Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I have very mixed feelings about WQXR, New York's only 24/7 classical music radio station. It's virtually the only radio I listen to simply because I only listen to radio in the car, and I only have a car in New York. Occasionally I'll tune into their live feed or Q2 just to see what's playing. I was hopeful that the change in ownership and station would strengthen their programming, but that doesn't appear to be the case (Q2, though, is awesome).

The strength of WQXR is that it delivers the classical canon. The weakness of WQXR, is, of course, that it delivers the classical canon. If you don't know what the classical canon is, then you can tune into WQXR and learn. When I was in high school, it was very helpful to me. My uncle and I used to play a game--he would flip on the radio, and I would have to guess what period the music came from. As I gradually learned the repertoire, it became easier to guess the period, then the composer, eventually the piece and performer. It's great the WQXR can introduce the layman to the classics. It's not so great when, after four years of hearing the same pieces played every time I turn on the radio, I would simply rather drive in silence than listen to selections from Swan Lake.

If I were to fault WQXR for two things, they would be:

1) Programming - Look at this playlist. Pretty good stuff from 7pm to when I'm writing this (11:00pm). You get standards (Rhapsody in Blue, Siegfried), easier new music (Eros Piano, David del Tredici) and a couple not-too-familiar pieces (Sibelius's En Saga, Ives Third). I'm not sure if there's any kind of programmatic continuity, but that's maybe too much to ask. But this afternoon there were seven hours of some horrid annoucer named Naomi Levin, who brought possibly the worst of the worst in terms of classical programming. 1812 Overture, Strauss waltzes, Pachelbel Canon, Sorcerer's Apprentice, one movement from the Four Seasons. It makes my brain hurt. Music like this isn't even the classical canon; any self-respecting orchestra barely performs these pieces. This is a seven hour Pops concert.

2) Recordings - A scan of the same playlist shows pretty good orchestras (although, an entire day with almost all orchestral music? I know WQXR for some reason hates vocal music, but at least a little more chamber and solo stuff) conducted by good conductors. But I have never turned on WQXR to hear them play a new, interesting recording. All of the repertory standards they play have been recently recorded by either some crazy period ensemble, or an awesome conductor. Why not have some Simon Rattle Brahms or some Christian Thielemann Wagner instead of random recordings from twenty years ago? Or at least play some historically interesting recordings from WW2 or earlier. Almost all the recordings they play seem to come from this nebulous, unidiomatic period from 1970-1990.

Right now, WQXR functions as a comfort food for elderly people, who might be shocked if they tuned into a performance of an entire Beethoven symphony during their mid-day trip to the pharmicist. The station is in the same kind of washed-up position that the New York Philharmonic or Met were five years ago. When Anthony Tommassini began critizing Maazel and New York institutions for conservatism, he should have been hitting WQXR as well (although the New York Times company did own the station). I always thought it was funny that WQXR would read the front page of the Times and bring in New York Times business experts, yet I never once heard a Times music critic on their programs. New York classical music is cleaning up its act; it's time for WQXR to follow.

Also, their signal is weak so the music sounds like shit.

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