Classical Music Podcasts Begin to Flourish, at Last

Classical music has been surprisingly slow to embrace podcasting, a medium ideally suited to illuminate its sounds and stories. But som...


Classical music has been surprisingly slow to embrace podcasting, a medium ideally suited to illuminate its sounds and stories.

But something changed in the last year, with live performances on hold because of the pandemic and the music industry belatedly exploring new platforms: Classical and opera podcasts have begun to flourish.

Established ones have evolved; “Aria Code,” hosted by the cross-genre luminary Rhiannon Giddens, has found new depths of poetry and resonance, and the conductor Joshua Weilerstein’s “Sticky Notes” is experimenting with approaches to score analysis. Others have joined the field, like the Cleveland Orchestra’s “On a Personal Note,” which debuted last April with Franz Welser-Möst wistfully reflecting on the ensemble’s final gathering before the pandemic closed its hall.

One even breaks new ground: “Mission: Commission,” presented by the Miller Theater at Columbia University. Most classical podcasts tend to take an anthology approach, with each episode focusing on a specific work or recording. But this Miller series, which began on April 13, follows three composers over the course of six weeks as they create short pieces that will premiere on the finale, May 18.

Rarely are audiences granted this kind of insight into a composer’s process. New works might be given a brief introduction from the stage, a program note or some advance press. What often gets lost is the story of creation — the hiccups and dead ends, the thrill of discovery. And that is central to “Mission: Commission,” a collection of audio diaries and interviews with Melissa Smey, the Miller Theater’s executive director.

In a way, the concept is an extension of the Miller’s invaluable Composer Portraits series, which devotes an entire program to a single artist, often with interludes of onstage conversation. The composers on the podcast are Marcos Balter, Courtney Bryan and Augusta Read Thomas — artists with enough differences in temperament, style and location to demonstrate that no two paths to a premiere are the same.

They introduce themselves in the first episode, accompanied by samples of their music. Thomas, known as Gusty, describes her practice as a kind of captured improvisation, while Bryan emphasizes the importance of collaboration and Balter describes his work as nonlinear, which he admits might be in conflict with the linear narrative of a typical podcast.

The first episode is suspiciously optimistic, a spirit which doesn’t entirely change in subsequent installments but is complicated by the natural ups and downs of creation. Thomas, after feeling as if her piece is coming together, abandons a section of it after about 80 hours of work; later, she shares that when she is writing something, “it takes over my whole self,” and that it is done when she can finally sleep through the night.

Bryan, who is composing a duet for herself (on piano) and the trombonist Andrae Murchison, takes her time. The two players trade voice memos, which make for some of the most fascinating and poignant moments in the show. They share meditations prompted by a single word, such as joy, with passing realizations like “it’s harder to feel unapologetic joy as you experience life.” They render numbers as musical improvisations. The working title of her piece is “Truth.”

“Mission: Commission” isn’t the only podcast to feature Bryan, who was recently a guest on the essential “Trilloquy” — a show that during the pandemic year changed its format, left American Public Media and became the property of its hosts, Garrett McQueen and Scott Blankenship.

“Trilloquy” has always cast an eye on classical music that’s both critical and caring. But its mission was freshly urgent as the field was forced by the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement to face its failings in racial representation. (Last September, McQueen was fired from his job as a radio host for American Public Media when he broke rules in an effort to diversify the programming of “Music Through the Night.”)

McQueen and Blankenship are agitators — sometimes recklessly so, with dubious factual claims that can undercut otherwise strong arguments. It’s thrilling, though, to witness their passion, their open-minded and omnivorous approach to music. And McQueen conducts his interviews with disarming candor; like many conversations on the podcast, a recent one with the baritone Will Liverman about code-switching in classical music spaces — “You have to tone down your blackness in a way,” Liverman says — is required listening for industry leaders and listeners alike.

Titled “Beginner’s Mind,” it is a fragmentary memoir and a manifesto for a better world through music — an idea that seems frustratingly rosy but is somehow believable coming from Ma, always a persuasive wellspring of comfort and hope. He recounts formative experiences such as immigrating to the United States as a child; meeting the pianist Emanuel Ax at the Juilliard School as a teenager; and awakening to the possibilities of worldwide collaboration, which led to his Silkroad project.

By the end, Ma is invoking an early hero of his, Pablo Casals, who thought of himself as a human being first, a musician second and only third a cellist. “I realize, perhaps for the first time, that I had to pass through each of those chapters to become who I am,” Ma says. “That I had to learn the cello to become a musician, and that it was only through decades of musical exploration that I came to understand my responsibility as a human being.”

It’s a sentiment conveyed gracefully enough not to be cloying, with spoken word and soundtrack interwoven in a reflection of how music is inextricable from Ma’s mind and personality. In this context, the recording that follows — a solo arrangement of the Dvorak melody that inspired “Goin’ Home” — lands more powerfully (and less cheesily) than it would have as an encore at Carnegie Hall.

Yet a version of “Beginner’s Mind” could be performed there. As live concerts return, artists and presenters shouldn’t forget the lessons of adapting to pandemic restrictions. Streamed programs, in becoming more like magazine documentaries, have been chatty and approachable. The ensemble Alarm Will Sound has already offered a model for how to carry this style to the stage with its “live podcast” multimedia shows that brilliantly demystified the music of Hans Abrahamsen, John Adams and Gyorgy Ligeti.

Classical music has always been a natural fit for podcasting. And podcasting, it turns out, might be just as fitting for the concert hall.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Classical Music Podcasts Begin to Flourish, at Last
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