Why is CBC Radio forgetting its classical music fans?

Institutions change, and Radio-Canada is one of them.

This awareness was recently revealed to me by a new book on the history of CBC radio and “art music,” which got me thinking about Ben Heppner and the venerable broadcasting institution. Growing up on CBC’s classical music coverage, I had most recently listened to Heppner when his opera show “Backstage” last aired last September. These two events sparked a kind of nostalgia in me: they made me realize that CBC’s coverage of classical music just isn’t what it used to be.

Ben surprised me by becoming a radio host in the first place. He confessed on air that it was actually his ambition ever since he heard Howard Dyck host “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera”, which Dyck was hosting. After all, here was Canada’s greatest tenor, an international opera star, whom I had heard at the Metropolitan Opera and the Salzburg Festival, among other distant places. What possessed him?

For eight years we have heard Heppner’s answer. After experiencing intermittent vocal problems and rejoicing at the possibility of a new career, he had discovered this new role for his voice. Succeeding Dyck on “Saturday Afternoon” as well as the creation of a new opera program, “Backstage”, he quickly revealed himself to be a radio animal, comfortable with the informal relationship between broadcaster and listener.

The CBC has not always been so informal. Growing up in Vancouver decades ago, I remember the concerts of its national network of orchestras, offering often thought-provoking music and often intelligent commentary. It was serious business.

Those days are now history. Orchestras and concerts are gone along with most of the critical commentary associated with them. To be frank, from a musical point of view, English-language CBC radio has been dumb.

All of this makes the recent release of the aforementioned book timely. “John PL Roberts, the CBC/Radio Canada and Art Music” (from Cambridge Scholars Publishing and edited by Friedemann Sallis and Regina Landwehr) expands on a two-day symposium held in 2015, marking Roberts’ donation of his papers to the University from Calgary. Among his many appointments, the Australian-born pianist-educator-administrator served as dean of the university’s fine arts faculty from 1987 to 1995.

But as he will be quick to admit, the highlight of his long life (he is now in his 90s) was the little more than 30 years he spent as a producer, administrator and consultant at the CBC.

As the book makes clear, those years now seem to have been golden years and Roberts was the right person in the right place to shake things up.

Hired by CBC Radio in 1955 and sent to Winnipeg, he eventually produced a broadcast of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto featuring a young pianist he had never heard of, named Glenn Gould. The lifelong friendship that followed their meeting led the pianist to introduce Roberts to the world of Canadian music and the producer to foster Gould’s singular career at the CBC.

Gould not only appeared regularly on CBC radio and television (yes, CBC television produced classical music programming), he invented a new genre he dubbed contrapuntal radio, developed in a series of meticulously edited documentaries. Throughout this period, Roberts, particularly in his role as head of radio music, nurtured the creativity of Gould and that of Canadian musicians across the country.

He quickly expanded the society’s commissioning and presentation of new Canadian music, advocated the creation of the CBC’s own (now sadly defunct) record company, and gave “classical music” a prominence it has since lost. . Details of his challenges and accomplishments are chronicled within the pages of the book, which is not so much what one would call a “good read” as much as a valuable resource for those wishing to learn more about the broadcasting in Canada.

Canadian society has changed considerably since Roberts arrived, and defenders of the CBC today would probably say that society has attempted to reflect those changes. As the book points out, “so-called serious music had an edge in Canadian cultural policy until at least the late 1960s, because no one involved in policymaking saw popular music as an appropriate vehicle for establishing or promote Canadian cultural identity”.

This attitude has changed. With Heppner’s “Backstage” only appearing in reruns, and although “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” is still airing (presented by Kwagiulth and Stó:lō First Nations mezzo-soprano Marion Newman – Nege’ga), much of what I hear could easily be heard on a commercial station.

Why, I wonder, should the government subsidize the CBC to produce what is already available on commercial radio? Like Britain’s BBC, after which it was largely modeled, it originally had higher aims. Isn’t it time for adequate government funding to prevent Radio-Canada from playing the numbers game, and isn’t it time for good leadership within Radio-Canada to aim for more high?


William Littler is a Toronto-based classical music writer and freelance columnist for the Star.


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