’s chat was the fact that the publisher of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer sits on the Board of the Cleveland Orchestra. This brings us to the next wrinkle: conflict of interest.

I am “connected” to multiple organizations in Boston: two conservatories, a chorus, and a handful of others in a less-direct way. I am sensitive to the conflict-of-interest issue, and I decline opportunities to review certain concerts because of it. However, the Boston-Musical Intelligencer, for which I write, and which has received initial support from the Harvard Musical Association, is ostensibly far more “connected” to myriad music organizations in the greater Boston area. I would venture less than six degrees of separation between most of the large organizations and our editor, Robert Levin. Does this mean we should avoid negative reviews of these organizations? Should we not review them at all? The Intelligencer’s goal, as stated on the website, is: “to review as many as possible, especially those deemed most important and unjustly neglected by our editors. Our reviewers are to be drawn from Boston’s most distinguished musicians and musical academics under the leadership of Robert Levin.” As with most journalistic publications, the editors make the decisions about what should be covered—no surprises there. That is the right of the publication. But does a publication have the right to control the nature of the reviews?

Don Rosenberg was not alone in his dislike of Franz Welser-Möst’s musical leadership. Two letters to the Editor of the CPD supported Rosenberg’s general assessment of Welser-Möst, claiming “When he conducts, the performances are below dull and boring on the classical music scale of excellence” and “[Welser-Möst] gave Debussy's "Iberia" an uninteresting, perfunctory, metronomic performance. He's out of synch when conducting the music of Debussy and Ravel.”[2] Rosenberg’s criticism, to be sure, was unflinching in its dislike of Welser-Möst’s “non-interventionist” approach in a review of a 2007 performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony:

When [Welser-Möst] wasn't pressing the orchestra toward ear-shattering harshness, [he] dropped dynamics to a whisper that sapped the music of all character. Even the serenity of the second movement was compromised as the ensemble toiled to maintain rhythmic unity. The third-movement Scherzo held no terror, and it was treated so rigidly that the marvelous trumpets had little space to sing.”[3]
I fail to see unsubstantiated invective in this particular review, although I do admit I am not a regular reader of Mr. Rosenberg’s work. It does lack any sugar-coating, that is for certain, but Rosenberg has also made sure to make his own expectations clear: “serenity” in the second movement and “terror” in the third.

Listening to music is such an extraordinary endeavor precisely because it can be such a contrasting experience for two different listeners. Music criticism, whether it is an art or a task, is not objective. If that were the case, the world would only need one über-critic to meet all our needs, and that would be that. A good review isn’t one with which you necessarily agree, but one that presents both an opinion and the subjective background for that opinion. Ostensibly, in the case of a professional music critic, the critic’s credentials testify to their own subjective background as well as their qualifications for the job. But the critic cannot give voice to the same sorts of artistic evaluation that so freely flows in letters to the editors, blog posts and comments, if he/she is going to be subject to “re-assignment” (or worse) over negative reviews. That is, in effect, impeding the ability of the critic to do his/her job.

So, we must decide, for ourselves, and as a supposedly “cultured” society, whether or not arts criticism is a valuable endeavor and component of the arts. The over-arching problem of politicization of the arts is a topic too large for this article, but I am aware that it lurks in the background, threatening to squash all my ideological naivete. If, as I wrote in the TweetChat last night, all we expect are “pandering, fluffy reviews,” then I think we are headed to a sorry place in our cultural history, where music performance and appreciation thereof will become the work of automatons whose ears receive musical input that is merely thrust back out, bypassing the heart and soul completely.

[2] See letters by William Farragher and Roger Gilruth (accessed 10 August 2010).

[3] Donald Rosenberg, Review of Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall, October 11, 2007. (Posted 12 October 2007). (accessed 10 August 2010)

Note: A slightly revised/edited version of this post has been published at the Boston Musical Intelligencer

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Limits of Surprise

Mona Lisa

Credit: Mona Lisa Pictures

Earlier this month, Greg Sandow reported here and here on a new recording of Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 “Surprise”, wherein the so-called “surprise” fortissimo chord is left out of the second movement, creating a fresh “surprise” for the modern listener. As is often the case when reading Sandow’s posts, even the ones with which I don’t agree, I felt the familiar rumble of musicological mischief in the back of my mind (mischief on my part, that is). I regret that various writing assignments have kept me from blogging about this in a more timely manner, but I hope that the relevancy of the issue will outlast the month of July 2010.

Sandow writes:

A tired old issue: How dare we change the notes Haydn wrote? Isn't our job to realize his intentions? Even assuming that was true (and I think -- speaking as a composer myself -- that it's a very limited idea of what performance is), Haydn's most important intention here was the surprise. The notes are only his way of achieving it. So if the notes no longer can surprise we really honor his intentions by stubbornly playing exactly what he wrote?

I don’t think the issue is tired at all, but is at the very crux of the continuing polemic dialogue between historically-informed performance, teaching of music history, “canonical” models, etc.

There are a few aspects here to consider. First and foremost is the issue of audience. It is true--I am no longer ‘surprised’ by the loud chord in the second movement, and yes, I’ve never seen a student jump out of their seat at a first hearing. I disagree with Sandow that Haydn’s most important intention was this one chord in the Andante. He was too good a composer to rest the success of a piece on an experience that can truly only be had once. I also don’t believe that Haydn was writing with the 2010 audience in mind, but instead was quite content to offer a surprise for his 1792 audience (as Griesinger confirms). As a musicologist and teacher, the success of the piece for me does not ride on that moment, but instead on the fact it exists at all. It is, as Steven Paul offered in 1975, “…a masterly surprise within a surprise, a practical joke, the musical equivalent of the punchline” ( Larsen/Serwer/Webster, eds. Haydn Studies, 452). Part of what defines Haydn is his contribution of wit to eighteenth century music. This is a fantastic example, but just one of many.

Sandow says of the recording:

For a while I listened with refreshed ears. But then I sank into the familiar non-expectation with which I listen to so many performances of standard repertoire. I know the music. The performance sounds fine, but it doesn't show me anything.

This opens up a second can of proverbial worms. I agree that every performance of any musical work should bring something new, but I probably disagree with Sandow about what that should be. Unlike traditional painting, for instance, music isn’t static and there is this dynamic aspect of performance that creates the work anew in some sense. One might offer that viewing the Mona Lisa would be a truly fresh experience if the painting were placed in a different frame, a different room, or with different lighting. But do we display the Mona Lisa upside down just to “show” something?

So this brings me back to the example at hand: Haydn’s “surprise.” I still smile knowing that Haydn is defying convention and throwing in a little laugh in the middle of a fairly trite theme and variations movement. The second movement is an entire package, not just that chord. Paul, with input from Walter Gerboth, calls the “surprise” a “gratuitous addition” and it is the gratuitousness of the chord that is the true surprise, rather than the force of Paukenschlag itself. Haydn’s point was just to insert a “novelty,” according to Griesinger, and while I think Minkowski’s recording offers a witty commentary on a brief moment in the piece, I also believe we should be careful about our expectations for performance. I may know every note of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, but that does not make the impassioned C Major affirmation of the fourth movement any less relevant to the piece than is the insistent four note motive. I don’t need grace notes added to the motive or a resounding C minor arpeggiation in the last movement as a postmodern commentary on what actually happened to Beethoven. While “as the composer intended” is indeed tricky terrain through which to navigate, there are limits to what we can “change” about a piece and still have it be a performance of THAT piece. The challenge of performing classical repertoire is that we maintain the preservation obligations of a museum, but the curatorial contexts are ever-changing and invite an unending dialogue between performer and listener.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Joy of Critical Thinking

Summer might seem like an odd time to blog about plagiarism, but it is a great opportunity for me to think about it, rather than react to it. At the end of the year I am inundated with plagiarized papers ranging from completely cut-and-paste jobs to citation infractions. I spend the first day of class reviewing plagiarism, how to cite, etc. and I pass out a "Guide to Citation," stressing that the attribution is more important to me than the format (at least for the classes where it is a large problem).

Because I teach music history to performers (primarily), I try to draw parallels between the plagiarism of musicological work and the Joyce Hatto scandal. Most of them find the idea of falsifying a recording fairly horrible, so I try to explain that plagiarism in their papers is no less offensive to me. The idealist in me supposes that this little speech does the trick, but then there it is again at the end of the semester: plagiarism everywhere.

A friend posted this intriguing article on his Facebook page, and it made me think more carefully about plagiarism and the assumptions I make. A lot of the plagiarism I encounter comes from students whose facility with written and spoken English is minimal. These are good students otherwise, who attend class regularly, turn in their assignments on time, and generally pass quizzes. There are, however, two major issues I have encountered that rise out of the same cultural conflict. The first is questioning authority figures. The second is fear of thinking critically.

I do not believe that students lack the ABILITY to think critically. I think, in the best cases, the ability simply hasn't been encouraged or cultivated, and in the worst cases, they have been taught to fear it. The language barrier, coupled with the cultural barrier, often means that when I say, "Is that clear?" it really isn't clear at all to them, but I'll never find out until it manifests in a plagiarized paper. A student once wrote in his/her evaluation: "Sometimes I have trouble understanding what we talk about in class, but I don't want to stop class to ask a question." Another student said she was worried about taking up my time with questions after class and felt it was disrespectful to make me read bad English.

So now I try to impart that I'd rather read their original thoughts in terrible English, than someone else's ideas and words in perfect prose. Most of them now write and rephrase in their own words, but I'm still struggling with getting them to use their own ideas, analyses, and reactions. I don't want to rule out the use of secondary sources completely, because I think they need to know how to use those as well (and sometimes that is all that is available). But how do I not only make them believe that I WANT to read their thoughts, but that their thoughts are also valuable to THEM?

I have various strategies (journals wherein they are graded on their own reaction to the music they hear, etc), but I'm eager to hear how the collective wisdom deals with these issues.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

SAM 2010 Part II

Phil has offered some very sane, well-phrased, and constructive criticisms of Thursday's seminar, and I certainly hope TPTB will take note. Let's see...where were we? Ah, yes, Friday afternoon.

One issue, but not necessarily problem, is that those of us blogging SAM2010 tend to go to the same sessions, but perhaps next year, we can recruit more bloggers to participate or do guest blogging spots, thereby "covering" a wider range of papers/events.

Like Drew, I attended the Cold War Anxieties session during the late morning of Friday. Phil's paper was, as expected, fantastic, and started churning a whole lot of thoughts in my mind. Even just listening to the snippet of Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety" got me thinking about de-volution in musical codas, and how much the end of the Epilogue seems like the reverse experience of Stravinsky's Firebird with its 'born from the ashes' finale. Phil talked about how it avoids "triumphalism," but I felt it used some of the same techniques inherent in "triumphant" endings, but to push it toward anxiety, rather than triumph. I can't wait to get home and spend some more time with the work. And that is what a good paper should do. We start the Cold War unit in my 'War and Music in the US' class on Tuesday, so Phil's paper and the others gave me a lot of food for thought. Jennifer Delapp-Birkett offered some revelations from the FBI files on Copland which are immediately relevant to my own research, so there is a contact I need to make. Keith Hatschek's paper on Dave Brubeck's 1958 State Dept.-sponsored tour was fascinating for interpolated questions of race, Cold War politics, and musical style. I also appreciated Leann Wood's paper on the Cold War reception of the film The Music Man, and found myself amused at the questions of martiality and regimented music that can be appropriated by either side .

My afternoon was spent at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. We had a great tour, including an excellent demonstration of hoop dancing (see photo). Our guide was one of the people who was instrumental in the development of the First Peoples exhibit and so we received very good insights into the questions of curation that come up when you have to negotiate anthropology and archaeology. Rather than pigeonhole each tribe or group into their own little museum slots, the approach at the Museum is more reflective of the cultural dialogue between groups, and between the past and present. He cited intermarriage and trade culture as two reasons to approach it this way. A very impressive museum in a fascinating building.

The evening ended at Drew and Phil's no-host blogger reception at the Armada Lounge. When we finally gained access to the Armada Lounge (which sits atop The Brig), we were pleased to welcome a large contingent from the SAM Student Dinner.

TODAY (Saturday)

I started my morning off with Rebecca Bennett's (Northwestern) paper, "Virgil Thomson and Theodor Adorno: An Unlikely Team Fights an "Appreciation Racket" and thought about the resonance of their criticism in today's climate (specifically the hullabaloo over WGBH/WCRB in Boston--the link is to just one of many related articles from the Boston Musical Intelligencer). Then I jumped over to hear David Paul's (UCSB) great paper, "Does the Cradle Still Rock? Recreating an Infamous Premiere on Film," which investigated, among other things, the political resonance of three screenplays for film versions of Blitzstein's Cradle Will Rock (Lardner, Welles, and Tim Robbins). Lastly, I caught my former graduate colleague Revell Carr's (UNC Greensboro) fascinating paper on Charles Derby's California Hula Tour in 1862. I had to banish images of grass skirts and coconut shells as Rev showed a photo of hula dancers in 1862 who looked like a cross between Gibson Girls and Hawaiian aboriginals. It was amusing to see Victorian sensibilities inform something that has been popularly linked with the erotic in the modern day (however erroneously).

I'm looking forward to this afternoon's panel on Composer-Fellowships at the American Academy in Rome, with presentations by Judith Tick, Carol Oja, and Martin Brody.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pseudo-live-blogging Society for American Music 2010 (Ottawa)

One of the great joys of these conferences is the opportunity to see friends and colleagues. Dinner last night with Phil , and sitting on a panel (of sorts) yesterday with Drew, made me realize I very much miss blogging. So, in an attempt to re-energize my own blogging endeavors, I'm going to offer a few summaries of various happenings here at SAM in BEAUTIFUL Ottawa.

Like Drew, I'd like to chat with the participants in the other "seminar" format session: "Nineteenth-Century American Music Studies." Our seminar session, "The Art of Association" was an interesting experiment with lots of room for improvement, but also a lot of future potential. Drew has summarized the logistics and the participants over at amusicology, so I won't repeat here, but it was a pleasure to be a guinea pig as SAM looks toward shaking things up a bit in the conference world. ;-)

Day 2 (Today) has been exciting, having heard two great papers thus far:
  • Maureen DeMaio (UC Santa Barbara), "The Decline of Anti-Semitic Antimodernism: Daniel Gregory Mason and American Responses to Nazism in the 1930s
  • Elissa Harbert (Northwestern), "Italian Musicians in the Early United States, 1780-1830"
Maureen is ABD at my graduate alma mater and presented a recasting of Mason as affected by both the rise of Nazism in Europe and his friend Ossip Gabrilovich/witsch. In 1938, he reflects on his "ill-considered" words in earlier articles and works, assuming some responsibility for Gabrilovich's "deep-seated and almost voiceless" despair.

Elissa's work with Italian immigrant musicians, including Lorenzo da Ponte, was absolutely fascinating and tied in nicely with some of the issues explored yesterday during the "Art of Association" seminar. The genres with which musicians were involved (opera/oratorio vs. band/dance music) seems to have had some impact on the success of these musicians in the U.S.

I also enjoyed a poster session by Trudi Wright (University of Colorado, Boulder) on the evolution of Pins and Needles from a late Depression production of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union to a Broadway hit.

On tap (intended, anyway) for the rest of today:
  • Cold War Anxieties session, with papers by Phil Gentry, Jennifer Delapp-Birkett, Keith Hatschek, and Leanne Wood, chaired by Howard Pollack.
  • A tour of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (SAM has this lovely tradition of an afternoon "off" to take in the sights)
  • Concert and Presentation of Honorary Membership to composer R. Murray Schafer
  • AND, last, but not least, Drew and Phil's no-host blogger reception at the Armada Lounge (careful piano music set to auto-play on website) starting at 9pm.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Checking in with 2009-10

I'm probably not alone in marking my "years" by the academic calendar, rather than the Jan-Dec plan on which the rest of the world seems to run. ;-) That this is/has been the busiest year of my life is not overstating the situation. I've tested my limits, and I'm living to tell the tale.

At the end of Summer 2009, I wrote this post, with a list of everything I needed to prepare for Fall 2009 (and into Spring 2010). I think it is good idea to re-examine that list and see where I'm at for Spring 2010.

Syllabi (Spring 2010)

4.75 / 5

History Proficiency Exam (to write, not take...)
0 / 1

Book Reviews
1 / 2

Conference Papers (EEK!)
0 / 1

Program Notes
3 / 5

Pre-concert Lectures DONE!
1 / 1

Elections to coordinate/tabulate DONE!
1 / 1

Concerts to Review
1 / 9

Competitions to adjudicate
0 / 2

The list above represents the items to which I have commitments/have been accepted. Below I've included some goals for this year.

Conference abstracts to submit
0 / 3

Articles to submit
0 / 2

Book Proposal to outline
0 / 1

HMM. Very telling, indeed.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Bostonians v. WGBH/WCRB

On Tuesday night, I served as a respondent for the forum on the future of Classical Music radio in Boston. Organized by the Boston Musical Intelligencer, the forum saw an audience of roughly 400 people in Old South Church in Copley Square, some of whom arrived an hour early to “get a good seat.” The main attraction was billed as a panel comprised of broadcast journalist Chris Lydon; the fiery announcer and former general manager of WCRB, Dave MacNeill; music critic emeritus for the Boston Globe, Richard Dyer; and John Voci, general manager of WGBH radio. The gavel-wielder was none other than former Massachusetts Senate president and current president of the University of Massachusetts, William Bulger.

Long before questions were posed from the audience, the room was vibrating with the anger, frustration, and sense of injustice felt by a great many Bostonians who felt their music had been “taken away” by WGBH’s latest business decisions, most notably the cancellation of the Friday afternoon broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the move of all classical programming to 99.5 WCRB, recently acquired by WGBH.

My question for Mr. Voci, which received encouraging applause, was in regard to a rumored 75-page document in WGBH’s possession, full of listener comments regarding the recent changes. I asked what percentage of those comments were positive, and to my surprise, Mr. Voci replied that he had not seen it. I was assigned this question by the BMInt and was originally uncomfortable asking a question about a document only rumored to exist. But now I’m glad the question was asked because it opened the door for two more: 1) if the document does exist, why HASN’T Mr. Voci, as general manager, seen it? And 2) if the document doesn’t exist, WHY NOT? As one audience member opined, there needs to be a better feedback mechanism on the WCRB and WGBH websites. Facebook pages, while a crucial and important venue for commentary, are exclusionary to a good portion of GBH/CRB listeners whose internet involvement may be limited and who don’t wish to join Facebook in order to comment. We know that people have written comments on their donation cards and I’d be willing to bet some people have even written…*gasp*…letters! “Listener-supported radio” needs to have…well, listener support. So, it does seem that the comments from said listeners would be the primary resource for assessing that level of support, much more so than the spurious Arbitron ratings.

After asking my question, I sat back and watched and listened. Unlike many of those present, I’m a fairly recent transplant to Boston. I don’t listen to the radio much as I don’t drive very often and I listen to music for a living (class prep, program notes, pre-concert lectures), which leaves very little time to tune in to the radio. But I lived in a place for ten years where Vivaldi and Massenet’s "Meditation from Thaïs" (two of Tuesday night's audience’s favorite signifiers of mediocrity in programming) were popular programming choices for the local classical music radio station. In that city, relative populations aside, it would be hard for me to imagine that 40 people would have shown up to “defend” classical music radio, much less 400. Chris Lydon did attempt to drive home the point that Boston is a “wildly interesting” place, culturally and intellectually, and that “we should demand the best from our public institutions.” And on Tuesday night, those demands were made, with varying levels of eloquence, but almost uniform sincerity. That those demands were not MET on the spot, should come as no surprise. But a gathering of 400 people is hard to ignore.

From some of the comments I’ve read at various other fora, I gather there was definitely a wide range of expectations for the evening. Laments that the hour and a half event “solved nothing” seem to me to have missed the greater point. Some Bostonians, armed with the heritage of the Boston Tea Party, expected too much (from Mr. Voci, in particular). While I am not interested in defending the actions of WGBH, Mr. Voci behaved exactly in the manner I expected. He is but one person in an organization—he responded to questions with businesslike diplomacy, dutifully took notes, and made no promises. What many of these commenters fail to see is that the evening was not really meant to be about Mr. Voci or any of the other panelists. Nor was it about the reviewers from the Intelligencer who served as respondents. It was in fact about the four hundred people who filled the seats of that church.

There is great cause for concern here because the issues at hand are indicative of a growing trend in dismissing classical music from the cultural scene. Unlike painting, sculpture and many of the visual arts, music is not static art. Classical music radio is a museum of ever-changing and completely temporal exhibits…it should never be satisfied with a limited permanent collection. Unlike the Louvre, which has the luxury of having people come to it in order to see the Mona Lisa, classical music radio must bring its museum to the people. As an FM broadcaster, WGBH has signed on to that mode of transport. Telling people to listen in HD, or to use the internet, or to buy new stereo equipment, is tantamount to blocking off the ramps and stairways to the museum and asking folks to rappel through the skylights. If WGBH had started an internet radio station in addition to current offerings, this would be a completely different situation. But the fact of the matter is that people feel robbed. Bruce Mittman, president of Mittcom, and member of WGBH Coporate Executive Council, used the word “offload” in referring to moving the classical music programming to 99.5, going on to say that the move would “make the station [WGBH] more pure.” (1) If purity is what we are after in the way we establish cultural and artistic legacies, then the situation is more dire than I imagine.

What Tuesday night’s forum DID accomplish, is that WGBH has been put on notice. People ARE listening and watching. I’m an optimist so I’d like to believe that there will be more changes to come that will put this situation back on track, and I’m even willing to wait a bit. I don’t envy WGBH one bit. Arbitrating aesthetics is awfully difficult. There are a great many people whose idea of good classical music IS Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Meditation from Thais, etc and they shouldn’t be excluded from this conversation either. I’m sure many who sat in the church would be aghast at my personal idea of “good” classical music (which is why the internet is my listening source of choice). But what WGBH must realize is that IS the task before them. It isn’t just about business decisions…art never is. As a business, WGBH made a decision. How much that decision will compromise the organization’s role as a guardian of culture will be measured in the coming months.

(1) Greater Boston, September 21, 2009

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