From Spanish Fort, Alabama, population 5,423, to Fort Worth, Texas, population 534,694, the New York Philharmonic plays for the nation!
The Philharmonic is now on the air every week in more than 300 radio markets‹from tiny towns to huge cities‹and the number of stations and listeners continues to grow thanks to a new series, The New York Philharmonic This Week.
Philharmonic broadcasts are a revered tradition that dates to 1922 when the Orchestra became one of the first to broadcast a live concert. As recently as last season, the Orchestra continued to set records, presenting the nation's only monthly, live symphony broadcast. The news this year is even bigger: an expanded 39-week broadcast schedule brings virtually the entire New York Philharmonic season to listeners coast-to-coast.
Chicago's WFMT Radio Network produces and syndicates the series, which the company's Senior Vice President Steve Robinson calls "the most ambitious orchestra series currently on American radio." From the Orchestra's perspective, says Philharmonic President and Executive Director Zarin Mehta, "it's one of the most exciting things that's happened in quite a few years, not only to the Philharmonic, but to the classical music scene in this country."
Local radio stations have embraced the new series, citing the weekly schedule as a major selling point. "Because it's weekly, it's like a permanent presence in a regular time slot," says Don Dolloff, the program manager for WCNY in Syracuse, New York. "Listeners will make an appointment to hear it." Lois Bent, Assistant General Manager of KEMC in Billings, Montana, concurs, adding that the quality of the program and the Philharmonic name are also important to her listeners. "The audience here is rural, geographically," she says, "but very sophisticated. They have high expectations. The New York Philharmonic is the top of the heap, so we are delighted to get it."
The local New York audience can hear This Week on 96.3 FM WQXR, Tuesday evenings at 9:00 p.m.
The local nerve center of this ambitious undertaking is a modest audio studio tucked away on an upper floor of Avery Fisher Hall. Once filled with tape recorders and splicing machines, the radio room, overseen by the Philharmonic's Audio Director, Lawrence Rock, is now crammed with computers, monitors, and high-tech digital equipment. "What makes these broadcasts special, I dare say unprecedented," he says, "is the fact that this is so comprehensive ‹ virtually the entire season in sequence."
It isn't just the frequency of the broadcasts that makes this series newsworthy‹it's also the program's revamped concept, which Mr. Rock calls "time shifted." Traditional concert broadcasts, says WFMT's Steve Robinson, follow a certain predictable formula, "sort of like old-fashioned program notes." With This Week, he says, "we're trying to break that mold by letting the guest artists and the musicians tell their own stories." In a live concert broadcast, interviews must be tailored to fit into an intermission break when musicians may be rushed or anxious. In contrast, the new "time shifted" format allows the producer, Mark Travis, and his colleague and program host, Kerry Frumkin, to present the artists' views and voices in a more flexible way. "It's so nice to put that pithy comment by Lorin Maazel about a piece right before you hear it," Mr. Frumkin says.
Mr. Robinson is particularly keen on fully representing the voices of the Orchestra and to that end, will interview as many as possible over the life of the series. "Doing all these interviews is a way of paying tribute to the musicians whose cooperation has made these broadcasts possible," he says. Zarin Mehta concurs. While he expresses the deepest appreciation to the programs' underwriters, The Kaplen Foundation, the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, and the MetLife Foundation, he points out that "this was all made possible not only by funding but also by the musicians of our Orchestra."
The musicians, of course, are pleased that their work will be heard weekly around the country. Principal Horn Philip Myers, a 25-year veteran of the Orchestra, talks fondly about radio as part of his musical education. "If there's one distinction between me and what I see in students now, it's how much I listened to live concerts and to radio. I can remember hearing something that caught my attention. I can still tell you who the conductor was, and subsequently what the search was like to find a recording of that performance. So I think listening is very important, and the more radio we do, the better."
While the radio broadcasts are national, their reach is actually international, thanks to the Philharmonic's Website (newyorkphilharmonic.org), which archives each program. So when violinist Fiona Simon reflects on the broadcasts and their importance to the Orchestra and the musicians, she speaks the literal truth: "The New York Philharmonic is much more than an orchestra for New York‹we're an orchestra with something to say to the world."
Madeline Rogers is the New York Philharmonic's Director of Publications.