Should we demand more diverse classical programming?
The illustration above has been circulating through cyberspace lately, as will probably be recognized by anyone tapped into on-line social media. But, in the spirit of Harry S Truman, I say "the meme stops here!" Or at least it pauses a bit for comment before continuing on its merry way.
Whoever put this together -- and after exhaustive research (i.e., googling), I haven't been able to discern who that is -- clearly have their tongues in their cheeks, rendering any serious criticism not just superfluous but silly. Still, even a claim made partly in jest is fair game for fact-checking, like they do at NPR. So, I put the numbers here to a test. I went through the remaining programs this season by America's "Big Five" Orchestras (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia) and counted how many selections on their regular subscription concerts were by the composers pictured (see who they are at the bottom of his post), and how many were not. Question my methodology, question my sanity, but that's what I did.
And the result? Out of 269 selections on the concerts, 138 of them -- 51.3% -- were by the twelve composers pictured. The other 131 -- 48.7% -- were by other composers, past and present. Even if we were to include several more composers among the "top 1%", such as Rachmaninoff, Sibelius and Richard Strauss, the actual diversity of programming is far greater than implied above. As a class, by the way, living composers don't do too badly this season. It's the lesser composers of the past who really get short shrift.
Still, could orchestral programming be more diverse? Of course it could. Same goes with radio programming. But as is often the case, one should be careful about what one wishes for. The idea of hearing the lesser-known composers overshadowed by the biggest names might sound appealing and fair-minded. Only after the obscure pieces start does reality set in. And sometimes, it isn't pretty. Or, as Springfield Symphony Orchestra conductor Kevin Rhodes put it during a discussion yesterday, "The problem...is that most music that isn't the work of our 30 or so best classical composers just seems really weak and pale compared to their work." The composers above didn't get to the top of the heap though lobbying or market manipulation. They got there because audiences really, really like their music.
Not that we at New England Public Radio don't do our darndest to keep our programming diverse. Indeed, a lot of our time is spent going through stacks of recordings to find that one new piece that stands out from the crowd, and would enliven both our playlist and your day. Of course, we radio folks don't have to program months ahead of time, order the music, rehearse (and pay) dozens of musicians and hope that a couple thousand patrons will show up for the concert, like an orchestra does. Neither can radio provide the thrill of a great orchestra in live performance. And for its part, the Springfield Symphony has a pretty interesting series of concerts this year, featuring rarely-heard works by such American masters as William Schuman, Roy Harris, Alan Hovhaness and William Bolcom alongside plenty of the big names. I guess this is why both institutions are such crucial parts of a thriving classical community.
My final point: Beware the application of political beliefs to the arts. Usually, the arts end up the worse for it.
(The composers in the illustration are, top row: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn; middle row: Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Ravel; bottom row: Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich)