Being the curmudgeon that I am, modern technology doesn’t generally impress me; and on those occasions where it has, such as Facebook, I have ultimately found it wanting (more about that some other time). Nevertheless, there are those instances in which technological advancements have not only impressed me, but have actually proven to be most useful. A case in point: internet radio. Through the glories of digital technology I now can listen to virtually any broadcast radio station, plus any station which is solely designed to be heard on the internet through streaming, much of it via iTunes. On any Wednesday I could be listening to a Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3, or All Night Classics on the ABC (Australia), or L’Air du Temps on RTBF (Belgium), or something on WFMT, VPR, WRTI, WGBH, WQXR, MPR, or any of the exclusive online services such as Organlive, Connoisseur Classics, or RadioIO Classical, or any of countless live streams available. That doesn’t include podcasts of programmes I may have missed but can listen to at a later date.
I realise this all sounds terribly prosaic, but there is a point to this: being able to listen to so many radio stations, especially American broadcast stations, I’ve managed to get a sense of overview as to their idiosyncrasies and programming styles. American classical music stations are now almost exclusively within the purview of Public Radio. The result being a certain blandness and predictability. I have found that, just like pop music today, there is almost nothing which distinguishes one broadcast classical music station from another. It’s all very generic with a heavy emphasis on Baroque music, shorter works from other periods and (UGH!) the excerpting of single movements from larger works (a mortal sin in my book), and of course, the avoidance of most 20th and 21st Century music (the exceptions I need not mention here). Baroque is big because (like it or not), with a tiny number of notable exceptions, it has a certain sameness to it; for the other stuff it’s the usual top 40 Classics.
Then there are the announcers who, are either so musically illiterate they can’t even read the liner notes properly including the persistent mispronouncing of names or musical terms. Then there are the “scholars” who blather on about how extraordinary a piece is, or what a simply marvellous performance we had just heard. I’ve become exasperated by the “commentaries” with these morons. I really don’t need to have Jill Pasternak of WRTI tell me how beautifully Lang Lang played a Chopin prelude (since I happen to think that Lang Lang is a charlatan); or, Alan McLellan of WGBH telling me what a great interpreter of Aaron Copland Leonard Bernstein was. Thank you, I already knew that.
Nevertheless, there is one broadcast station that stands out on American holidays. On those days — Memorial Day, July 4th and Thanksgiving — to its abiding credit WRTI in Philadelphia (90.9 FM) devotes practically its entire classical broadcast day (6:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.) to American composers in a comprehensive way that others don’t. Of the eight broadcast stations to which I have traditionally listened: MPR (Minnesota Public Radio), WGBH (Boston), VPO (Vermont Public Radio), WFMT (Chicago), WQXR (New York), WETA (D. C.), WWFM (Central N.J.), WRTI (Philadelphia) only the last one devotes its time almost exclusively to American music on these uniquely American holidays.
So, why am I making such a fuss over what might seem to some as borderline musical jingoism? Because, when it comes to American classical music I guess I do have an almost fanatical zeal. America musically came of age in the 20th Century. Having been spared exorbitant loss of life and destruction by entering World War I late in the game and not experiencing either World War on home soil, and stern shepherding during the 20’s (and later) of Nadia Boulanger, America ended up blessed with two generations of stunning talent (a list of which would far exceed the scope of this article), most of whom we never get to hear in the concert hall and rarely on the radio or computer during the rest of the year. So, I say kudos to WRTI during these distinctive holidays — Jill Pasternak’s sycophantish blather and the unremitting “non-ads” (under the guise of “support” announcements) notwithstanding — Dave Conant and Jack Moore are to be applauded for their promotion of what is probably America’s greatest yet least appreciated contribution to cultural enrichment of humankind.