The Starting Five, 2/3/2015


We visited my dad in Florida recently. Since Dad's

kitchen is barely big enough to boil a can of soup, the family preoccupation

during these get-togethers usually revolves around where we'll go to eat

dinner. After that's taken care of, we usually settle in and watch some TV.

Now I am fully aware of the ways that watching TV can

be a drag. I get how it can be a substitute for more meaningful forms of human

interaction. That, too often, it's a pacifier, lulling viewers into thinking

that because they are watching something, they are being active when, in fact,

very little is actually going on.

So it came as a happy jolt one evening to find

ourselves being thoroughly entertained and, at times, even edified, by a

programming service carried in Dad's town called Classic Arts Showcase.

It's a ridiculously simple concept. Way back in 1994,

a rather stately looking gent by the name of Lloyd E. Rigler apparently decided to start a fine-arts-oriented

television channel based on the model pioneered by MTV. Except where MTV was

devoted to videos presenting rock and pop music performers, Rigler

wanted to show clips featuring classical music performance, as well as dance,

musical theater, opera, drama, museum art and even bits of classic film and


In essence, what Rigler did

was to create a curated channel devoted to collecting

and programming fine arts film and video clips spanning, roughly, the past 90

years or so. These clips are run continuously, without commercial interruption

or, for that matter, the tedious explaining by so-called hosts. At the

beginning and end of each clip there's a stamp of text naming the artists,

what's being performed, where and when. That's it.

Every week, the curators at Classic Arts Showcase

assemble an eight-hour stream of 150 of these morsels, which is then broadcast

three times each day. Where my dad lives in Florida, a local public

broadcasting channel carries CAS on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Given the

funding struggles faced by public television, this is probably a life-saver, since CAS is offered free. Any public,

educational, or government access channel on a cable TV system that requests a

feed can receive CAS at no cost.

Over 500 channels in the U.S. and Canada now show

Classic Arts Showcase. The service is funded entirely by the Lloyd E. Rigler-Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation. Although Rigler died in 2003, he left at least 20 years worth of

funding to the channel, which says its mission is "to inspire viewers to

go out and see live performances in their own communities."

I'm not a huge opera

fan. I don't particularly dig choral


And as far as musical theater goes: Forget it. Characters with a

penchant for suddenly bursting into song make me want to head for the nearest


But I find Classical Arts Showcase addictive. Part of

this is because no one clip is ever long enough to

drive you away. Unlike, say, a tape of an entire concert, there's no need to

make a commitment of time or energy. And then there's the element of surprise.

CAS never provides a schedule because, they say, "if people knew what was

coming up they would only watch clips they like, and perhaps never try anything

new. Surprise is an important part of our strategy of creating a new audience

for the arts."

In the course of an hour or so, you might see a 1964

film of master pianist Claudio Arrau playing Mozart; Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel being taught how to sing "One Enchanted

Evening" without sounding ponderous; an excerpt from David Lean's classic

take on Charles Dickens' Great Expectations; archival video of a Cold War

performance by the Bolshoi


; a 1954 kinescope of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, done with puppets;

a bit of silent-era Buster


; and an absolutely mind-blowing version of Maurice Ravel's "La Valse" arranged for two pianos.

These bite-size performances actually convey a great

deal. On the micro level, they can help one get a better feel for certain

artists. A couple of clips based on performances of pieces by Leonard

Bernstein, for example, reminded me that while the maestro was a great

interpreter of other composers, he had a cringe-inducing tendency to try too

hard when it came to writing his own music.

Most of all, though, an evening spent with Classic

Arts Showcase is a welcome reminder of the breadth, depth and downright beauty

of what we call "the fine arts." It's like a high-potency vitamin

shot of culture. CAS also seems a great way to introduce coming generations to

the spectrum of experiences, styles and traditions that continue to find

expression on stages all over the world. As my wife said, if you played CAS

continuously in pre-schools, little kids wouldn't have to be told this stuff

was good for them — they'd feel it.

When Butler


had a public station, it ran CAS for a while.

They did little to promote it and the impact, like the station itself, was

negligible. Too bad: In the right hands, this service could be a gem.