Is Timid Programming Classical Music's Biggest Threat?

As City Opera Faces Difficulties, It Gambles on the Unusual

Thursday, September 12, 2013

When times are tough, a lot of arts groups go for the sure thing. For orchestras, that means a Beethoven symphony cycle over Schoenberg or Cage. For an opera house, it's Carmen and La Boheme over a risky modern opera.

But some companies think differently. In the face of all its hardships, New York City Opera planned a season that includes J.C. Bach's Endimione, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole – hardly proven audience bate.

So what’s the proper balance? Does safe programming equal more "butts in seats?" Or do you need to take risks, even in tough times?

Philip Kennicott, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of the Washington Post, tells host Naomi Lewin that arts organizations often get into trouble by neglecting more serious-minded audiences in an effort to chase niche listeners. "Orchestras very often think that their audience falls into two categories: there's a conservative, old audience that only wants Beethoven and Mozart and Haydn, and then there is this ideal audience that’s interested in everything," he said. "I argue that there is another audience out there."

Kennicott recently wrote an article for The New Republic, in which he chastised orchestras for an over-reliance on star soloists, a handful of over-familiar concertos, and a cookie-cutter mix of "special events" – video game music, crossover tenors, Broadway crooners and movie screenings.

Lost in this mix, Kennicott tells Lewin, is the listener who is "open to new pieces, open to obscure pieces, interested still in the traditional repertoire. The panic response of reflexively programming familiar works that you see in orchestras actually doesn’t serve the serious listener very well."

Krishna Thiagarajan, the executive director of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, notes that many orchestras don't want to take risks with unfamiliar programming because "the funding isn’t there to back it up," he said. "When you’re being very creative and breaking the mold, you have to know that’s an area where you have to invest.”

By investment, Thiagarajan means that an orchestra must take the long view and condition audiences to leave their comfort zone. As an example, he points to Esa-Pekka Salonen's tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 to 2009, where he premiered 120 works, including 54 commissions. "If you initially get a poor reaction from your audience, if you pull back you won’t know what the full effect was," he said.

Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a national service organization, says there are no surefire hits anymore. "There are fewer and fewer safe pieces," he said. "Operas that used to be reliable box office producers are no longer pulling the way they used to." Scorca adds that he's seen an audience fatigue with La Traviatas and Carmens, whereas new works can energize an organization and create excitement.

To some observers, the performing arts are mirroring the homogenization of mass media and popular culture as a whole. "There is something going on in this country at large, and what we’re seeing in the arts scene is a symptom," Thiagarajan cautioned. But Kennicott is more optimistic. "I think there are audiences out there," he said. “I call them countercultural audiences that are really eager for stuff that doesn’t fit that homogenized cultural model. That’s the great hope of any organization that’s producing live art.”

Listen to the full discussion in the audio link above and take our poll below:


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Comments [21]

Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

In my previous comment, I neglected to mention that I thank WQXR in advance for their upcoming broadcast this Sunday of the Lucerne Festival concert, which will include a performance of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. I appreciate these special broadcasts, and I don't want to sound like a complainer, but I just wish WQXR would play some of Bruckner's music and other longer works occasionally during their regular broadcast day. That's all I ask!

Sep. 18 2013 11:22 AM
TK from UWS

One of the solutions to the programming conundrum that only seems to exacerbate the problem can be seen at the top of this web page. I used to love David Garland's evening programming on WNYC (before all the horse-trading that, thankfully, saved classical music broadcasting in NYC, despite its apparently unsatisfactory form) because he mixed the old, familiar repertoire with recordings of compositions from all periods (including ours) that were, for whatever reason, only now getting a hearing. And he mixed them (as any good dj or announcer will) in a way that, like a well-crafted essay, was obviously motivated by the personality composing the show, so that the pieces resonated with one another. His show was never simply a jumble.

Now, the programmers, forgetting about Kennicott's "serious listener," have decided that the several streams that merged to create an engaging show ought to be divided. I find this arrangement unwieldy. I don't like having to keep switching back and forth between WQXR and Q2, and so rarely listen to either. I also think it's a terrible mistake to do entirely without announcers (Q2 is programmed only with occasional recorded voices, it seems). A knowledgable announcer is a great educator, and can have some of the effect a friend does -- encouraging us to try something new because someone whose taste we've come to know and trust has found value in it.

Sep. 18 2013 08:49 AM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

To Kate from Brooklyn:
Yes, you are correct, but those were special broadcasts (which I do appreciate), not their regular daily programming. My point was that they very rarely play longer works during their regular broadcast day. For example, when will be ever get to hear the entire Mahler 5th Symphony instead of only the Adagietto?

Sep. 17 2013 09:59 PM
Kate from Brooklyn

@Carol Luparella and Peter O'Malley: WQXR has recently aired (in their entirety!) the Brahms Requiem, Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, Tchaikovsky's Little Russian Symphony, Holst's The Planets (all of them), and the Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. That last was a gorgeous performance live from Central Park, by Nicholas Phan and The Knights, which is the sort of thing you won't find very many other places on the radio.

Sep. 17 2013 09:09 PM
Dan Garde from Sarasota, Fl

It depends on what unusual or contemporary music is selected. It also depends on the audience. The Sarasota Opera, for example, has an audience of primarily retired senior citizens. The Management attempted an American Opera Series. They scheduled Ward's Crucible, Barber's Vanessa and Floyd's of Mice and Men. They could not sell enough seats to continue the series. Any Verdi, Mozart or Puccini Opera will be a sell out. The lesson is "Know your audience. The Classical Music radio station in Sarasota is a wonderful 24 hour per day FM station with no advertisements and they rightly cater to this audience

Sep. 17 2013 08:24 PM
Frank from UES

Yes, WQXR's practice of excerpting pieces is baffling to me. Their commercials (underwriting spots) are 30 seconds, twice an hour. Why all the short pieces? Can our attention spans not handle it? Do they not trust the entire Holst Planets on its own? (Mars might be too scary for midday listeners perhaps?)

And why do they completely ignore music from our own time? It's that kind of outdated museum mentality that's killing classical music.

Sep. 17 2013 02:01 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

In recent months I have heard on (in their entirety!): Mozart's Requiem, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, the third section of Handel's Messiah, Mahler's First Symphony, Brahm's German Requiem, Holst's The Planets (at this moment WQXR is playing only "Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity" for the nth time), Bruckner's First, Third and Seventh Symphonies as well as his Te Deum and other sacred works, just to name a few. They do not labor under any time constraints, and play many selections that are well over the twenty minutes of the average WQXR selections.

Sep. 17 2013 01:45 PM
Peter O'malley

Just to note: this morning WKCR played one of my all-time favorite pieces, rarely if ever played on QXR: Britten's "Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and strings"; right now we are getting the 35th playing (for this month [slight exaggeration, I admit]) of Mendelsohn's "Hebrides Overture."

What more can I add?

Sep. 17 2013 11:43 AM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Another place to hear classical music is They are based in St. Louis, Missouri and they play a good variety of secular and sacred classical music. The selections are played in their entirety and there are no silly promos or ads. The announcers are knowledgeable about classical music and give relevant information, without being overly talkative. I've been listening more often to them now, since they even play Bruckner's music, which I rarely, if ever, hear on WQXR. I haven't given up on WQXR though, and I will still support it, but sometimes it is a little frustrating when the concerns of its listeners are not being addressed.

Sep. 17 2013 10:17 AM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

It is strange to see this article here since, as noted by others responding to this article, the programmers at WQXR seem to see nothing wrong with programming the same standard pieces over and over. Obviously they are not responding to this as a danger to the continued vibrancy of the classical music world as presented on the air (as opposed to in concert). Again, as I have done in the past, I must point out the sometime rival to this station, WKCR (89.9 FM), Columbia University's station. The programming there, despite more limited hours of classical music, is much bolder and more expansive. As I write this, I hear the umpteenth repetition of Strauss's "Don Juan", after having heard what I guess is the only aria Rossini ever wrote ("Una voce poco fa"), since I rarely if ever hear anything else from that certain opera (Also the only one he ever wrote??), or from any other of his. Get some new life into the programming, please. This doesn't meant avoiding the popular works altogether, but there is a h*** of a lot of stuff out there that you never play on this station.

Sep. 17 2013 09:22 AM

I hope the program managers of WQXR have read this article. This "timid programming" is what I hear everyday from this radio station. The same compositions over and over again. I expect my classical music station to broaden my horizons. Yeah, I like to hear Stravinsky's "Firebird" or "Pictures at an Exhibition" but I also want to hear music that's old that rarely gets played and some new compositions as well. Come on QXR, go places where no other radio station has gone before.

Sep. 16 2013 03:26 PM
floria from NYC

Timid programming?? Oh, please! There's a reason certain composers have survived hundreds of years! I'm all for creative programming, but not the kind of programming or stagings that thumbs its nose to the art and it's intentions. Example....Parsifal, as temporary and creative as can be.... worked. It upheld the text, music and interpretation of the composer, very creatively; Lohengrin did not.... and then we have the Met's Tosca, or how about NYCO's Powder her Face - productions that focus on sexual fetishes embraced by a group of "artist" wannabees. I certainly am much more judicious in spending my money hearing or seeing productions now-a-days.

Sep. 16 2013 02:08 PM
Debra Aponte

Classical music is like food: who wants to eat spaghetti every day of the week? if you serve up the same music all the time,I think people will most likely become bored and stop listening.

I believe for people to stay interested in classical music, there must be a mix of classical music from all time periods, from medieval up to comtemporary music.

It's better to keep the public interested by suprising them sometimes, rather than placating them by know exactly what music is coming next. As humans, we want variety in life, whether it is food, or clothing or music.

Sep. 15 2013 11:37 AM
Frank from UWS

Classical music is the only artform that is so focused on the past. Go to see dance, theater, film, even visual art and there's a much greater balance between the new and the old.

I tend to think it's stuck in a vicious cycle: audiences think they only want what a certain thing, but are never introduced to the new or unusual so they don't know what they're missing. Concert presenters, fearing that they'll lose their loyal fans, don't want to rock the boat and instead give people a steady diet of warhorses.

Roland below makes a good point too - there's a larger problem of just getting newcomers in the door period.

Sep. 15 2013 08:53 AM
THE BARON from Long Island City, NY

The key here, of course, is quality and the ability of music directors to recognize it and support it. We already know that Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden, et al. composed music of lasting quality. It is more difficult to be the first one (or one of the first) to spot a budding contemporary musical genius.

A good example would be Philip Glass. He and his ensemble started out performing at offbeat downtown venues (lofts and such) to very small audiences that, for the most part, did not include music directors of major symphony orchestras or NY Philharmonic subscribers. Although he had studied composition with Nadia Boulanger it wash"t until he composed the scores for the indie art house film "Koyaanisqatsi" and then his independently produced opera "Einstein on the Beach" that the classical music world was forced to take him seriously. Why? Because he was composing quality music.

This listener also believes that Plato was right in asserting that some things are better than other things -a POV that is almost anathema in this, the Age of Relativism. People prefer to listen to the music of Beethoven, Mozart (and Glass) because, quite simply, it is better than the music of Stockhausen, Schoenberg and Cage. No big mystery there.

Sep. 14 2013 08:54 PM

I don't think the problem is standard vs. unusual repertoire. The reason classical music companies s.l. are having problems is because the general public doesn't like classical music (not because they wouldn't but because they don't know it). I think these days most people only encounter classical music in car advertizements and the like. If classical music hopes to survive in the US, we need meaningful classical music education in public schools i.e. "nurturing and developing your audience". As a late 20-something, my love of classical music is unusual; none of my friends (except those who are classical musicians) like classical music.

Also, being a late 20-something in this economy means that I can't afford many performances.... With my limited budget, I therefore select performances I know I will like. I'd rather see a live performance of a monumental work I haven't yet. Honestly, what do you expect? Do you think someone like me would go to see "Anna Nicole" or "Falstaff" (neither of which I have seen live)?

Homogenization of classical music performance across the US, who care? I'm not wondering over to Little Rock to see a performance. I'm only interested in what going to in NYC. The big problem isn't the homogenization of classical music. It's the growing lack of interest in classical music in our country. What percent of the US population under 30 years old (or 50 for that matter) do you think have gone to a classical music performance?

Sep. 14 2013 06:49 PM
dee starkey from Wichita

I'm w/ Greta from NYC The Perleman program was fantastic !

Sep. 14 2013 04:53 PM
Ruth from new york city

As middle age caught up with me, I started to find it harder to get up for work the morning after an evening at the opera or a concert. So I decided to change my several season subscriptions from weeknights to weekends. How unpleasant it was to discover that programming for Friday and Saturday evenings omitted almost anything new and different in favor of the tried and true! This was 15 years ago, and I haven't noticed much improvement since.

Sep. 14 2013 01:25 PM
lisanti from Glen Ridge, NJ

I love Beethoven, Mozart, et al. as much as the next listener, as I hear something new each time I hear it, but there are at least 400 years of classical music out there, and thousands of composers - why don't we hear them more often, at concerts and on WQXR? Give Tchaikovsky a rest and let us hear Janacek, Frescobaldi, Prokofiew (and NOT Lt. Kije), Castello, and the others so woefully underrepresented. Throw in some works that aren't generally heard of the Big Composers, and we'll be even happier.

Sep. 14 2013 10:55 AM
Greta M. Herron from NYC

thank you for playing Itzak Perleman's Musical Memories of the high holidays! The music and the voices left me in tears in front of my stereo--and I'm not Jewish! The program was simply that moving..

Sep. 13 2013 11:49 PM

Yes. Yes. And, yes. Timid programming is the issue, in my humble opinion. There are generations of musicians who are bringing something new to audiences, commissioning new works, performing new works, and, in general, coloring outside the lines of the Well-Accepted Programming of the last 100 years. Please be brave, oh programmers, and bring us something fresh, in addition to one of our favorites. --Thank you.

Sep. 13 2013 06:46 PM

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WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

Conducting Business is hosted by Naomi Lewin and produced by Brian Wise.

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