Reflections on the Problems of Programming

Today’s post comes courtesy of a guest author, Tanner Cassidy, one of my good friends and colleagues at UC Santa Barbara. Tanner is currently working on his MA/PhD in music theory and is also a talented saxophonist, conductor, and composer. Below, he reflects on an issue that I have written about before on this blog and will continue to address in future posts—the problem of uninspired programming in classical music.

Tanner Cassidy

This past week, I was emailed notifications that both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the LA Opera have announced their seasons for the upcoming ’20/21 season. To my dismay, I found the upcoming seasons from both organizations to be underwhelming, relying on overplayed hits and lacking in diversity. CSO’s email advertises a night of Italian opera favorites (at best, no doubt only as fresh as Puccini), a performance of Amadeus with live score (a wonderful experience I just had there a couple of years ago), and a list of concert highlights for the season. The newest piece on this list is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a piece nearing its 107th birthday. Besides this, other composers featured are Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Strauss, with some of their most oft programmed (and hence blandest) pieces scheduled.

LA Opera paints a similarly safe picture, with Il Trovatore AND Aida in the same season. Verdi wrote 25 operas, and yet the best we can apparently do is program the same few that are always performed. Verdi is juxtaposed against two German operas, Don Giovanni and Tannhäuser, also works programmed (perhaps) too often. Rossini also makes an appearance, with his La Cenerentola on the schedule. A work also performed frequently, at least it’s a secondary classic (unlike its cousin, the excessively performed Barber of Seville). Finally, the final opera of the season is by Missy Mazzoli, titled Breaking the Waves. The only break from the monotony of tradition and “classics.”

Why do I mention any of this? Wonderful and innovative work is happening all over if you’re willing to look. What’s the point of whining about what these major institutions are programming?

For me, it seems to reflect a growing conservative trend in these particular organizations, one that I’ve begun to notice trickle down to smaller local organizations. For example, Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year has had a horrible impact on innovation in programming. One of the most oft-performed and esteemed composers in the history of European classical music, Beethoven does NOT need any more attention on these organizations’ calendars. If anything, the occasion should be marked by a season-long moratorium on his music. Despite this, CSO is advertising in bold lettering that next season is featuring the Missa Solemnis, one of the few orchestral works not performed by the orchestra this current season (this season excessively has featured all the symphonies and all the piano sonatas, because God knows we never see Moonlight Sonata performed).

This whole phenomenon has caused me to reflect on my own experience programming pieces as a composer, performer, and conductor. I understand the value in conservative programming. For one thing, familiarity gets butts in seats. These organizations need money to survive (because God forbid the arts get funded properly in this country), and programming Beethoven is easy money because of the ubiquity of his music and its accessibility to the general public. There are surely people who have never experienced Beethoven live, and these staples become an easy-to-sell pilgrimage for those new to classical music. In addition, conservative programming allows for juxtapositions for more challenging works. As a former classical saxophone player, I tried to balance every modernist and visceral piece with a Handel transcription or the like. While I would have loved to inundate my audience with the music that moved me most at the time, sometimes people aren’t in the mood for twenty minutes of mental exertion, and that’s okay.

However, I take moral issue with only programming works that are safe. For one, it keeps the general audience from ever experiencing the raw and expressive power that more challenging works hold. In addition, by only programming recognizable (see: European) works, the old classist and elitist stereotypes about the idiom are reinforced, continuing the alienation those new to classical music often feel. Above all, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi don’t need your money. They’re long dead, and generations of composers new and old are underperformed, with underheard and underprogrammed gems lurking just under the surface of obscurity. There’s a whole community of living composers that tend to get dumped onto secondary programs or omitted from advertising altogether (if they get performed at all).

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want everything to be new. All I crave is variety and diversity. This could be demographic diversity, as women and minority composers are still chronically underperformed. This could be epochal diversity, as most of the works that are relied on are generally from the European 19th century, with works outside of that seeming exceptions rather than the rule. This could be idiomatic diversity within programs, juxtaposing works from across time and space together on a program to connect the past with the present and future.

Perhaps I’m overreacting. Many organizations haven’t released their upcoming schedules yet, and perhaps these early birds are outliers. That being said, with Beethoven’s birthday still ten months away, I’m doubtful that innovation will suddenly strike. There must be a way to balance the traditional and the underseen. There must be a way to sell tickets while maintaining programmatic diversity. There must be a way to attract new and old audiences alike without playing it safe. There must be a way, right?

—© Tanner Cassidy (

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