City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
Classic Failure
Commercial-free WQXR-FM falls far short of its promise.
24 January 2014

In July 2009, the New York Times sold its classical music station, WQXR-FM, for $45 million. The buyer: National Public Radio. For decades, the station had been one of New York City’s cultural treasures, offering recorded (and sometimes live) performances of the world’s finest orchestras and soloists, along with informed commentary. But in recent years, the Times, desperate for income, had been running a torrent of brassy cosmetic ads, surrounding Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms with yammering come-ons for youthful skin and lustrous hair. So when National Public Radio took over, QXR fans exhaled a collective sigh of relief. NPR has always been ad-free. To be sure, there would be three fund-raising periods per year—“begathons,” in trade parlance—asking for listener support. The rest of the time, though, lovers of the Great Tradition were assured a 24/7 schedule of major works from the baroque, medieval, classical, romantic, and modern periods.

Alas, the new WQXR has fallen far short of that promise. As its website reveals, the station is acutely conscious of the financial travails of symphony orchestras in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Detroit, and elsewhere, as well as the demise of the New York City Opera. These would seem to indicate a graying (and therefore diminishing) audience for “serious music.” The QXR cure for cultural decline: bring young people into the fold. Raised on rock, pop, and hip-hop, the next generation is ready to graduate to classical music. Accordingly, the station is employing the tried-and-true, K–12 method of training good taste: start the kids on sweets, then gradually accustom them to a nourishing diet and, eventually, to a sophisticated cuisine.

The method may work for the palate; it is disastrous for the ear. Dieticians understand that a surfeit of cotton candy and Hershey bars can perhaps lead to a varied and cultivated diet. But music teachers know that a torrent of cloying melodies and warhorses will, in time, lead to a taste for cloying melodies and warhorses.

Consider QXR’s regular schedule. Every day, the station plays a scattering of Mozart concerti, Beethoven sonatas, and Bach toccatas. But between these airings are replays of Aaron Copland’s least demanding and most familiar works, among them his score for the film The Red Pony and his overexposed ballet music from Billy the Kid and Rodeo. Plus Respighi’s The Pines of Rome, reminiscent of an Esther Williams–synchronized swimming number; Rossini’s William Tell Overture (background music for The Lone Ranger); Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours (the theme of Alan Sherman’s parody “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”); Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite (once used to peddle Philip Morris cigarettes).

Serious listeners have little use for this treasury of the familiar. Unserious listeners, of course, want more of the same undemanding pieces. Why work at music appreciation when you can have Classics Lite? Accordingly, if QXR plays Stravinsky, it’s likely to be the Firebird Suite rather than his more difficult compositions; if Ravel, his Boléro, heard in skating rinks.

On occasion, the station redeems itself. It still airs Metropolitan Opera productions on Saturdays and sometimes devotes a month to a particular composer. Mozart was a recent object of admiration, and Bach preceded him. But even here, QXR, though admirable, is not original. Columbia University WKCR-FM station has been playing wall-to-wall Bach from Christmas to New Year’s Day since 1980.

Cision, the Swedish-based media company, recently ranked the top ten classical music radio stations in the U.S. Its list includes stations in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Nashville, Tennessee, and Anchorage, Alaska, but WQXR didn’t make the cut. New York is home to some of the world’s great music venues, from Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center to the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. With all these cultural ornaments, New Yorkers deserve a higher station in life.

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