Fast-Forwarding Through Classic Arts Showcase

Maria Callas in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. Photo by Maria Pazos Plaza.

To my culturally critical mind, the single richest program on television these past 16 years has been a scarcely noticed, austere anthology called Classic Arts Showcase. Consisting of excerpts from decades-old films, more recent videos set not to rock but to classical music, footage of historic concert performances, and other unashamedly highbrow stuff, C.A.S. is produced not by a public television entity but by a Los Angeles foundation, and distributed gratis to public stations. In New York City, where I live, hour-long modules appear regularly on the CUNY station, and sometimes on Long Island public television and the Board of Education’s channel 25. I watch it on whatever venue, whenever possible. Why isn’t it more widely appreciated? Consider this principle: What doesn’t (and need not) advertise does not get reviewed.

Actually, it’s more correct to say that I videotape the show for later viewing. In truth, Classic Arts Showcase is hard to watch while it’s broadcast, containing as it does a lot of classical warhorses often accompanied by bucolic scenes from one or another landscape—Slovakia for Antonín Dvořák, Penshurst Place for Edward Elgar, American plains for Aaron Copland, etc.—and then too many slick clips from 1950s Firestone television programs. Videotaped, however, C.A.S. can be far more acceptable, as I can use the fast-forward button on my remote to zip through the junk. Indeed, since CUNY broadcasts the program for several successive hours through the weekend nights, I customarily record an entire VHS tape every weekend for playback on my own time during the week.

Here are some of the gems I can recall from memory (which is the most effective taste machine known to man):

* Live performances by the legendary diva Maria Callas (1923–1977), who must be seen for her monumental reputation to be believed.
* The classical-music abstractions of Oskar Fischinger (1900–1967), who taught Walt Disney how to do Fantasia before Fischinger resigned from that more famous project over artistic differences.

* Marian Anderson (1897–1993) singing “Crucifixion,” a slow spiritual about the death of Christ, to the sublime accompaniment of a quiet piano.

* Scenes from the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), which I’d never seen before it appeared on C.A.S. (but have purchased since on a DVD with Scorsese’s enthusiastic commentary). I now identify Hoffmann as the first and perhaps greatest opera movie ever made, as distinct from the filming of an opera.

* Classic silent shorts by George Méliès, among others, and the Pathé comedy The Policeman’s Little Run (1907)—here often with the addition of more recent soundtracks.

* A live, outdoor performance, in the nighttime Verona darkness, of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Invocation to the Moon” (from Turandot).

* Several scenes from a luscious 1939 film of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, performed by the D’Oyly Carte company.

* Van Cliburn’s legendary, prize-winning piano performances in Moscow in 1958; Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers conducted by John Eliot Gardiner in Venice’s San Marco; Colin Davis conducting Wolfgang Mozart’s Requiem at the Herkulessaal in Munich.

* An appreciation of Fritz Reiner conducting with legendarily “minimal body motions. All he had to do was look at you.”

* A Max Fleischer cartoon, Greedy Humpty Dumpty (1936), which not even I as an enthusiast of Fleischer cartoons had seen before, in which the protagonist speaks in couplets and two composers get credits!

* Choice scenes from Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), C. B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (1945), Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), and Walter Ruttmann’s Symphony of a Great City (1927).

* A succession of the very best jazz pianists, including Fats Waller, Erroll Garner, and Art Tatum.

* Margot Fonteyn’s legendary duets with Rudolf Nureyev in the 1960s.

* Lily Pons in 1946 singing “The Bell Song” from Léo Delibes’s Lakme, with a coloratura lightness that no one has realized with that virtuoso vehicle since.

* Josephine Baker in Zouzou (1934), wearing only pasties above her waist, looking as classically beautiful as any woman who has ever lived.

* Scenes from Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976), a feature-length European competitor to Fantasia.

* Glenn Gould playing J. S. Bach’s “Partita #6”; Ralph Kirkpatrick performing Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue” on harpsichord in 1978; and an 80-year-old Andrés Segovia’s thick fingers playing a Bach gavotte.

* Billie Holiday performing with Roy Eldridge, Gerry Mulligan, and Ben Webster in a 1957 telecast.

* Bing Crosby in 1933, before he became slick, singing “Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear.”

* Complete individual excerpts from Opera Imaginaire, a Canadian project for lively animations of familiar arias.

* The Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya languidly performing the dying swan to Camille Saint-Saëns’s music, or a solo to a J. S. Bach organ prelude.

Otherwise, with my fast-forward securely in hand, I’ve seen performances filmed in the late 1940s in the shell of the Berlin Philharmonie; Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”; great singers I’d never known before and haven’t heard anywhere else (beginning with the countertenor Jochen Kowalski); passages from Hans-Jürgen Syberberg; and impressive films of Richard Wagner operas that I would never see in their entirety—an excerpt is probably enough.

All these examples represent what its title says the program is—Classic Arts Showcase.

Image from George Melies's 1903 film Tom Tight et Dum Dum. Courtesy of George Eastman House.

Lord knows where the small C.A.S. staff finds all this great stuff, so little of which I’ve seen elsewhere. The evident pleasure that the producers take in collecting and then sharing is communicated in the austere presentation, with no announcers on screen or off, no introductions other than credits in a sans-serif typeface so modest I can’t always distinguish lower case a from lower case o. In this last respect of refusing any explanatory framing, C.A.S. set a precedent for those similarly austere Internet classical music channels that likewise just play great stuff devoid of any chatter. (My favorite, available on iTunes, is Radio B.A.C.H., apparently from Gliwice, Poland.) Watching C.A.S. feels comparable to visiting a private art museum.

Much as I realize that this review has turned into my catalog of masterpieces identified only by name (resembling in that respect the program itself), there is no other way to account for the richness and variety of C.A.S. Only if most of the references above are already familiar to a reader would I recommend viewing, because, much as I have done in this review, C.A.S. provides examples without superlatives.

One page on the show’s website, www.classicartsshowcase.org, lists the channels around the U.S. that carry it. On another is advice for receiving on your home monitor their live satellite feed “free and unscrambled” around the clock, “no application required, on Galaxy 17, Transponder 18C,” which I don’t have, though I mention it in case some readers do.

When I speed through all six hours of one of my VHS tapes, I usually lament the inclusion of too many excerpts I’ve already seen, fast-forwarding through them. After watching the tape, I find that at least one bit (out of several dozen) persuades me to put this VHS cassette in my library, rather than recycling it for re-recording.

Critics often point out that public television is less public in any political sense than elitist, reflecting the tastes of a class of listeners whose money is solicited, whom potential donors want to impress by parading their brand names over the “public” airwaves. After all, the general public can scarcely be impressed by promotionals for airlines or Archer Daniels Midland.

Nonetheless, to my critical mind, public television is not elitist enough, too often pandering to its middlebrow audience with extended concerts by slick pop stars, interviews with best-selling authors, and celebrity-introduced, politically correct documentaries, usually accompanied by insufferable begging and lists of “funders” two miles long. None of these kinds of programs realizes art in any true accounting. On the other hand, one charm of C.A.S. is establishing a standard of what can be done in presenting first-rank art with a per-program budget so modest that only one sponsor’s credit is necessary.

Consider as well that C.A.S. also provides a model for the possibility of more avant-garde programming, likewise modestly funded, as I imagined in a recent Esopus, “becoming, in effect, an M.C.A.S.—a More Contemporary Arts Showcase.”

Contributor

Richard Kostelanetz

RICHARD KOSTELANETZ recently completed a second book of essays on innovative music.

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