The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Why am I turning off Wisconsin Public Radio more often? Too many second-rate composers and works? Too much harp music? Too many ads and promos? What do you think? Plus, UW baritone Paul Rowe sings Baroque cantatas this Sunday afternoon. | September 20, 2013

REMINDER: In a FREE concert this Sunday at 2 p.m. in Mills Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison baritone Paul Rowe (below) will perform a promising and appealing concert of cantatas for solo voice and instruments composed between 1600 and 1720. Performers include John Chappell Stowe, harpsichordist and organist; Eric Miller, cellist and viola da gambist; and Alice Bartsch and Madlen Horsch Breckbill, violinists.

The program includes: Small Sacred Concertos by: Ludovico da Viadana (1564-1645) “Salve, Regina” and “Cantemus Domino” from Cento concerti ecclesiastici (1602); Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672), “Ich liege und schlafe,” SWV 310 from “Kleine Geistliche Konzerte,” Op.9 (1639); Secular Cantatas by: Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764): “Thetis” (1718); George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): “Cuopre tal volta il cielo” (circa 1708); and J. S. Bach (1685-1750): “Amore traditore,: BWV 203 (circa 1720).

Paul Rowe

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a Friday morning as I am writing this.

And I just turned off “Morning Classics” on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Again.

WPR Logo

That saddens and disappoints me because I have long loved and listened to WPR, and I almost always write as a close friend rather than a critic. The WPR people I know and have met, from director Mike Crane to many of the show hosts, are all fine, intelligent and sensitive people.

But lately I find myself turning off Wisconsin Public Radio more than I ever have before.

Why is that? I began to wonder.

Some of it has to do with recent schedule changes.

Today is Friday and since a few weeks ago that means the 9-11 a.m. Morning Classics slot will feature the weekly Classics By Request show.

Alas!

Requests used to be on Saturday morning. That was a great slot in which smaller excerpts of usually well-known works set up the longer, often lesser well-known opera broadcasts. It also allowed children and students to listen to snippets of tried-and-true masterpieces.

True, the morning show’s new host Ruthanne Bessman (below) still seeks out requests from kids. But does anyone want to bet that most of the children are in school when the requests get played on Friday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.?

Sorry, like some other good and loyal WPR friends I know, I turn it off.

Ruthanne Bessman WPR

Then too I find that WPR is programming too much harp music these days, mostly in the morning but not exclusively. I mean, I like the harp probably as much as anyone — excepting harp players of course. But I the harp in its place, which is usually as an ensemble instrument with an orchestra or smaller chamber group, where it can add a distinctive texture and tone.

But I am hearing too many solo works for harp and too many goofy and thoroughy forgettable harp pieces, especially arrangements. One recent offering was J.S. Bach’s keyboard “Italian Concerto” arranged for Harp Ensemble. That is misusing such a fine member of the family of “brunch instruments.” Kind of like an arrangement I recently heard of Tomaso Albinoni’s famous Adagio for Strings and Organ that used the flute, played by the famous James Galway, to suck all the pathos out of the piece.

It turned the profound into the pleasant.

So once again I turned the radio off.

Harp

Maybe audience surveys and focus groups tell WPR executives that the public likes the harp and other members of the “brunch instrument” family that much. But I don’t. Do you?

It all makes me miss the former morning host Anders Yocom (below top), who used to play what he called “The Minimum Daily Requirement” of Bach (below bottom) every morning. And who else but Bach – serious Bach – can meet that daily requirement? Yocom also usually featured big and beefy concertos and symphonies and sublime chamber music .

I mean the kind of music I want to hear mostly is the kind of music you don’t want to live without.

It is the kind of music that led the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to proclaim” “Life without music would be a mistake.”

anders yocom studio  head shot cr Jim Gill

Bach1

WPR also seems to be airing more ads and acknowledgements, more teasers and promos, more fundraising appeals and mentions of corporate sponsors, than it used to. I suppose it needs to. But it seems to becoming more like the same mainstream commercial networks that it was originally designed to be an alternative to.

I realize that it is not easy being in public radio these days, when conservatives refuse to recognize their outstanding merits and want to defund PBS and NPR, and when competition for money is so fierce.

But still.

It also doesn’t help that some of the programmers and hosts seem more interested in airing rarities than in disseminating great and inspiring music that gets the pulse going and proves compelling or irresistible. Maybe these programmers know the masterpieces too well, but the rest of us like to hear great and music – not just obscure pieces and neglected composers that interest more than inspire.

So I would urge programmers and hosts to alternate the great and the obscure, and to keep the non-specialist listeners in mind. Some Bax is fine; but lots more Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, to say say nothing of lots more Handel and Vivaldi and Haydn and Mozart and Schubert and Chopin and Schumann and Dvorak and Tchaikovksy and Debussy and Ravel and Stravinsky and Prokofiev and Shostakovich and on and on — is even better.

But then again maybe all this carping comes back to me — to my own taste or personal preferences. So I want to know:

Does anyone out there share my concerns about Wisconsin Public Radio? Or do you think I am totally off-base?

the ear

While you consider the question, I think I’ll go to my library to pick out a CD to play instead of listening to the Classics By Request show.

Then I will try turning WPR back on again – and hope I don’t end up once again turning it off until the news comes on.

What do you think of Wisconsin Public Radio, and of its new schedules changes and the music it plays?

Leave something in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


21 Comments »

  1. Way too much solo Violin.

    Comment by Randy Scheffel — January 19, 2019 @ 10:24 am

  2. I will leave the classical music critique to those more qualified, but I have been turning off the Ideas Network frequently because of the commercials (I know that they don’t call them commercials, but of course they are). WPR now airs as many ads as commercial radio, which I have turned to after 3 pm. WPR listeners do NOT need to “get their pop culture fix”. We go to WPR to get away from pop culture! Everything else in media is pop culture. I will not be donating this year. I do not donate to “commercial radio stations” so why would I donate to a network that has just as many commercials (plus pledge drives)?

    I also feel that WPR continues to insult my intelligence by playing those annoying music snippets. Am I so stupid that I don’t know when they change from one segment to the next? So dense that I need a que to let me know the commercial is over? Or am I so dopey that I need a mini entertainment break every 15 minutes or my head will explode? And worse yet is the commercials with the loud music background. I have to turn it down. Thank you for letting me vent. I am glad that I found this blog.
    David J.

    Comment by David Riedl — April 15, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

  3. Jacob,

    Full disclosure: when the Sat. morning classical music host job was open, I applied. It required a CD which a pro in Madison made for me gratis. It required work in major markets to which I indicated I’d been a broadcast journalist on 3 of Tokyo’s largest national stations–TV-Asahi, NHK-TV & NTV–but I didn’t even make the interview cut. The violist who got the job has a degree from Indiana U for which I have only the highest regard but she’s not doing anything I couldn’t. All that aside, I tend to agree with your listening reactions to WPR. There was also recently an early Monday morning WORT-FM classical music host volunteer position open for which I personally carried the application documents to the HR lady. Never heard a word. Apparently, I’m not going to be doing any radio work in greater Dane county.

    Comment by buppanasu — December 21, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

  4. I’ve been listening more to Sirius XM for classical music; it has more interesting programming. Have discovered some great new recordings there. There’s virtually no commentary on Symphony Hall, or on the opera channel where they often present complete operas, frequently older recordings but with strong casts. Furthermore, they NEVER have fund drives!
    My late husband finally just started playing CDs while he worked– He got really fed up with the radio commentary. Well, we seem to be mostly concurring with you, but the irritants do vary somewhat.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — September 25, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

  5. My god, I’m not alone. Too much early (particularly Baroque) music, too much piano (way too much), too much “Sunday Brunch,” not enough music with meat on its bones – Mahler, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Beethoven, Bach (though I think there’s still plenty of him on WPR)… Not enough opera, not enough adventurous contemporary programming, not enough big symphonies and concerti and quartets. I find myself preferring silence at night more and more.

    Moving Classics By Request to Fridays is, as you and innumerable commenters have said, indefensible – particularly the Kids Request days.

    Is Sunday Afternoon Live the last bastion left?

    Why couldn’t WPR broadcast performances from the university? Next weekend’s “Rite of Spring” (and Sibelius 3) are sure to be fantastic; same with Oct. 1’s Haydn 88, Wagner “Siegfried Idyll,” and Schumann “Overture, Scherzo, and Finale.” Student recitals like today’s by soprano Caitlin Miller are more than radio-worthy. This is the stuff people want to hear, and it’s right here in town – and the UW records it all! Why not play it?

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — September 22, 2013 @ 12:27 am

  6. WRR in Dallas never disappoints, nor does WQXR in NYC. Both can be heard online for free.

    Comment by Glenda — September 21, 2013 @ 9:07 am

  7. Jake,
    I thoroughly agree. I also miss Anders Yocum. One thing that I appreciated about his program was that he didn’t just play the standards, but also managed to introduce me to interesting music that I didn’t already know. It was thoughtful programming.

    Not only have the promos and ads become more frequent, the promos are increasingly being accompanied by the most irritating music imaginable.

    I wish I thought that WPR was paying attention to comments like these. Unfortunately, I think they are desperately trying to attract new listeners and don’t realize that they are alienating all their old faithfuls.

    Comment by Pat Henson — September 20, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

  8. I turn it off too, but for a different reason. It seems that whenever I turn it on (usually mid-day), there is some boring Baroque piece being played. I stopped listening to rock and roll because the music didn’t challenge my ear. Baroque is the classical equivalent. I find my needs much better met on Symphony Hall (channel 76) on Sirius XM satellite radio. Besides, my iTunes library has grown to over 90 gigs, so I can listen to what I want when I want.

    Comment by John K. Rinehart — September 20, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

  9. We’re with you. We’ve turned it off with increasing frequency because it seems as though there has been more and more music of the kind that may challenge the musicians who are playing it but can be tedious to listen to. We like the sparkle of symphonies and concertos, overtures and marches, and other music that involves orchestras rather than small ensembles.

    Comment by Walt & Barb Herrod — September 20, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

  10. Hi Jake – thank you for being a spokesman for me,
    and I daresay for many listeners to WPR.
    I am so disappointed with the changes
    that have been made – ads\commercials,
    annoying music – changes that are not healthy.

    Comment by Barbara Corry — September 20, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

  11. Hi Jake-
    I couldn’t agree more with everything you said. I really miss Anders Yocum, I really dislike the advertising, the self-promotion, the choice of music and the substitution of talk on Saturday mornings for classical music, the later airing of Bill McClaughlin which now means keeping off the radio during dinner, keeping it off on Saturday mornings and usually turning it off on weekday mornings out of exasperation with the ads and the choice of programming. WPR is fine between 9 p.m.d 3 a.m. Why can’t it be interesting between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.?
    What can we do to get Anders back, get rid of the ads, the mindless chatter and poor programming? A kids show when kids are in school? Ridiculous! Alienating their classical music listeners couldn’t be good for their bottom line, so what’s going on?
    Mindy

    Comment by Mindy Taranto — September 20, 2013 @ 11:45 am

  12. You have given all the reasons I haven’t listened to WERN for many years. I’m not interested in talk, not interested in aural wallpaper, definitely not interested in who the ‘underwriters’ are. (Why, if this is corporate good works, do they need to be mentioned at all? That’s PR; I hope they’re not deducting it as charitable contributions).

    I listen to music that challenges me — and Bach and Beethoven, no matter how familiar the work — continue to surprise me at every hearing. But I also want to hear unfamiliar music that challenges me. I don’t care if it’s “pretty,” “soothing,” “has a good beat,” etc.; it must be interesting.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — September 20, 2013 @ 11:23 am

  13. I got to like Saturday Morning Classics by Request not so much for its selections (if I once felt like a “prisoner of Pachelbel,” to quote the famous New Yorker cartoon, I later came to feel like a prisoner of the often-requested “Pearl Fishers Duet”) as for its feeling of participation in a Wisconsin tradition, people from all over over small-town Wisconsin opening their musical hearts a bit, wanting others to share their favorite moments, choosing selections out of nostalgia, grief, celebration or to relive a special occasaion. It was like a Saturday music camp, and I’m sure a lot of people were introduced to wonderful classics through this Wisconsin tradition. I still listen to it on Fridays, but it doesn’t feel the same.

    I also tend to miss the excellent WPR evening classical series and also Terry Gross, and sometimes wish they could be moved to the morning or rebroadcast.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — September 20, 2013 @ 10:27 am

  14. This has been a problem with classical radio for years. There is a psychology among announcers and programmers that resists, for understandable reasons, the playing of the same standard repertoire pieces over and over (when it’s your job, it can seem to get tiring, or you feel a greater responsibility). So they’re always on the lookout for something new and, hopefully good — like the next Pachelbel Canon (which didn’t exist In listeners minds until the ’70s). Unfortunately, record companies feed into this, by recording ever deeper into the lesser known repertoire, hopeful of finding something new. So announcers, seeing that something is “classical,” has been recorded, and they’ve never heard it, feel duty bound to play it. Unfortunately not everything that meets those criteria is worthy of air time or listening time.. They forget that the reason the standard repertoire is standard is often that it’s really good.

    Comment by Mark Woodward — September 20, 2013 @ 9:59 am

  15. Hi Jake,
    I agree with every word of your piece on WPR. I, too, and with much regret, find myself turning off the radio. This is painful because WPR has been a constant companion.

    Comment by John Beutel — September 20, 2013 @ 9:43 am

  16. I’m with you, Ear. I no longer tune in on Saturday and Sunday mornings (when there used to be classical music gently leading into weekend Morning Edition), and I routinely turn off the radio now when the same, tiresome and overly energetic promos come on.

    Comment by Ronnie Hess — September 20, 2013 @ 8:49 am

  17. There has always been competition for our attention, our hearts, and our pocket change… nature of the beast I guess… and formats, schedules, media sources, quality of sound, etc will continue to change with mistakes and discoveries in the wake.
    But it is good that we honestly comment and express our concerns. And, hopefully, NPR is listening and fine tuning their decisions.
    Dale

    Comment by Dale Riechers — September 20, 2013 @ 8:47 am

  18. I also agree with your observations in this column (except for the bump in harp music – I guess I don’t listen enough to notice). I especially enjoyed the morning programming by Anders Yokom, which I miss. And it is not just you – they are definitely running more advertising and promos, which I think is true throughout their schedule, not just during the music programs.

    Comment by Tim Drexler — September 20, 2013 @ 8:29 am

  19. I certainly agree with you. It’s classical elevator music.

    Comment by Jim Beecher — September 20, 2013 @ 7:45 am

  20. Hi Jake –
    A timely column, indeed. I, too, have turned off WERN with increasing frequency over the last several years, and I might add that my annual pledge reflects my disaffection. I also cannot fathom the decision to move the Saturday request show to Friday mornings — not only can kids not listen, most working adults cannot either. But that decision PALES in comparison to the sheer lunacy of replacing an hour of classical programming on Saturday mornings with reruns of Michael Feldman’s TIRESOME “Whad’ya Know?” Ugh. The frequency of that show’s appearance (and advertisements for it) in the WPR (AM and FM) lineup is incomprehensible.

    Of course – I know that public radio faces all the challenges that you mention, but I would rather they went off-air from midnight to 5 am than continue to erode their classical programming. I also know that I’m part of the problem when I turn the dial to WORT to hear their morning classical programming, but I do it more and more often. I don’t know what other choice we have.

    KO

    Comment by Kathy Otterson — September 20, 2013 @ 7:30 am

    • Way too much fundraising. Is there anyone who appreciates Wisconsin Public Radio who isn’t already contributing? A 3rd or 4th drive doesn’t add 3-4 times more money. Devoted listeners budget this, period. Casual listeners: maybe you hook a few, to the disappointment of the devoted.

      Bruce Steinhagen

      Comment by widocrx — December 12, 2014 @ 3:09 pm


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