- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

How ‘bout those Redskins?

An odd way to open our 2006 retrospective on Washington’s classical music scene, perhaps, but stay with us. The once-mighty ‘Skins are owned by the seriously rich Dan Snyder, and, if the latest buzz is to be believed, Mr. Snyder is on the verge of purchasing Washington’s last remaining classical music outlet, WGMS-FM, and turning it into some flavor of sports-talk media.

Mr. Snyder is a proven master of the megabucks deal. However, given his recent investment history, he may be headed for a strikeout here, if you don’t mind our shift in the seasonal metaphor. First, he invested in the Redskins, threw a lot of money at expensive talent, jacked up ticket prices higher than good opera seats, and what did he get? Disgruntled fans and a team that, at its best, most resembles the hapless and recently resurrected Cleveland Browns expansion team in the won-lost column.

Then Mr. Snyder rode to the rescue of the Six Flags chain of amusement parks. Its stock has tanked, proving that, as with the Redskins, new management and a bottomless wallet won’t necessarily right a ship that already has taken on too much water.

Mr. Snyder apparently has decided that Washington needs more sports flacking to shore up attendance at FedEx Field. His target: the hapless WGMS, a respected, moneymaking franchise dating from the mid-1940s, already weakened over the past decade or so by its shift to bubble-gum classical programming and its more recent banishment to atrociously weak signals at 103.9 and 104.1 FM. (Rumor has it that the station’s signal is received clearly by precisely two houses in Alexandria and at the top of the bell tower at the National Cathedral.)

What’s being eliminated here is diversity on the airwaves — a loss made possible in recent years by the elimination of ownership restrictions that used to guarantee variety in local programming. In this sense, admittedly, Mr. Snyder is going with the flow. What he proposes certainly is not illegal, but it scarcely improves the cultural tone of the metropolitan area he has chosen to call his own.

When WETA-FM eliminated its classical programming some time back to offer us a tired slate of taxpayer-supported lefty bloviators from National Public Radio — who already were getting ample airtime on WAMU-FM — WGMS, even with its limited playlist of recent years, still proved a breath of fresh air on commuters’ long drives to work and back. For workaholics, its commercial-free “Dinner at 8” concert each evening was a great way to sit down and unwind with a glass of wine.

It seems certain that crass commercialism and an institutional lack of taste will muscle out what’s left of Washington’s last classical outlet. With jazz largely having departed years ago from our airwaves despite its substantial following in the District and environs, we’re largely left with an endless wasteland of ranting from all sides of the political spectrum. At least WAMU has enabled the incomparable Rob Bamberger to retain his traditional 7 p.m. Saturday slot for “Hot Jazz Saturday Night,” which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary — an astounding achievement in local radio.

How even more Monday-morning quarterbacking will serve the classical constituency that kept WGMS solvent all these years remains to be seen, unless Mr. Snyder’s sports jocks play the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth as bumper music between what are certain to be endless commercial breaks.

Looks like classical fans with a few extra bucks will have to use them to beef up their audio systems to pipe in HD radio and classical music from pay services such as XM and Sirius.

Meanwhile, fortunately, the District’s live classical scene continues to improve in fiscal health, not to mention production values.

The quirky In Series of concerts, once heavily oriented toward international cabaret but now strongly Latino in its appeal, seems to be achieving a more stable residence as the Studio Theatre space it shares with other organizations has been resurrected from the dead. Likewise, the peripatetic young opera company known as Bel Cantanti has found a new home at the old Round House Theatre.

Meanwhile, the National Symphony Orchestra plugs along, with maestro Leonard Slatkin’s tenure growing short but with programs that remain interesting if not always innovative. Also, the Washington National Opera has continued to improve and sometimes surprise, with offerings ranging from its new “American” Ring cycle to the American debut of Nicholas Maw’s “Sophie’s Choice” this fall at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Less an opera than an immersive experience in tragedy, Mr. Maw’s magnum opus may have difficulty finding its way into the contemporary repertoire because of the crushing historical weight of the Holocaust it so aptly conveys. Nevertheless, the fact that it came to Washington first indicates, perhaps, that the company will be lighting out for new territories in the coming years, which will be good for Washington and good for opera in general.

As always, the New Year will bring classical music fans more surprises, more delights and a few more brickbats for misbegotten productions. All this will have to happen without the aid and traditional advertising comfort provided by WGMS-FM, which is operating on borrowed time.

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