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Arts on PBS

Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, also writes a bi-weekly arts column in the Saturday paper. In yesterday’s column, he discussed the years-long decline in arts programming at PBS. To illustrate the decline, he reviews the 2009 programming on Great Performances, PBS’s “flagship performing-arts telecast.”

  • The San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker.”
  • A pair of Christmas concerts by Andrea Bocelli and Sting.
  • The Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s Day concert.
  • Two Broadway musicals, “In the Heights” and “Passing Strange.”
  • Three Metropolitan Opera performances, two of operas by Puccini and one of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
  • A feature-film version of Puccini’s “La Bohème.”
  • A concert by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
  • A documentary about Herbert von Karajan.

  • Teachout observes that this “lineup of shows is both inadequate and unserious, especially when compared to the high-octane arts programming that PBS was airing a quarter-century ago.”

    I agree with his criticism, to which I would add that when Great Performances isn’t on, we have to watch endless replays of rock groups from the 1960s in a compendium of highlights fromThe Ed Sullivan Show, or Celtic Woman, with that fiddler bizarrely dancing all over the place amongst the singers. At least we no longer see Roy Orbison over and over in black and white. (Please understand, I love seeing the Rolling Stones singing Satisfaction; the fiddler is stunningly beautiful; and who doesn’t love Roy Orbison? But must I see them several nights a week?)

    Teachout has a wise suggestion for improvement.

    What should PBS be doing instead? For openers, it should air fine-arts programs that encompass the full range of the performing arts. That means not just “The Nutcracker” but ballet and modern-dance masterpieces of all kinds. It means not just ultrafamiliar operas but solo recitals and chamber music. It means not just Broadway musicals but performances of classic and contemporary plays. And these performances should take place not just in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco but in cities throughout America.

    If I were put in charge of arts programming on PBS and had unlimited funds at my disposal, I’d start by ordering up a monthly series called “Art Across America,” whose raison d’être would be to introduce TV viewers to the full range of fine-arts performances in their own land. None of the episodes would originate in New York, and all would feature works by American artists. Instead of showing a Broadway musical, I’d fly out to Seattle and tape an Intiman Theatre performance of Kate Whoriskey’s staging of “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning 2007 play about life in a Congo brothel. Instead of showing Andrea Bocelli, I’d telecast David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony performing Samuel Barber’s “Prayers of Kierkegaard.” Instead of showing yet another “Nutcracker,” I’d put Carolina Ballet on the air dancing Robert Weiss’s “Messiah.”

    Would I watch all these shows if I had the opportunity? I don’t know. I already noted last April, the day Ruined was awarded a Pulitzer (Teachout appears to err in calling it a 2007 play), that we had a chance to see it in Chicago the previous November, but instead chose to hear Lang Lang in concert. Perhaps that’s forgivable.

    As for Celtic Woman, they’re coming to Seattle in May. Three nights at the Paramount. We better get our tickets.

    Categories: Arts, Television
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