The past really is a foreign country

One of my favorite local public radio shows is Old Time Radio Drama on Wisconsin Public Radio. a show that consists of rebroadcasts of classic radio shows from the decades before television. We were driving home from the Twin Cities the day before Labor Day and caught some of the show as we came within range. The last of the rebroadcast shows was a 30-minute version of Moby Dick. Unfortunately the signal was marginal, so we didn’t hear much of it. But we did hear that 1) it was broadcast on NBC on Labor Day weekend in 1938; 2) it was directed by Orson Welles; and 3) it was sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (“the blended, splendid taste of Pabst”).

I spend the rest of the driving imagining an America where one of the largest breweries in the world confidently expected millions of their customers to sit by their radios to hear a dramatization of a 19th-century literary masterpiece by the most famous movie director on the planet. It seemed a very different country than the one I arrived in lo those many years ago – much less the one we live in now.

That’s not to say that great art can’t still reach millions of people. But the great art that does that today is not generally what is regarded as “canonical” – in almost all art forms (with the possible exception of TV and film costume drama), the canon has become a niche business. Of course it’s possible for niche enterprises to thrive. But they won’t do so by pretending that it’s still 1938.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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