Friday, January 8, 2010

Boston Classical Music in a Digital Age

Notes on the change in news and music programming at WGBH and WCRB

Twenty-eight years ago, while I was lugging my cello to the auditorium of an elderly housing complex in Brighton, one of the residents stopped me to ask if I was a music teacher.

As a raw amateur playing in a free concert by the Little Orchestra of Cambridge, I didn’t want to raise her expectations too high. But, before I could explain I was much more like a student with a day job, she confided, “My husband was a musician. He played the violin. He’s dead.”

At first, this seemed almost in character with the setting. Because I worked on a community newspaper, I had been in other elderly developments that had a feel of exile, only less appealing. But even here, at Jewish Community Housing, I couldn’t help noticing the cinderblock wall of stairwell and a lounge chair stuck outside in the cold. I imagined the residents, for all their subsidized material comfort, as being somehow left behind.

This hardly prepared me for the auditorium, which was packed with rows of elderly women and a scattering of men. It seemed everyone was talking at the same time and, as we passed by with our instruments, looking at us.

I remember a couple of pieces from the concert—Bartók’s Rumanian Dances and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. There were no program books, so our conductor, Sophie Vilker, did some introductions, speaking to the audience in English and Russian.

Since the symphony came last, the concert ended quietly, in a fade-out with hesitations and broken phrases, like a diminishing shorthand of memory. Much to my surprise, the audience was quick to applaud, even loudly. People walked down to the platform so they could say thanks and shake our hands—as if to prove we were real. As I was packing the cello, a couple of women with foreign accents came up to me and one of them, positively beaming, announced, “Everybody in Russia is happy.”

* * * * *

After years of playing solo in a garage, bedrooms, or an empty hallway--playing anything I wanted as badly as I dared--I could appreciate the difference in performing with a group before an audience. And this was an audience of strangers, without the obligations of our friends and relatives. What I appreciated most was the importance of meeting the audience where it happened to be, musically and physically. Instead of a just being a concert, this was also a chance for two groups of people to feel appreciated, included—if only for a short time—in a single world.

An amateur orchestra has to be inclusive, since it intertwines rank-and-file players with professionals. That's how I picked up some bowing technique in the Mystic Valley Chamber Orchestra when the conductor was a cellist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), Ronald Feldman. There was also the flutist who recruited me for chamber music and passed on lessons in phrasing and intonation from the BSO’s Doriot Anthony Dwyer. From reading so many bars of music, I must have absorbed something about narrative structure and how to minutely subdivide a given beat inside my head. But I also learned how important it was to lift my eyes from the music stand and listen for the slightest stretch of tempo by an aspiring mezzo soprano such as Lorraine Hunt.

Because I grew up with classical music in Boston of the 1960’s, inclusiveness had another meaning when it came to FM radio. One example was the encyclopedic wealth of free music played by the Harvard station, WHRB. Even stations closer to the mainstream, such as WCRB and WBUR, aired pieces that would be hard to find on radio by the 1990’s, even long before or after drivetime. That music included anything from late quartets by Beethoven, Schubert, Janáček and Shostakovich to new works by Eliott Carter, Donald Martino, and John Harbison. If I didn’t like atonal music right away, it would only be a matter of time and another nudge of the dial before I was hooked by the last movement of Schoenberg’s 2nd String Quartet.

By December of 2009, the only places for classical music on FM radio were WHRB and WCRB, recently acquired by WGBH for a new location with a weaker signal, at 99.5. The move by WGBH has been viewed as a gain and a loss. On one side, there is classical music 24 hours a day and, according to WGBH, a 140% increase in broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On the other side are the loss of the BSO’s Friday afternoon concerts (also being reduced by the BSO), the loss in broadcast range, and the outsourcing of music programming to a syndicate based in Minneapolis.

During a panel discussion Tuesday at Old South Church presented by The Boston Musical Intelligencer, WGBH representatives heard a good deal about reception problems with the new WCRB in Roslindale, Dorchester and Beacon Hill—and that’s just from listeners within Boston. WGBH’s director of radio stations, John Voci, said the problems could often be overcome by moving the radio to another part of a building, or even the same room. Another option would be to make a “small investment” and buy a high-definition radio.

Along with prompting debate about the mission of WGBH, the change has revived an even longer debate about the classical playlist. That’s partly a debate between philistines and innovators going back for centuries, but there’s also the changing technology of distribution—the reproduction of music and much else in the digital age.

For the long-time announcer and general manager at the old WCRB, Dave MacNeill, there’s still no substitute for FM radio as a way to attract new listeners for classical music—even if that requires small doses of what’s most accessible to most people. And MacNeill argues that’s easier to do with a radio than with a more random search over the internet.

“The best way for people to discover classical music,” said MacNeill, “is to stumble on it, and then they’ll pursue all the other possibilities.”

Hence the rationale for “drivetime” programming aimed at stressed-out commuters. And MacNeill said that was also crucial for bringing in revenue—during all the years when WCRB was a commercial station.

But one person’s lifeline to ad revenue and new listeners can be another person’s elevator music. As one listener objected, “I don’t feel the purpose of art music is to make us relax.”

Another listener complained the drivetime span at the new WCRB was being stretched too far.

“Ten o’clock at night is not drivetime to me,” she said. “This is supposed to be our main classical music station in Boston, and they’re playing one movement of a suite that doesn’t make any sense.”

When I recently tuned in to the new WCRB between 9 and 11 p.m., the selections were less adventurous than the non-drivetime programming of the past, if still more substantial than the worst fears about elevator music. The longest piece was a whole clarinet concerto by Carl Maria von Weber (still less than 25 minutes). And there was a whole violin sonata by Mozart—in a minor key, no less, though hardly as imposing as, for example, the G minor string quintet. Elsewhere in the mix were a transcribed sonata by Scarlatti and one piece from the 20th century, Debussy’s waltz, la Plus que Lente—salon music with a soupçon of irony.

At the panel discussion, Voci described the new classical venture as a “big risk” that could still be improved. And, he noted, if 99.5 FM had been sold to another bidder, it would have no classical programming at all.

“This is an evolving service,” he said, “that will grow as our resources permit.”

That could be taken as the beginning of an appeal for listeners to accompany their constructive criticism with financial support for public radio. But that could still fail to slow the migration of listeners and revenue to the internet.

“Broadcast FM music is dead,” said a listener from Jamaica Plain.

“Automobiles are going to have wi-fi in the future,” he predicted, “so people at drivetime will be able to listen to all the music they want.”

Another panelist, Christopher Lydon, has already made the transition from print journalism, TV news and FM radio to webcasting with Open Source. He said radio “as we’ve known it” is “fundamentally over.”

“We live in a YouTube world,” he said. “All this stuff is free.”

To be sure, there’s also plenty of free music that’s illegal. You can buy all kinds of rare recordings legally if you pay enough money. And if you want more than just the Boston Symphony Orchestra, you can get a live webcast of the Berlin Philharmonic in high-definition video for $14.18. But why purchase music or get a high-definition radio when you can virtually be your own station manager and put together YouTube playlists for any mood, genre, or time of day?

As a former music critic for The Boston Globe, Richard Dyer, put it, there’s also less reason to turn on the radio for access to classical music.

“No child in Boston today enjoys the advantages that I did fifty years ago in Texas and Oklahoma, at least as far as radio,” said Dyer.

He says the changes in radio also mean that small performance groups in a given area would have a diminished opportunity for marketing. As Voci indicated, groups around Boston could still have some access to WGBH/WCRB for marketing and studio performance broadcasts, plus the advantage of a station whose sole focus is classical music. But would that be enough to gain new listeners for classical radio and keep old listeners from other delivery systems?

“If it lets itself become irrelevant to its listeners,” said Dyer, “it’s in trouble.”

By Lydon’s definition, relevance would mean offering what local radio and other media used to offer with only partial success: conversation about a lively arts scene around Boston. But even that might be hard to capture and circulate with FM radio.

“The whole architecture of social conversation,” he said, “is being rebuilt in our time.”


Even if for a lack of social conversation, I increasingly turn to YouTube, usually surfing music and movies. Though this happens long after drivetime, I somehow feel less put off by clicking on isolated movements or jumping the genres. If I stumble upon an outdoor performance of Bartók’s Rumanian Dances, I can take a hint from a comment by distant stranger and check out a video by the Romany musicians, Taraf de Haïdouks.

Or I can find my way back to a song by Mahler through an excerpt from the Jim Jarmusch film, Coffee and Cigarettes. Once again, I watch the dialogue that begins with an almost literal translation of the text set to music, a poem by Friedrich Rückert. I can taste the memory of stale coffee in a paper cup, with a faint voice-under of Janet Baker singing “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I’ve become lost to the world”).

This only leaves me thirsting for more YouTube, that is, more versions of the same song, and there are at least half a dozen. As a YouTube critic, I would give a thumbs-up to the version by Christa Ludwig. But, as a person who once frittered away so much time on music around Boston, I revisit the performance by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, recorded eight years before her death in 2006. Once again, I’m trying to place her as a live presence in a public library, a hospital, or, yes, an elderly housing development.

The conjuring never quite works. Then it occurs to me that’s what the song is about, with those instrumental phrases that continue past the end of a poetic line, or the film, too, with its surface of non-sequiturs. They’re all about connections missed, connections pursued or avoided, but closely mapped nonetheless. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from musical form, it's that the shorthand of memory should repeat only enough to signal there’s no turning back. And, since I have the urge, I could applaud, but there’s no one to hear it.