Critic’s notebook: Pandora radio let me down


The Pandora Media Inc. website is displayed on a computer monitor in San Francisco, California. (David Paul Morris/BLOOMBERG)

Pandora and I had a fight.

Not that there’s any bad blood between me and the administrators of the streaming music site – far from it. Pandora’s creators recently went to considerable trouble to add three classical music channels to their offerings.

The stations, which went live last week, include a “Classical for Work” station featuring shorter excerpts and isolated movements of works (a rousing account of Copland’s “El Salon Mexico,” the second movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto); a “Classical for the Soul” channel that purports to go “a little deeper” and is, perhaps, weighted more heavily on the early-music side (the potpourri I’ve gotten so far has included a Corelli concerto, a Glinka “Capriccio Brillante” for four-hand piano, piano transcriptions of Gershwin songs, and a complete performance of the third Brahms piano quartet); and, finally and most significantly for classical fans for whom classical easy-listening formats are anathema, a “Classical Complete Performances” channel that plays symphonies, sonatas, chamber works and other pieces in full.

The problem I was having was with the service itself. I wanted to listen to Benjamin Britten. And it wouldn’t let me.

At this juncture in the article, I would usually explain what Pandora is: a service that lets you create custom radio stations to listen to online. You type in a song or work that you like, and Pandora offers you a range of other pieces that are supposed to be like that one; you can signal whether or not you like a given piece by clicking a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon. But I’m not sure I need to explain Pandora. After all, it’s been around since 2005; it has more than 70 million active users every month; we’ve written about it many times in The Washington Post; dozens of my friends use it. Even among classical music fans, generally thought of as late adapters to this kind of thing, the service’s popularity is growing: In June, classical music listening on Pandora was up by 27 percent, according to a Pandora spokeswoman. So why give even this much information? Because I would bet good money that some who are reading this have never used Pandora.

At the same time, many of you write me to complain about the offerings on your local classical radio station. The Internet, of course, offers dozens of alternatives. Radio stations from Chicago to Seattle put their programming online, often with extra channels you can’t hear on the air, such as WETA’s online-only VivaLaVoce station, devoted entirely to classical vocal music. There are Internet-only stations, there are satellite stations such as Sirius, and there are the options of picking out exactly what you want to hear on Spotify or actually downloading it from iTunes.

Still, if you seek the continuity of radio, the tantalizing sense of possibility about what’s coming next, the chance of being introduced to things you might like and wouldn’t otherwise hear, and a few ads to break up the programming (though you can upgrade to an ad-free option for $3.99 a month), a service such as Pandora has a lot to offer.

“We target things that may not be offered on terrestrial radio,” says Michael Addicott, the head of Pandora’s curation team, “things we see as really important formats in the music ecosystem, that for one reason or another are not as visible on terrestrial radio or other services. They used to be, some of them; classical and jazz are diminishing. This is an opportunity for us to sort of take these formats and make them unique to Pandora and also give [an option to] listeners that may have been displaced and are looking for a place to go.”

I like the idea a lot. It’s just that Pandora and I had this little problem about Benjamin Britten.

There are many ways to use Pandora. You can browse the stations provided for you, including the three new classical ones. You can also create your own by typing in the name of a composer, performer or ensemble and see what you get. Pandora is proud of what it calls the Music Genome Project, which breaks music down into literally hundreds of components to help describe its characteristics. For instance: “an acclaimed work,” “a Romantic-Era style,” “a symphony orchestra,” “major key tonality,” “a fast and bright tempo,” “a bass vocalist.” Can you name that track? It’s the exchange between the Sacristan and Cavaradossi in Puccini’s opera “Tosca,” which isn’t even a particularly notable excerpt, but which the service has decided to recommend to me on my “Giuseppe Verdi” station.

It seemed, however, that the characteristics assigned to Britten didn’t lead me to any of the things I like about his music. Because when I created a “Benjamin Britten” station on Pandora last week, Pandora refused to play any Britten at all. I got lots of Mendelssohn, some Chopin, a piece by Alkan, one by someone named Louis Glass, and several Beethoven cello sonatas. Pandora seemed to associate Britten with music for cello and piano — an understandable confusion, perhaps, because one of the recordings it kept offering me features Mstislav Rostropovich and Britten himself, as pianist, playing Schumann and Schubert. It also offered Britten as a conductor, leading Schumann’s “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust.”

This should provide my cue to roll my eyes at how the Internet just doesn’t get classical music and enumerate all the glitches on Pandora to prove it. When you’re listening to Pandora on your iPhone, you often can’t tell exactly what piece you’re hearing, let alone who’s playing it — clicking on the image of the album cover gives you information about the composer, but simply seeing information about Rachmaninoff and a track listing for a piano concerto, with an album cover announcing “Berühmte Konzerte” (“Famous Concertos”), is not enough to let you know that you’re hearing the second concerto rather than the third, if you don’t know already. The Beethoven Violin Concerto movement cited only the Utrecht Symphony; I had to use Google to find out who the conductor and soloist might be. However, the real cue for eye-rolling is the Music Genome Project and the idea that you can break down music into 450 component descriptive parts, however precise; the Britten example might illustrate just why this doesn’t work.

I think Pandora gets a lot of things right, and its new stations are a step in the right direction. Perfect, perhaps not; but I’ve heard a wide range of repertoire and a mix of fine recordings, from old Dorati releases of Dvorak to the soprano Ana Maria Martinez singing Villa-Lobos to — new to me — the late Soviet trumpet virtuoso Timofei Dokschitzer, whom Pandora presented to me in a transcription of a concerto by Hummel. And if my Britten channel was inexplicably unsatisfying and I keep having to prune opera-lite tracks out of my Verdi channel (the last Pavarotti album and the intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana” crop up like mushrooms), I’ve found a lot else to like. The “Classics for Work” channel painted a flattering picture of the workplace with bracing, colorful pieces such as the Copland or unexpected bagatelles such as Dvorak’s polka “For Prague Students.” If I couldn’t make sense of the concept behind “Classical for the Soul,” I liked its quirky range. And my “David Lang” channel has been eminently satisfying, with pieces I didn’t know by Lang and Terry Riley, with an admixture of Louis Andriessen, Philip Glass, John Adams — the usual suspects, true, but adding up to a channel that I find quite listenable.

And if Pandora’s recommendations are sometimes flawed, they’re still better than a lot of the other ones out there. Andrew Doe, who headed classical music for iTunes and was chief operating officer of Naxos before starting his consulting business for classical musicians, points out their superiority. “Automated recommendations services almost always look at what other people are listening to,” he said in an e-mail last week, “or, worse, what they’re buying. This works when you want to connect one massive pop hit to another because a Selena Gomez fan is statistically more likely to enjoy Taylor Swift than Jay Z, but it struggles to make meaningful recommendations when there are more products and the number of customers per product gets smaller. Pandora actually selects music because of what it sounds like, which results in much more meaningful recommendations outside of the top 40.”

Pandora’s model certainly has legs, and it’s about to gain competition from one of the biggest players in the business. In June, Apple announced that iTunes will be launching a similar Internet radio service in the fall as part of its new iOS 7 operating system. Of course, iTunes, has a deep catalogue, in classical as in everything else. The competition may be concerning for Pandora, but it’s all to the good for classical music fans.

As for Britten, I was going to turn to Spotify. But first, I asked the people at Pandora what was up with their Britten catalogue. Turns out it was a database error. Britten the composer was listed as “Lord Benjamin Britten”; Britten the performer was listed as “Benjamin Britten.” While Pandora was taking steps to fix this problem, I started a station for “Lord Benjamin Britten,” and immediately got — a cello piece, the Suite for Solo Cello, with Rostropovich.

Okay, Pandora. Britten can be a cello composer if you want. But I’ll keep listening.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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