Listening to Classical on the ‘Cool’ Medium

On the Radio

By David Mermelstein

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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Marshall McLuhan famously termed television a “hot” medium and radio a “cool” one. The inconsistencies inherent in such artificial divisions notwithstanding, there are fundamental differences between the two. Perhaps above all, one remains the better suited to relaying, and even discussing, music.

That point is made every day on radio stations throughout the world, but it comes into greater focus thanks to two series produced by Chicago’s WFMT Radio Network — the 13-week “American Jewish Music From the Milken Archive,” narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and the 11-part “Leonard Bernstein: An American Life,” narrated by Susan Sarandon. Both are syndicated over a mix of public and commercial broadcasters — the Milken on 106 stations, and the Bernstein on 729 stations.

Affording so much time to topics that are hardly at the forefront of American cultural life is, of course, cause for celebration. But there is concern, too. Will most people, even those truly interested in the subjects, be willing to devote so much time to them, and on a regular basis?

Happily, neither series requires a total commitment. You can listen occasionally and not feel you have intruded on the middle of a conversation. Casual tuning in makes more sense with the Milken series, in which each installment examines a different facet of Jewish music. The Bernstein series covers a single life, and those unfamiliar with this legendary composer-conductor will miss details by listening infrequently.

The Milken programs, each running two hours, derive their contents from a series of Milken Archive CDs on the Naxos label. (Currently, 30 titles are available of 52 projected.) Added to the music is Nimoy’s relatively dry commentary and excerpts from interviews in which conductor Gerard Schwarz questions Neil Levin, the archive’s artistic director.

Unusually, the series often presents works in their entirety, a gesture serious music lovers will welcome. Those interested in just sampling Jewish music might find listening to more than 40 minutes of Kurt Weill’s “The Eternal Road” a chore, but no one will discount this series’ value in making available music rarely heard and little known.

The Bible Stories program, for instance, features that bizarre collaboration known as “The Genesis Suite,” with music by several 20th-century composers, including Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Conducted by Schwarz, the Berlin Radio Symphony performs the piece, joined by the Ernst Senff Chorus. Barbara Feldon, Fritz Weaver and Tovah Feldshuh are among the narrators.

A program of concertos offers unfairly neglected works by Joseph Achron, Joel Hoffman, Paul Schoenfield, Sholom Secunda and Jacob Weinberg. And the incidental music that Yehudi Wyner wrote for “The Mirror,” a play by Isaac Bashevis Singer, enlivens the klezmer program. There are even two hours devoted to Bernstein’s music, nearly all of it unfamiliar, though none of it conducted by the composer.

Unfortunately, the series is not flawless. Nimoy’s narration, while authoritative, is muddily delivered. And the interpolated comments from Schwarz and Levin need drastic cutting. Not only do the “interviews” ramble, but they are also self-serving, undermining the very real value of this series.

“Leonard Bernstein: An American Life” also suffers from a lack of discipline. One could ask how an 11-hour series could avoid being repetitive, but too much information in this series is repeated ad nauseam, and often in exactly the same way. A more serious failing is the lack of substantial musical excerpts throughout the programs. In addition, when music is played, listeners must guess at what it is. Even when it’s obvious, the source remains a mystery.

Yet the documentary value of this extensive series is huge. Its flaws notwithstanding, “Leonard Bernstein” sweepingly examines perhaps the most significant figure in 20th-century American music. Indeed, that it does so in a sloppy, often haphazard, frequently indulgent manner might be a fitting tribute to its subject, an artist better known for his gargantuan appetites and generosity of spirit than for refinement, economy or subtlety.

Unlike the Milken Archive series, in which the value lies in the music, the interviews are the prize here. Many of the speakers are now dead, including Bernstein himself, who animates a surprisingly large portion of the series. (There’s a grim fascination in hearing Bernstein’s voice grow deeper as his cigarette smoking takes an increasing toll.)

And when interviews prove unavailable, this series cleverly gives significant figures voice by having others read their letters. Surprisingly, Alec Baldwin makes an ideal Aaron Copland, despite sounding nothing like the great composer. And in a brilliant, if counterintuitive, move, Jamie Bernstein Thomas, the eldest of Bernstein’s three children, speaks her father’s words as though channeling him.

McLuhan was right when he suggested that radio possesses a power that film and television lack; it requires our participation in ways they don’t. Without the listener’s active involvement, radio is mere background noise. These two series demonstrate the medium’s power and, at their best, educate and illuminate. Better yet, they transport.

David Mermelstein writes about music for The New York Times and other publications.

Note: Unlike most television programs, these series air at widely varying times. Listeners are advised to consult the Web sites and for specific stations, dates and times.

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