During the week of Jan. 17, I requested that WCPE, 89.7 FM, play Mark O'Connor's "Appalachia Waltz" on their Saturday Evening Request program. They declined to schedule it, despite having time to play it. I sent an e-mail asking for an explanation, which was not returned. I called the station, and the employee replied that he thought that this piece was probably out of the range of their classical format.
"Appalachia Waltz" was written by one of the more talented musicians of our time, Mark O'Connor, who has for 15 years worked tirelessly to help repair the substantial disconnect between popular music and classical music culture. He was joined on that recording by Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, two musicians of impeccable classical credentials who also recognize that formal composition has, at least until recently, always drawn from popular culture to remain vibrant. That includes the suites of Bach, the operas of Verdi, the symphonies of Mahler and the ballets of Aaron Copland. This trio of musicians is trying to cure the classical world of its chronic allergy to all things popular or even American, aside from Copland and Gershwin.
This is a serious problem. If stations like WCPE do not work harder to develop new listener bases, they will face major financial problems years down the road. If they create artificial barriers against American culture, they will not be doing classical music a service. Classical music will continue to fossilize, to the detriment of young musicians who would like to mature into musicians that can be part of a vibrant culture.
"Appalachia Waltz" is not a terribly adventurous piece to program, and it is a very well-written composition. I played it at a friend's wedding last year, populated by 20-somethings like myself who work hard and want to develop into tomorrow's leaders, and who all loved it. They are representative of the future, but I know of only one who listens to classical radio, and he is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology. Choosing playlists catered to those who prefer a crystallized, antiquated view of what is and is not classical may maximize today's membership donations from an older crowd, but it will do so at the cost of developing the next generation of listeners.