Welcome to Hybrid Highbrow, Radio Survivor’s classical radio page. Here you will find news and opinion on classical radio and classical recording sharing around the world. My own perspective is that “classical music” should be understood in the broadest sense, happily coexisting with other genres such as jazz, Broadway, and non-western genres such as Chinese opera, Gamelan, and Egyptian Oud. I also think that the concept of “radio” should be extended not just to AM/FM, but to podcasting, Pandora, Spotify, and other venues capable of reaching mass audiences.
I was listening to KPFA's Sunday morning classical music show yesterday, and suddenly they played Igor Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat and I thought: maybe there are two kinds of Stravinsky for two kinds of public radio stations. For the big grand classical music stations like WQXR-FM in New York City, the pre-World War I ballets with their huge gorgeous sounds are best. But for community stations like KPFA, the more chamber-music oriented pieces that Stravinsky wrote from 1918 onward seem more appropriate. I'm talking about stuff like the Histoire and the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments; that sort of stripped down fare that the big mainstream classical signals never play. In fact, I vaguely remember that a billion years ago KPFA did a birthday celebration of itself that started with Stravinsky's "Happy Birthday" Greeting Prelude.
My friend Sherry Gendelman played one of Maurizio Pollini's recordings the other day on her Piano radio show on KPFA in Berkeley. It was Pollini's version of the Chopin Preludes and reminded me of when he came to New York City in 1979 and played Carnegie Hall. This was a huge deal since he was already so famous and all. Since I worked at a then popular record store, somebody gave me a ticket and I went. As I recall, Pollini served up the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy and I thought he was quite spectacular. But others around me insisted that while he was a great technician, his style lacked feeling, and I, being 19 or so, agreed with them since they looked like they knew what they were talking about. After all, what did I know?
Hybrid Highbrow podcast #1 is out! Ta daaaaa!
The maiden episode focuses on the similarities between two early 20th-century "talking machine" singers: blues shouter Mamie Smith and opera star Enrico Caruso. Both sang in the middle ranges, alto and tenor, rather than the high or low registers. This made them perfect for acoustic recording. Both also knew how to project their voices over a small ensemble of musicians crowded next to a big old recording horn. Both sang about the same subject: the frustrations of love. And both produced some of the earliest hit records.
What is hybrid highbrow? It is a formats that eschews formats, that wants to understand how classical music collaborates or co-exists with other genres: jazz, folk, blues, and Broadway among them. For a long time I looked for a show or radio station that focused on this on a regular basis. Finally, the other day I decided that I'd just do it myself. To my amazement, as of this posting, episode number 1 is #6 on the Mixcloud blues show chart!
Hybrid Highbrow podcast #2 will celebrate a musical form called the "arabesque." This kind piece riffs on a quickly rising and falling melodic pattern. It was championed by composers like Debussy and Schumann. But the concept was also served up by stride and jazz musicians like Willie "The Lion" Smith and Charlie Parker.
Any feedback on the production of the podcast would be welcome. I recorded it on a Mac with Audacity and I think my levels were a bit hot. Hopefully my tech chops will improve with subsequent episodes. Thanks to Paul Riismandel for encouraging me to do this.
Many wonderful music programs come out of radio station WPRB-FM of Princeton, New Jersey. Marvin Rosen's program Classical Discoveries ranks high among these offerings. He's been celebrating new music and living composers over the airwaves since 1997, and on May 29 will note the show's 20th birthday.
"Classical Discoveries would not be possible anywhere else but here on WPRB," Rosen proudly states on his web site. "The station does not have a 'black list' of forbidden works, and no one is afraid that some music director at the top of the corporate ladder with one strike of a pen will remove 99% of a proposed playlist and replace it with old warhorses and pretty music."
Composer Kevin Volans gave a talk at Ireland's Contemporary Music Center the other month. During the speech Volans ID'd the United Kingdom's Classic FM radio service as a key moment in Good Culture's never ending declension narrative. First came The Three Tenors (gah), and if that wasn't enough:
"Then came Classic FM in 1992, set up by an entrepreneurial group to provide a stream of popular classics. Its success was rapidly followed by many others, like South Africa's Classic FM, which now has slots devoted to wine and lifestyle thus endorsing 'classical' music as an adjunct to an upmarket lifestyle, like a sauna, a massage and pedicure, maybe. And because of their computerised playlist, all the short movements of symphonies for example, are given preference - so you may hear endless repeats of the Scherzo of Beethoven's Eroica, but never the great first or last movements! What a nightmare."
"Welcome welcome welcome . . . this is the classical King-FM fantasy concert," the podcast entry begins. "The concert that never happened, but we wish it did, so we made it so." Fictional or not, I am enjoying this Seattle public classical radio station's "fantasy concerts." Produced by King-FM 98.1 FM, they billboard Seattle area musicians exclusively. Here's the rundown for the latest episode, which focuses on the composer Maurice Ravel:
Ravel: Jeux d’eau Giesa Dutra, piano Fauré: Violin Sonata No.1 in A, Op.13: I. Allegro molto Bronwyn James, violin; Angela Draghicescu, piano Gershwin: Three Piano Preludes: Prelude No.2 Peter Mack, piano Ravel: Violin Sonata No.2 in G, M.77: II. Blues. Moderato Maria Larionoff, violin; Robin McCabe, piano Ravel: Miroirs: II. Oiseaux Tristes Millicent McFall, pianoThe podcast presenter (Bryan Lowe) provides some really nice background on Ravel's life and perspective, then gets into the music. You can get the series via King FM smartphone application. I downloaded it onto my Android phone and it works quite well.
My favorite classical radio station has released thirty Vimeos of the semi-finalists for its "classical moonlighters" competition. I wrote about this when WQXR in New York City first announced the contest last year. These folks have posted vids of themselves playing various masterpieces and they've made it to first cut. The final finalists in this event will perform before judges and a live audience at The Greene Space. The top prize is private coaching with a major artist, then a performance at the Lincoln Center Rubenstein Atrium.
Holy smokes; these people elevate the concept of "amateur" to the nth degree. Here are some of the videos. First, Yiran Wang playing the fourth movement of Chopin's B minor piano sonata:
Minnesota Public Radio has asked its listeners to pick their top five classical choral pieces. I love this for two reasons. First, it's a refreshing alternative to those dreary top 100 classical piece lists in which every year the polled pick almost exactly the same compositions they chose in previous years. Second, it encourages classical compositions that emphasize the human voice, an instrument woefully neglected on the playlists of many classical radio stations.MPR has partnered with VocalEssence, a Twin Cities musical outfit, to run the contest. Participants get a pretty long list of choral pieces from which to pick. I sympathize with the probable reasons for the pre-selected checklist. Unlike the symphonic repertory, there aren't too many choral warhorses. So without any guidance, MPR/VocalEssence could wind up with a wide range of picks and no clear winners. The downside, of course, is that lots of choral stuff I like isn't on the list. The checklist is all pretty much requiems, oratorios, and cantatas and such, but nothing from symphonies or operas. The good news is that means that the contest won't wind up inevitably giving the choral movement of Beethoven's 9th a prize (it consistently wins top billing at WQXR's top 100 composer contest). The less good news is that some of my favorite choral pieces aren't on the roster. This includes the choral love of my life, the funeral scene from Porgy and Bess.
I am digging several just beginning and just concluding local ensemble / amateur contests being run by classical public signals WQXR-FM in New York City and KDFC-FM in San Francisco.
KDFC-FM has just finished its Local Vocals High School Choir sing-off, and the prize goes to the Monte Vista High School Chamber Singers from Danville in Contra Costa County. I have to say, they deserve the award. Pretty beautiful singing:
I've added some more programmers to my community based classical radio show list: James Irsay and Sarah Cahill, both classical pianists.
Irsay has a show on Pacifica station WBAI in New York City. He's been around the station off and on in one capacity or another for quite a while. Back in the 1970s he hosted a program called Irsay in the Afternoon. A somewhat typical installment of the show focused on the performances of Raymond Lewenthal (see WBAI folio circa 1976), who rocked NYC with his wonderful renditions of Liszt in the mid-1960s. Here's a YouTube of an Irsay interview with the young Joseph Villa, performing live in 'BAI's studios in 1972.