Saturday, December 26, 2009

Special Programming -- A Time for Singing

Ann Shaffer continues a beloved tradition on her program "A Time for Singing." For the 27th straight year, she'll host the WTJU Christmas Week broadcast of Englebert Humperdinck's opera, "Hansel and Gretel." This special broadcast can be heard on WTJU 91.1fm Tuesday, December 29 from 7-9 pm, or online at

Englebert Humperdinck composed this fairy tale opera in 1892, at the urging of his sister, Adelheid Wette. She had written the libretto for the Hansel and Gretel story for a children's Christmas production, and asked her brother to provide the music. The rest is history.

Richard Strauss conducted the premier on December 23, 1893 and the work has always been associated with the holiday season.

Ann Shaffer will guide you through the opera, providing insightful commentary on performers and the production.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Special Programming -- The King of Instruments

Sunday, Dec. 27 beginning at 6 PM, Deborah Murry hosts a special edition of "The King of Instruments." Aired exclusively on WTJU, 91.1fm (and streamed online at, the program showcases a variety of Christmastide choral favorites that are sure to bring warmth to the holiday. Will this favorite carol be on the program?

You'll just have to tune in to "Evensong for Christmas," on "The King of Instruments."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Special Programming -- Portrait of the Artist

Wednesday, December 23 at 5PM Jenny Wyss hosts "Portrait of the Artist." This special edition features the Weihnachtshistorie, or Christmas Story, by Heinrich Schutz. You can hear this program broadcast on WTJU, 91.1FM Charlottesville, VA, or online at

Schutz was widely regarded as one of the most prominent German composers before Johann Sebastian Bach. When he composted his "Weihnachtshistorie," Schutz poured all of his contrapuntal and choral writing skill into it, creating a breath-taking work with choirs and soloists playing the parts of angels, wise men, narrators, and even King Herod! And all of it reinforced by a large ensemble that includes organ and brass.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Holiday Programming - Classical Sunrise

Sunday, Dec. 20 a special edition of Classical Sunrise begins at 6 AM on WTJU, 91.1fm (heard online at Host Deborah Murray will be presenting Johann Sebastian Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," BWV 248.

The work consists six parts, one for each of the six feast days of Christmas. This massive oratorio was premiered on Christmas day, 1734 in Leipzig. Although meant to be performed over several Sundays, the organization and overarching structure of the music indicate that Bach thought of the "Weihnachtsoratoirum" as a unified whole.

Which is just the way Deborah's going to present it!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Special Programming -- The King of Instruments

Sunday, December 20 at 6PM, host Michael Latso presents a very special one-hour edition of "The King of Instruments." The program can be heard on WTJU, 91.1FM in Charlottesville, VA, and online at

Michael will feature one of the most famous and popular virtuosos of the organ, Virgil Fox in a holiday-themed program. Fox made several recordings of Christmas carols, all of his own arrangement (of course). This will be an exciting hour of organ music with plenty of fireworks! (Below is a small sample)

As Michael says,

Some of the arrangements come from a stupendous recording made in 1965 and released as Command Classics CC11032SD at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in NYC, the founding church of the Paulist Fathers, which was the first men's religious order established in the United States. The organ has been redone since then and its history can be found here: Among its features is a great reed stop "en chamade," or vertically projecting from atop the organ case; it's called the "Paulisten Posaune," or Paulist Trumpet, and is put to grand effect Fox. Listeners will be amazed as I am every year I listen anew.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Natural Music?

“I am convinced that there are universal currents of Divine Thought vibrating the ether everywhere and that any who can feel these vibrations is inspired.”t
- Richard Wagner

The Bard of Bayuth may have been on to something. Last post I noted the Duke University study that indicated that music may be an outgrowth of our physical makeup -- a natural rather than a cultural construction. As Dale Purves, one of the researchers explains:
"Any perceptual quality you have is there for some biological reason. They evolved because they provide useful information to us. So if you take a microphone out in nature and ask what the tonal sounds are in our environmental niche that we would have evolved to appreciate, the tonal sounds you record are nearly all animal vocalizations. And the ones that count the most are the vocalizations of other humans."
Gives Sigfried's Idyll an interesting subtext, doesn't it?

Another recent study at the University of Toronto demonstrated the importance of cues to evoke memories. Smells, textures -- and especially music -- can stimulate the hippocampus and bring back associated memories. According to the University of Toronto study researcher Melanie Cohn,
This study is important because it resolves a current debate on the role of the hippocampus in retrieving memories. Some have argued it is the strength of the memory that matters most in retrieval. We have shown it is actually context that activates the hippocampus.
That's the concept behind the oldies format. And, I think part of the reason people return to traditional carols and songs in December.

Putting the two studies together, one could reach this conclusion. We have a deep emotional reaction to a performance of a symphony because the music resonates with us on a physical level. And when we play a recording of that work later on, we can relive that excitement again and again.

Now those are inspired vibrations.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Music: A Biological Imperative?

Two recent studies by Duke University suggest that music isn't just a pleasant diversion. Rather, it's something hardwired into human beings, and is an extension of the way we communicate.

I know, nothing new to anyone moved to tears or brought to the edge of their seat by a great work or exquisite performance. But the findings are interesting, nevertheless.

According to Science Daily, the first study showed that "the musical scales most commonly used over the centuries are those that come closest to mimicking the physics of the human voice." 16th Century madrigalists were intuitively familiar with this concept, as were most opera composers. The study suggests that our major/minor scale system (and the scales of other musical cultures) closely resemble the sounds human vocal cords can produce.

In other words, all of the notes in all of the scales that we regularly use can be hummed. And the microtones that haven't been used in traditional scales are missing because they can't.

The second study looked at the emotional content of music. It found (again, not surprisingly) that music mimicked speech patterns and inflections to give it emotional color. And that color was effectively communicated.

As research team leader Dale Purves said, "Our appreciation of music is a happy byproduct of the biological advantages of speech and our need to understand its emotional content."

Happy, indeed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Jennifer Rivera - Blog Canto

For some, a blog is a personal online journal. Actually, that was it's original function. The origin of the word "blog" is a combination of "web" and "log."

Jennifer Rivera is one such blogger. Her posts outline the trials, tribulations, thoughts and adventures of her life -- as an opera singer. If you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at an operatic production, or what the life of a professional singer is really like, this is a great place to start.

Rivera writes in a very accessible and non-technical style that sometimes reads more like a letter to a friend than a public posting. For example, here's Rivera talking about that most awkward piece of stage business -- kissing a fellow actor.

Then there's the situation where you are kissing each other and holding it until the blackout. When the lights are on you and you're onstage, you are in your characters, so it's no big deal. But when the lights go out, you're suddenly yourselves again, so how do you extricate yourself from kissing without it being weird? I've noticed I almost always do the same thing. I always pat the guy (or girl if I'm playing a boy) on the back like "hey champ, good job there" as soon as the lights go off. Have you ever seen two straight guys hug and do the "straight guy back pat"? That's what I do. I'm surprised I don't ruffle their hair or punch them on the arm.
Rivera also provides interesting insights on the art of singing, and opera performance. Like this:
Ah, una voce poco fa, Rosina's entrance aria - I have a love hate relationship with you. You start so low and dip down to very low chest tones, then move around frantically with tons of coloratura (and especially with the crazy ornaments I do) and then leap up to a high sustained B natural at the end. Plus, other than the few lines of recit in the first scene, it's the very first thing Rosina does, so you don't have time to calm yourself down by singing other easier things. But at the same time it's a wicked fun aria to sing, and there are endless possibilities, so even after thousands of renditions, I am never bored with it. But it usually freaks me the eff out.

Accessible, appealing, and a fun and fascinating read. Jennifer Rivera's Trying To Remain Opera-tional is one blog I read regularly.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Metropolitan Opera in HD

The Met is offering an attractive schedule of its productions via satellite to viewers at remote locations around the globe. These live offerings supplement the Met's radio broadcasts, which have been a mainstay of the Met's outreach for over 60 years. The Met insists on venues having appropriate receiving equipment, both video and audio, to receive its HD transmissions. For many viewers who cannot or do not attend live opera performances on-stage (either at the Met or elsewhere), these HD broadcasts are an attractive, relatively low-cost opportunity to see opera as presented by one of the world's great opera companies.

For opera lovers who attend live opera in the opera house more frequently than occasionally, however, the Met's HD broadcasts may have only limited appeal. Even at a lovely venue like the restored Paramount Theater here in Charlottesville, the sense of occasion that attends a live performance in the house is largely lacking. The big screen presentation has much more the feel of a film screening than a live performance in the opera house.

At a massive house like the Met in particular, the sense of distance that is an integral part of the opera experience is compressed by HD. Instead, the direction of the Met's HD broadcasts is much more intimate, with almost claustrophobic obsession with close-ups of the principals. Opera is melodramatic and scaled to be presented at a distance on a large stage. The intimacy that is key to the film experience is alien to the theater-goer's experience in the opera house. Even on a big screen and in HD, the action feels much more in the nature of a televised production on PBS. Especially in a production as large-scaled as Zeffirelli's Turandot at the Met, the intimacy of the obsessive close-ups is jarring.

Opera singers can be, but usually are not, as physically attractive as film or television actors. The physical appearance of opera singers is (or certainly should be) subordinate to their skills as artists. When exposed as the principal singers are at a Met HD broadcast, their physical appeal (or lack of appeal) can detract from the artistic experience. This limitation is no limitation at all for Renee Fleming, for example, but it may have played a part in Deborah Voigt's decision to have weight-reduction surgery, perhaps at the risk of her career (which happily did not occur).

Film is literal and explicit, characteristics that makes it unappealing to this writer. The imagination of the viewer plays only a small role in the film-goer's experience. The director's choices (be they well-considered or mere conceits) define the film. Stage directors, especially in today's opera world, also define the visual aspects of the production, but it can only be done (fortunately in most cases) at a distance. In the opera house the viewer can, but need not, watch the principals at all times. The distance to the stage is so great, and the scale of the production is so vast that there are virtually unlimited visual choices available to the viewer. In HD, the choice of a single visual presentation is made entirely by the director.

The Met HD broadcasts are in "high definition." By its very nature, the exceptionally, even artificially sharp visual definition of HD is distracting. Sonically, the broadcasts feature the worst of digital sound reproduction. The sound is compressed at the source to accommodate the bandwidth required for transmission, then expanded at the venue for presentation. The auditory experience bears little relationship to what is heard in the opera house. Even assuming acoustic correction to mimic the cavernous acoustics of the Met's Lincoln Center auditorium, the balance between orchestra and stage is grossly distorted to emphasize the latter. Furthermore, the acoustics of any live theater vary from section to section. The Met's HD broadcasts sound equally bad everywhere. Digital sound reproduction has the virtue of clarity, but at the expense of warmth and realism. Surround sound in HD sounds much more like the multiplex than the Met's auditorium.

So, bravo to the Met for making its productions available to thousands of opera fans around the world. Surely the HD experience will be improved. But I was only able to last through two acts of a so-so Turandot recently, finally yielding to boredom. I love opera and have seen hundreds of performances over the years. This is one of the few that was so uninvolving that it was not worth a whole evening's investment. If I had been in the audience at the Met, however, surely I would have found much to enjoy. But by all means, try the Met's HD broadcasts for yourself.

Alt-Classical and WTJU

Greg Sandow coined the term "alt-classical." What is it? As Sandow says, it describes a different kind of modern classical music, different than the academic musings that fails to attract the next generation of listeners.
"[It's] another kind of new music that a young audience really does like, and that's what Mason Bates writes, and I'd think also what Anna Clyne writes. I've called that style alt-classical in endless posts... pointed out that it has an audience (in New York, quite a large one), and challenged mainstream classical music institutions to wake up and start programming it."
Jessica Duchen agrees, citing several examples in the UK (like James MacMillan) and Norman Lebrecht's poll of living composers whose music will survive.

Talking with my colleagues in the Rock Department at WTJU, I know that there is something to this. Pierre Boulez isn't high on their list, but Steve Reich is.

There's this living, breathing, vital alt-classical genre bubbling just under the surface, appealing to younger, primarily non-traditional classical audiences. So where does WTJU stand with alt-classical music?

Well, I can only speak for my own program -- Gamut -- but with a show that "runs the gamut of music from the Middle Ages all the way up to the present day," I think I've given alt-classical a fair shake.

Skimming some names from my master playlist, I've aired multiple works from:

John Adams
Thomas Ades
Gavin Bryers
George Crumb
Henri Dutilleux
Philip Glass
Henry Mikolai Gorecki
James MacMillan
Magnus Lindberg
Arvo Part
Einojuhani Rautavaara
Evan Zyporyn

- as well as many others living composers who skirt that alt-classical designation. And let's not forget Bang on a Can, Kronos Quartet, Evelyn Glennie, and other artists and ensembles whose recordings sell very well outside the classical reservation.

I don't present this music sequestered off in some corner someplace where it won't frighten away too many listeners. Rather, I make alt-classical part of the show's mix, rubbing shoulders with all the works from all the other sub-genres created over classical music's two-thousand year history.

Alt-classical may still be finding its audience (at least in the concert halls), but as for WTJU? We're alt-ready there.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Smartest Classical Composer Ever

Being a classical music announcer on WTJU often means looking for stories as well as music of interest to listeners. I’ve recently finished a superb book, The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, that describes the apogee of Romantic poetry coupled with the surge of scientific advancement in late 18th century England. Unlike current culture, in the 18th century science and the arts coexisted in the wonder of discovery.

A key figure was Sir William Herschel, often described as the Father of Modern Astronomy. Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, the first planetary discovery in over 1,000 years. He made seminal studies of nebulae and binary star systems. He also discovered infrared light, which exists outside the wavelength of visible light. His proof that that the solar system had movement and direction and that most stars existed at huge distances and time from Earth gave scientific credence to evolutionary hypotheses for creation of the universe and helped dismiss theologically based myths.

Overlooked by most music lovers and scientists is that Herschel began adult life as a successful professional musician. As was his more musically renowned predecessor G.F. Handel, William Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany. Following in his father’s footsteps, he joined that band of Hanover Guards and eventually moved to England with the Guards when George I, also a German, became king.

Herschel settled in the resort city of Bath, which due to its aristocratic patrons had a sophisticated musical tradition. Herschel became head of the military band, a leader of the Bath orchestra, an accomplished organist and oboist, and teacher. His compositions were heard frequently in Bath (and beyond), and Herschel regularly gave subscription concerts of his music. Herschel routinely attributed his astronomical instincts to lessons learned from musical study and composition.

We had a chance to sample the music of Sir William Herschel on WTJU on Monday, 23 November on the classical program Dawn’s Early Light. The Oboe Concerto in C major and Chamber Symphony in F major are delightful pieces and demonstrate Herschel’s competence and melodic sensitivity.

When one thinks of the smartest of all classical composers, perhaps one should look beyond the great prodigies such as Mozart and Mendelssohn or the great innovators such as Bach, Haydn, and Schoenberg. With the infallibility that comes from being a volunteer announcer on WTJU, I make the claim for the smartest composer to be Sir William Herschel, Father of Modern Astronomy.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Opera Without Staging

Opera was conceived as a musical art indissolubly associated with its staging. To say that La Traviata, for example, is intensely theatrical relates directly to its effectiveness as a work of musical drama on the opera stage. Opera is being performed unstaged in more than a few concert venues. Are opera's musical values enhanced or diminished when the work is divorced from its staged setting? The answer, inevitably, is "It depends."

A recent transcendent concert performance of Wagner's Die Götterdämmerung by the Washington National Opera on November 15, 2009, put the issue into sharp relief. Actually the performance was "semi-staged," meaning that while there were no sets or costumes, the characters interacted as though there were a staging, and the orchestra was in the pit of the Opera House of the Kennedy Center, rather than on the stage with the singers, who usually sing "on book" from vocal scores on music stands. Some of WNO's singers were "off-book," but others relied at least in part on the vocal score. Musically, the performance was sublime, with especially noteworthy contributions by Iréne Theorin, Gidon Saks, Alan Held, and debut conductor Philippe Auguin leading the WNO Orchestra, which played as never before heard.

Washington Concert Opera presents two performances each year, usually of works (such as Il Giuramento or Esclarmonde) not commonly staged, at least in Washington, often with singers in their Washington debut. If many of these works were not performed in concert, at least with these cast members, the works would not be heard at all. The music easily sustains an evening's entertainment, because vocal display often trumps dramatic values. More contemporary works, the operas of Benjamin Britten, for example, do not work as well divorced from the stage setting.

But the Ring has become a repertory staple for larger opera companies, some of which mortgage their futures to present a Ring cycle. So it is uncommon, if not rare, to hear one of these mighty works in concert. But WNO's Die Götterdämmerung worked on all levels. Musically, it was a superior performance. Of all Wagner's operas, Die Götterdämmerung is in some respects the most problematic to stage. How is the end of the old world and the birth of a new world to be staged? Having seen a number of Ring cycles, none of the concluded in a staging that was convincing visually, at least not to me.

Fortunately, all the drama is in Wagner's music. An unstaged Ring has the virtue of provoking the imagination to visualize what Wagner conceived. Too often opera, and especially Wagner's operas, is at the mercy of egomaniacal, misguided, or even delusional stage directors who use great works as vehicles to parade their puny visions before the public. Katharina Wagner's misguided, even perverse 2007 staging of Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth is only the most recent, but hardly the worst, example of "Eurotrash" productions in my experience. Concert performances of these great repertory works eliminate the annoyance, if not outrage that these productions engender.

So, long live concert opera!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bend a knotted oak

The Wall Street Journal recently published a fascinating article about the uses of music in the treatment of sufferers from dementia and Alzheimers disease. A Key for Unlocking Memories explains how music therapy is helping these patients by reaching them in a way that other forms of communication can't.

"Music hath charms to sooth a savage beast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak"
William Congreve

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

State of Classical Radio - WTJU style

In an intriguing interview, "Ten Questions for a Critic: The State of Classical Music," Tom Huizenge chatted with Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette. The questions ranged from the future of live performance to the situation of composers today.

Talking about classical music on the radio, Midgette observed:

I hear an awful lot about classical radio and people's frustration with it. And people's frustration with the conventionality of the programming.[emphasis mine] That real classical music lovers are frustrated with having to listen to the real meat and potatoes, the same symphonies over and over again. And yet classical radio stations say that in order to get the donations that we need to survive, this is what we need to play.

And that's the dilemma many stations face. Adventuresome programming, or the same old same old that brings in the pledge dollars.

We've always kept it adventuresome here at WTJU, as even a cursory glance at our schedule will reveal. We feature a complete opera every Sunday, we have dedicated programs for early music, vocal music, and even organ music.

Most of our announcers started off as listeners, and, I think, the kind of listeners Midgette talked about.

We've chosen to explore classical music in all its diversity and not just play the same old same old. We think it's worthwhile, but do you?

Because the other part of what Midgette points out is true as well. When you stray beyond the confines of classical Muzak, you start to lose mass appeal -- and potential donors.

So if you're someone looking for something more than just the "meat and potatoes" kind of classical programming, welcome to the sonic smorgasbord that is WTJU.

And if you're already partaking of the buffet, then let me ask: have you made your donation to support WTJU? We're not at the point where WTJU needs to choose between playing real classical music and starving, or playing classical pops and thriving -- and your donation ensures it stays that way.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Boppin' with Babbitt

Bad Plus is an interesting jazz combo. Interesting in the sense of hard to classify.

Case in point: they've taken a classical composition and arranged it for their trio. Now that's not a surprising statement in an of itself. George Gershwin's shared by both the classical and jazz worlds, and the rich harmonies of romantic and post-romantic classical music lend themselves naturally to improvisation.

But Bad Plus chose Milton Babbitt. Babbitt's music is very complex, and for many people require several hearings to understand just what he's about.

Not quite "I Got Rhythm." Although Bad Plus supplies it (rhythm, that is). And choreography. It's a refreshing take on a part of classical music that usually remains untouched by other genres.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Music and Context

I always find it interesting when people tell me they don't like "contemporary" music. And generally they're not talking about music composed within the last few years -- they mean Arnold Schoenberg and his dodecophonic disciples, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. You know, the composers that ruined classical music.

Except, of course, that they really didn't. And those folks who say they don't listen to works by the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, et al) hear quite a lot of music inspired by it -- and quite often.

Because while concert goers may have been slow to embrace the sonic possibilities of 12-tone music, many musicians and composers have -- especially film composers. They found the unsettling and vagueness of music freed from a tonal center ideal for suggesting menace, horror, mental instability, and similar emotions.

The clip below beautifully illustrates that. Michael Monroe noticed a very strong similarity between the suspenseful music cues used in the very mainstream "Andy Griffith Show" and Anton Webern's work. He substituted one of Webern's "Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6," with the following result.

So consider giving the Second Viennese School a chance. It's really a musical language that's very familiar, even outside of a visual context.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Marathons and Traditions

I'm writing this on the eve of our fall fund-raising marathon. If you're not familiar with WTJU's history, the term "marathon" might not mean much. But it's a long-standing tradition at this 50-year old station.

For many years, regardless of what was regularly scheduled, WTJU would play classical music non-stop the first week in December. That was the week before mid-terms, and the station did so as a study aid.

Over time, the all-classical week (or marathon) took on a life of its own, and eventually became independent of the scholastic year. The other music departments at WTJU (folk, jazz, and rock) wanted marathons of their own, and so four times a year a different department would mount its own music marathon.

Eventually the marathons, being special events, morphed into fund drives. In an effort to make things a little less chaotic for the listeners (and easier for the volunteer announcers -- these marthons are incredibly labor-intensive undertakings) the classical and jazz marathons were consolidated into a single fall event, and the folk and rock marathons into a single spring fund-raiser.

So if, next week, you tune in and hear classical or jazz music when you've not heard it before, don't panic. We're just carrying on a long-standing tradition. And you can help by calling in your pledge to support WTJU.

I like to think a nice $100 pledge would be a good way to further the tradition.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Marathons, Music, and Money

It's about that time of year again. Non-commercial radio stations all across the country are coming to their listeners, had in hand, to ask for their financial support.

We've all heard the pitches, and I suspect we've all ignored them (I know I did for years). But here's the thing. It's not an exaggeration when stations say they can't survive without direct listener contributions. Unlike other countries, which fund their public broadcasters, America's official stance is sink or swim.

And that's certainly the case here at WTJU. Our fall fund-raising marathon is coming up on October 23, and we will be looking to you, gentle listener, for a financial contribution.

I understand there's a perception that WTJU really doesn't need the money. After all, isn't it owned by the University of Virginia? (They do hold the license) Don't they pay for everything? (Partially. About half of the station's operating costs are covered by UVa). Don't public radio stations get huge government handouts? (Hardly. Our share of money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is only a few thousand dollars) What about all those underwriting announcements WTJU airs? Doesn't that pay the bills? (Partially, but we'd have to do pretty much non-stop underwriting announcements occasionally interrupted by a song or two to cover everything)

So it comes back to you, the listener. About half of our operating budget has to be raised from the community. A small part is covered by community-minded businesses through underwriting, but the bulk of it rests with you.

Will you call in with a pledge this time? Or go to our website and do so?

Ask yourself how important WTJU is to you, and pledge accordingly. Personally, I'm looking for a lot of big boy and big girl pledges this time around -- $100 and higher.

For the quality of music we provide day in and day out, I don't think that's unreasonable.

And here's something to consider: if every single listener pledged $100 this fund drive would be over before it started -- and so would the next one. But not everyone will pledge.

What about you? Will you help keep WTJU going?

- Ralph

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Calling for Counterpoint

Personally, I don't like cell phone ring tones. I agree with the comedian who pointed out that ring tones, like pictures of your pets, may be cute to you but they're annoying to everyone else.

Nevertheless, I just heard a work that I wouldn't mind having as a ring tone. Composer and pianist Vincent Lo has taken the standard Nokia ring, and used it as the motif for a short fugue.

As you can hear (and see, if you read music), Lo's counterpoint is very inventive, yet logical. I think it works well as a piece of music.

You may here me air it on "Gamut" some fine Wednesday morning. But probably not on my person. Great as Lo's composition is, I'll most likely be keeping my phone in vibrate mode -- it's easier to ignore that way.

- Ralph

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Operating Instructions

Friends of mine who live outside WTJU's coverage area expressed an interest in listening to my show. "No problem," said I, "just go to and click on the Listen Now! button."

Well, it turns out there was a problem -- sort of.

Said friends are Mac users. Now if you've visited our live streaming page, you'll see two options for streaming. The PC option's pretty easy. Just click on the Windows stream, and your computer will play the stream through it's built-in Windows Media Player.

Mac users can't do that, of course (unless they're running Windows in Boot Camp, but the folks who can do that will not be puzzled by our streaming page in the first place).

For all you Mac types, you need to use the Og Vorbis stream. When I first looked at the page, I was not at all happy with the thought of having to download a media player just to get the stream.

But fortunately, you don't have to do that. The Firefox 3.5 browser has an Og Vorbis player incorporated into it. So in Firefox you just click on the Og Vorbis stream, and voila!

Not using Firefox as your browser? My personal opinion is that it's worth downloading and installing. First off, it's one of the more secure and stable browsers around. Secondly, it's customizable.

My Firefox browser has the current weather forecast in the bottom toolbar, a button to show my Twitter feed in a side window, colored tabs, customized background and font set, a switch to emulate Internet Explorer 7 (for those sites woefully behind the times), and a number of other things that make my work day easier.

But more to the point, it will allow you to listen to WTJU easily.

So to all my Mac friends (and perhaps you, too), I say: love your taste in computers (I rock a PowerBook myself). Download or upgrade to Firefox 3.5 and start enjoying some good radio for a change!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Stirling Discovery

It's not hard to figure out how a piece should go -- you just follow the music (we'll keep the discussion simple and leave interpretation out of the equation for now). But what if there's no score to follow?

That's always the problem with music from the medieval and early renaissance. Sometimes there's no music, or if there is, it's very sketchy. Take the case of the castle decoration.

Really. In the process of studying some 16th century carvings on Stirling Castle, Scotland for restoration, scholars discovered an unusual pattern circling the medallions. They turned out to be musical notations. The three symbols indicated different notes. And (as you can hear on the BBC website), they work.

And that's how modern musicians recreate the music of the distant past. As Huw Williams of the BBC wrote,
So what we're actually hearing is a combination of sound musical scholarship and educated guess-work.
The music might not be quite the same as it was performed in the 1500's, but it still sounds pretty good to me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bach: Crab Canon Visualized

Music may be an audible art form, but sometimes visuals can help, too. Jos Leys, who normally works in the field of mathematics, has created a short film illustrating Bach's "Crab Canon" from the "Musical Offering" in action.

Now, I could tell you that what makes this composition such a tour-de-force is its simple complexity. A crab canon, or cancrizan, is sort of like a round. A melody starts off, and then the second voice comes in a few beats later, and this single tune layered against itself creates the harmony (like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat).

But a crab canon has the second voice enter with the melody in reverse. So the art is to construct a tune that makes sense forwards and backwards - and can harmonize with itself in the process. Hard to understand? I agree. That's why I like this video. View, and enjoy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

I had a conversation recently with a classical music lover. He had no use for modern music -- he only wanted to hear the great composers because, well, life was just too short. His underlying assumption was that the pantheon of great composers (and works) were handed down unchanged from time immemorial.

But the reality is quite different. My friend considers Mahler part of that pantheon -- but when he was alive, Mahler was considered a great conductor who composed, but not a great composer. Actually Wilhelm Furtwangler has the same reputation. Both wrote symphonies that contemporaries didn't think much of.

In Furtwangler's case, the assessment seems to be justified. His symphonies are big, portenous works that never seems to get off the ground (they kind of remind me of Bruckner on a bad day).

Mahler, on the other hand, when championed by Bernstein and other conductors in the 1950's found a place in the standard repertoire -- a combination I think of sympathetic conducting and the changing of audience tastes.

Had my friend lived in the latter part of the nineteenth century, he might have placed Joachim Raff in the circle of great composers. Although Raff was arguably more popular as a symphonist than Brahms during his lifetime, his works are now only heard on recordings.

In fact, Raff's symphonies vanished from the repertoire very soon after his death. Tastes changed, and they simply didn't bear up to repeated listening the way Brahms' works did. I personally find Raff's music quite nice -- but I'm hard pressed to hum a single motif after the work's over. No staying power.

In the late 1700's everyone agreed that Bach was an important composer -- and so was his brother. Johann Christian Bach was the toast of France and England, while Carl Phillip Emanual Bach had the Germanic nations in thrall. It would be much later that the general public rediscovered their father, Johann Sebastian and consigned them to relative obscurity.

In every age music lovers have felt that the list of greatest composers was immutable and unchanging -- which it never quite was.

And now that we're well into the 21st century, I wonder who will emerge as the unquestioned masters, and which will prove to be a passing fad. Unlike my friend, I don't believe I have a lock on the answer -- and life's never to short for me to hear a new musical work.

- Ralph

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

WTJU - Coffee or soda?

The best way to judge the value of something is to remove it. If you've ever had your car break down, or Internet access go out, or lose power in a storm, you know what I'm talking about. Things that are so integral to our daily lives that we don't even notice them become extremely important when they're gone, even momentarily.

So what would happen if WTJU went away? No, it's not going anywhere (that I'm aware of) - this is just a thought experiment. What if you didn't have classical music in the morning, or the Sunday night opera, or Ann Shafer's "A Time for Singing," or the early music show, or any of the other classical programs that we present?

Would it change your daily routine? It would sure affect mine (and I'm not just talking about being able to sleep a little later on Wednesdays).

And that's really the question to ask yourself if you're thinking about supporting WTJU financially. How much should you give is really a function what the station is worth to you and what you can afford.

Personally, I'd love to write a single check for $50,000 and give the operating budget a real shot in the arm. Realistically, I can't do that -- but for what the station gives me, I have to give something back.

Here's another way to think about it. When it comes to beverages, coffee's worth more to me than soda. I don't drink a lot of sodas, so if they were taken away, I wouldn't miss them, nor pay to replace them.

Coffee, on the other hand, is part of my morning ritual, as well as a default dessert option, and a mid-day pick-me-up (sometimes). So if coffee went away, I would really miss it (even without the resulting caffeine headaches). And I'd probably pay a premium price to get coffee back into the house if that was the only option.

So is WTJU the soda in your life, or the coffee? And what is that presence worth to you?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

10,000 Hours of Mozart

There's a theory -- first put forward by Malcolm Gladwell -- that it takes about 10,000 hours to achieve superstar status. Seth Godin (among others) disputes that. After all, as he points out in Seth Godin's Blog, there are plenty of musicians toiling away day after day who never reach more than mediocrity.

I was thinking about this in conjunction with the newly discovered works by Mozart. While I don't doubt their historical importance. But I wonder if they would be considered as remarkable if they weren't written by Mozart.

Mozart certainly didn't need 10,000 hours to become a musical superstar. His natural talent held him in good stead throughout his youth.

But of all the works that he wrote, which ones are considered his best? His first piano concerto written at the age of eleven, or the ones he wrote as an adult? His first symphony composed before he reached puberty, or the "Jupiter" Symphony" written at a mature 35 years of age?

Raw talent is a huge advantage, but maybe there's something to this 10,000 hours theory after all. Because it seems to me that only after 10,000 hours (and more) of Mozart honing his craft did he produce the music lives on to this day.

- Ralph

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Scanning the Dial

I admit it. I'm a radio geek. So it's not surprising that I follow blogs and news sites that help me stay informed about all things radio.

If you're at all interested in the state of classical music on the radio, then I strongly recommend the "Scanning the Dial" blog. It's a nice blend of news, commentary and thoughtful editorials about the subject of classical music broadcasting.

The blog is maintained by Marty Ronish and Mike Jannsen, although there are occasionally other contributors. Ms. Ronish currently produces the Chicago Symphony broadcasts, and has an extensive background both in classical music and broadcasting. Mr. Jannsen is a professional writer and journalist, who has covered the public broadcasting beat (and worked in that medium).

Both bloggers are accomplished writers, and their posts are always informative and pleasurable to read.

So why should you check out "Scanning the Dial"?

I think it's important to understand what's happening in the broadcasting world, especially if you love classical music.

Personally, I think most of WTJU's listeners take our station for granted. Letting the announcers program their own shows is not common. Nor is airing classical music during morning and afternoon drive time. Nor are early music shows, or programs like "A Time For Singing," nor the Sunday opera, nor many of the other kinds of in-depth classical programming WTJU provides.

And it's becoming increasingly rare at other stations around the nation. Even if you don't subscribe to the blog, take a moment or two to scan some of the posts. I think you'll come away with a greater appreciation of how unique the programming that you receive every day from WTJU is, and how remarkable that we can contiue to provide it to you day in and day out.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Organised Noise

On "Gamut" I play a wide range of music -- which is the point of my show. As the slogan goes, it's the show that "runs the Gamut of music from the Middle Ages all the way up to the present day."

Which means I play a fair amount of contemporary music. Not necessarily "20th Century music." That moniker refers to last century's ouevre.

Occasionally, I'll get a complaint about a particular work. It's the same complaint I heard my parents level against Motown music back in the mid-1960's, the same complaint my friends level against current hip hop and rock acts, and the same that critics level against just about every composer and/or movement going back to the 14th century.

"That's not music -- that's just noise."

I have a personal definition of noise. Noise is unorganized sound. Music is organized sound.

By my definition, what people are really saying when they characterize music as noise is that they can't hear the organization.

Usually, it's because there's something outside their frame of reference. Many people at the turn of the 20th Century thought ragtime was noise because the syncopation was too far outside their experience. While dodecaphonic compositions can sound like random plinks and plunks, these works are highly organized, and tend to reveal their internal logic with repeated listening.

I'm not saying that all classical music is great. It's not. And I'm not saying all contemporary music is great. It's not, either.

But what I am saying is that when music is presented that seems to be noise, take a step back. If it's truly music, then there's some organization or structure there somewhere.

Sometimes you just have to work a little to find it.

- Ralph

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The CATcerto - good fun, good music.

Everyone in the classical world has been talking about the CATcerto. And with good reason -- it's an interesting novelty that's a welcome break from "serious" music. Lithuanian composer Mindaugas Piečaitis took a forwarded video of Nora the cat playing the piano, and wrote an orchestral setting for it.

Most posts focus on the humorous aspects of this project that seemed a natural for YouTube. But do this: watch the video, and then play it again with the browser minimized (or your eyes closed).

As a video, it's amusing to be sure. But take away the video and you have a charming composition that's appealing in its own right.

I've received permission from Piečaitis to air the CATcerto on "Gamut," and I'll be doing so sometime in the near future. Funny, yes. But darned good music IMHO.

- Ralph

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Ever-Expanding Repertoire

My program on WTJU, "Gamut," is one of exploration. When I started the program, I decided not to repeat any work -- each show would have music that I had never aired before.

One of the questions I'm repeatedly asked is, "Won't you run out of music?"

Not likely. We're talking about 1,000 years of music, and more being written every day. And there's more being discovered, too.

Last week, two piano pieces by Mozart came to light. Sure, they're over 200 years old, but no one's heard them since they were composed, so the music's certainly new to us!

The music resided in the Mozarteum Foundation of Salzburg, and was only recently authenticated. Mozart wrote a finite number of works, and its natural to assume that his catalog of works was set shortly after his death. And even if there are early works and unpublished manuscripts not found initially, that the chances of finding them would dramatically decrease over time.

After all, these manuscripts would be stored (most likely) in central Europe. The places where they resided would have had to survive the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars and two World Wars. Not to mention fires, floods and other natural disasters. And the inevitable decay of the paper itself, becoming more brittle and fragile over time, the ink fading as it chemically breaks down. And the custodians themselves -- some consider old documents a historic treasure; some just so much waste paper to burn.

It's natural to think that after two centuries whatever was going to be found has been found. But the world continues to surprise.

So I'm not worried about running out of music for "Gamut." I haven't even played all the Mozart currently available, and after last week, I need to add two more works to my list!

- Ralph

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Favorite Composer?

One of the most difficult questions for me to answer is this:

"Who's your favorite composer?"

For some, it's easy. I know some folks who consider Bach the greatest composer of all time. And a few others who think it's Mozart. And they consider that composer to be the greatest because that's who they enjoy the most.

But it's more difficult for me, because I try to listen to each work in the aesthetic context it was written in. I'm not prepared to say that a Palestrina mass is better (or worse) than a Brahms piano sonata. Or that a Haydn symphony is superior to a Dowland lute song. Composers are partially bound by the resources and aesthetics of their day -- the ones that transcend those limitations and speak to us today are the truly great ones.

I have a selection of favorite composers, but I freely admit that not all of them are considered the "greatest," and no one composer matches my emotional need for music all of the time. Sometimes I like the over-caffeinated restlessness of Steve Reich's compositions. Other times the calm serenity of a Dufay mass fills the bill.

Beethoven may have written the greatest symphonies (according to many), but Alan Hovhaness' Symphony No. 2 "Mysterious Mountain" is a work I find consistently moving.

Maybe that's why "Gamut" is the type of show it is. I haven't found that one favorite composer yet, and so I keep looking.

No worries, though. Searching through the collected body of classical music from the past thousand years has been more than half the fun.

- Ralph

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Painless Fund Drive

As I've done for the past decade, I attended the Public Radio Marketing and Development Conference. I go as an exhibitor for our business, DCI, which works with public radio stations across the country. But I also sit in on as many sessions as possible as a representative of WTJU, trying to get ideas on how we can fund-raise more effectively.

Don't kid yourself -- the University of Virginia holds our license, provides us with a space, and pays the salaries of the paid staff. But it doesn't cover all of the expenses of running a radio station. And anyone who tells you it does is simply misinformed.

About half of our operating budget has to be raised from the community. Because money comes from different sources that vary, I don't have an exact figure, but it's somewhere around $56,000 we still need to raise this year. Some of it comes in through underwriting, but it's our listenership that has provide the bulk of that shortfall.

Our marathons are a lot of fun, and eagerly anticipated events, but as fundraisers go, their not always completely successful.

So what's the solution? Well, it's sitting in the lower left hand corner of our website. There's a "Donate Now!" button you can click and go straight to our secure server. Make an online donation, and you'll have done your part to support your favorite radio station.

Here's the thing: research has shown the public radio audience is moving increasingly online -- for listening, and for pledging. So if you're listening to us online from somewhere outside the Charlottesville area, donating online makes a lot of sense.

But it also makes sense if you're within our terrestrial coverage area. Because it's something you can do when you want to, any time of day.

We'll have our fall fundraiser coming up in a few months, and phone lines will be open, but you don't have to wait until then. Contribute now, and you can just enjoy the programming.

And here's a concept that was front and center at the conference: What if enough listeners contributed online to meet our fundraising goal before the marathon started?

I'm thinking it would mean we would have 10 glorious days of special programming with no on-air fundraising pitches. If we had 500 listeners donate $100 before October 1, the fund drive would be over before it began.

What's that worth to you? Enough to make you one of the 500?

I hope so. And I hope 499 others think the same way!

- Ralph

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Where do you get your music?

Anne Midgette, classical music reviewer for the Washington Post has a survey going on her blog. How do you get your classical music?

UK reviewer Jessica Duchen has some interesting thoughts in reaction to the survey. She outlines (for her) when CDs are best, when the radio's the choice, and of course, live performances.

Personally, I pick up classical music everywhere. One of the things I like about WTJU is that no two announcers are alike -- so I hear a large variety of music over the course of the week as each DJ presents the compositions and recordings they prefer. I also read a lot of reviews, mostly Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine, which keeps me up on new releases and sometimes leads to the discovery of new composers and works.

As far as owning classical music goes, I prefer CDs. That's not to say I don't have a digital library. I do. But it's a digital library on my terms. Let me explain.

There are several things I like about classical CDs.

1) Liner notes -- especially important for vocal music. Its difficult to fully appreciate a vocal work in a foreign language without a libretto (and translation).

2) Backup -- hard drives fail. I've had three fail so far, and lost many files (I now do regular backups, but still). If all of my music only exists digitally, then a good portion of it will be gone forever (and there's some tunes that Iwon't miss). I like having hard copies of the important stuff.

3) Sound Quality -- Classical music, more than other genres, rely on very subtle harmonic and timbral shadings that tend to get lost with heavy file compression. OK, some classical music can be bought with sampling rates of 256kbps (about double the normal MP3 bitrate), but there's still a lot missing. Especially when you consider that file is only about a fifth of the size of the origianl from a CD.

By ripping my own discs, I get to decide on the sound quality (which for me is Apple Lossless).

4) Creative Control -- Downloads were designed for popular music, and all of the organizational tools are oriented in that direction. Try finding classical selections on most download sites -- it's a mess. Missing opus and catalog numbers render titles virtually meaningless. Performer fields may have the performer, or perhaps the composer. In some cases the composer's not even listed.

When I rip CDs, I can set the data fields to show what I want them to. My classical music files are always easy to find, and search.

5) Too Much Music -- Again, digital music programs were designed for 4-minute songs, not 2-hour operas. Purchase a symphony as a download, and you get four separate tracks (billed separately, too). Want to hear them in order? You'll need to create a folder for them, and you can only hear the movements in sequence if you select that folder.

In iTunes, I can join consecutive tracks on a CD before importing. So the movements of a symphony are always locked together and treated as a single work in my iTunes library -- even on shuffle play.

But there's a drawback. I can only join together tracks from a single disc. So the best I can do with a 2-disc opera is create two files. But I can't join them together once I import them.

So my solution is just to leave the operas out. I'll pull in the overtures, but if I want to hear a complete opera, I'll just to have to pull the CDs off the shelf, and open up the booklet to follow along.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing at all.

So you do you get your classical music? Take the survey and let us know!

- Ralph

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Spreading the Word

Question: How would you grow an audience for WTJU?

Answer: -- ?

I'm firmly convinced that we have yet to reach our full potential audience. Sure, other stations in are market are playing classical music, but their programming is based on a different aesthetic than ours. A colleague of mine who worked at a public radio station in Las Vegas years ago summed up their classical programming this way:

"Most of our major donors are plastic surgeons. So we've been told to program classical music that would sound nice in a plastic surgeon's waiting room."

And I don't think that's a particularly unusual programming concept. Maximize listenership by keeping the music appealing to the broadest possible audience. Recognize that most people just want classical music for pleasant background music as they go about their day.

Nothing wrong with that -- it's serving the needs (although sometimes I think its the perceived needs) of the audience.

Our classical programming runs a little deeper, pushes past the comfort zone, and basically is music by -- and for -- folks seriously into the genre.

Classical music has always been a niche market. Classical record (now download) sales account for about 7% of the market. So if WTJU's programming is appealing to only a portion of that market, how big can we expect our audience to be?

Well, that depends. Most of our announcers are, I think, invitational in their presentations. Don't know Bach from Offenbach? No problem. Just listen. You might hear something you like. And that's what it's all about. Exposing folks to this amazing body of music -- most of it virtually unheard on other stations.

So how do we get the word out? Well, we twitter, we blog, some of us Facebook. We stream on the web, and do everything we can to make our station as accessible as possible. But folks still have to discover us in some fashion.

And that's where you, gentle reader, come in. Chances are you're a regular listener to WTJU. Have you told your friends about us? Have you blogged about WTJU? Chatted about us on Facebook? Twittered us? Mentioned us in any social network?

Your recommendations have weight. If you believe in what we do, please spread the word. And don't forget to include our links!

audio stream:

- Ralph

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What's Classical Music? Part 4 - Concerto concerns

Continuing the discussion of what makes classical music classical. My basic rule of thumb is that classical music is primarily the creation of a single creative voice. Brahms came up with the ideas for his first symphony. He wrote out the sketch score (didn't hire an arranger), he orchestrated it (didn't hire an orchestrator), he edited it -- the music is the product of a singl musical mind.

But there's lots of exceptions to that rule -- including one most people aren't aware of. Concertos.

These days you can expect to go hear a performance of a Mozart piano concerto and -- if you're really familiar with the work -- will know every note, even the cadenza. It's not to say that the performance can't be thrilling, but it will most likely run down the rails laid down by Mozart in his music.

Except that he wasn't that strict -- and neither were other classical and romantic era composers. When Mozart wrote his piano concerti, it was expected that the soloist would improvise the cadenza (that part near the end of the first movement when everybody stops playing).

In fact, if you pay attention, you can still hear a vestige of that tradition. In most concertos the soloists' cadenza ends on a single trilled note. Originally that was the signal for the orchestra to come back in. This improvised cadenza concept is one still used in jazz, but has mostly vanished in classical music.

By the mid 1800s' composers (and prominent performers) were supplying written-out cadenzas for soloists as an option. Eventually they became standard, and during the 20th Century it was rare that a cadenza was left to chance.

But there's still some remaining messiness. A particular cadenza may be the commonly used one for a concerto -- but if it's not by the composer does it matter? What about other versions? What about a performance where the cadenza is improvised?

This is another exception to my general rule that simply lands on the side of taste. If it sounds good, if the cadenza makes sense musically with the concerto, then I'll probably program it. But that's just me.

- Ralph

Monday, June 15, 2009

Gearing up for a Summer full of music

I got a lovely link to a somewhat local music festival in July. Lorin Maazel and Glenn Dichterow will be performing some of my favorite music in a rural setting, and I'm salivating at the thought!

It's the Castleton Music Festival in Rappahannock County, VA.

Of course, the cost is not for the feint of heart. Having tired of the traffic getting into Wolf Trap, and wanting something a little closer to home with artists I truly enjoy, this seems to be the perfect solution. I'm hoping it is!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What's Classical Music? Part 3 - Lost in Transcription

In parts 1 & 2 I talked about what I personally define as classical music (at least for the purposes of choosing works to broadcast). Part 1 offered the core definition -- true piece of classical music is the creation of a single mind. Part 2 looked at one of the problems with that definition -- what about early music where that single mind wasn't very specific about things?

A reader asked a valid question: what about arrangements and transcriptions? It's another area of messiness. The Canadian Brass have a fine arrangement of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," but it doesn't fit my personal criteria. Vivaldi very clearly orchestrated the work the way he wanted it heard -- and it didn't include any brass!

But while modern transcriptions of baroque and renaissance works are easy to classify, others blur the line.

It was a common practice in the 1800's to offer piano transcriptions of orchestral (and sometimes chamber) works. Some of it was hackwork, but not always. Brahms created piano four-hands versions of his symphonies. When it's the original composer making the decisions as to what get emphasized, what goes to the background, etc., it increases the validity of the transcription in my opinion (enough that I might actually air it).

Composers regularly create concert suites out of their ballet and opera scores. All perfectly legit. But what if one composer arranges the music of another?

Many professional arrangers are very, very good -- but their arrangements tend to be facile and superficial. The Browns aren't interested in a five-piano version of Schoenberg's piano music -- they want crowd pleasers like "Rhapsody in Blue!"

Mussorgsky wrote "Pictures at an Exhibition" as a solo piano work. But Maurice Ravel's orchestration of it has becom part of the repertoire. So is it legit? I think so, because Ravel's added depth to the work through his orchestration (although I would still think it important to hear the original).

Brahm's "Variations on a theme by Haydn" uses Haydn as a starting point and constructs original material around it -- definitely legit. And Brahms wrote both an orchestral version and a two-piano version (both of which I've aired).

For me, whether a transcription or arrangement works depends on whether the composer did it themselves (legit), or brought something musically significant to the original work (like Ravel did for Mussorgsky, but not like the Canadian Brass' arranger did for Tchaikovsky).

But wait, there's more. What about works started by one composer and finished by another? We'll save that discussion for another post!

- Ralph

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What's Classical Music? Part 2 - Medieval Mystery

In part one I outlined some of the guidelines I personally use to select music to air on "Gamut." And for the most part, that rule works pretty well. What is classical music? Primarily (IMHO) it's music conceived, composed, arranged, and notated by a single person.

OK, that's pretty straightforward if you're dealing with Beethoven, or Vaughan Williams, or Brahms, or Corelli. But what about music from an earlier time?

The importance of the composer is something that really didn't come about until the 13oo's -- and even then it was primarily in the field of sacred compositions. It would be another 200 years before composer names were regularly attached to the more popular forms of music.

And there's the question of notation. Scholars may debate how loud Mozart intended a passage to be played when he marked it double forte. But the notation makes it clear that he wanted a particular combination of instruments to play louder (to some degree) at that spot in the composition.

But musical notation hasn't always been that exact. Instrumental combinations (or in some cases even voices) weren't specified in many compositions from the renaissance and earlier. The earliest examples of notation are little more than lines above the text, indicating the general direction the melody should take. They served more as reminders for singers who (presumably) already knew the tune.

And up through the 1400's, secular music wasn't written down at all. Musicians were expected to just know all the top hits, in the same way that modern professional musicians can play the standards without referring to the music.

What makes music classical when we don't know who the composer was, or what forces he (and occasionally she) intended? My personal rule for early music is this: if the performance gets as close as possible to the original intent and/or sound of the composition -- and is an engaging performance in its own right -- then I'll air it.

There are many different versions of the anonymous "Greensleeves" that I'll air. Solo lute, lute and voice, renaissance instrumental ensemble -- all those are valid, and represent the music as it would have been heard at the time. An arrangement for brass quintet? Sorry, no.

Ditto for the loosey-goosey scores of the medieval and renaissance sacred composers. We may not know how many voices Machaut intended on each part, but we do know he intended it to be sung. So a small vocal quartet works, as does a large choir. A saxophone quintet? No.

So rule two: if the composer's exact intentions are unknown, then performances that come as close as possible to what scholarship indicates they might be qualifies as classical music for me.

But there's more to the messy world of classical music. I'll explain in part 3.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

An interesting video from NYT

For those of you who may have missed it, here is the lovely video essay from Anthony Tomassini (NY Times) on the bits and bytes of Bel Canto. The article is the next place to go.

Bel Canto

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What's Classical Music? Part 1

Last post I outlined some of the guidelines the classical department here at WTJU use to ensure consistent programming in our classical music shows. As I mentioned, though, the definition of exactly what is and isn't classical music is something of a judgment call.

Now trying to define classical music is like trying to pick out orange on a spectrum. Sometimes it's pretty obvious, but where does orange end and red begin? Or where's the line between orange and yellow? Classical music has the same kind of problems.

For me, there's one basic criteria for "obviously" classical music: it was music conceived, composed, arranged, and notated by a single person.

Now most other musical genres are collaborative in nature. Any song currently on the Top 40 may have two or more people credited as the composers. The producer usually adds some instruementation, the artist adds their own embelishment, and the accompanying musicians often improvise their parts based on the framework provided by the composers. So the final result represents a collective musical expression.

Nothing wrong with that -- this general format is used for pop, rock, folk, country, blues, bluegrass and most other musical genres.

But let's take a look at something like the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. Beethoven came up wth the original musical ideas. Beethoven arranged the music and crafted the structure of the work. Beethoven decided what instruement played what notes and when. Beethoven decided what sections should be loud, which soft, when the tempo should slow down and when it should speed up. It's all the creation of a single mind.

Now that doesn't mean there isn't room for many different interpretiations (after all, how fast is fast?). But it's not likely that someone will decided to substitute a saxophone for the oboe solo, or that the flute part will be reassigned to the cellos, or that the middle section of the first movement will be cut to tighten up the music.

No, the variations in performance come from different intpretations of Beethoven's instructions, not in taking Beethoven's outline and filling it out in a new way.

Which is why classical music is usually filed by primarly by composer, and why every other musical genre is filed by artist.

And this rule holds me in good stead from the 1300's all the way up through the present day. Machaut wrote out all his music, as does John Corigliano, even though they're separated by 700 years.

Which is why I don't think much of Paul McCartney's forays into classical. In McCartney's case, he doesn't read music, so his scores are dictated, and orchestrated by others. That's not the product of a single mind.

It's also why I don't play the Browns, or the Canadian Brass. Tchaikovsky didn't compose his music for brass quintet, and almost none of the composers the Browns perform concieved of thier scores for five grand pianos. It may be pleasant to listen to, but to me it dulls the intent of composition -- sort of like taking a painting and tweaking the colors in Photoshop. Interesting, yes, but not the same as the original.

Now this rule of a single-person composition is sort of like pointing to the orange part of the spectrum and declaring "this is orange." True enough. But what happens when the finger moves to the left or right? I'll talk about exceptions in the next post.

What do you think classical music is? Leave a comment!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Classical Programming at WTJU -- Who Decides?

Marty Ronish, in Scanning the Dial, recently posed a question to the classical music personnel working in public radio: how do you program your station?

In her post, "Programming - Our Ongoing Controversy in Public Radio," Ronish sums up the general industry practices this way:
Most public stations have a music director or program director who chooses all the music, though a few brave ones let the hosts choose their own. Most do “dayparting” where they choose upbeat music in the morning, longer works in the evening, and calming music at night. They have hierarchies they’ve developed from focus groups: no vocal music, definitely no solo harpsichord, nothing dissonant, play chamber music sparingly, lots of orchestral music, plenty of Baroque and Classical but not much 20th century, and go easy on too much flute and violin.
Well, count us as one of the brave ones, then. Here at WTJU each announcer gets to choose their own music.

There are some guidelines, of course.

1) Avoid playing the same work sooner than six weeks from last airing. This may seem like a long time, but play something twice in the same months and we'll get call complaining that we're airing the same thing "all the time."

2) Respect the music -- air complete works. There are exceptions, of course. Opera overtures, individual lied, and other pieces meant by the composer to be excerpted are fine. But if you're going to air a symphony, air all the music, not just the slow movment.

3) Program classical music. This can be as messy as trying to figure out the line between porn and art ("I'll know it when I see it" - or in this case, hear it). But on the whole, this means sticking to the work as originally composed. So a Beethoven piano sonata on piano, fine; arranged for accordion and pan flutes, probably not. There's much more to this guideline, enough to merit a post by itself (which I'll do another time).

4) If it's worth listening to, it's worth airing. So, at WTJU, there are really no banned genres. Choral music, solo voice, solo violin, organ, contemporary music, medieval music, renaissance music -- if the announcer thinks it's worth presenting to the audience, then out it goes.

We could certainly expand our coverage by reigning in our volunteer announcers. Were we to follow Marty Ronish's outline, WTJU might have a larger audience. But would it still be WTJU?

Our continued commitment to our free-roaming programming suggests we've already asked and answered that question.

But what's your opinion?

- Ralph

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Who loves classical music in Central Virginia?

While other genres of music take a front-page stance in Central Virgina, it seems classical music doesn't get a whole lot of press. Reviewers for classical music performances in Central Virginia seem juvenile, at best; non-existent, at worst. Do people read this stuff? Do they care? Who cares about classical music in Central Virginia?

Certainly, the performers care. I'm no longer a "performer" but I guess I qualify as talent as a radio announcer and classical music director for WTJU. I spent decades studying classical music, and I do care. The other announcers at WTJU care, too - but who else is out there? Do classical music performers want or need reviewers? Do reviews raise standards, increase interest, or matter?

Another opinion that exists is that Central Virginia is an incubator for musicians, providing learning experiences for singers (i.e, Ash Lawn), collegiate students (Chamber Music Society), and opportunities for amateur locals (Oratorio Society). Does this part of the world want more?

Yet another notion crops up: can we afford it? I hear people bemoan the cost of concert tickets at certain venues, and I can understand both sides. Having been a performer, I can tell you, I didn't see a whole lot of the money coming out of the price of concert tickets. It's one of the reasons I'm no longer a professional performer! There are far smarter people out there who can dissect a concert ticket into it's parts - but I promise, the vast majority of performers don't take home more than 20% of that money. Perhaps having this "incubator" status helps to keep prices down. We don't expect a whole lot in the process. For those that want the more elite performers, paying the price tag isn't so much of a burden. I'll be interested in seeing the audience size for the upcoming Emanuel Ax performance at the Paramount. Not that I don't love him and what he can do - but does Central Virginia?

And, the last part of this little desperate query: will even this blog fail because most of the classical music lovers in Central Virginia don't use the internet? Tweeting, using FB, etc. hasn't generated a whole lot of interest so far - is that because those interested parties get their information in another way?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Welcome to Classical Music at WTJU!

As the Music Director for the Classical Department, I want to welcome everyone to the WTJU Classical Blog! Many thanks to Ralph Graves for blazing the trail, and making me feel welcome to the medium. We're hoping that listeners can come to this blog, read about their favorite station, favorite DJ's, and respond in ways to help us improve, and keep the music playing. After all, we are all volunteers, and we do what we do (volunteer) for the joy of it.

WTJU doesn't happen in a vacuum - and we'd like to include our listeners in to the WTJU Classical family. Even if all you want to say was, "I really liked hearing that," we'd love to know about it.

You can also follow us on Twitter, if you've got a preference. As always. is the way to stream WTJU live, check out the schedule, see upcoming events, check out the Sunday Opera schedule, pledge your financial support (year-round!), and search playlists. There's a lot packed into our website, so take your time to browse around.

I look forward to hearing from you!