Cancelled in Canada

From Rob Teehan in Canada comes the following, posted as a comment to another post, but worth attention on its own. Thanks for this, Rob:


Up here in Canada there have been a lot of developments at the CBC, our flagship public broadcaster, that I’m sure you’d be interested in, if you’re not already aware of them. First off, the CBC announced recently that it would be scaling back its classical programming on CBC Radio 2 in favour of other genres.

Second, the CBC recently announced that it would disband the CBC Radio Orchestra in favour of more geographically-diverse broadcasting of orchestra concerts.  Based in Vancouver, it was the last Radio Orchestra in North America and has been important to the Canadian classical scene, producing many recordings and, especially, commissioning and performing Canadian compositions.  But recent budget cutbacks had reduced all of these activities drastically.

Chris Foley has some comprehensive coverage, especially of the latter development, on his Collaborative Piano Blog:

These two developments have caused a wail of outcry from the Canadian classical community, and, more tellingly, a wail of silence from the rest of the country.  I would be very interested in your opinion on this, as I’m sure would many others.


Rob Teehan

Yes, an outcry from classical music people, and silence from everyone else — we’ve seen that before. Certainly that happened in New York when WNYC, our public radio station, cut back on classical programming. (Though they didn’t abandon classical music. Just look where they’ve taken it.)

So what explains this? Lack of interest in classical music from the world at large (surely no surprise, given the directions current culture goes in). And yelps of pain from classical music people, who get genuinely hurt when they see this lack of interest forcing classical music cutbacks.

Because those cutbacks really are necessary. Yes, any organization has a little wiggle room, in deciding what to present, and yes, an organization really committed to classical music might settle for fewer listeners, lower income, fewer people buying tickets, or whatever the applicable hit to their bottom line might be. But there have to be limits. If the CBC finds that the expense of maintaining an orchestra just isn’t worth it, given (let’s say) the number of people who listen when the orchestra plays, who can blame them? They have a large operation to run, and can’t keep pouring resources into classical music if most of their listeners don’t pay attention. (Some stats from WNYC, when it cut back on classical broadcasting: 80% of their listeners turned the dial to another station when classical music came on, and the listeners who did care about classical music — and angrily threatened boycotts when the cutbacks came — gave less money to the station, in proportion to their numbers, than listeners who didn’t care about classical music.)

So the CBC cutbacks shouldn’t be a surprise. My only question might be whether they’ve considered alternative classical programming, like WNYC’s. And instead of an orchestra, what would happen if they supported a much smaller ensemble, playing much more varied classical music, much of it new? Or else replaced the orchestra with live broadcasts of groups they bring in from outside? We shouldn’t think there’s only one classical audience, or just one kind of classical music. As I’ve said here before (see the links above), there’s a new classical music world emerging, complete with new programming and a new audience. Wouldn’t this audience be found in Canada as well as the U.S.? (Though I do understand that the CBC broadcasts nationally, and might not have as large — percentagewise — an alternative audience as the one WNYC can find in New York,)


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  1. David Cavlovic says

    I’ve been following this with keen interest since my escap….leaving the CBC in 1998. The issue is as much, or even more, the incompetence of the powers that be to program anything properly after having fired or made redunant so many talented people, and emasculated those who are left. There is no real desire, or ability, to program “Art music” for want of a better term, with any degree of intellectuality or intelligence. There are just a bunch of “yes sir, how far over would you like me to bend, sir?” beaureaucraps left running the sinking ship. I often equate, with no disrespect meant, the time I left, along with a number of others, as CBC Radio’s version of Kristallnacht. Right now at CBC Radio, it is the time of the Wannsee Conference : any culture that isn’t popular is doomed.

    The future, folks, is on then ‘Net.

  2. Marko Velikonja says

    I agree with much of your argument, and I’m not sure the loss of the CBC Radio Orchestra is such a huge loss, given that it plays only about 8 concerts a year and CBC already broadcasts a good number of concerts by a wide range of Canadian orchestras.

    I’ve read before that classical music lovers are often the lowest-contributing part of public radio listenership. But CBC isn’t NPR; it’s a public, taxpayer-supported broadcaster. In which case perhaps it should reorient its programming if only a few classical die-hards are listening to its programming, but it should also be a little less beholden to ratings than commercial radio or donation-seeking NPR stations.

  3. says

    Thanks for covering this story, Greg. What nobody counted on is that the Canadian classical music community’s reaction would be this unified, organized, and vocal.

    At the moment, the Save the CBC Radio Orchestra Facebook group has 4,081 members, while the Save Classical Music at the CBC Facebook group has swelled to 10,677 members.

    I’d be curious to know how successful these Facebook groups can be. Would you keep us posted?

  4. says

    The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s decision to end the operations of its radio orchestra in Vancouver has shocked and angered many music-lovers in Canada. But the shock and anger has more to do with the general direction being taken by the CBC than with the demise of the orchestra itself. There are really two major issues here. Perhaps I can shed some light on them as a former music director of a public radio service in Canada – CJRT-FM in Toronto – and conductor of its radio orchestra for eighteen years (1972-1990).

    At one time the CBC had its own house orchestras in most of the large cities in Canada. Most of them were phased out years ago because they were seen to be unfair competition for the other local orchestras. The prime example was the Toronto Symphony which put enormous pressure on the CBC and the federal government to eliminate the very fine CBC Symphony which was often conducted by the likes of Beecham, Monteux, Boulez and Böhm. The primary arguments in favor of the radio orchestras was that they gave the CBC more control over programming and allowed them to encourage Canadian composers and their work without worrying about selling tickets. In the case of the CJRT Orchestra it gave the station a physical or outreach presence in the community and enabled us to go beyond offering classical music on recordings from our studios. It also allowed us to become a distinctive voice in the community. We too encouraged many Canadian composers. One of our most memorable achievements was commissioning six new works to be played in one concert by the combined forces of the CJRT Orchestra and the Boss Brass, a renowned Canadian jazz band. Another was the Canadian premiere of the Kullervo Symphony by Sibelius.

    But times are changing and with Prime Minister Harper and the Conservatives in power in Ottawa the CBC is under tremendous pressure to justify the money it gets and the service it gives. At a time when ‘classical’ music is perceived to be just one kind of music among many in a diverse world and when the CBC itself has a wide range of new technology and media options it is difficult to defend a highly uneconomical radio orchestra of 35 players giving only eight concerts a year.

    The other major issue is programming. There is no doubt that the CBC bureaucrats are steadily reducing the amount of classical music on Radio 2 and phasing out some other activities such as producing their own CDs. But in all honesty many of the old programs had long since reached their sell-by dates; they were relics of a bygone era. Greg Sandow has been right on the money in lamenting the mediocrity of programming by symphony orchestras and radio stations and urging everyone to be more open to the vast range of creative music-making out there. I think the CBC is getting it. Change is often painful but it can be liberating and fulfilling too.

  5. John Montanari says

    Greg: I’m also intrigued by Terrance McKnight’s program on WNYC, and hope it catches on. But I have my doubts. In my 30 years in public radio, I’ve observed other well-meaning attempts at eclecticism and subtle connections that look great on paper and espouse all the right values, then drive audiences away in droves. As a broad rule, when you combine musical styles into a radio program, you don’t add their audiences together. Rather, you narrow your audience down to people who like all the styles. Plus, radio is a medium of habit, expectation and predictability. When a listener doesn’t know what to expect, or has his expectations constantly confounded, a station is likely to lose him. If a station wants to do a new classical music show, great. It should stick with the new music, and let the listener tune to the station for it when the listener’s in the mood, not when the programmer decides he should hear it. Sure, Terrance’s show will have its fans, and in greater New York, there are many potential listeners to draw from. But though I hope I’m wrong, and will gladly admit it if I am, I’m not predicting audience growth for Terrance.

    Well, of course what you’re saying is what radio professionals have found to be true over the years. It’s what I’ve heard in years past from people at WNYC. But now, interestingly, WNYC changes its mind on this issue. I suspect that times have changed, that something new has emerged into the musical world, and also that in New York there’s evidence that precisely the audience for this show does exist. Of course, we’ll have to see how the show does. I can’t blame you for being cautious, because, as you say, things like this have been tried before and haven’t worked.

  6. Rob Teehan says

    Thanks for covering this, Greg.

    Chris is quite right in his descriptions of the magnitude of support for the CRO up here, indeed on facebook and on blogs, but also in the form of petitions and demonstrations brewing as well. And the CBC has a precedent in bowing to public pressure – when they attempted to fire hockey commentator Ron MacLean some five years ago. Whether we Canadians will prove as passionate about classical music as we are about hockey remains to be seen.

    I suspect that the biggest fear up here is that the CBC’s recent actions may be symptomatic of a larger-scale plan to “re-brand” istelf (to quote Chris’ blog) from a culturally- and artistically-important national institution into a popular/commercial station and, in doing so, simply blend into the murky open market. David’s comments seem to support this fear. If this comes to pass, we will have lost an important piece of our national identity.

    But the important question here is: what music is the most important part of our national identity? Does the publicly-funded CBC have a duty to represent all music in Canada, or just that which is culturally important? How do you judge what’s culturally important? Who judges? If the CBC is to retain its focus on classical music, how should it balance the programming of traditional classical repertoire with new Canadian music in the classical tradition (both very different musics with very different audiences)? And if the CBC is indeed to start branching away from the classical tradition, we must ask: is it possible to engage artistically with the popular traditions active in Canada – which have produced artists of international renown and influence – without becoming a mere commercial entity? How does the publicly-funded CBC satisfy both camps? Are there indeed two camps, or many, or none?

    And – what are the motives at the CBC? Are these decisions borne out of a desire, as is feared by many, to simply solidify the bottom line and bow to political pressure, or are they the result of a more progressive and inclusive view of the Canadian cultural landscape – a view that will necessarily see at least a partial shift away from classical traditions? There are many questions, and I wish I knew the answers.

    Alain Trudel, well-known Canadian trombone soloist and current conductor of the CBC Radio Orchestra (and a fantasic and humble musician) has posted an open letter on his website which has been making the rounds via email. He makes some compelling arguments in favour of the innovative work the CRO has been undertaking recently. Certainly it’s a shame that this work will be cut short less than two years after Trudel’s appointment to the post. But I will point out that the work he highlights in his letter includes engagement with music of other traditions, including the popular.

    Rob Teehan

    Trudel’s letter appears below:

    “April 1st, 2008

    Dear members of my orchestra, colleagues, and music lovers across the country,

    Over the past few days I have received your many communications concerning the untimely demise of the CBC Radio Orchestra (CRO). I want to thank you so much for your concern and love for the Orchestra. I am very moved to see how many people understand the importance of the CRO (celebrating it’s 70th anniversary this season) for Canadians of all musical backgrounds.

    The musicians, and myself are, of course, devastated by the loss of our mandate from the CBC, which first gave us life. In this time of shock and obvious distress, I think it is important to articulate, as clearly as possible, the value that our Orchestra brings to music lovers from everywhere in our country and to the CBC itself. In order to move forward, we need to grasp what it stands for and its place in our cultural life.

    At this moment the CRO is one of the top orchestras in the country; an orchestra, which we as Canadians have spent seven decades building. This Orchestra is a musical jewel and a cultural landmark.

    Being the only Radio Orchestra in the Americas, the CRO is the ONE music ensemble that sets the Canadian music scene apart. By its existence, its mission and its work, it helps define Canada’s uniqueness.

    Throughout it history the CRO has called upon composers and performers of all cultural backgrounds from across our country, proving that music is alive in our country, even when other matters may cause despair or discouragement.

    Through live performance and national broadcast exposure the CRO gives exposure to Canadian soloists and composers, sending a message of hope to all young Canadian creators and to musicians of all musical backgrounds. It shows that their voices will be heard and celebrated.

    Throughout my tenure, I have insisted that we develop projects from all musical genres, including jazz, world, pop and Canadian native music. In 2007, we started the Great Canadian Song Book, which commissioned a diverse roster of composers to create “art song” settings of works from Joni Mitchell to Neil Young, from Buffy Ste-Marie to Serge Fiori and Michel Rivard.

    The CRO has developed creative projects around music from Asia and the Middle-East; around jazz improvisers as well as traditional orchestral repertoire as well as collaborating with the rapper K-os.

    During the last season, we commissioned 18 works over seven concerts. Through the CBC Radio Orchestra, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is not only seen as a programmer but also as an active partner in Canadian art-making.

    The CRO, through the elegance of a national broadcasting network, has reached people across our country. In September 2007, we performed a specially developed program, live, in Iqaluit on Frobisher Bay. Months later, we went to White Rock, B.C. We have received invitations from large and small communities across Canada and even from major concert halls in Europe. All of this, alas, we are now unable to entertain.

    I have been fortunate in my career to work extensively in both English and French Canada, having thereby, a truly national perspective. To my great joy, in recent months the French services of the Corporation have not only become more aware of the fine work of the CRO, but have expressed a desire to embrace it. This also is a path that we cannot now pursue. However, the role of the Orchestra in building bridges across our country is something we must never forget.

    Many things have been made clear in the work of the Orchestra and in your response to its closing: the importance of music in our lives, the importance of nurturing, supporting and broadcasting the diversified and astonishing talent we have in our country, the role of a national broadcaster in bringing us together, and much more. We will each have our personal reflection on the meaning of all of this, but one thing is certain: the CRO reminds us of what it is we cherish most in music and in our country.

    Respectfully yours,

    Alain Trudel

    Principal Conductor, CBC radio Orchestra”

    Rob, Trudel’s letter is heartrending, and I can well believe the orchestra is doing good work. But that still doesn’t mean the CBC should support them. Who does the good work reach? How important is it on a national scale? To what extent is the good work important only to people who’ve already decided that classical music is terrifically important? (Despite the orchestra’s work with other idioms.)

    These are hard decisions. Classical music people often have a sense of outrage when classical music is rejected in some important way, as if its importance were a given. But the world may not agree.

    About other points: The CBC may indeed have mixed motives. Maybe it’s a terrible organization. I’m not taking that view.– I don’t know anything about the CBC. But supposing its motives are questionable. Its actions in this case still reflect trends that go far beyond its reasons for making decisions. If classical music were as central to Canadian culture now as it was in the days when Stravinsky recorded with the CBC Orchestra (that was the first performance of Symphony of Psalms I ever heard), then the CBC would be supporting classical music in sleazy ways (if in fact it operates sleazily).

    As for being artistic vs. being commercial, I think you’re right when you suggest that there may be many options, not just two. I’ve said before that people in classical music — and in the arts generally — don’t always appreciate how many levels there are in the commercial vs. art divide, something that’s just as hotly discussed in popular culture as it is in the arts. There are many levels of commercial success, ranging from mass market to no commercial success at all, and all these levels are found inside popular culture. There can be established acts, honored by critics, and with audiences large enough to support them, that aren’t popular, in any reasonable meaning of the word. So if the CBC supports things that are more popular — and hence more commercial — than classical music, it still might be supporting things that aren’t even remotely mass market.

  7. says


    I would just like to underscore that CBC Radio Orchestra is not just another orchestra. It responds perhaps more than any other to the concerns that Greg raises about the state of Orchestras. Go and listen to the broadcasts of the orchestra at

    Under its new leadership ( Producer Denise Ball and Principal Conductor Alain Trudel starting in 2006) the CBC Radio Orchestra has presented concerts with collaborators including musicians from many world cultures including Asian and Middle Eastern, it has worked with jazz musicians and started a project called the Great Canadian Songbook (think Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neal Young, Michel Rivard, Buffy St-Marie, Ron Sexsmith) in which songs from these singer-songwriters were set for orchestra by a variety of Canadian composers and performed by a range of singers from a variety of musical styles. The Shostakovich homage concert included 6 four minute works on DSCH – commissioned from composers of a variety of genres from across Canada. In seven concert programs in the 2007-08 season, there were 18 commissioned works. Show me an orchestra with this great a range of musical styles and such creative energy.

    Not this is not an orchestra like any other. And this is why the creative community is so shocked by the decision to close it down.

    It may not survive this cut but it leave a great legacy and what it stands for should not be forgotten.

    Barbara Scales

    Hi, Barbara. Nice to see you here.

    Your thoughts are as heartrending as Alain Trudel’s, as quoted in Rob Teehan’s comment. The CBC Orchestra certainly sounds fabulous. And, from a classical music point of view, needed.

    But that’s the hard part. We’re talking about this from a classical music point of view, and the CBC isn’t required to take that view. One of the students in my Juilliard course said something poignant a few weeks ago. He was thinking of the a audience for new classical music, and said that it had to be tiny. The audience for classical music in any form is tiny, against the background of all of our culture. And then the audience for new classical music is a tiny part of the overall classical audience, so it plays almost a vanishing role in the general culture.

    Obviously there are exceptions, as I’ve noted in my comments on some of the new music stuff breaking out in New York. But the concerns you so powerfully offer may be concerns only to a very tiny group of people. The CBC may not be obliged to reflect these concerns. This may be hard for us in classical music to accept, but at least we should understand that — even at our most artistic (and maybe especially at our most artistic) — we’re speaking only for a tiny minority.

    The next step, of course, would be to find reasons why our tiny-minority concern is important enough for the entire culture to support. And that, I suspect, won’t be as easy as we’d like it to be.

  8. says

    The difficulty classical music has today is the perception of the modern audience. Much of the “new” music composed in the last 100 years is (to the untrained ear) unlistenable – and in order for orchestras to make money from concerts they have to play the “money makers” – Beethoven, Mozart …

    Some “modern” pieces have made it into the repertoire (Holst: The Planets, Dvorak: New World Symphony) but truely new works are rare. Again, the reason is the bulk of the population don’t like what they hear.

    Maybe the classical world is trying to achieve a higher standard of music appreciate – but then there is the economic factor, so more and more orchestras are having to close up shop.

    As a composer (with a concert looming), I am trying to make sure the music is technically difficult -a challange to the players, a new sounds -a challange to the listeners and yet still accessable to a modern audience. This will be the premier of my Symphony No 1. The hope is it will be received with both critical acclaim (the classical music world will accept it as something both new and exciting) and audience appeal.

    I often hear members of the classical community putting down composers for film, like John Williams, or Klaus Badelt. But they have, IMHO, discovered something the rest of the classical world could take hold of. Classical music can be enjoyable to listen to… and if it can appeal to a large group of people, it can also be financially viable.

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