NWPR host critiques Apple’s classical music list

Robin Rilette, host of NWPR's Classic Music with Robin Rilette

Classical Music Director Robin Rilette at home in the Northwest Public Radio studio at Washington State University.

PULLMAN, Wash. – Apple iTunes – the Internet monster music machine that recently celebrated 25 billion music downloads – recently produced a list of the top 10 “must-own classical music” recordings of all time.

When Forbes magazine writer Connie Guglielmo received iTunes’ classical music list, it brought out the skeptic in her. So, she turned to Robin Rilette, Northwest Public Radio’s (NWPR) music director, to review the list and give her professional opinion.

Given a short deadline, Rilette scrutinized the iTunes list and provided Forbes not only with a critique, but with a list of her own – complete with commentary.

A good list, but not my list

Suggesting the two were different would be an understatement. But differences of opinion about what constitutes great classical music are as common as inaction in the U.S. Congress. So, let the debate begin.

First, it’s no surprise that the majority of iTunes’ 25 billion downloads were not classical music. Music industry publications have tabbed the classical genre as representing somewhere between 6-12 percent of the world music market. If that percent holds true, iTunes has a bit of data from which to justify their selections – somewhere between 1.5 and 3 billion downloads.

Rilette, on the other hand, doesn’t sell or download music. Since 1989, she has been at Washington State University with NWPR, a National Public Radio affiliate network, where she hosts “Classical Music with Robin Rilette,” heard 9 a.m.-noon daily. In addition to selecting and providing background and context to the music, Rilette interacts regularly with her audience.

“Classical music is such a small part of the market,” Rilette said. “That’s why I thought it was cool that Apple was coming up with its own list. Obviously, recognition of this market by Apple is a big deal.

“The iTunes list is a good list,” she said. “But it would not be my list.

“When Connie Guglielmo (from Forbes) first called me, she didn’t ask for my comments, but I wanted her to understand why I made the choices I did,” she said.

To Rilettes’ surprise, Forbes published both lists and Rilette’s comments in an article with the snappy headline, “Apple Loop: Investor Says Show Us the Money; The Case for an iPhablet, iWatch; Classical Music Picks.”

Beethoven vs. Bach

Rilette saluted four of iTunes’ selections, at least in part, by keeping them on the list. However, six other selections (numbers 2, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10) vaporized.

For example, Apple’s #1 choice was Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5, by Carlos Kleiber and Wiener Philharmoniker. But, Rilette dropped it to #4 and noted: “Many music critics think the Carlos Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies the absolute best. I agree, but I also appreciate John Eliot Gardiner and the Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra’s versions. I’m not a fan of Herbert von Karajan’s recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic. In my opinion, he sucks the life out of them.”

So, Beethoven got bumped off the top perch and replaced by Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, by the Bath Festival Chamber Orchestra, Sir Yehudi Menuhin.

Rilette defended her top pick, noting: “It’s virtually impossible to just choose one section of his work because he is essential. More than any of the other baroque composers, Bach can cause your toes to tap and your eyes to weep all in the same 10 minutes. There’s a mathematical genius to his counterpoint without ever losing the soul and spirit that makes music the best medium to express the often inexpressible.”

Similarly, Rilette ousted Phillip Glass’ Symphony No. 8, from the #6 position and replaced it with Antonin Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96 “American” and Symphony No. 9 in E, Op. 59 “New World.”

“Dvorak was a huge missing person on that list,” Rilette said. “There’s always a debate among classic music hosts over what selections are the best. But there always seems to be a somewhat unique consensus when it comes to having Dvorak on the essentials list. I’ve heard some say, ‘Dvorak never wrote a wrong note.’ So I couldn’t wrap my head around having him left out.”

In the end, Rilette said, her objective in making her selections was to provide people with an introduction to some of the great, beloved standards and encourage them to explore classical music. The actual ranking of them was not as important to her.

“It’s hard enough to come up with a list of only 10, let alone put them in any kind of preferential order!” she said.

So, who is Robin Rilette?

Rilette has been involved with music since her early years. During her primary school years, she played flute and sang in choirs and music groups. The variety ranged from big band tunes to popular music.

At Portland State University her studies included music theory, but her degree was in speech communication. She began her radio career as a PSU student, volunteering for Oregon Public Broadcasting’s radio reading service, reading magazine articles for the visually impaired. Realizing her talent, OPB kept her on for another six-month internship in its news department.

It was there she caught the classical music bug when a piece titled “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughn Williams was played and “the entire feeling in the newsroom changed,” said Rilette. “You could feel it. All the freneticness went away and a calmness settled. It was amazing.

“In my mid to late 20s I went to a lot of independent art films,” she said. “At the end, I’d be sitting in the dark with a flashlight writing down music credits. Then I’d go to the record store and buy the music and listen, expanding my classical music library.”

Since then, she has been an avid self-driven classical music aficionado.

In 1989, Rilette went to work for NWPR as the evening news host for “All Things Considered,” and a music host. Three years later, she was the station’s music director and host of the “Classical Music with Robin Rilette” show, which is heard on NWPR’s NPR and Classical Music service on 11 stations throughout the Northwest, as well as via Internet at
nwpr.org. (To listen to audio clips of Robin, see “Related” links at right).

“I found my niche,” said Rilette, “and have stayed.

“It’s like every other job, in that some things are challenging and some fulfilling,” she said. “I think everyone would say that. The most fulfilling thing about my job is the relationships I have built with my listeners. They are intelligent, well read, lifelong learners, and I have learned a lot from them. Some have been with me since the day I started and have been so kind and patient as I was learning on the air.

“This is one of the things that make it a great gig,” she said.

“I hear more ‘thank yous’ in a week than I think my dad heard in his entire career as a comptroller,” Rilette said. “Amazing thank yous: ‘You helped me make it through when my husband was sick.’ ‘You helped me to finish my painting.’

“I have a folder that contains about 5 percent of the thank you notes I’ve received,” she said. “If I have an overwhelming day at work, I’ll pull out that folder and remember how blessed I am. It also reminds me of what my purpose and mission is in my job:

“To share music with people. To brighten their day. To help them through a hard day and make it better,” she said. “And to introduce them to beloved standards and expand their horizons with new music.”

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