Someone has decided the music menu you choose from. Get over it

Someone has decided the music menu you choose from. Get over it


norman lebrecht

June 06, 2021

Reader’s Comment of the Day comes from Byrwec Ellison:

No matter what radio station you tune into, no matter what streaming service you subscribe, no matter the music publisher you buy your sheet music from or the concert series you attend — your music is curated for you. Even if you subscribe to the Idagio streaming platform with its 2 million albums, I guarantee there’ll be composers and works you won’t find there.

Someone decided the menu you would have to choose from. The music director of your local symphony orchestra decided what composers you would hear next season. Someone decided to make it a whole lot easier to hear Giacomo Puccini every year at your neighborhood opera house than Giacomo Meyerbeer — and downright hard to hear Gaspare Spontini in any given year. Even Ruth Leon was happy to recommend something for you to see and hear every day.

Our “standard” repertoire is a great start, and in fact, there are many artists and listeners whose musical explorations start and end there. But if you’re hungry to hear something new, an unsung voice, the unusual find, then you might find that repertoire severely limiting.

The good news is that any path you want to take to discovery is a valid one. You can take the chronological “music appreciation” drive through history from Gregorian plainchant to post-minimalist Bang On A Can — or you can focus on Impressionists and branch out from there.

It’s no less valid or valuable to attend a concert of composers of one ethnicity than it is to hear an all-Russian program or one by all composers of Russian-American-Jewish-Brooklynite extraction. If an all-woman concert leads you to discover the works of Grazyna Bacewicz, Dora Pejacevic, Rebecca Clarke or Galina Ustvolskaya, your musical experience will be enriched for it.

Maybe you reject Portuguese fado and Senegalese mbalakh on principle. Maybe you don’t care that William Grant Still married the blues with sonata-allegro form in his Afro-American Symphony. Maybe the Pacific drumming traditions of Taiko, Kapahaka and Rarotonga that explode out of Gareth Farr’s exhilarating “From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs” do nothing for you.

But the history of this art form we call “classical music” has deep veins of rejection running all through it. Rejection of new styles, new composers, new music, foreign sounds. If ever there were an art form whose creators needed to be nurtured, needed listening forums where they could work to improve their craft, it’s this art of writing complex music — music of rhythmic or melodic or harmonic or structural or color complexity.

The consumers of other art forms — dance, theater, poetry, painting — are hungry for new works. They welcome new artists and authors. They anxiously await the latest works by their favorite creators. How many of us follow the latest works of John Adams or Magnus Lindberg?

“Politically correct” is an Orwellian pejorative for “considerate” or “sensitive” — language intended to make a vice out of something virtuous. “Inclusion” is another way of saying “magnanimous” or “welcoming” — which ought to be an aspiration, not an object of derision. So by all means listen to what you want, but define your taste by what you like — what you think is good — and not what you reject.



  • Denise Brain says:

    You could not have picked a better picture to go with this article, as I am convinced that all US classical radio stations have their playlists picked by cats. My cats listen to the mediocre performances mostly played on WGUC and seem to really enjoy it much more than I do.

    • Anonymous Bosch says:

      Cats develop their own favourites. Mine recently flew out of the room when the overture to “Le nozze di Figaro” came on, but sat, enraptured, listening to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s “Last and First Men”, although I suspect the 5,1 surround sound mix helped (I certainly loved it!).

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Benjamin Britten’s only ballet – The Prince of the Pagodas, was influenced by the gamelan music he heard. Today some idiot would probably accuse him of cultural appropriation another daft phrase.

    • RW2013 says:

      A beautiful underperformed work which I’ve never seen live because the ballet companies in my former Republic prefer to present Mahler symphonies, Bach Passions and the like…

      • Elizabeth Owen says:

        The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden did an excellent production a few years ago. There is a dvd but as you say it’s not the same as a live performance, super set too.

    • HugoPreuss says:

      That is probably – no, certainly – correct. But some other idiot would accuse him of caving in to politically correct wokeness…

  • James says:

    Beautifully said

  • Hayne says:

    “Someone decided the menu you would have to choose from.”
    Someone decided the menu that he/she thinks the consumer wants to choose from.

    • BRUCEB says:

      Same thing. “(T)he menu that he/she thinks the consumer wants to choose from” is the menu that the consumer gets to choose from.

    • Emil says:

      Well yeah. It’s called market research. If the customers don’t actually want that, they’ll buy somewhere else, or they won’t buy at all. And, in the arts, we generally delegate decisions on what is ‘important’ to artistic directors, music directors, gallery curators, museum conservationists, etc. And if we, as public don’t agree, we don’t have to buy it, or attend these concerts. And that’s not ‘censorship’, ‘cancel culture’, or whatever other fictions panic one cooks up – it’s curatorship.

  • christopher storey says:

    I love the cat

  • Jean says:

    ”How many of us follow the latest works of John Adams or Magnus Lindberg?”

    I do.

    • Anonymous Bosch says:

      For the past 40 years, I have attended more world premieres of operas, chamber music, and orchestral works by John Adams than any other composer (starting with “Grand Pianola Music” in San Francisco in 1982). And I love them all.

      • AlbericM says:

        And the broadcast of that premiere was how I first discovered John Adams and his prodigious talent. I laughed aloud several times during that first hearing as the work pokes at musical clichés and reconciles the incompatible. I still haven’t heard everything John (Coolidge) Adams wrote, but I listen more to him than any other living composer.

  • Peter Smith says:

    But surely we can all decide which restaurant we want to eat in, and thus which menu we choose from?

  • fflambeau says:

    “Someone decided the menu you would have to choose from.”

    True not only of music on the radio but subjects discussed by NL?

    I have long known this and said there are “gatekeepers” out there who prevent us from hearing certain composers. The good news is the public radio stations I listen to (Wisconsin Public Radio and YourClassical have recently been expanding the scope of music offered substantially. I don’t know why.

  • Clarke Bustard says:

    One (sort of) word: YouTube.

  • Mather Pfeiffenberger says:

    Hear, hear!

  • fflambeau says:

    I just listened to my public radio station play the 3rd movement from Bruckner’s 9th symphony. Very long at 27 minutes and not especially exciting or interesting. Brucknerian’s, I am sure, would disagree but probably not most people. The same station, though, yesterday played a selection from someone I had never before heard of, Elfrida Andree, which I really enjoyed. I suspect the Bruckner would never have been played had it been composed by someone other than the German-speaking, male world of the 19th century.

    There are lots of composers out there who deserve much more playing time and many composers selected by the “gatekeepers of music” who do not. Very large in this latter group are “academic” composers of dissonant music from the 20th and 21st centuries who often won named “prizes” but whose recordings have never sold. John Harbison, for example, is one of these forgettable composers.

    I think someone like Alan Hovhaness, hated by Bernstein and many shapers of musical taste, was very smart to set up his own record company and sell directly to the public. He is quite popular these days.

    I suspect the advent of modern musical platforms like YouTube have made many “gatekeepers” less and less essential and that is a good thing. One really can choose what one likes now.

  • fflambeau says:

    I hear you Byrwec Ellison and it is true that most mainstream media has curated music.

    But this is not entirely the case. The advent of the Internet and musical platforms like YouTube mean the individual can curate their own music at least at home. The success of these platforms, meanwhile, is pushing “gatekeeper” or curated streams to include ever more music from people they would reject. Then too, there have always been a few rogue radio stations out there that allow individuals with, let us say, unusual tastes to play their own music during mostly constricted hours. These too are popular in many markets but do not offer the flexibility the internet does.

    What is true is that almost all symphony orchestras have curated music and if the locals accept it, they have no choice in what they hear except not to go to concerts. I think this is a major reason for the decline in the popularity of classical music. However, many symphony orchestras are indeed opening up their programming because they realize this. It also makes me question the role of “creative” advisers to symphonies: they seem to always have the same, not very creative ideas, plus the positions use up lots of money that could be better spent otherwise.

  • fflambeau says:

    There are definitely some wonderful conductors out there that should be called out for the musical services they have rendered in playing music that is often (not always) out of the mainstream.

    Look for their names: Gerard Schwarz; Leon Botstein; JoAnn Falletta; James DePriest; Kenneth Schermerhorn; Michael Morgan; Joseph Young; Howard Hanson; Neeme Järvi; Kenneth Woods; Richard Hickox; Bryden Thomas. I’m sure I have missed many.

    Even some ‘big names’ in the field have done much the same: especially Serge Koussevitzky and Eugene Ormandy and the modern day Marin Alsop.

  • ACN says:

    Wonderful comment – possibly the best thing I’ve ever read on this website.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    My cat prefers reading; “Of Mice and Men”.