in: News & Features

September 25, 2012

Tables Turned: Brian Bell Becomes Interviewee


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

Happy Colleagues in 2008: Left to Right: Cathy Fuller, Brian Bell, Brian McCreath, Alan McClellan, Alice Abraham, Cameron Kirkpatrick, Richard Kneisley and Nipper (Bell, Abraham, Kirkpatrick, and Kneisly are no longer at WGBH).

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.

Last words?

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.


  1. That second picture really saddened me. What a comparatively golden age that was for classical music on WGBH.

    Comment by de novo2 — September 25, 2012 at 7:14 pm

  2. It is extremely sad to see Brian Bell leave “GBH/WCRB”… This is continuing proof that this network is NOT interested in classical music. They continue to save money by replying constantly the same few tape loops of so-called live performances almost every time I turn on the car radio. I’m unable to listen at home to ‘CRB’ because the signal is so weak. THANKS for contributing to the DUMBING DOWN of America…you have much in common with most of the media today.

    Comment by Ed Burke — September 25, 2012 at 11:38 pm

  3. What a wonderful career saga. One certainly hopes Bell and David Elliott will be in touch with each other.

    Comment by david moran — September 27, 2012 at 2:41 pm

  4. Glad you said that, David. It had occurred to me that, just as WCRB will eventually have to replace Ron Della Chiesa, WHRB will eventually need someone to carry on the work of David Elliott. Who better than Brian Bell?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 27, 2012 at 3:16 pm

  5. oi and omg — I can hardly imagine life in this town without Elliott!

    Comment by david moran — September 27, 2012 at 5:28 pm

  6. Of the thirty-odd classical radio stations from around the globe I listen to WCRB hands down is the station with the most talk.

    In comparison to others WCRB never shuts up; and they talk too loud, and with a North Korean propaganda-level of nausea inducing repetition.

    If they want listeners they need to shut up and do their job, which, for those with a memory and experience of fine classical radio, is music music music, quiet talk as little as possible, then music music music, repeat.

    Losing Brian Bell with all his heart and dedication is yet another example that in the corporate world everyone is expendable.

    Who cares what their plans are? They’ll never figure out what they’re doing wrong because their basis is unsound. They imagine classical radio as something it is not, and they will continue the botchery.

    WCRB is classical music death by a thousand cuts, a slick banality of corporate evil that hurts one’s musical spirit.

    I dropped WCRB from my radio and Internet radio and never looked back and never had to.

    There is glorious! music out there, elsewhere, presented by stations with leadership with their heads on straight.

    Or, when not near the Internet, there are CDs, or blessed silence, and one’s soul freed from WCRB’s soul sapping corporate taint.

    Comment by C.P.T.L. — September 27, 2012 at 7:55 pm

  7. Dear C.P.T.L., If you stopped listening to WCRB some time ago, I have to assume your comments are based on your memory of the station and not your current experience. Perhaps this is why none of your complaints resonate with me. I work in the audio industry, am a professionally trained (if somewhat rusty) musician, and consider myself a keen listener. What I hear is a group of dedicated people working together with care and integrity to create the liveliest, smartest, and most engaging radio they can with what resources they are granted. Considering the giant roof under which they are housed, I am impressed they suffer from as little “corporate taint” as they do. Why not wish them well? I see no benefit to doing the opposite.

    Comment by Annie — September 28, 2012 at 4:24 pm

  8. It’s not the music they air, it’s that they presume to take an inordinate amount of time talking, and too, doing so in a cloying, branding, sell themselves manner, far too loudly, and not airing music.

    Take a listen to Europe; my memory functions very well: Europe sounds like our American public radio did twenty years ago, respectful of the listener, and of the music and the silence from which comes and goes.

    European classical stations also air all manner of 2nd and third tier, in fame not artistry, composers: it’s been an education for me both in the genre and of how restricted WCRB’s playlist is for all their ‘exploration.’

    I do wish WCRB-WGBH well; I to am a musician, and I care deeply and it hurts me to hear what they make of what they have: the sharp unforgiving words I apply to them reflects it.

    With respect I suggest the reason my criticisms do not resonate with you is that you and most others and I include myself have been like proverbial frog in the rising to a boil pot unaware of the incremental entries of corporate-minded, not listener minded, garbage.

    How could anyone in decency air the same appeals said by the same announcer four, or is it six or eight, times an hour, twenty four hours a day for months on end?

    And then add to that intrusion promos, on top of the identifiers and background information, etc.

    They do not have the decency; they have their internally incubated priorities, priorities that amount to insulting presumptions on the listener.

    This frog jumped out of their pot.

    There is world elsewhere.

    PS Thank you Brian Bell, I wish you all the best.

    Comment by C.P.T.L. — September 29, 2012 at 1:11 am

  9. Annie’s right, nothing helpful comes from all of this wild impugning and bad-faith imputation which occur so regularly in this site’s comments. Oh, oh, I am so hurt and insulted and all else, that I just cannot bear it. I charge banality, evil, botchery, soul-sapping — puhleeze. The CRB crowd do talk too damn much, but slinging charges and pissing on and on about motive are just so unconstructive, not to say narcissistic.

    Comment by David Moran — September 29, 2012 at 1:34 am

  10. C.P.T.L., of cause you are wrong complaining that WCRB is airing too much talk. It is not about balance of verbiage vs. Music but about quality of verbal context that WCRB is broadcasting. The problem is that at top echelon of WCRB is looks like no one understand that a high quality thematic talk, particularly if the presentation meant to be aired, is a completely independent art form. There are not a lot of people in the town who could do it in sophisticated and stylish way. Brian Bell was one of few who could pull it off. WCRB got rid of Brian and right now I am listening the station. So, what am I hearing? The Garrison Keillor’s show… and it is on New England Classical Radio Station! Good direction, WCRB. No disrespect to Mr. Keillor but to push the WGBH shows in 99.5 is a ridicules thing to do.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — September 29, 2012 at 12:18 pm

  11. There is legitimate positivism, keeping the good things in life in mind and not succumbing to negativity, and there is false positivism.

    False positivism is when one’s insistence on seeing the good crosses a line and voids rationality and memory and becomes one’s insistence on not seeing the bad.

    I am not irrational and I have a memory: WCRB can’t hold a candle to WGBH Classical; that was fine radio with self-respect and respect for the listener.

    WCRB believes they have to sell WCRB and tells us how important they are to us: that’s branding, corporate overlay, the focus on themselves as ‘value added,’ and the idea of the thing as a commodity and the listener as a purchaser of product.

    Of course there is an element of truth to it all: they are a brand; they do add value to the listening experience; the music is a commodity we seek.

    But in turning their focus inward on the machine of running and growing a radio station meaningful to the public, they’ve forgotten the outward, the listener’s experience.

    The proof is in the pudding, not in telling me how good the pudding is.

    ‘The Colors of New England’ and the like is not value added, it’s telling me how good the pudding is.

    Some people don’t like being spoken to that way, and I’m one of them.

    In the end, it’s really not public radio anymore, it’s commercial radio reliant on the public that sounds just like commercial radio reliant on advertising; that’s my criticism of it said in one sentence.

    Comment by C.P.T.L. — October 2, 2012 at 5:38 pm

  12. So, CPTL, you wouldn’t miss it when it disappears, I guess.

    It often is as though many purists here do not live in the real, competitive, corporate, promoting, capitalistic, broaden-your-base / partly-earn-your-keep world. Fantasizing ingrates, who do not know how lucky we have it still. Wanh-wanh, I want it the way it was. I don’t like ‘colors of New England’ either. But I know why it’s done.

    Comment by David Moran — October 3, 2012 at 12:29 am

  13. Lucky? To have to put up with that Haupt-vulgarian and professional enthusiast Ron Della Chiesa? Or — now mercifully banished from the scene — a preening nincompoop like Richard Knisely? After all these years I still have fantasies of digging up Robert J. Lurtsema and putting a stake through his heart.

    “Personalities,” all of them. Their specialty: getting in the way of the music.

    A comparison with classical music broadcasting elsewhere in the world only drives home the point that Americans in their innocence simply don’t know how to do this sort of thing without sounding fatally compromised by the crass commercial ethos David Moran so well describes.

    MUST we be grateful for small favors? Judge for yourself.

    Tomorrow at 2:05 p.m. — the hour of the old Friday afternoon BSO broadcasts — a live broadcast from Bonn, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in Symphonies 6 and 4 by Beethoven and a new piece, “Rivers to the Sea,” by Joseph Phibbs.

    It will be noticed that WDR 3 — — does NOT subject its music to clumsy dynamic compression — and the announcements, in German, are so chastely factual that they practically translate themselves. Stream away, ye discontented and ungrateful!

    Recommended reading (if somewhat out of date): James Ledbetter, “Made Possible By … : The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States” (1997: Verso Books, 280 pp.)

    Comment by Richard Buell — October 4, 2012 at 8:27 pm

  14. Richard Buell: It will be noticed that WDR 3 …. does NOT subject its music to clumsy dynamic compression…

    So, what? WCRB does the same and thier digital stream, or even the moronic HD Radio, are significantly less dynamic compressed than FM. Still, they are digitally compressed to very low rate that for all intended purpose is more devastating to Sound than badly done dynamic compression… The WDR 3 broadcasts at 64kpbs and it can’t be a model for imitation. Yes, it granted that “live” broadcasts that WCRB does nowadays are much compromised (and in some instance not-listenable) by dynamic compression. The Orff from Carnegie Hall yesterday was squished like pancake sonically (besides being boring musically). However, do not make mistake and do not promote 64kpbs stream with German announcements as some kind of Messianic panacea….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 4, 2012 at 9:03 pm

  15. RB to CPTL: You’re right on the money. Especially about that tremendous blind spot that America has: the rest of the world.

    As far as I’m personally concerned, WGBH/WCRB/Classical New England HAS disappeared. Perhaps I’d rather not know what Brian Bell and Cathy Fuller have had to put up with to preserve the few shreds and tatters of integrity that still attach to that enterprise.

    I have a memory too. There was a time when the FM band — before it became commercially attractive — was crowded with stations that played classical music. The list included WERS, WBUR, WBZ, WHRB, WXHR, WCOP, WCRB, WBCN. If it was in the Schwann Long Playing Record Catalogue, I had a good chance of hearing it on my Grundig Model 2035 table radio.

    What musical/engineering wonders producer Jordan M. Whitelaw achieved with the live BSO broadcasts from Symphony Hall. (The tapes survive. They sound wonderful.)

    But how symbolic and apt that the Friday afternoon series (est. 1951) should have been done to death in the precise way it was — with a general attitude of “Never Apologize, Never Explain.”

    As a teenager, this writer soaked up the basic repertoire (and much else) from FM radio as it then was. No commercials, no badgering, no ratings paranoia, no have-a-nice-day chirpiness, no playlists, no focus groups. And every week I had G. Wallace Woodworth, the James Edward Ditson Professor of Music at Harvard University, to slip in bits of music theory as he walked us through the upcoming BSO program. The big trombone solo in the Sibelius Seventh I remember his describing as “plangent” and his likening of certain passages in the “Italian” Symphony (movement 3) to “the horns of Elfland faintly blowing.”

    My guess is that a present-day version of my adolescent self, should such an entity exist, would probably be busying himself not only scouring the Internet for potent first experiences but finding them in abundance, along with some not-at-all-bad help in facing up to what the last 1000 years or so Western art music has had to offer.

    The “me” back then would likely regard what’s available now — extra blessings on YouTube! — as impossibly Utopian. Yes, it’s a shame, I suppose, about what happened to high-minded classical-music radio. But do I really care? Do those corporate vandal types over there care about ME?

    Comment by Richard Buell — October 4, 2012 at 10:07 pm

  16. In my 50 years in radio I’ve been called many things but never a “Haupt Vulgarian!”
    However, I was delighted to hear that Richard Buell is such a big fan of our BSO broadcasts.
    I do hope he’ll stay with us for the entire season.
    As Sinatra says..”The Best is Yet to Come.”
    Ron Della Chiesa
    Symphony Hall, Boston

    Comment by Ron Della Chiesa — October 7, 2012 at 3:19 am

  17. Like Richard Buell, I, too remember G. Wallace Woodworth on the radio, introducing the BSO concerts. The “horns of Elfand” remark must have been part of his repertoire, as I recall it just as Buell does.

    As a teenager I listened to those BSO/WGBH concerts in Providence, Rhode Island, trying desperately to get a clear signal with an indoor FM antenna….it was intensely motivating. Today, I can conjure up 30 versions of Elfland on the web with a few mouse clicks.

    In the old days, however, off the air, Woody Woodworth’s graduate assistants at Harvard would grumble about their bosses’ many lapses and inconsistencies behind closed doors. Very much as many of us enjoy railing about the guys and gals in today’s radio broadcasts. Buy nowadays, like Richard, I easily can broadcast far and wide my like or dislike of this or that radio presenter. Is this progress? Those announcers of yore were not gods, either. Perhaps as we long for those good old radio days we might meditate as well on the humane value of just not saying some stuff.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — October 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm

  18. The world’s greatest country versus everybody else, continued.

    We do have TV critics in the US but to the best of my knowledge nothing resembling a radio critic. The UK, however, does, and thanks to sharp-witted people like Anne Chisholm in The Spectator — and people like Robin Holloway in the same magazine laying into our weekly Met Opera gabfests — excellence gets its due and the incompetent and self-indulgent (etc.) end up wondering what the hell hit them.

    The Beeb itself has had a long tradition of soliciting and broadcasting listeners’ comments and complaints. (Example: Radio 4’s “Feedback”

    The result of our not having anything like that here is that too many people behind the microphone — and the people behind those people — don’t really hear themselves and so can get away with virtually anything. This state of affairs is doing civilization no favors. Nyekulturney!

    Comment by Richard Buell — October 8, 2012 at 6:43 pm

  19. Seems like a lot of radio critics pontificate on these pages.

    Comment by de novo2 — October 8, 2012 at 7:36 pm

  20. I’ve just taken another look at CPTL’s post of September 27. “WCRB never shuts up,” he writes. Surely that’s the gist of it.

    Comment by Richard Buell — October 8, 2012 at 8:40 pm

  21. Richard Buell: … to the best of my knowledge nothing resembling a radio critic.

    The notion that a media performance, would it be air live broadcast or a playback event, possess an expressive force equal (or even higher) to a good live musical event was a long time agenda of mine. I did pitched to the local writers that they might look for some radio or IP events as reviewing material but I think we are very long from it. Public generally might treat let say BSO’s evening play as musical event but WHRB’s live-to-tape concerts from Concertgebouw or WCRB’s Café Europa they treat with neglect and disregard.

    This begs a question: what is music in our “amusement” lives, at least music that worth attenuation of own reference points? I never made secret that I frequently walk out some live performances as they are just too not stimulating. I kind of sick and tired to listen let say BSO and then spending hours at night after concert to recovery my Boston faith by BSO recordings from 1949. Could “media” deliver better result? If yes then would it be because the “media” has no time or geographic limits or because it has passed the evolution of natural selection? I think all above.

    I certainly do not undermine live events. However, listening now the Schubert’s C Major Quintet by Hollywood String Quartet from January 1951 I think I am developing an immunity to listening live chamber music play in this town for many months to come….

    So, I wonder, do the “reviewers” write about good music or about social events where men with musical instrument were involved? There were plenty media performances this year that were order of magnitude more interesting than anything else that was played in town and the event never were covered by BMI, of for all intended purpose never made the BMI calendar list. I certainly do not blame BMI or BMI’s writers. I just note that this all is a bigger part of our in many ways corrupted listening culture and were are in many ways are victims of the industry destroying our relationship with our auditable experience…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 8, 2012 at 9:50 pm

  22. I’m under the impression that European radio does not need to get its funding mainly through advertising/sponsorship and voluntary individual donations. If so, that accounts for a fair amount of the difference in the amount of talk between them and WCRB. It may also account for overall differences in the playlists. And it means that comparing the two is apples to oranges.

    Once people are listening to the station, maybe playing the music is a better way of keeping them tuned in than telling them what a great station it is. But when you have to retain an audience because the government isn’t subsidizing you, and you’re not restricting yourself to classical top 40, I think it’s very wise to give the listeners something to spark an interest in unfamiliar and sometimes challenging pieces. Broadcasters recognized this in the days when they had G. Wallace Woodworth explaining the upcoming BSO concerts, and they do today when they have announcers talk about the music.

    During BSO broadcasts, there are times when there is no music being played: intermissions and the period between 8:00 and the moment when the conductor finally gets over his stage fright or whatever he’s doing and deigns to present himself before the public.* During those times, it makes sense for the announcer to talk (pace those so disdainful of talk that they’d drive a stake through Robert J. Lurtsema’s heart). Apart from minor quibbles over pronunciations of foreign names, I’ve always thought that Ron Della Chiesa does it very well. Long may he announce the concerts.

    “Horns of Elfland?” In Italy? I wonder what people would say if Ron Della Chiesa started talking about the horns of Elfland. Plangent trombones would probably be okay, but the horns of Elfland would never fly.

    * If they’re waiting for the audience to arrive, I have one word for them and symphony management: curtain raiser. That’s why God created concert overtures (and opera overtures etc.) You play a little piece; the latecomers wait outside the auditorium; the ushers open the doors, and they come in; everybody listens to the featured attraction. Program curtain raisers, folks!

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 8, 2012 at 11:01 pm

  23. Great article and great comments. However, WHY was Brian Bell “made redundant”, to use the British euphemism?
    Yes, I feel that ‘GBH has pulled off the impossible of “dumbing down” WCRB. We are now down to at most 2 Classical outlets on Boston radio: WCRB/WGBH 99.5FM and WHRB 95.3–and WHRB is pre-empted every 10pm (except Sundays) for Rock Drivel. I remember when I first got into Classical on my own in 1964 age 12 there were at least 7 classical radio stations here; then they started to fall quickly to be replaced by the hated Rock Drivel or, more recently, left-wing talk radio (WBUR).
    I know this is election season so you left-wingers have to bash corporations. However the behavior you decry actually infests non-profits much more; we won’t even mention labor unions; their governance makes legislators seem honest. Remember, the WCRB we knew and loved 25 years ago existed because a businessman liked his “model” and made it work; it was when it reorganized as a charity after his death that things started to morph into what is now the ‘GBH 99.5 model. Now along comes ‘GBH with its “Mission” and now we’re being long-windedly talked down to, and there’s a carefully modulated play list wherein one can almost predict what work gets played next after the next fund appeal/program promo etc. If anything the Federal agency that regulates the airwaves is probably at fault with “diversity”, plus that Liberal “relevance” that started infesting academe about 45 years ago which causes any intelligence or “taste” to be attacked as “elitism”.
    So, how is our music to be delivered–that is the question. Yes, this is a marketing and promotion question. I note Richard Buell’s and others’ comments; now how will someone as young as we were first discover this music; they need to know it exists before they can go looking for it anywhere. Right now, ‘GBH is failing that question. Might as well go bowling..or at least have CD’s in one’s car to play when WGBH gets “inane”…

    Comment by Thos Engel — October 9, 2012 at 12:46 am

  24. When WGBH’s Boston Symphony broadcasts first started out and for many years after, the intermissions were given over not to talk or more music but whatever hall sounds were picked by up by the microphones over the stage. After a while you could hear the auditorium slowly filling up again and then would come: “This is William Pierce, welcoming you to the second half of this Boston Symphony conducted by … ” and so on.

    In my opinion this made for a wonderfully honest and uncluttered experience of the event at hand, not to mention the sense it gave you of a concert’s sonic and social atmosphere.

    Should anyone get the wrong impression, the horns of Elfland weren’t Professor Woodworth’s coinage but Alfred Lord Tennyson’s, in “The Princess”: “The splendour falls on castle walls/And snowy summits old in story” et seq. — a text often committed to memory by public school students of the period.

    Comment by Richard Buell — October 9, 2012 at 1:26 am

  25. As the Roman poet said, or should have, “It is sweet to remember.” Bill Pierce seemed so right for the Symphony broadcasts. How well I recall his line, “The audience [with his unusual pronunciation — BBC? New Jersey? — of audience] here in Symphony Hall” at which point I’d break in and say “is getting restless,” before he continued with “is awaiting the appearance/return of Maestro …”

    But if you read Ron Della Chiesa’s book Radio My Way you find on pp. 62-63 one good reason for talking during the intermissions: the dead air confused some listeners.* He also points out that there is no need to pretend that the radio listener is actually in Symphony Hall. I’d add that if there was a value to G. Wallace Woodworth’s previews, a value to the pre-concert talkks (now only on Friday afternoons, a value to the program notes, there is also a value to fleshing out the listeners’ experience with talk about the music, the performers, the composers, and the BSO even if it means a more hurried trip to the kitchen to crack open another beer, or one of the many boozes the BSO entices one to buy at the Hall.

    *BTW, since this thread is originally about Brian Bell, the description of Brian’s work for the symphony broadcasts, on p. 62, is well worth reading.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 9, 2012 at 3:17 am

  26. Thos Engel: “So, how is our music to be delivered–that is the question. Yes, this is a marketing and promotion question.“

    ..and since bulk load of listeners, regardless of who they are, looks like the only things that WCRB worries nowadays they very much went for instant gratification of superficial objectives. Hold on, I have seen it somewhere…. “All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be.” – Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. The Godwin’s Principle for sure works fine in this case…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 9, 2012 at 8:32 am

  27. Get rid of musicians first. That’s the cynical unspoken mantra of public radio careerists everywhere. It happened almost ten years ago at WMHT-FM/Schenectady.

    What an absolute shame for Brian. First, ‘GBH slashes jazz, now this. What’s next???

    Comment by Don Drewecki — October 9, 2012 at 12:06 pm

  28. Richard Buell writes: “Recommended reading (if somewhat out of date): James Ledbetter, “Made Possible By … : The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States” (1997: Verso Books, 280 pp.)”

    I bought this in hardcover at the time it came out and it is indeed excellent, definitely worth reading, though marred by an unusually high number of typos.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — October 9, 2012 at 12:17 pm

  29. Joe writes: “But if you read Ron Della Chiesa’s book Radio My Way you find on pp. 62-63 one good reason for talking during the intermissions: the dead air confused some listeners.”

    Actually, Joe, I have a scanned article from the Albany “Times Union” in August 1966 describing how Bill Cavness and William Pearce put together their live relays from Tanglewood, which were being carried by WAMC for the very first time that season. (If the BMI allows, I will post these scans.) In this article, they mention how listeners preferred intermissions of NO commentary, just the sounds of the audience mulling about in the Shed.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — October 9, 2012 at 12:20 pm

  30. What an insult to call the beloved radio host Ron Della Chiesa “Haupt-vulgarian” (and please lowercase “Haupt,” as it’s an adjective). Certainly, as Mr. Buell correctly pointed out, classical music is not what it used to be, say, 50 or 60 years ago, but Mr. Della Chiesa is doing his utmost to keep it alive with his infectious enthusiasm and informative comments. It’s such a pleasure to listen to him. And if anyone out there thinks there is too much talk, they may note that there are other classical music radio stations where the talk goes on and on ad nauseam.

    Comment by The Boston Wagner Society — October 11, 2012 at 9:00 am

  31. Mr. or Ms. Boston Wagner Society is correct in registering an intended insult as such, but I’m afraid my neologism “Haupt-vulgarian” is a noun. It was capitalized as such in the conventional German manner, as similar constructions (e.g., “Hauptstimme,” “Hauptwerk”) would be. The hyphen is in there to separate the two languages.

    “Beloved”? Having grown up up listening to Bob and Ray, I can’t ever take that word totally seriously. In some quarters, THAT would be taken as an insult.

    Comment by Richard Buell — October 11, 2012 at 2:43 pm

  32. A few days ago I was listening Bell’s program about George Henschel that he broadcasted sometimes in 2010, from Tanglewood, after Bach double violin concerto. Interesting that Henschel is long dead, the BSO of Henschel’s period of long dead and the only opportunity they have to come to live is via the programs that WCRB use to broadcast. With Brian Bell done it looks like that no one would bring memories of them to life anymore and Henschel’s memory looks like died again. It is not the point however and the point of my post is not about past but about current state.

    Last night I was listening the WCRB broadcast and I need to note that our broadcasters Cathy Fuller and Ron Della Chiesa unfortunately did horrific job. I have high respect to both of them and of couse it is very much not personal comment about them but rather my very deep dissatisfaction with them as a functional entity of classical striation’s live commentators. For whatever reasons both Ron and Cathy converted themself into time-spinning, WCRB self-serving blabbering about benefits of the station. They literally did not deliver anything informative or interesting besides keep stressing how magnificent WCRB is. Sure, it is worthy to mention the WCRB resources once a while but HOW they did was in fact annoying. Ron did it in past perfectly reasonable but now Cathy as a new-found WCRB’s Sancho Panza adds that ridicules fakeish excitement to the empty scrip that WCRB made them to read. That sounds truly retarded and nowhere near of what a respected itself classical station has to do.

    WCRB, please, respect your employees and do not make then to read crap-scrip on air. It is disrespectful to them and it is disrespectful to your listeners.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 21, 2012 at 10:37 am

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