Brian Bell, a well known producer, interviewer, and announcer on WGBH and WCRB, who was recently “separated from employment” by WGBH, was one of the liveliest voices on local radio. His 21 years of producing BSO broadcasts officially ended with last Saturday’s BSO broadcast. BMInt has asked him to reflect on his long and productive years at the station.
BMInt: I believe you were actually a French horn player when you came to Boston. For whom did you gig and how long have you been in radio?
Brian: Actually, I’ve been involved in radio since high school, when I was at the Interlochen Arts Academy. My first interview was with the conductor Thor Johnson, who attended Tanglewood in 1940 and also studied with Felix Weingartner and Nikolai Malko. When Thor died during my senior year, the memorial program I produced won a national award. Then when I went to Eastman where I did a weekly program for the school (I was just a freshman at the time) of student and faculty performances. Philip West was the host, and among the programs was a Beethoven Quartet cycle with the Cleveland Quartet. I’ve always felt that some of those concerts at Kilbourn Hall were better than the RCA recordings made at the time. When I graduated, I won an audition for second horn in the Columbus Ohio Symphony and managed to get on the faculty teaching horn at Wright State University in Dayton (I was 23!) as well as work at WOSU. It looks pretty impressive in retrospect, but I was starving. My total income barely cracked 5 figures—as Wright State was paying just 12 dollars an hour, and rehearsals in Columbus were just 25 bucks in 1979. Knowing that I couldn’t even consider further teaching without a Master’s Degree, I departed for Boston and studied with Chuck Kavalovski at NEC. Free-lancing here was a higher level of starvation, but I did manage to play in Cape Cod, the Rhode Island Phil, the Plymouth Phil, Portland, Nashua, Rockport Festival, Newport Festival, but really my favorite concerts were the eleven seasons I was 4th horn in Benjamin Zander’s Boston Philharmonic.
But never for the Boston Symphony?
Never for the Boston Symphony.
And how did you find your métier at WGBH?
Well, in 1985, one of my big skills was editing tape. I was pretty good with a razor blade back then, and the manager of WGBH Radio at the time was Brad Spear, who had hired me at WXXI in Rochester. So I did a lot of editing, as well as translating the concert tapes from the Salzburg Festival so that Bill Cavness could speak over them.
So did you meet [the sonorous BSO broadcast host], William Pierce?
No. By that time the Boston Symphony radio broadcasts were produced by WCRB in Waltham for the Boston Symphony Transcription Trust. In 1991, all within a matter of months, the BSO ended the national broadcasts, Pierce retired, and the wonderful engineer at the time, William Busiek, passed away. I made the mistake of playing the horn at his memorial service. Much too emotional of an event for me. WGBH had carried both the Friday afternoon and Saturday night concerts up to that point, and the mindset was to just let WCRB do the Saturday night broadcasts themselves they had been on both stations for nearly 25 years. I made a case to my boss at the time, Jon Solins, that there was nothing wrong with the orchestra, just how the orchestra was presented. To his eternal credit, Jon convinced the station management to let me take on the Friday afternoon broadcasts, beginning 40 years almost to the day — October 4th, 1991— after WGBH first signed on the air. You have to understand that back then, the orchestra concert broadcast was typically one person behind a microphone for two hours: Norm Pellegrini in Chicago, Robert Conrad in Cleveland and so on. The reasons for this were budgetary and logistical, but that was what it was then. Ron Della Chiesa was hosting MusicAmerica at that point, and there was concern that he wouldn’t take too kindly to all this. His show began at 1PM, and the concert was at 2PM. What transpired was that Ron, as host, would start the BSO broadcast from the hall an hour early, a “pre-game” show if you will, something that has since been adapted elsewhere. Now already by this time there were concert broadcasts that used interviews and features in the body of the concert program, — probably one of the best of this period were the Baltimore Symphony shows that were co-hosted by David Zinman — but they were all produced. I took the leap and ran the interviews and features during the live concert broadcasts, while the piano was being rolled out before the concerto, for example.
Listeners are familiar with your interviews, but they may be less aware of what it really entailed for you to produce a typical broadcast, including writing the scripts for the announcers.
Well that really was where I put a lot of effort in. In years past announcers read the BSO program book almost verbatim, which never is satisfactory, as the sentence structure was usually too elaborate to be spoken out loud. So I endeavored to write intelligent scripts that were easily understood and matched Ron’s natural enthusiasm. And since the broadcasts were live, I always tried to write too much material, just in case the intermission ran long. Some of my best pages were never read.
Over the years you have heard some concerts and conducted some interviews, which have been unforgettable to you. Please give us some examples.
Oh gosh, that’s difficult. In all honesty I can’t single things out. There have been so many great concerts, with Levine, with Haitink, with Colin Davis. Among the interviews, that’s tough to say. Probably the most important are the ones I’ve done with composers before they have a premiere. But I have a special place for the players of the orchestra, especially when they retire. Chuck Kavalovski, [French horn] was well known for his steely demeanor, but my interview feature really showed a soft side of him.
Who was the toughest interview subject?
Hmmm. Probably Seiji. The only time I really got him to open up was when we were talking sports. There was one time where he talked most enthusiastically about Drew Bledsoe.
Listeners would be surprised to learn about how much time you have spent in the archives of the BSO. Please tell us something about what you were after and what you found.
Well, actually, I’ve prowled around libraries and the like for a long time. I gathered many of the Koussevitzky recordings from a used book store on East Ave. in Rochester, and when Eastman discarded their 78 collection when I was there, a managed to amass about two thirds of the Koussevitzky discography. I’ve since donated it to the BSO archives. But it was at Eastman that I found the released 1917 recordings of the BSO and Karl Muck, and once I began the BSO broadcasts here, I managed to talk Evans Mirageas, the artistic administrator at the time, and the late BSO Managing Director Ken Haas, to release the surviving 1917 recordings for the first time. This was back in 1995. Since then that disc has gone on to be something of a collector’s item. I’ve always been in the BSO archives looking for some arcane fact, especially since I had a “floating” page of history for whenever there was a spare moment in the broadcast. During the 125thseason I came to realize
what amazing things the first BSO conductor Georg Henschel did during the initial 1881-1882 season. I soon realized that the documentation of those early days, through no fault of anyone, was really quite sparse. So with the help of some really wonderful librarians, I found that the BSO actually played six concerts at Sanders Theatre during that first season and proceeded to track down the first concert in Portland, Maine, and programs throughout New England the following year. I found that Higginson had two months of Pops concerts in May and June of 1885 as something of an experiment before the tables and food appeared in July. There was a very important tour in April of 1886 with Gericke conducting that sent them to Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago, and Cincinnati for the first time, though we have yet to find more than a couple of programs for those 18 concerts — not to mention the first BSO concert in New York, February 14th, 1887. No one was aware of the 125th anniversary until I stumbled upon the date last year.
Is there anything significant we can take from all this?
Well one thing that has become clear to me that we have essentially forgotten over the decades: the Boston Symphony was really the first “full-time” resident orchestra anywhere. Sure, the New York Philharmonic was founded earlier, but at the beginning of the 20th Century it was giving fewer concerts than the Boston Philharmonic gives today. There was a period in the 1890s where the Boston Symphony was giving more concerts in New York than the New York Philharmonic. Also, Henry Lee Higginson founded the BSO, not in a vacuum, but in response to the success of an ensemble renowned in this country, and the world over, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. His ensemble did so well from the 1860s onward that P.T. Barnum offered to manage it. I think the success of those ensembles back then offer us more than a couple of clues to how orchestras can succeed today. After all, there was no foundation support, no government programs, and no annual fund drives.
Thanks very much for giving me this chance to address BMInt’s readers. And thanks for listening over the years. If I am able to continue to be an asset to Boston’s musical community, so much the better. I remain hopeful.