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Race to the Finnish: Osmo Vänskä in Sibelius

Osmo VänskäHallmark & Co. have not discovered March 8th, International Women’s Day, with the same commercial vigor they have descended upon Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. That may be in part to its political (socialist) origins, or because the Soviet Union decreed it an official holiday in the 1960’s. (It had originated in the United States and for a while commemorated the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.) It is possibly unpopular, because the affixed slogan of that decree is difficult to fit on a small card: March 8th is to be celebrated “in commemoration of outstanding merits of the Soviet women in communistic construction, in the defense of their Motherland during the Great Patriotic War, their heroism and selflessness at the front and in rear, and also marking the big contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples and struggle for the peace.”

Still, if you have someone dear, who has shown selfless heroism in the front and rear, or who struggles for (domestic) peace, it is as good an excuse as any to think of inviting them to the National Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Thursday, March 8th (or one of the two following days) when Osmo Vänskä will lead the orchestra in works from composers of his native Finland: Sibelius (1865–1957) and Kalevi Aho (*1949).

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Garth Trinkl said...

Congratulations Jens, on your appointment as Classical WETA's new classical critic-at-large. I have admired, for some time, your writings for Charles T. Downey's leading Washington, D.C. and national classical music and cultural blog,; and I respect you as a leading expert on recordings of European classical music and some of the personalities behind European classical music today.

I did not see you at last night's Library of Congress LOUIS C. ELSON MEMORIAL LECTURE AND ROUNDTABLE: THE CLASSICAL MUSIC "CRISIS" AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT, which featured three of Washington D.C.'s leading classical music intellectuals -- Dr Joseph Horowitz, author of "Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall" (2005) and artistic director of Washington’s Post-Classical Ensemble, musicologist Dr Karen Ahlquist, Chairman of the Music Department at The George Washington University, and Christina Scheppelmann [from Hamburg, Germany, European Union -- I believe] , Director of Artistic Operations, The Washington National Opera -- formerly active with leading opera companies in San Francisco; Hamburg, Germany; Barcelona, Spain, and Venice, Italy. [The roundtable was organized by Norman Middleton, musicologist and senior concert producer, Library of Congress.]

After the Roundtable, I indicated that I thought that it would be appropriate for your new Classical WETA-FM to program between 3 and 15% American classical music for the approximately 21 hours of daily classical music content, rather than the 0 to 1% at present.

Always the flaming moderate, I was upstaged by Professor Karen Ahlquist, Chairman of the Music Department at George Washington University and leading scholar of American classical music, who thought that 50% American classical music content might not be inappropriate for a 21st century publically-supported Classical Music radio station located in the Nation's Capital -- and the most highly educated metropolitan region in the United States.

Jens, could I ask whether you, and Mr Jim Allison, envision making Classical WETA-FM -- like the National Symphony, Washington National Opera, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art, and WETA-Television -- fully part of the Nation's Capital's intellectual and artistic life by including a more appropriate level of American classical music content?

I would also be interested to read Sharon Percy Rockefeller's opinion as to whether the new Classical WETA-FM should include 0%, 1%, 15%, or 50% American classical content.

Thank you.

jfl said...

This seems a discussion in which it is more likely to get messy - but then, I've never actively avoided a puddle of mud, either.
I hope that many of the comments, at least the more gregarious ones, are in part facetious. “America-Hating WETA Apparatchiks” comes to mind…
I assure Garth Trinkl that I have plenty Classical Music by American composers. Many of which I like, plenty of which I don’t think are particularly good, and more, still, that I am not sure if they are suited for frequent on-air playing. (Of course the issue here is not whether American composers be played ‘not frequently enough’ or too frequently, but whether they are played *at all*.)
But I believe that the combined *physical* WETA/WGMS library has more CDs “American Music” than I have CDs altogether, so offered donations are probably not going to solve the issue, either. It would be much more interesting to find out how many of those CDs are currently in the integrated, computerized (I assume that’s how it works) playlist of WETA. And if that’s just WGMS’ library at this point, it may not be that much. (Again, I don’t know the technical aspects behind this, nor am I privy to more information than Messrs. Trinkl and L. have, but I’d wager that a good amount of CDs -even in the WGMS library - are not yet integrated into the playlist… and that those CDs would be the ones that WGMS was less likely to play.
I myself agree with much of the criticism of WETA’s current playlist. Another first-movement-only of Beethoven’s Fifth or Mendelssohn’s “Italian” and my radio-station-dial-knob-turning-finger will get that itch again. Alas, I could not disagree more with the nationalistic tone this discussion has taken - nor with some of the suggestions or “remedies”. Quotas, for one, strike me as a terrible tool to achieve intelligent and challenging (yet popular) programming. Even if a case could be made that 15% of all ‘worthy’ classical music is American (I assure Mr. Trinkl that this is *not* the case), such a rigid standard would not serve the community of radio listeners particularly well, especially if there is only one channel of classical music available. And if that is so, should WETA, as a classical music station, have a special patriotic duty to treat music by American composers preferentially? Even if that meant that people (those that do not comment in these pages) will tune WETA out? (One William Schuman or Ned Rorem piece at the wrong hour should do that trick – as much as I myself regret that lamentable fact.)
Before further questioning the Americanness of the music that is not played, perhaps it might serve us well to look at what other music is also not played. It seems, from casual listening and reading these comments, that difficult music is currently neglected. This could be because of the CD library issues that have been mentioned in defense of the current status… or it could be because the leadership of WETA (including Jim Allison, but I am sure he has got an active and opinionated board to contend with) has priorities that are different from the ones expressed by Garth and Bob (and, for that matter, different from those that would be my own). Those might be to be as “popular” as possible, not as sophisticated, or educational as possible.

There would be problems with that approach, from my point of view, when it comes to a public radio station which ought to focus on that which a for-profit station could *not* do as well as one that is funded, if only in small parts, by its listeners. (Then of course we have no for-profit classical radio station anymore, and WETA abandoned that ‘duty’ part as regards classical music when it stopped broadcasting classical music, not when it restarted it.
These would be the problems to address first, I believe, and then we can get into the details of whether or not Copeland ‘round-the-clock would actually be something anyone would want to listen to. Meanwhile I suggest that WETA appease us with some instant David Diamond.