Listening: A talk about Ukraine by a radio station is not background music | New

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Amanda Sewell


The week Russia invaded Ukraine, many of us in the classical music programming community discussed how we would react in our respective fields.

An orchestra was considering canceling an upcoming performance of Mussorgsky’s play Pictures at an Exhibition because it ends with a movement titled “The Great Gate of kyiv”.

The Metropolitan Opera has suspended its relationship with star soprano and Vladimir Putin sympathizer Anna Netrebko.

And what about traditional broadcasters? What should be our response to the war in Ukraine?

I participate in an online community of classic radio hosts and programmers across the United States. Members of our group had a lively discussion about how our stations planned to respond, if at all.

Some of my fellow classical radio programmers have said they are putting recordings of Netrebko and other Putin-aligned people, such as bandleader Valery Gergiev, on hold for the time being.

Others noted that they were trying to schedule more music from Ukrainian composers and musicians in their broadcast rotations.

And then one person, the music director of a classical music station in another state, wrote, “We claim that playing nice music on the radio has an impact on the community, but in reality most stations have reduced their “service” to a background sound designed to keep people from logging off at the next fundraiser.

This comment brought me to a screeching halt.

I was insulted on behalf of this person’s radio audience.

Yes, classical music is beautiful. And sometimes it’s good in the background. I often hear listeners say they tune into Classical IPR when the news gets too depressing and overwhelming. I’m glad we can be a port in the storm.

Look, sometimes I like to get lost in a Beethoven symphony and just focus on the music and not think about anything else that’s going on in the world.

But suppose people only listen to conventional radio because it’s “background noise” and nothing more?

It makes me sad for the person who made this comment, to know that he thinks so little of his own radio and his listeners.

Since writing this column, we have had vigorous debates about where music fits into classical IPRs and why.

Do we play Stephen Foster music if it was composed for blackface minstrel shows? Do we broadcast shows featuring musicians who have committed sexual assaults? And what about recordings featuring Anna Netrebko, who said she wished she was Vladimir Putin’s lover?

I have received passionate messages from listeners on all sides of these issues and many others, and it is clear to me that they are very committed not only to the issue in question, but also to the way in which it affects the way they listen to music.

It doesn’t matter where you fall in these discussions, which side you’re on, it’s not the classical music side that’s going on in the background, is it?

Sound wallpaper? Not for Classical IPR listeners.

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