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WORDS, WORDS, WORDS

    In October, we’ll broadcast a 13-week series drawn from the 2004-2005 Arizona Friends of Chamber Music season. Not only am I the vice-president of that organization, but I’m also the producer and host of the radio series. Recently I’ve been writing and recording the scripts for the shows, and that requires a completely different mindset from the writing I do every day for print and Web sites.
    When you write for speakers rather than readers, the first thing you need to to is keep the sentences pretty short, so the speaker doesn’t run out of breath or have to pause awkwardly in the middle of some thought. (A script sentence shouldn’t get any longer than that last sentence, and those particular 40 words can be sustained only because of the two commas providing natural breath pauses.) Then, you have to remember that sentence structures and turns of phrase that look sophisticated and elegant on the page may become hopelessly clumsy when spoken. Back in the mid 1980s, I visited KUSC in Los Angeles during a conference of radio music directors, and met Gail Eichenthal, the host of the Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcasts. What I remember best about that encounter is that Eichenthal vowed to make her own scripts simpler and more natural sounding. No more starting sentences with clauses like, “Born in 1756, Mozart …” That’s not how people talk, and if we say things like that on the air we’ll sound stilted and phony. (I did notice, though, that over the next several months Eichenthal was still starting sentences that way. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley,” as I would probably not try to say on the radio, let alone in person.)
    You’ll notice that a lot of us suddenly sound stilted and phony when we read underwriting announcements, which are written by people who don’t have to deliver them on the air, and consequently stuff them with long sentences as well as sentence fragments and oddly placed modifying phrases and clauses. If you don’t have to read copy out loud, repeatedly, you just don’t think about these things. But we have to think about them if we’re going to sit here and impersonate normal folks.
    It’s been a long time since classical radio announcers practiced the old-school, black-tie formality of 1940s and ’50s figures like Ben Grauer (who was actually one of the less tight-sphinctered announcers of his day). Now we’re supposed to imagine ourselves to be ordinary people speaking enthusiastically, knowledgeably (but never condescendingly) and directly to one listener at a time. “Ordinary,” “enthusiastically” and “knowledgeably” require varying degrees of imagination depending on who’s on the air, but it’s something to strive for—precisely so we don’t sound like we’re striving for anything, just relaxing and sharing music with a friend.

radio-life,

KALINNIKOV KISS-OFF

    As my wife says, sometimes you need to go to work on Monday in order to recover from a weekend at home. For me, this past weekend included an all-morning hike in the Catalinas on Saturday; a visit from David Close, local host of Morning Edition on sister station KUAZ (he wanted to poke at an old, malfunctioning laserdisc player of mine); a trip out to the Gaslight Theatre for a review in this Thursday’s Tucson Weekly; participation in my monthly book group (which I helped organize long before book groups became middlebrow chic, I’ll have you know); and the usual domestic chores. I also had to put in a few hours proofreading some golf-review copy for a local publisher, even though I personally find golf to be dull and the spread of courses across the desert to be an ecological mistake, but that’s what happens when you’re an anything-for-a-buck freelancer. A good friend of mine—who is herself an excellent writer—told me Saturday that this was further evidence that she and I too often “cruise below our natural altitude.” This from someone who was once asked to ghost-write a book on the Cosmic Yoni.
    Anyway, I didn’t get much reading or listening done this weekend, and no cello practice at all. I did finish the last few pages of an eight-month-old New Yorker, while listening to two CDs I hadn’t heard in a while. One’s definitely a keeper: Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra with a pair of suites from stage works by Rameau, one of those rare composers who never seems to have had an off day. The other disc, though, I’ve finally decided after several years to dump onto the eBay pile: an orchestral miscellaney by Vassily Kalinnikov. Now, Kalinnikov was a greatly talented Russian composer of the generation following Tchaikovsky’s, but unlike Rameau he did suffer some off days. I’ve finally lost patience for the overtures and incidental music in question (on a Marco Polo disc), which are generic examples of cosmopolitan Russian Romanticism (as opposed to the Russian nationalism of Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky).
    His health undermined by chronic poverty, Kalinnikov died in his mid 30s; had he survived another couple of decades it’s quite likely he would have positioned himself as a first-rank composer, judging not from the pieces on that Marco Polo disc but from his two symphonies. They show the slight influence of Tchaikovsky (inspiration comes more from Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies than his heart-on-sleeve later works), and Kalinnikov was evidently closely familiar with the symphonies of Borodin and Balakirev. I learned these two wonderful works from the typically brash Svetlanov recordings that EMI licensed from Melodiya in the LP days, but a better-rounded view comes from Neeme Järvi on Chandos. My shelf space is tight, and I’m not sorry to see that Marco Polo disc go, but there’s no way I’ll relinquish those Kalinnikov symphonies.

Classical Music,

OPEN THE POD BAY DOORS, HAL

    Our music director, Steve Hahn, just appeared haggardly on the studio threshhold, the coffee cup in his hand remarkably steady considering what he was about to tell me: He suffered a computer mishap yesterday, and had to restore data with a backup that was two weeks old. And that means that 20 new CDs that were catalogued last week need to be input again. Why do I care? Because I’m the guy who catalogs the blasted CDs. (It’s nice to have some use for my master’s degree in what used to be called library science.)
    At KUAT-FM, we use a system called MusicMaster. At its heart is a catalog of every composition in our music library—right now, 11,815 items, although there were several more before yesterday (sigh). But besides creating and maintaining this database, MusicMaster actually generates our music schedules. Steve gives it certain parameters (don’t schedule two solo piano pieces in a row, use a certain percentage of Baroque pieces during certain times of day, etc.), presses a button, and voilà! A half-done music schedule that requires further fixing and filling from Steve before it’s ready to tyrannize the announcers.
    Sure beats the 3 x 5 index cards I worked with as music director in the early to mid 1980s. But then, I never mistakenly burned a batch of index cards, losing the cataloguing for 20 discs. I never had problems like that … until we installed our first computerized library system.

radio-life,

ARMENIAN EXPRESS

    I just got off the phone with Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, about whom I’m writing a magazine article. I don’t like conducting phone interviews during my radio shift, but our options were limited because of the 12-hour difference between Tucson and Yerevan. (Note to University of Arizona budget guardians: I was using my cell phone, so it’s not going on the UA tab.) Anyway, midway through the interview I had to do a break, which coincidentally introduced probably the most famous Armenian classical music of all: selections from Khachaturian’s Gayane (spelling may vary in your locale). I was actually rather embarrassed about this, and tried to stash the cell phone in a spot where Mansurian and his translator couldn’t hear what I was up to on the air.
    It’s not that I agree with those who regard Gayane as trash; sure, it’s loud and garish, and the ballet is set on a Soviet collective farm with the “patriotic” characters prevailing in the end, which makes it even less attractive to fevent anti-communists. But the music is very well orchestrated, and makes excellent use of typical Armenian rhythms and melodic twists. Still, as I was talking to Mansurian, I was afraid he’d regard Khachaturian’s dances as Armenian music for tourists, bright little baubles that over-simplify and cheapen the culture for export.
    Mansurian’s music, too, is deeply Armenian, but its inspiration comes more from Armenian church music—his was the first entire country to establish Christianity as its national religion, back in 303 A.D.—and from folk song (rather than dance), especially as preserved by Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), the most revered figure in Armenian music. Mansurian’s works don’t sound folksy, as do many of Khachaturian’s; the Armenian element is more subtle than that. Indeed, if you’re not familiar with the patterns of the Armenian language, you might miss the connection; like the Czech-speaking Janá ek, Mansurian often employs native speech patterns to shape his melodies and rhythms.
    Some of Mansurian's music reminds me somewhat of Shostakovich’s last quartets and sonatas for violin and viola. This is most apparent in Mansurian’s first two string quartets, from 1983-84, which will soon be issued in performances by the Rosamunde Quartet on ECM. The Shostakovich connection is less obvious in the more recent Mansurian music ECM has already released; Mansurian’s music from the 1990s, while retaining its brooding, melancholy lyricism, can have a harsher effect, even without being strongly dissonant.
    I didn’t bother to ask Mansurian his opinion of Khachaturian, and I kept the music low in the background so he probably had no idea what I was playing. Maybe he actually likes Gayane; there’s no reason that a man who speaks of soul and landscape in music can’t also kick up his heels at the sound of the “Sabre Dance.”

Classical Music,

STIRRED, NOT SHAKEN

    An August 21 New York Times article reports on unusual efforts many American orchestras will be making this season to attract more people, and specifically more youngish people, to the concert hall. About a third of the way into the story comes this point:

Few major orchestras can fill their halls night after night. Over the decade that started with the 1993-94 season, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League, total attendance at 1,200 orchestras dropped from 30.7 million to 27.7 million, while the number of concerts rose from 27,000 to 37,000.
    As I read this, I thought (as usual when I read such dire statistics) that the problem is obvious, and for once the reporter (in this case, Daniel J. Wakin) and some of his sources agree with my evaluation:
Most major orchestras are earning less and spending more. … The problem is not demand but supply: too many orchestras are playing too many concerts.
    “It used to be orchestras had very small staffs and gave many fewer concerts,” said Joseph Horowitz, the author of the recent book Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall. “This is the nub of the issue. It’s a surfeit of product that’s causing many of the dysfunctions.”
    This is precisely what almost killed the Phoenix Symphony in the 1980s: growing the organization without growing the audience. The core audience doesn’t have the time or money to take advantage of all the offerings, so not only will the audience be diluted through the increasing number of performances, but some will become so exhausted by it all that they’ll actually cut back on their concertgoing.
    On a related but separate matter, Wakin goes on to refer to a study resulting from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Magic of Music initiative. “Focus on what the [potential, new] audience wants,” the study says in part. But how does an audience of neophytes know what it wants if it hardly knows what’s available? This sort of lowest-common-denominator approach is what has made television unwatchable and newspapers unreadable, and it’s likely to make classical music unlistenable, for those who love it as well as those who don’t. The last thing anybody should do is alienate the existing audience while reaching out to a new group that may not reach back. It’s not how James Bond prefers his martinis, but listeners want to be stirred, not shaken.
    Some of the innovative ideas described in the Times article look promising, but others are completely beside the point. People don’t need to be lured to rock concerts with résumé-swap receptions and cocktail parties; they go because they like the music. Isn’t that why people will go to classical concerts, too—repeatedly? Letting young professionals do speed dating in the lobby isn’t going to help them like the music any better, so once they get into a long-term relationship, why would they need to go back to the concert hall? It’s the music that will have to draw them back. And it has the power to do that.
    Classical music is not soothing aural glop, even though that’s how certain radio consultants think we should market it. People may turn on the radio for free glop, but it’s not something they’re going to pay for in the concert hall. The fact is that it takes a little bit of work to get what classical music has to offer. What we should all be doing is breaking down unnecessary barriers and help people roll up their sleeves and find out how rewarding and enjoyable the work of classical music can be.

Classical Music,

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

    This morning I forgot to play Arizona Almanac, a 90-second feature produced by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum about plants and critters of the desert, after the 7:01 news. I have no excuses; I just overlooked it on the log, and dropped it in after the 8:01 news instead. Nobody, absolutely no one, called to complain or to find out what was going on. Listeners howl immediately over the slightest glitch with A Prairie Home Companion, but nobody seemed to notice the absence of Arizona Almanac, or at least they didn’t care enoug to complain. It’s a difficult feature for listeners to keep track of, because it airs only once a week and it’s so brief that if you flush a toilet—which many people are doing at that hour—you’ll miss it. It would be good for it to develop more of a following; it’s a painlessly informative little feature.
    When I worked at the Arizona Daily Star, editors would sometimes intentionally drop the horoscope or some other feature for a couple of days to see how many complaints would come in. If few people griped, the feature would be gone for good. Loss of the horoscope was one of two things that always drew a flood of complaints; the other, remarkably, was the absence of the comic strip “Mary Worth.”

radio-life,

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