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Published: Sunday, 11/17/2002

Making the case for more diversity

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC

Last of Two Parts

Classical music radio has given, but it has also taken away. Once upon a time American families gathered around the piano for their nightly entertainment. That tradition faded in the 1920s with the introduction of radio. Since then, while we have had access to a wide variety of musical content, we as a people have also generally gone from active music makers to passive music listeners.

Equally troubling is the fact that somewhere along the line, the music to which we listen became marginalized.

Consider: Our relationship with music on the radio is casual at best. We tend to listen while we commute to and from work, sit in our offices, or relax at home.

In other words, we hardly listen at all. Unlike live performance, music on the radio tends to become a pleasant background easily ignored, like rain and sun through the office window.

Officials at FM 91, northwest Ohio's public radio station, which broadcasts from towers in Toledo and affiliates in Lima, Bryan, and Defiance, know this is true. They say that people can listen to classical music all day long because, unlike talk radio, it does not demand their full attention. Tune out for a minute or two and it is easy to slip seamlessly back in. And this, they add, is a good thing.

Fair enough if sonic wallpaper is the goal. But surely classical music programming, like any other effective programming, should be consistently intellectually and emotionally engaging.

National Public Radio, which provides program content to affiliate stations around the country, has succeeded with listeners by diversifying its news and information offerings, by, as NPR spokeswoman Jenny Lawhorn recently said, “engaging more voices and including more viewpoints.”

At its best, NPR has managed to do the same thing with its music offerings.

Consider NPR's “Performance Today,” the most successful classical music show on public radio. “Performance Today,” which FM 91 does not carry, succeeds not just because it broadcasts performances by the world's greatest musicians, but also because it chooses to broadcast concerts that are culturally significant. And more important still, its hosts tell us why these concerts are significant.

Their working range might be smaller, but FM 91 is in a position to do the same thing. For instance, the station could have presented a live broadcast of conductor Stefan Sanderling leading the Toledo Symphony in this fall's sold-out September 11 concert at the Stranahan Theater.

The event – which featured strong and occasionally profound interpretations of works by Barber, Bach, and Shostakovich – was arguably the most important Toledo Symphony concert of the past decade, perhaps in the orchestra's history.

If only, on that most reflective of nights, radio listeners had had the opportunity to hear what we in the audience heard - how classical music is able to touch emotions rarely reached with words.

It is hard to imagine a better way in which FM 91 could have served its listening community, but the opportunity slipped away.

There are many additional ways in which FM 91 might make its music programming more vital. These may involve taking some risks, but sluggish listener ratings suggest that some risk-taking is in order.

Surely, for example, there is room for more program diversity. It seems hard to rationalize devoting 17 hours of each weekday to classical music.

After all, our greatest composers were eclectic in their tastes. Why shouldn't FM 91's listeners receive a broad mix as well?

The lush gamelan sounds of Indonesian music inspired Debussy and Ravel. Stravinsky and Bartok drew from ethnic roots when they incorporated ideas from Russian and Hungarian folk music. Copland and Bernstein often built their ideas upon American folk and popular music. Even Mozart (who seems traditional only when viewed through a foggy lens 200-plus years distant) traveled from Austria to Italy in order to pick up new ideas.

Of all these composers, however, only Mozart - who encountered the still novel Classical tradition in Italy - would have any luck finding the sounds he sought on FM 91's weekday programming.

FM 91 has distilled grass-roots ethnicity out of its listening day. It is almost as if the station believes that these other music styles take on validity only when pulled from their natural context, filtered through a Western composer's pen, and played in a recital hall by violinists wearing concert black.

Debussy and his colleagues – indeed, every important composer of the past century – knew better.

FM 91's approach is problematic for other reasons as well.

First, the notion that Western classical music is more noble, enlightened, or complex than other world traditions is false. The genius of violinist Jascha Heifetz and other virtuosos shines bright, but no brighter than that of Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar and his musical colleagues. Nor were Heifetz's musical roots deeper. Indeed, India's classical music tradition had a 1,000-year head start on Europe's.

The same argument could be put forth for art music traditions from the Middle East and Asia.

Second, stretching one's ears with new sounds cleans rather than pollutes. New sounds are good for the brain and heart. Like travel, new sounds not only introduce us to unexpected ideas, but by changing our perspective, they also tell us things about the world in which we live.

And this, after all, has always been the mission of public radio.



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