Catching up (2)

Some things I’ve been thinking about….(And I’ll have to add more in another post. Note that I’ll be on vacation for a few days, and won’t be able to post any comments till next Monday or Tuesday.)

First, and most exciting, Terrance McKnight (and also here), the new host and programmer of the “Evening Music” show on WNYC, New York’s public radio station. He started on March 3.

I’ve been fascinated, over the many years that I’ve been commenting on the future of classical music, to see that future emerge. Fascinated, and delighted, too. I wouldn’t have dared to predict exactly what the future would be, or when any part of it might arrive. And I’m finding that it’s coming faster and faster. Terrance McKnight is a major step. He programs a nightly classical music show (well, Mondays through Thursdays), in which new music is the norm.

But it’s not a new music show! Mainstream classical works are also featured, along with jazz, and other things. He opened with some African-American folk music from Mississippi, very rural and wild, which then unforgettably segued into the slow movement of Beethoven’s Op. 109 piano sonata. You must look at his programming, which I’ve collated, up to the start of this week, from the WNYC website.

I think this is the classical music programming of the future, programming in which new music isn’t an occasional spice (or annoyance, for people whose main love is standard repertoire), but is – I’ll say it again – the norm. Certainly this is the kind of programming that can attract the new, young audience that classical music people always talk about. I don’t know what kind of numbers the show is pulling, whether it’s gaining audience or losing it. I can imagine many scenarios, one being a stampede toward the program, as word gets around, and another being a stampede away from it, and then a slow but steady surge of new people, growing over time, ending up with more people listening than listened before. Certainly I’m likely to listen.

And note that this future isn’t, I’m a little sad to say, the future many of the people in the field so wistfully have hoped for. That’s a future in which things continue unchanged, but somehow a new, young audience starts coming to concerts. When you think hard about that, it’s unlikely – why should people start coming to something they’ve stayed away from for so many years?

But I know many people (many, many people inside classical music) hoped they somehow would. The sadness, for these people, is that Terrance McKnight might be a strong sign that classical music really has a future, but it’s not the future many people wanted.

McKnight, I should add, doesn’t do this alone. He was brought to WNYC by my friend Limor Tomer, the station’s Executive Producer of Music. Limor had already moved the show in this direction, but needed a brilliant host and programmer to make it sing. She found him, and deserves full credit.

But don’t take my word for it! Download the programming, as I’ve collated it, and see what classical music looks like, when half the pieces you hear (maybe even more than half) are by living composers. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this for years, maybe for all my life. If this succeeds at (so to speak) the box office, and once word gets around, this might be the biggest a shot in the arm classical music has had in years.


Faithful readers may have noticed an echo above of my post on the Wordless Music orchestra concert, a performance of orchestral music by Gavin Bryars, John Adams, and Jonny Greenwood that sold out a thousand-seat church two nights in a row, with no advertising. As I said at the time, we saw – right at those concerts – the new young audience everyone talks about, the same audience (or pretty much the same) as the people who might listen to Terrance McKnight. And I quoted a veteran, highly placed classical music insider who – greatly impressed, even thrilled with what he saw – recalled that he’d told an orchestra he once worked with that if they ever got the young audience they talked about, they wouldn’t like it. Here, he thought, was living proof of that. This audience simply won’t go to standard classical programs, or at least not nearly as often as the present audience does.

You can hear that Wordless Music concert on WNYC’s website. WNYC – another Limor Tomer initiative – broadcasts and archives all of Wordless Music’s performances. (Note, by the way, that if you want to listen to the program one piece at a time, click the tiny “more” button at the lower left of the box describing the orchestra concert. You’ll be taken to a page where you can choose which part of the concert to hear.)

The orchestra concerts were a new departure for Wordless; normally they do smaller shows, combining alternative bands with classical music. (And absolutely not, as I’ve said before, as any kind of outreach. The concerts simply reflect the taste of Ronen Givony, who runs the series. And, of course, the taste of their audience.)

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  1. David says

    I wish them luck. This sounds a lot like the “good music of all types”

    approach that failed so miserably for KUSC in LA 15-20 years ago. They are a traditional classical station now, and doing very well.

    Such diverse (some would say “chaotic”) programs can work, but they require an enormous amount of effort and staff time to assemble. They often take years to build an audience.

    The only radio station I know of doing this successfully on a large scale is KUNC in Greely Colorado. Their mix includes only very small amounts of classical music, and mostly familiar and traditional classical at that.

    So a failure two decades ago means something vaguely similar will fail now? Times have changed. And New York isn’t LA (which isn’t to say that in 2008 a program like this couldn’t succeed in LA, too).

    WNYC is doing this without much staff time. The audience seems to be there. Why judge this effort from a distance, without information, and by using comparisons 20 years old?

  2. Eric Lin says

    Hey Greg,

    It seems like while the McKnight’s programming is infinitely better than what one hears on stations like WQXR, there’s a heavy bias on a certain school of contemporary American music. The European composers on the playlist are also part of that “large-orchestral”-offend the least amount of people type. (Much like I’m not blaming Alex Ross for fashioning his book after his own tastes)

    I like a lot of this music, but it would be really nice to get some European names or even some Americans usually off the standard orchestral-commissioning radar.

    Again, it’s Terrance’s show and he could play whatever he wants, but I feel there’s already a big disconnect between American and European musical scenes and it’ll be great to have someone try to bridge that gap. (Instead of using Ligeti [whom I love] as the standard and token member of the European avant garde) What about Grisey, and Murail (who teaches in NYC by the way) for starters?

    Hi, Eric. This is the kind of debate I’d like to see! Not, “why is their programming so lame.” But rather, “Listen, it’s fine, but I’d like it more this way.” In other words, what they’re doing is serious enough to be worth arguing about.

  3. says

    I don’t agree with this sort of buckshot musical programming. Reminds me of the BBC Radio 3’s “Through the Night” or whatever they call it now. Something for everybody.

    What has Ellington to do with Brahms?

    This program seems totally unfocused and random. There’s nothing that I could find linking any of the pieces together. Just an attempt to hook someone on one work and hope that they’ll then stay around for the next.

    There are no surprises here, just the same stuff jumbled together.

    I don’t get it. This is not the future of classical radio. It’s the end.

    One mistake you make is thinking that the various programming strands here — new music, standard rep, jazz, other things — are aimed at different people. Not so. They’re aimed at people who are presumed to want to hear everything that’s programmed. So far, the results show that these people exist, in vociferous multitudes.

    As for things being unrelated, first that’s a very subjective judgment. Have you heard the program? McKnight is, in fact, very good at creating both overt and subliminal connections. On his first night, several pieces had something of a toccata feel to them, which created an unspoken thread.

    As for this being the end of classical radio, if indeed this is the future — if the classical radio audience of the future really wants to hear programming like this — then, yes, it’s the end of classical radio as we’ve known it. Many people will mourn that, you included, or so I’d guess. I wouldn’t be unhappy, at least not on personal grounds. I can’t listen to standard classical radio, but I’ll happily listen to Terrance McKnight. (And now somebody’s going to say I hate classical music!)

  4. Gordon Rogoff says

    Dear Mr. Sandow,

    You might well be right about the future, yet surely it might be possible to remind people that a movement from a work is a distortion of the experience, except if you already know the entire piece and are listening for some special nuance to be found in a particular performance. This kind of programing is ubiquitous in England and Ireland, and I’m not alone in my dismay: what we’re hearing are bleeding hunks of music, no more representative of the composer’s intention than a Reader’s Digest version might be of “Anna Karenina.” It’s a different species, true, but it doesn’t help if young people are encouraged to think only in bleeps and sound bytes, rather than in whole paragraphs — and beyond. This isn’t the place to examine the consequences of so much unconcentrated thought, but I hope you’re not surrendering to corporate forms of salesmanship, thus abandoning your own sensibility.

    Corporate forms of salesmanship? You can’t possibly have heard this program.

    I also don’t think it’s possible to “encourage” young people to hear only bleeps and bytes. They form their own ideas, and they’re way ahead of us.

    I don’t mind the occasional single movement. What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t bother me at all. Especially if it contributes to some larger flow. But in any case there aren’t many of them on these broadcasts. Doesn’t it also matter that he plays the entire John Adams Violin Concerto? All three movements?

  5. says

    Catching up indeed. Minnesota Public Radio has an entire station dedicated to mixxing it up being the “norm.” The Current as it’s called has been going strong for at least 2 or 3 years and has contributed the largest jump in donors to the MPR group that they’ve seen in years.

    Sorry if I missed something obvious, or well known! I’ll look at it. And I’m glad they’re so successful.

  6. Wendy Collins says

    I was referring to New York public radio catching up, not you. You are always ahead of the pack. :)

    Aw, thanks! Sounds like I missed the boat on this one, though.

  7. Ken Josenhans says

    Richard Friedman above is thinking of the BBC Radio 3 program “Late Junction;” “Through the Night”, the overnight show, remains fully conservative in its musical selections.

    “Late Junction” has been mixing up a blend of world music, jazz, folk, and classical for about eight years now. It’s the first thing I thought of when I saw your piece on Terrence McKnight’s show. Late Junction has had the unintended effect of steering me back to a lot more classical music, since I came to the show from a folk/world music base.

    I’d love to listen to Mr. McKnight’s show, but those are awkward hours for me in streaming-audio terms — US radio stations are far behind the BBC in listener convenience.

    I love “Late Junction” — I usually claim it is the greatest radio show on the planet — but I also like more traditional classical radio, such as BBC’s “Through The Night” and CBC Radio 2’s programming. CBC 2 from Canada is going whack much of its classical music, particularly the drive-time blocks, this year. I live near the border, and CBC Radio has been a valuable resource for years.