About halfway through a taping of the classical music radio show “Saint Paul Sunday,” host Bill McGlaughlin became particularly intrigued by what the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet was performing.
“I want to know where you guys heard that piece, because it’s not very commonly played,” McGlaughlin asked, as “Farewell to Stromness” by Peter Maxwell Davies came to a close.
“Well, Bill, I’m the guilty party. I arranged it after hearing it on your show,” said quartet member Scott Tennant, revealing himself to be not only one of the show’s prestigious performers but also one of its devoted fans.
This month, “Saint Paul Sunday” celebrates 20 years of collecting devotees such as Tennant, nearly half a million of them. The Peabody Award-winning show, which blends live performance with impromptu discussions from a different quartet, singer or ensemble each week, also just survived a particularly grueling schedule overhaul at classical station KUSC-FM (91.5), where it’s heard each Sunday at 10 a.m. Although the program changes meant that KUSC would no longer be affiliated with “Sunday’s” provider, Public Radio International, station manager Robert Goldfarb arranged a deal with PRI and the show’s producer, Minnesota Public Radio, to allow it to remain on the air.
“Because ‘Saint Paul Sunday’ is something we can’t duplicate on our own, and because listeners call in to say how much they love it during our pledge drives, all the signs pointed towards trying to hold on to the show,” Goldfarb says.
But “Saint Paul Sunday” has a history of this kind of loyalty, from the performers who turn up for a second--and sometimes fifth--visit, to members of the staff who have been with the show since its 1981 debut. For these people, “Saint Paul Sunday” is not simply a high-caliber classical program. It is how a Sunday morning is supposed to sound. And listeners and station managers have noticed.
Ask these people what inspires their devotion, and the answers are all variations on one theme: The show achieves an inside look at world-class music-making that is intimate, welcoming and ultimately addictive.
Chanticleer, the 12-man a cappella group, has appeared on “Saint Paul Sunday” at least five times since 1988.
“The producer, the engineer, the host, all listen to and love music. They’re great as the proxy audience. We don’t feel like were just singing for a microphone,” says Joseph Jennings, the group’s music director.
The L.A. Guitar Quartet is becoming a regular too, having just completed its second appearance in January.
“They’re just so relaxed over there,” says William Kanengiser, one of its members. “We were setting up, and there was this one guy walking around--I thought he was going to move the piano--and then he started talking and my head just came up. ‘That’s Bill McGlaughlin!’ He was just like one of the guys. And that’s how he was through the whole show, no airs about him at all. He was very curious and wanted to learn what we do,” Kanengiser says.
The affection that performers feel for the show is matched note for note by McGlaughlin’s fascination for his guests. His excitement seems undimmed, even after 20 years of saying, “Hello friends, I’m Bill McGlaughlin. Welcome to ‘Saint Paul Sunday.’ ”
“It’s been something of a love affair the whole time,” says the host, a former trombonist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as a conductor and a music director, most recently for the Kansas City Symphony. “It’s not something anybody ever made me do. With the show, you’re always learning something--finding a phrase in the cello you’ve never looked at that way. It’s the greatest music lesson in the world.”
Fueled by his curiosity, McGlaughlin often asks musicians to play “that certain phrase in the cello” again or explain their technique, a style of interview that helps make each segment understandable for any listener.
“So many of the people who listen to the show have no formal training in music, but they’re very sensitive and eager to find out more about it as long as it’s not presented in too technical a way. We have to be careful because in the studio, we’re all musicians, and it’s easy to start using words that nobody can understand,” says McGlaughlin.
To help keep the conversation lively, the host constantly does “homework” in a small lunch room adjacent to the studio, familiarizing himself with the program often right up to recording time.
“I don’t want players to feel that they’re responsible for any numbers of any kind. They don’t need to worry about whether it was 1784 or ’86 or whether it’s Opus 31. I’ll take care of that,” he says.
The result of his research is “a much deeper discussion,” Kanengiser believes.
Although the show sounds like an hourlong live concert when aired, “Saint Paul Sunday” is actually the product of well-crafted editing, a typically four-hour session formed into one cohesive piece.
“I give the performers a speech beforehand explaining that I want our listeners to know that you are in the studio and that they are not listening to your CD. When we edit the programs we make sure to keep it live-sounding. We don’t cut out stutters. We leave in the page turns, the chairs squeaking, the laughing,” says executive producer Mary Lee, who sculpts the show together along with producer Vaughn Ormseth.
To further strengthen the show’s live feel, McGlaughlin often chooses not to interact with the guests until recording time.
“For one thing, they’re usually rehearsing and I don’t want to bother them. But also if I ask them how they’re doing and they tell me about all their new projects that I might be very interested to ask about on the air, it’s very hard to re-create because none of us are actors,” he says.
Both Lee’s and McGlaughlin’s approach stems straight from the show’s original concept--to be “informal rather than slick,” as the host describes.
Satellite Access Opened Door to Wider Audience
“Saint Paul Sunday” was born during an exhilarating time at Minnesota Public Radio, recalls Lee, who had left a bank job to work for “something with a purpose.” Public radio had just gained access to a communications satellite, which meant that production was no longer limited to New York, L.A. or Washington. Cities with uplinks like St. Paul, Minn., could now produce their own shows. When the Mellon Foundation provided MPR with some seed money to make several pilot programs, “we threw our hat in the ring,” says McGlaughlin.
At the same time, MPR was building a new studio, a gorgeous space with 20-foot windows overlooking St. Paul’s cathedral district. The room inspired Tom Voegeli, then working in national programming for MPR, to build a show that would play to the studio’s strengths.
McGlaughlin, associate conductor of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at the time, was stunned when Voegeli asked him to be the show’s host.
“I thought it was insane. For one thing, it seemed that all my favorite announcers had these wonderful radio voices that were lower than mine--rich and resonant and they all smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. I sounded like I had just finished a big bowl of granola. So I said to Voegeli and Mary Lee, ‘I should go get some training,’ and they said, ‘No no, if we wanted an announcer, there are lots of great announcers. We wanted a musician.’ ”
In March 1981, this musician-turned-announcer made his debut on 80 stations nationwide--including KUSC. It wasn’t long before the show reached 100 to eventually level out at the 224 stations on which it airs today.
“We were surprised. I mean it’s so much cheaper just to have someone at your own station put on CDs,” says McGlaughlin.
But CDs don’t inspire a reaction like the one McGlaughlin receives when “Saint Paul Sunday” goes on the road to do live concerts and studio visits. “Whenever I’ve been in Los Angeles guest-conducting or something, I meet so many people who hear the show. It’s just astonishing--all your buddies out there listening,” McGlaughlin says.
With “Saint Paul Sunday” tentatively planning to come to L.A. within the next year, Kanengiser says the Guitar Quartet would RSVP without hesitation.
“If we’re in town, we’ll be there,” he says. No doubt in the audience as well as on stage.
* “Saint Paul Sunday” can be heard Sundays, 10-11 a.m. on KUSC-FM (91.5).