On Air With the High Priest of Classical Music

Patrick Mott last wrote for the magazine about three men joining the priesthood

The best classical music DJ in America doesn't own a home stereo, would rather play Spike Jones than Herbert von Karajan and has sworn to kill anyone who tries to steal his Spice Girls poster.

Jim Svejda is decidedly not your father's classical radio guy. He's so passionately devoted to Mozart that he once wrote the composer's name on a summer job application in the box marked "religion," yet he refers to the Luciano Pavarotti of the late 1990s as "a vulgar sot." He's encyclopedic, eccentric, eclectic.

Almost any classical music devotee in the Southland knows the voice: low and round and thickly melodious, with the sort of gauzy yet precisely cadenced rhythms that one might hear on the other side of the confessional screen. In fact, Jim Svejda's on-air world is a bit like confession. Every weeknight from 7:30 to 12 on KUSC-FM (91.5) and on his nationally syndicated Sunday program, "The Record Shelf," Svejda (pronounced SHVAY-da) fills several spiritual roles: He is part sage, part advocate, part sympathetic ear, part scold, part conscience and part interpreter of something he often considers sacred.

In musical terms, he's got the chops.

"There's no disputing that he knows what he's doing and should be doing," says Rich Capparela, a classical DJ on KUSC's rival commercial station, KKGO-FM (105.1). "You listen to Jim and you realize that this is what he's best at."

What Svejda brings to the microphone, aside from an extraordinarily broad knowledge of music, is the soul of a curmudgeon, tempered by a wicked sense of humor. Says Capparela: "The sardonic among us really enjoy his way of expressing his disdain and his pleasure."

Sample pleasure: "I play a lot of Respighi. It's wonderful. It's this guilty thing that I have. You're slightly ashamed of doing it. It's wonderful trash." (For the uninitiated, Ottorino Respighi is an early-20th century Italian composer noted for florid, showy music.)

Sample disdain: The music of conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt "is one of the great emperor's-new-clothes stories of classical music, along with the cocktail-piano Puccini of John Bayless, and [soprano] Lesley Garrett, who can't sing but who spreads herself all over album covers in various stages of sexual arousal. [Harnoncourt] is just incompetent. He likes to make ugly sounds. And he's very good at it."

Svejda is bothered not a bit by the notion that Harnoncourt, a conductor known for his recordings with period instrument ensembles, and Bayless and Garrett, both popular soloists, might enjoy feeding the DJ to piranhas. He can get away with these jabs because he is so unimpeachably well-informed.

Not that Jim Svejda is infallible. But errors are rare. Only listeners with truly esoteric knowledge try to catch mistakes.

"We do get calls occasionally from listeners who say he may have mispronounced something," says KUSC program director Sheila Rue. "They'll say something like, 'I lived in South America for several years and I know he's not saying that word right.' Sometimes they're right, but sometimes he's right."

It's quite possible, says Geoffrey Fontaine, executive director of the Pasadena Symphony, to remain a Svejda fan and still think that some of his opinions are dead wrong.

"I'm just as opinionated about music as Jim is," says Fontaine, "and I've been listening to 'The Record Shelf' since I was in college. Before there was 'Star Wars,' there was Jim Svejda. There are occasions when I disagree with his views wholeheartedly, but I always know that his opinions are stemming from a deep love of music and the performers who create that music. These are not just superficial thoughts coming out of him at the moment. He's really sat down and pondered, which makes it even more interesting when he comes out with something wacky.

"Even when I disagree, I sense that his motives are pure, so I'm willing to forgive him," Fontaine says with a laugh.

Not that the 53-year-old Svejda is asking for forgiveness.

"I'm not a radio guy," he says. "I'm a music guy. The key thing [for the audience] is: What do they sense that you think about the music? If they sense that you have a genuine affection and reverence for it, you can do anything. If they sense that you think you are as important as it is, they hate that. Because it can't be true. Howard Stern and Rick Dees, they are as good as the material, sometimes a lot better than the material. Sometimes the jock is a better reason to tune in than any of the stuff. But this is the only format where that is never the case. How can anything I say be more interesting than Mozart? It just doesn't happen, can't happen, by definition.

"Sometimes," he says, "the best thing you can do is shut up."

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Svedja was enthralled with classical music as a kid--his father took him to orchestral concerts--and his love of music intensified as he grew older. (He learned to play the oboe but gave it up at age 20, explaining that he didn't enjoy performing.) He did not yet want a career in music, so he obtained degrees in English from both the University of Michigan and Syracuse University. While pursuing a master's in English at Syracuse, he began his radio career.

"I called this guy at this little station in upstate New York one night and said, 'Do you need any spare announcers?' I didn't know anything about radio but a fair amount about music. And I went on the air, just like that." After serving as music director of WONO-FM in Syracuse and occupying a similar position at WCRB-FM in Boston, Svejda came to KUSC in 1978.

His on-air approach is not typical of classical jockeys, who affect an almost funereal manner. He admits to swallowing words occasionally and to speaking too softly to be heard ("you know, if you've just played 'Das Lied von der Erde,' you don't want to come on the air and say 'HEY! THAT WAS GUSTAV MAH-LER!' "). He is light years from Top 40.

"I try to make it unforbidding, but not dumb it down. Those are the two fatal things: If you make it sound unapproachable or if you make it seem, well, that it's just like Bobby McFerrin. Which is what we were doing during our disastrous flirtation with 'the new sound.' "

"The new sound" was the result of a format change at KUSC in the early '90s that prompted plunges in subscriptions and listenership. It was a kind of Classics Lite approach, in which only fragments of larger works were played and much classical "crossover" material--world and New Age music and other genres--found its way onto the playlist. Drive-time shows nearly were as fast-moving and juiced-up as Top 40. The change, says Rue (who arrived at KUSC after the format had reverted to the traditional classics), had been prompted by management's view that the cultural diversity of Los Angeles should be reflected in the programming, that music should be played that would appeal to many ethnicities and cultures.

"But the problem when you try to do that," says Rue, "is that you don't serve anyone very well. You need consistency."

Svejda felt adrift.

"Throughout the whole thing," he says, "no one ever said anything to me about 'we'd like you to do this.' I had no part in it. I just sort of did my show. And I sort of expected, daily, to get fired. It was an utter disaster. [The station took] probably the biggest ratings hit in American history. I think we lost 70% of the audience. And it was because we ceased being who we were. We were trying to be something else. And it was viewed correctly as a betrayal. The audience voted with its feet."

At a public radio station such as KUSC, where the budget is largely met through on-air pledge drives, such a defection could have been disastrous. (The station's license is held by USC and no revenue-producing commercials are aired.)

"The new sound," and the station's top management, eventually went; Svejda stayed. The format returned to its traditional roots, and soon KUSC's periodic on-air pledge drives were pulling in money like never before. The most recent drive, in October, raised about $613,000. The goal was $450,000. Svejda, taking his turns in the pitchman's seat, seemed at times barely able to contain himself on the air, rhapsodizing extemporaneously about the soul-nourishing grandeur of Beethoven, the genius of Jascha Heifetz, the transcendental oboe virtuosity of Mitch Miller.

"Jim and I have done a lot of fund-raising together," says Capparela, "and that's when we've had some of our most outrageous times. We bring out the worst in each other on the air. We've had to rein ourselves in a number of times. He's Czech and I'm half Czech, and Czechs are notoriously dark in their humor."

Or, perhaps, punchy. One hour away from the end of a nine-day pledge drive in May, Svejda confessed: "Normally I'm wearing a shield on my head so the government won't read my thoughts. . . . [Call] 1-800-421-1717. . . . made out of aluminum foil. . . . 1-800-421-1717. OK, so we're cracking up a little bit, but you would too if you'd been doing this for nine straight days."

"He has a skill that, if I could bottle it, I could get rich," says Rue. "He actually makes pledge drives interesting for people because he's so passionate. And he's very comfortable on the air. Others can't draw the audience in and keep them tuned in for that length of time. And he's basically saying five or six things over and over again."

Amateurs and professionals are among the devoted.

"He's just an outstanding classical programmer," says Walter Matthau. "I especially love it when he plays Mozart."

Morten Lauridsen, chairman of the department of composition at USC's Thornton School of Music and the composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, insists that Svejda is "one of the most erudite and brilliantly original minds in the medium. . . . One always learns from Jim. He's quick to spot phonies and to poke holes in pretentiousness. And he's an original. And he's extremely funny."

There is one occasion each year during which Svejda the loony reveals himself: a late-night show on KUSC called the New Year's Eve Bash. It is in large measure a goofball send-up of life in general and music in particular--a monument, Svejda is fond of pointing out in promos, to bad taste. For one night, the good stuff rests on the CD shelf unopened and out come Spike Jones, PDQ Bach, Jean Shepherd monologues and dozens of other musical equivalents of drop-your-pants vaudeville. Think Dr. Demento at Carnegie Hall.

There's also a lot of sly humor (and a few roundhouse punches and loud hosannas) in his book "The Insider's Guide to Classical Recordings" (Prima Publishing), now in its sixth edition. At 849 pages, it's quite a paperweight, but it reads more like No 1/4l Coward than Noah Webster.

On Vivaldi: "With the possible exception of Pachelbel's Canon, nothing makes me want to start throwing things more, and I mean, literally throwing things, than a half dozen bars of [Vivaldi's] 'The [Four] Seasons.' "

On modern French composer Jean Franaix: "The perky, tuneful, mercilessly cheerful excretions of Jean Franaix--the A.A. Milne of French music--usually fill me with an irresistible urge to rip out daisies by the roots and hurl bricks at the nearest chirping bird."

On Baroque music: "Life is too short for the virtually interchangeable sewing-machine music of the Torelli-Corelli-Nardini-Spumoni-Lingui Li school."

"Curmudgeonliness and a passionate love for music go hand in hand," says Jorge Mester, the conductor of the Pasadena Symphony. "You can't have one without the other. [Svejda's] an opinionated person who has the knowledge to back it up."

And when it's over, it's over. Svejda says he does not listen to music at home. If he listens to music at all outside of KUSC's building a few blocks east of the USC campus, it's at an occasional concert with friends or in his car as he drives to the estimated 280 studio film screenings he attends each year (he does regular on-air movie reviews at KNX). In his rare spare time, he plays tennis with his girlfriend, who lives across the street from his house in Sierra Madre.

It seems incredible, but Svejda doesn't own a home stereo. "I don't know what a really accomplished call girl does on her day off, but I tend to suspect she doesn't go out looking for romance. She probably works in her garden."

(Three photos, no captions)

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