Saturday, December 25, 2004

Classical Radio? In the Bay Area?

If you're reading this blog from outside the San Francisco Bay Area, you might not know how desperate the classical radio situation is here.

Despite a significant audience for classical music and the existence of institutions such as the S. F. Symphony, S. F. Opera, Philharmonia Baroque, Santa Rosa Symphony, Oakland East Bay Symphony, Berkeley Symphony, and dozens of smaller performing groups, there is one and only full-time classical music station, KDFC.

A decade ago, even five years ago, KDFC was a much different station from what it is now. It used to carry the Metropoolitan Opera broadcasts, but stopped because the Met does not allow time-shifting of the broadcasts, and KDFC felt that its core audience didn't want a multi-hour interruption of the usual programming. It used to have a marvelous show, Saturday Night at the Opera, that would play a complete recorded opera or focus on a particular singer or subject. Paul Thomason, whom you may have read in Opera News, was the regular host; I remember shows about basses, great Rossini recordings, a two-hour special devoted to great Mozart recordings, a special tribute to Leontyne Price on her 70th birthday.

KDFC used to play a much more varied repertory than now. I remember listenening to 20 minutes of selections from a particular CD of 17th century Spanish music; I owned the CD within 24 hours of hearing it.

It's hard to imagine that happening today. Over the last few years, KDFC has become a station dedicated to gimmicks and to providing a pleasant, homogenous, soothing experience to its listeners. Never mind that classical music is often provocative, exciting, disturbing, passionate. Turn on KDFC, and what you're most likely to hear is 18th, 19, or 20th century orchestral music, often doled out one movement at a time. (They must have frequent commercial breaks, you see.) If it's 20th century music, it will be tonal. You will hear Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughn Williams more often than, say, Schoenberg or Stravinsky or Britten. If it's 18th century, it's more likely to be Telemann than J. S. Bach, and more likely to be Vivaldi than either. There is no opera or Lieder and virtually no vocal music. (Right now, during their Christmas music marathon, you can hear some vocal music! And also most Sunday mornings for an hour at 9 a.m. or so.) A recent survey of its listeners by KDFC itself showed that one-third of its listeners wanted "no vocal music," so they were undecided about how to treat it. Apparently they missed the fact that this means 2/3 of their listeners want to hear the human voice on their local classical music station. I can't remember the last time I heard a string quartet, though there's plenty of crossover - I heard an announcer saying the other week that "...classical works composed by rock musicians are becoming more common," just before he played something very bad by someone I'd never heard of.

About the only exception to the general dumbing-down comes during the weekly San Francisco Symphony broadcasts. It's almost the only time you might hear nontonal 20th century music and music by living composers. They sometimes run ads for these and the station with SFS music director Michael Tilson Thomas - I cringe when I heard them, for he surely knows how limited the repertory played by KDFC is, and how little they do to promote serious listening to classical music.

It's a sad situation. There is some classical programming on KCSM and KUSF (for example, "Classics Without Walls," by Mark Theodoropoulos). KPFA has a couple of classical shows. KMZT had a full schedule of classical music until recently and now has none. KQED has no music, period, and its classical recordings collection was destroyed some 20 years ago.

I doubt that anything can be done about KDFC. I've sent complaints on and off and been told that they play what their audience likes. (That's a sad, sad thought.) I know they got a barrage of complaints when they dropped the Met broadcasts.

I joined their mailing list just so I could participate in surveys and tilt the opinions they collect the tiniest bit toward more interesting and varied music. (You should see their "favorite composer" survey! I don't really have one, but I took pleasure in writing in Wagner anyway.)

But, really, if you want good classical music on the radio, your best bet is those stations that stream to the Internet. There are dozens of these, from KUSC to WFMET to WQXR to many, many stations in Europe. A great collection, with details about the software required, can be found at Operacast. Yes, the focus is on stations that play opera, but....stations that play opera usually play lots of other classical music. So, play a visit to Operacast, and you can escape from KDFC's awful programming and the crumbs strewn by other Bay Area stations.

Eating My Words

Some time ago, toward the end of an article about attending the San Francisco Symphony, I suggested that maybe the audience looked very serious because the musicians looked very serious, and maybe the musicians could look cheerier.

Well, if you're following Drew McManus's blog Adaptistration, you'll understand why the musicians might not look very cheery. Read, especially, The Money Drug. Read the NY Times article from several years ago about the ergonomic viola and the risks orchestra musicians run. Lousy working conditions, lack of job satisfaction, feeling that they have no control over their professional lives, repetitive stress injuries - I expect I wouldn't be be very happy either. My experience of performing is strictly as a student and amateur: for the love of it and getting an enormous amount of satisfaction out of what I do.

It's not hard to read between the lines and figure out things symphonies and other performing organizations could do to improve working conditions and improve musicians' job satisfaction. Managers, what are you waiting for?

Monday, December 13, 2004

London Bach had a father.

'Oh well,' said Jack: and then, 'Did you ever meet Bach?'

'Which Bach?'

'London Bach.'

'Not I.'

'I did. He wrote some pieces for my uncle Fisher, and his young man
copied them out fair. But they were lost years and years ago, so last time
I was in town I went to see whether I could find the originals: the young
man has set up on his own, having inherited his master's music-library. We
searched through the papers -- such a disorder you would hardly credit,
and I had always supposed publishers were as neat as bees -- we searched
for hours, and no uncle's pieces did we find. But the whole point is this:
Bach had a father.'

'Heavens, Jack, what things you tell me. Yet upon recollection I seem
to have known other men in much the same case.'

'And this father, this old Bach, you understand me, had written piles
and piles of musical scores in the pantry.'

'A whimsical place to compose in, perhaps; but then birds sing in trees,
do they not? Why not antediluvian Germans in a pantry?'

'I mean the piles were kept in the pantry. Mice and blackbeetles and
cook-maids had played Old Harry with some cantatas and a vast great
Passion according to St. Mark, in High Dutch; but lower down all was well,
and I brought away several pieces, 'cello for you, fiddle for me, and some
for both together. It is strange stuff, fugues and suites of the last age,
crabbed and knotted sometimes and not at all in the modern taste, but I do
assure you, Stephen, there is meat in it. I have tried this partita in C a
good many times, and the argument goes so deep, so close and deep, that I
scarcely follow it yet, let alone make it sing. How I should love to hear
it played really well -- to hear Viotti dashing away.'

Stephen studied the 'cello suite in his hand, booming and humming sotto
'Tweedly-tweedly, tweedly tweedly, deedly deedly pom pom pom.
Oh, this would call for the delicate hand of the world,' he said. 'Otherwise
it would sound like boors dancing. Oh, the double-stopping...and how to
bow it?'

Patrick O'Brian, The Ionian Mission

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Best Advice I Ever Got

An article by Daniel J. Wakin in today's New York Times Arts & Leisure section follows up on Juilliard's class of 1994 and what they're doing today.

Of 44 instrumentalists who graduated that year, Wakin and the contributing reporters were able to trace 36. (The article didn't track pianists or singers.) Of those 36, about a dozen have dropped out of professional musical performance altogether. Eleven have full-time orchestral jobs and the remaining teach or free-lance or have full-time careers as soloists.

It's an excellent article, with much insight about the combination of talent, hard work, connections, business abilities, and just plain luck it takes to become a professional musician. And it reminded me that I feel pretty lucky that I didn't try to make it as a pro.

I am grateful beyond belief to Beverly Radin, my flute teacher in high school and a couple of summers in my college years. When I was in my senior year of high school and getting ready to apply to colleges, I seriously considered applying to conservatories. Beverly, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, advised me to apply only to liberal-arts colleges. She felt that a conservatory degree wasn't necessary for a career in music, and she felt strongly that it was important to get a well-rounded education. Yes, she had some regrets about having gone to conservatory. She was encouraging about my abilities and musicianship, so I don't think her suggestion came out of a belief that I wouldn't make it as a flutist.

This really did turn out to be the best advice I ever got. My life would be pretty different if I'd gone to a conservatory, and it's hard to imagine that it would have been any better than it is now. By the time I left Brandeis, I'd realized that the solo flute repertory didn't interest me enough that I wanted to play it for the rest of my life, and I'd realized I was never going to be dedicated enough to practicing to be able to compete with the flutists coming out of music schools. But I'd gotten a great general education, and I wound up going to graduate school in musicology for a couple of years. Before I became a technical writer, I worked at a series of uninteresting jobs to support my jujitsu habit. (Technical writing still supports the jujitsu habit, just in somewhat better style than being an insurance underwriter.) I am just grateful that I got that general education and didn't spend several years in the conservatory hothouse aiming for the wrong career.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

More Than A Couple of Corrections

The SFCV blogatorial got a few things wrong in addition to the unfortunate omission of Robert Gable.

A "moblog" is a mobile blog, not a group (mob) Weblog. A bad back-formation on my part, brought to my attention by The Standing Room.

The owner of The Fredösphere is Fred Himebaugh, not Himbaugh. Apologies, and I did mean something good by "sui generis."

Added on 10 December:

ACD points out that he "hopes Greenberg will resist musical pressures and continue to write in a tonal style," not 19th century style.

An Omission, An Apology

The Blogatorial was supposed to include Robert Gable's American music blog, aworks, where he's recently talked about Nancarrow, Cowell, Ziporyn, Ruggles, Glass and Barber.

I've asked SFCV to update the article with a line or two about aworks, and I'm so sorry about the omission.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Fellow Bløggers!

A plug for you all in San Francisco Classical Voice:

The Season Will Be Blogged

That URL will change next week from the generic SFCV home page to something more permanent.

An update on December 28:

The link above no longer works; I've posted the Blogatorial on my personal Web site. I'll update this if SFCV assigns a permanent link to the Blogatorial.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Opera Annals On Line

In what's sure to be a great boon to researchers, the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera are moving their annals on line.

San Francisco already has its Performance Archive up and running. It's a work in progress, announced as a beta version. You can search by opera name, cast member, date, composer, and just about any other term you can think of. The results come back fast, and with lots of clickable links for digging deeper. Still to come in the database are photos, records of the San Francisco Opera Center, Western Opera Theater, and the Merola and Adler programs. For now, give it a good workout, and send any comments to

The Met database isn't on line yet, but archivist Robert Tuggle has written about it in a series of informative postings to opera-l, the big opera mailing list. He's been working on this project for more than three years, and the results will be available to the public at the Met's Web site very soon - some time in December, he hopes.

To find his postings, go to the opera-l link above and click Search the archive. Type Tuggle in the box labeled The author's address is or contains. Type October 2004 in the box labeled Since. Click Submit.

And then keep an eye on the Met Web site.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Bruce Hungerford

The first classical piano recital I attended, age about 14 or 15, was by the Australian pianist Bruce Hungerford. It was held in a very small auditorium or the living room of a very large house. I attended with my father; I vaguely remember feeling as though we were very, very close to the piano.

All I remember about the makeup of the program is that it consistent entirely of several Beethoven piano sonatas. I played the flute and had had six months of piano lessons at that point, so I didn't know the music at all. I remember feeling awed by the complexity of the music and the intensity with which Hungerford played it.

And that was the last I heard of him, until earlier this year when I picked up a Hungerford CD at Berkshire Record Outlet (Vanguard Classics 08 6142 71) containing the "Waldstein," "Moonlight," and "Pathetique" sonatas.

Imagine my surprise, when I put this on for the first time (and second, and third) and discovered that I really did not like the playing very much. Technically, he's certainly able play the music: the notes are all there, cleanly played and at high speeds; he has good control of the pedal; he can play softly. But the playing is rigid to the point of being metronomic and he doesn't seem to me to have any special musical insights. Everything is correct; nothing is interesting. Every time I've tried to listen through, I take it off and put on a pianist I like better.

In Beethoven, and in no particular order, that would include Schnabel, Annie Fischer, Pollini, Heidsieck, Kovacevich, Richter, Gilels. I like dramatic, high-tension playing, and consequently Kovacevich gets the most air time.

So, tell me: should I look for other, more musicially impressive or representative Hungerford recordings? If so, what are they?