Disagreement

Not everyone agrees with what I said about classical music on TV. My faithful correspondent Marla Carew writes:

When I saw the PBS special on Turandot at the Forbidden City a few years ago it was instrumental in reigniting my interest in devoting more of my listening time and attendance to opera and classical music. I suspect that PBS broadcasts affected more than a few of us who don’t live in cultural hot spots like NYC in this way. Too bad that we’re losing that chance (in favor of middling programs like the History Detectives (I may have the title wrong) program that I caught a few nights ago or the horrible herbal supplement and self-help programming featured in pledge week (otherwise known as “pay us and we’ll go away week”).

And a fiery objection comes from my friend Janet Shapiro, who produces classical music telecasts with her husband Phillip Byrd (their company is Brandenburg Productions):

I have to cry unfair about your comments about music on television. As one who has toiled in that field for many years, I can’t help feeling that you’ve tarred all classical music programs with the same brush. We’ve been trying to break the mold of the standard classical concert on television with programs that feature new or relatively unknown music (Mark O’Connor’s American Seasons, Charles Coleman’s Streetscape, Vaughan Williams’ Hodie), unconventional productions (Murry Sidlin’s Defiant Requiem with the Oregon Symphony) and slightly offbeat approaches to more standard repertoire (Carmina Burana with Cincinnati May Festival and Beethoven Alive with the New World Symphony). To name but a few.

There’s lots of blame to go around for the current state of serious music, and I’m willing to take my share of it if you think that what we’ve done is boring or stupid, but for you to dismiss the entire genre without citing a single specific program is not helpful. Instead you boiled it all down to shots of French horns. Yes, we have shots of French horns, but there’s a lot more than that to what we do.

Our frustration comes from many sources, and this is not an appropriate forum to air some of them — e.g., PBS corporate structure, programmers at local PBS member stations. Instead, let me tackle the issue of you — that is, the music writer out there who’s wringing his hands over the present state of classical music. On the worst day, our programs are seen by between 750,000 and a million viewers, far more people than can be crammed into any concert hall (and a whole lot more than are watching The Food Network). But in this multi-channel universe that number is shrinking. Instead of defending the lack of critical interest in serious music on TV, why not pay some attention to the part of it that’s genuinely interesting? Or it’ll go away forever.

Let’s get personal. Suppose you somehow manage to find the many hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary for a television broadcast of your opera Frankenstein. It gets a first rate production and many PBS stations have scheduled it for 8 PM on a Wednesday night. And on that Wednesday the New York Times carries a review of the latest reality program on Fox and a poor-quality documentary on Discovery. And the music critics review a Beethoven symphony played by the New York Philharmonic and a concert of Renaissance Music at a church in Chelsea that 250 people attended. In the TV grid for WNET it says “Frankenstein — a new opera.” And of course there are listings for a hundred other programs. How many people do you think would tune it in? Wouldn’t you be frustrated?

Defiant Requiem airs later this month, and is a tribute to Raphael Schachter, a remarkable man who conducted 16 performances of the Verdi Requiem at Terezin Concentration Camp. The program is more than a performance — there are interviews with survivors who sang in the original performances, actors, historical footage, etc. and it’s an illustration of how music can, under extraordinary circumstances, literally save lives. We’ve been blessed with a hardworking publicist who has volunteered her time because she believes in the program. but almost none of your colleagues has expressed an interest in viewing it. Everyone’s too busy writing the same reviews of the same concerts, so there’s no time for anyone to explore a legitimate way to draw more people under the tent.

I feel that I must whisper the unhappy word “publicist.” Janet says I’m one of only two critics who responded with any interest when the publicist she mentioned e-mailed about Defiant Requiem. I thought that publicist did a decent job, but then I also knew about the Oregon Symphony performance from friends in the orchestra biz, who thought it was fabulous. And Janet had told me about the telecast. So I was prepared in advance.

Other critics, I fear, would not be very likely to respond. Especially New York critics. What do they know about the Oregon Symphony? The whole thing might sound like schlock to them, despite the Holocaust connection. That’s wrong, but how do they know that?

And all of us, as Janet woefully points out, are overburdened. The New York Times critics pretty much have to write about the Philharmonic, and can’t possibly get to all the concerts in New York that ought to be reviewed. The performance in that Chelsea church might well be musically spectacular. To get our attention (I’m speaking now for all critics who write for major outlets) — especiallly for something by an orchestra that isn’t nationally famous — I’m afraid you need a major publicist, one of the few in the business we’re likely to respect, someone whose phone calls we’ll take, and whom we’ll believe when he or she (most likely she) tells us that something matters. This isn’t a criticism of the publicist who’s volunteering her time for Defiant Requiem. As I said, she does a good job, but she’s just not positioned to get the kind of response the telecast deserves.

PBS, of course, could publicize these things, and maybe does. But in my two-critic household (representing both the Times and the Wall Street Journal), we almost never hear from them. Maybe they talk to TV critics. And when they do approach us, my sense is that they don’t know music, and therefore don’t know how to talk to music critics. I’ll repeat the sad truth: If you want music critics to write about your project, you’d better hire a major music publicist (which of course will be expensive, maybe beyond the budget of most TV events).

Janet and her husband, I want to say, created what might be the most powerful moment I’ve ever seen in a classical music telecast. That’s in Beethoven Alive, the program Janet mentioned about the New World Symphony, the orchestra of young musicians that Michael Tilson Thomas conducts in Miami. In it, Janet and Phillip spend time with an oboist, who talks about (if I remember properly) how exposed she feels when she plays the oboe cadenza in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth.

At the end of the show, the orchestra plays the symphony. When the cadenza comes, Janet and Phillip cut away from the orchestra, and show the oboist playing the music by herself in her practice room. What we hear, of course, is still the performance. But we see the oboe player all alone, and can’t help remembering how exposed she feels. It’s brilliant, and very touching.

That Beijing Turandot is terrific television, by the way. Above all, that’s because it was directed by the film director Zhang Yimou, who’s made some of the most striking films I know — Shanghai Triad, for instance, in which Chinese gangsters (and their lacquered women) are seen through the eyes of a little boy, or Judou, where sheets of dyed red cloth turn bitter, sensual, and sinister. He did wonders with the opera, especially in the chorus about the moon, where dancers filled the stage with white. (I’m trusting my memory for all of these details, not always the most reliable thing to do.)

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