Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Reflecting on the Pioneering Role of 'Great Performances'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Reflecting on the Pioneering Role of 'Great Performances'

Article excerpt

For 25 years, PBS's "Great Performances" has been a beacon of artistic light in what many consider the very black hole of prime-time television. While a plethora of sitcoms and shoot'em-ups have come and gone, "Great Performances" has been a consistently compelling and often inspiring venue for excellence in the fine arts, reaching millions of viewers who might not have access to live performances and garnering nearly 50 Emmy Awards in the process.

From the beginning, the driving force behind "Great Performances" has been producer Jac Venza, director of cultural and arts programs for Thirteen/WNET, New York's PBS affiliate. "Great Performances" evolved out of a small dance series Mr. Venza produced in PBS's early days. Expanded to include music and drama, the program transformed the way television related to the performing arts.

Prior to "Great Performances," most ballet dancers or classical musicians on television were just one of the live acts on any number of variety shows. "They had 20 minutes to block their act, then they had to go out and do it in front of a live television audience," Venza remembers. "Great Performances" took care to treat the performers as valued collaborators. "We gave them a much greater share of the creative transition of their material to television," he explains. "It made a huge impression that they were treated like first-class citizens." In the first seasons, Leonard Bernstein became the show's unofficial music host, winning the show's first Emmy Awards for "Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic." Other music and dance luminaries quickly jumped on the bandwagon - Beverly Sills, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti. Over the years, music programming has ranged from the landmark presentation of Wagner's "Ring" cycle to pop and jazz luminaries, such as Liza Minnelli, Miles Davis, and Wynton Marsalis. …

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