Saturday, May 30, 2009

An interesting video from NYT

For those of you who may have missed it, here is the lovely video essay from Anthony Tomassini (NY Times) on the bits and bytes of Bel Canto. The article is the next place to go.

Bel Canto

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What's Classical Music? Part 1

Last post I outlined some of the guidelines the classical department here at WTJU use to ensure consistent programming in our classical music shows. As I mentioned, though, the definition of exactly what is and isn't classical music is something of a judgment call.

Now trying to define classical music is like trying to pick out orange on a spectrum. Sometimes it's pretty obvious, but where does orange end and red begin? Or where's the line between orange and yellow? Classical music has the same kind of problems.

For me, there's one basic criteria for "obviously" classical music: it was music conceived, composed, arranged, and notated by a single person.

Now most other musical genres are collaborative in nature. Any song currently on the Top 40 may have two or more people credited as the composers. The producer usually adds some instruementation, the artist adds their own embelishment, and the accompanying musicians often improvise their parts based on the framework provided by the composers. So the final result represents a collective musical expression.

Nothing wrong with that -- this general format is used for pop, rock, folk, country, blues, bluegrass and most other musical genres.

But let's take a look at something like the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. Beethoven came up wth the original musical ideas. Beethoven arranged the music and crafted the structure of the work. Beethoven decided what instruement played what notes and when. Beethoven decided what sections should be loud, which soft, when the tempo should slow down and when it should speed up. It's all the creation of a single mind.

Now that doesn't mean there isn't room for many different interpretiations (after all, how fast is fast?). But it's not likely that someone will decided to substitute a saxophone for the oboe solo, or that the flute part will be reassigned to the cellos, or that the middle section of the first movement will be cut to tighten up the music.

No, the variations in performance come from different intpretations of Beethoven's instructions, not in taking Beethoven's outline and filling it out in a new way.

Which is why classical music is usually filed by primarly by composer, and why every other musical genre is filed by artist.

And this rule holds me in good stead from the 1300's all the way up through the present day. Machaut wrote out all his music, as does John Corigliano, even though they're separated by 700 years.

Which is why I don't think much of Paul McCartney's forays into classical. In McCartney's case, he doesn't read music, so his scores are dictated, and orchestrated by others. That's not the product of a single mind.

It's also why I don't play the Browns, or the Canadian Brass. Tchaikovsky didn't compose his music for brass quintet, and almost none of the composers the Browns perform concieved of thier scores for five grand pianos. It may be pleasant to listen to, but to me it dulls the intent of composition -- sort of like taking a painting and tweaking the colors in Photoshop. Interesting, yes, but not the same as the original.

Now this rule of a single-person composition is sort of like pointing to the orange part of the spectrum and declaring "this is orange." True enough. But what happens when the finger moves to the left or right? I'll talk about exceptions in the next post.

What do you think classical music is? Leave a comment!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Classical Programming at WTJU -- Who Decides?

Marty Ronish, in Scanning the Dial, recently posed a question to the classical music personnel working in public radio: how do you program your station?

In her post, "Programming - Our Ongoing Controversy in Public Radio," Ronish sums up the general industry practices this way:
Most public stations have a music director or program director who chooses all the music, though a few brave ones let the hosts choose their own. Most do “dayparting” where they choose upbeat music in the morning, longer works in the evening, and calming music at night. They have hierarchies they’ve developed from focus groups: no vocal music, definitely no solo harpsichord, nothing dissonant, play chamber music sparingly, lots of orchestral music, plenty of Baroque and Classical but not much 20th century, and go easy on too much flute and violin.
Well, count us as one of the brave ones, then. Here at WTJU each announcer gets to choose their own music.

There are some guidelines, of course.

1) Avoid playing the same work sooner than six weeks from last airing. This may seem like a long time, but play something twice in the same months and we'll get call complaining that we're airing the same thing "all the time."

2) Respect the music -- air complete works. There are exceptions, of course. Opera overtures, individual lied, and other pieces meant by the composer to be excerpted are fine. But if you're going to air a symphony, air all the music, not just the slow movment.

3) Program classical music. This can be as messy as trying to figure out the line between porn and art ("I'll know it when I see it" - or in this case, hear it). But on the whole, this means sticking to the work as originally composed. So a Beethoven piano sonata on piano, fine; arranged for accordion and pan flutes, probably not. There's much more to this guideline, enough to merit a post by itself (which I'll do another time).

4) If it's worth listening to, it's worth airing. So, at WTJU, there are really no banned genres. Choral music, solo voice, solo violin, organ, contemporary music, medieval music, renaissance music -- if the announcer thinks it's worth presenting to the audience, then out it goes.

We could certainly expand our coverage by reigning in our volunteer announcers. Were we to follow Marty Ronish's outline, WTJU might have a larger audience. But would it still be WTJU?

Our continued commitment to our free-roaming programming suggests we've already asked and answered that question.

But what's your opinion?

- Ralph

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Who loves classical music in Central Virginia?

While other genres of music take a front-page stance in Central Virgina, it seems classical music doesn't get a whole lot of press. Reviewers for classical music performances in Central Virginia seem juvenile, at best; non-existent, at worst. Do people read this stuff? Do they care? Who cares about classical music in Central Virginia?

Certainly, the performers care. I'm no longer a "performer" but I guess I qualify as talent as a radio announcer and classical music director for WTJU. I spent decades studying classical music, and I do care. The other announcers at WTJU care, too - but who else is out there? Do classical music performers want or need reviewers? Do reviews raise standards, increase interest, or matter?

Another opinion that exists is that Central Virginia is an incubator for musicians, providing learning experiences for singers (i.e, Ash Lawn), collegiate students (Chamber Music Society), and opportunities for amateur locals (Oratorio Society). Does this part of the world want more?

Yet another notion crops up: can we afford it? I hear people bemoan the cost of concert tickets at certain venues, and I can understand both sides. Having been a performer, I can tell you, I didn't see a whole lot of the money coming out of the price of concert tickets. It's one of the reasons I'm no longer a professional performer! There are far smarter people out there who can dissect a concert ticket into it's parts - but I promise, the vast majority of performers don't take home more than 20% of that money. Perhaps having this "incubator" status helps to keep prices down. We don't expect a whole lot in the process. For those that want the more elite performers, paying the price tag isn't so much of a burden. I'll be interested in seeing the audience size for the upcoming Emanuel Ax performance at the Paramount. Not that I don't love him and what he can do - but does Central Virginia?

And, the last part of this little desperate query: will even this blog fail because most of the classical music lovers in Central Virginia don't use the internet? Tweeting, using FB, etc. hasn't generated a whole lot of interest so far - is that because those interested parties get their information in another way?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Welcome to Classical Music at WTJU!

As the Music Director for the Classical Department, I want to welcome everyone to the WTJU Classical Blog! Many thanks to Ralph Graves for blazing the trail, and making me feel welcome to the medium. We're hoping that listeners can come to this blog, read about their favorite station, favorite DJ's, and respond in ways to help us improve, and keep the music playing. After all, we are all volunteers, and we do what we do (volunteer) for the joy of it.

WTJU doesn't happen in a vacuum - and we'd like to include our listeners in to the WTJU Classical family. Even if all you want to say was, "I really liked hearing that," we'd love to know about it.

You can also follow us on Twitter, if you've got a preference. As always. is the way to stream WTJU live, check out the schedule, see upcoming events, check out the Sunday Opera schedule, pledge your financial support (year-round!), and search playlists. There's a lot packed into our website, so take your time to browse around.

I look forward to hearing from you!