The WKCR Bach Marathon

The single most extraordinary radio show in New York City, perhaps anywhere in the world, is the Johan Sebastian Bach marathon that begins on WKCR typically a few days before Christmas and continues for several days afterwards. For nearly two weeks, music by the greatest composer who ever lived is played around the clock. Even in the middle of the new winter’s night the master’s inimitable fugues are heard.

Portrait by Elias Gottwald Haussmann.

WKCR, remember, is a college station run by undergraduates, all unpaid, whose announcers are either students or alumni. More commonly known for playing jazz ignored by nearly every other outlet, WKCR also offered for decades the only NYC program with truly avant-garde classical music run successively by Jonathan Cott, Peter Frank, and Tony Coulter. Nowadays, it might be the only NYC station to devote hours, yes hours, to abrasive noise music that, simply, favors sustained amounts of dissonance, cacophony, and indeterminacy.

Their Bach disc library is rich, containing, say, the Huges Counod recordings of Bach’s Geistlicher Lieder (Sacred Songs) on Westminster LPs from 50 years ago, which I’ve never heard anywhere else or seen in any record library other than mine. Indeed, every year I hear on WKCR a Bach recording previously unfamiliar to me.

Even so, I should note that many of my favorite Bach performers are never heard. I don’t recall Joshua Rifkin, Arthur Grumiaux, Arthur Loesser, Samuel Feinberg, or Janos Starker, among others. Instead, there is too much Helmuth Rilling, whose performances of the Bach cantatas, say, were superior only with the great American soprano Arleen Auger singing.

Every WKCR selection is appropriately introduced with musicians credited. Even with their occasional mispronounciations, the station’s student announcers are more informative than two Internet-only radio stations that often play J. S. Bach. RadioBach, apparently based in Poland, interrupts short and medium-length selections from his music only to credit Bach with a Polish pronunciation, while the other, Otto’s Baroque Musick, interrupts not with musicians’ names but short advertisements.

Neither of these other stations play any of the longer Bach pieces in their entirety. Nor does WQXR, again in contrast to WKCR, which honors the principle that the St. Matthew Passion or the Well-Tempered Clavier, each a few hours long, were meant to be heard uninterrupted. Long at 89.9 on the FM dial in New York City, WKCR can now also be accessed around the world through its website at WKCR.org.

Every year the WKCR marathon brings surprises not heard before, such as Jennifer Koh’s Bach partitas for solo violin last year. The station apparently owns several recordings of the St. Matthew Passion, including some in English, which its announcers play at various times during the marathon.

Some of the best moments come from the guest announcers, such as Teri (Noel) Towe, once known as the Laughing Cavalier, who brings records and tapes never heard elsewhere; and Johnny Reinhard, whose insights into the “microtonal Bach” are always instructive.

Another annual feature is the WKCR star Phil Schaap’s “Jazz Meets Bach,” which invariably includes unfamiliar interpretations drawn from Schaap’s vast personal archive.

Usefully, the playlist appears on the station’s website. A Columbia alumnus has even created a Facebook page. At a time when other stations have all their music digitized, the WKCR announcers play vinyl LPs that have audible scratches and often get stuck.

Nothing makes the dark year-end season more tolerable than Bach around the clock. When it’s being aired, I don’t listen to anything else except the news. With no sponsors to placate or professors to please, WKCR has been invaluable, deserving every contribution it solicits. For those of us old-timers who think that classics might be forgotten, it’s always gratifying to hear young people still enthusiastic about J. S. Bach.

WKCR’s current broadcasters seem unsure about when the marathon began. Last year I heard one say “1977,” or 15 years before current undergraduates were born, which was a long time ago; but I recall (or imagine that I recall) hearing it before then.

When I was working at Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in the 1980s I once told my producers there about the WKCR Bach marathon. They didn’t believe that American college students—bright kids, essentially—could have such reverence for Germany’s greatest composer. Nothing else, for 10 days, around the clock? Ja. What they didn’t understand was the possibility of a modestly financed, cheaply run undergraduate station with a rich library and superior taste.

The WKCR marathon customarily concludes with the Kunst der Fuge, the Art of the Fugue, whose conclusion is the profoundly moving unfinished fugue, revealing at the end of a marathon that the great Johann Sebastian Bach has died (yet again).

Contributor

Richard Kostelanetz

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

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