Brian Lauritzen is a laid-back evangelist of the classical radio world
Brian Lauritzen remembers the first night he visited the Hollywood Bowl as a green twentysomething who’d just moved out from Tennessee. He and his then girlfriend were fresh from the beach in their shorts.
Despite sitting near the Bowl’s last row, they were enthralled by the setting, with the golden light hitting a hillside covered in eucalyptus, but by intermission, these transplants accustomed to the heat-trapping effects of humidity were freezing. They drifted into the gift shop, staring longingly at blankets and sweat shirts they couldn’t afford. They gritted their teeth through the Berlioz symphony in the night’s second half.
“It seemed like something the audience cherished,” recalls Lauritzen, 30, sitting in the Bowl’s bleachers on a warm July morning in jeans and a Ben Sherman shirt. “And we wanted to come back — with our sweat shirts.”
Lauritzen — who now lives in Eagle Rock, his girlfriend now his wife — has become a bit savvier about Los Angeles and its climate, cultural and otherwise, since then. He’s also become part of the way many Angelenos experience Bowl concerts, thanks to his broadcasting of 10 or so concerts a year on KUSC-FM (91.5) (2 p.m. Saturdays).
Overall, he’s a laid-back evangelist of the classical radio world: He produces a Saturday-morning culture show, “Arts Alive,” that looks at such diverse subjects as filmmaker Jonathan Demme on Neil Young or the mess at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and he hosts “Baroque and Beyond” on Sunday mornings as well as numerous broadcasts for the Los Angeles Phil. (Next up, Saturday’s Bernstein-Ravel-Gershwin program.) He’s also recently taken over a weekday-afternoon hosting slot.
But in other ways, he’s recognizably the same kid who came to town in 2006. Despite his public role, he’s reflective, even bashful in conversation; he still has something of the Southerner’s slightly formal good manners.
“I think what I try to do is set a scene that puts listeners in a seat,” he says, as the day’s heat starts to rise, of his Bowl broadcasts. “So we use the orchestra tuning, the applause when the concertmaster comes out. Vin Scully once said that what he does to evoke the image of baseball is to make the ballpark atmosphere enticing. That really resonated with me. If there’s some way a concert on the radio can demystify it for someone who might not know all the etiquette.... If I can get one person into the concert hall, it’s been worth it.”
Lauritzen grew up mostly in Chattanooga, Tenn., the son of two teachers who were also musicians: Classical music and the public radio station that brought the sounds of the world’s great orchestras into his bedroom were part of his life from an early age. He played piano from age 5 and, soon after, cello, He enrolled at the small Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tenn., to study cello performance along with broadcast journalism.
His professional turning point came during his first night helming a show called “Classics by Request” at the school’s public radio station, WSMC. That evening, he got a call from a man requesting Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess” for a wife who had recently died.
“It had been her favorite piece,” Lauritzen recalls of that night when he was all of 18. “And I needed to come up with the right language, being respectful but not making it too sad.... I’m trying to juggle the right sliders and buttons, and I have this very intimate, emotional moment happening. It made it more than just a room with a microphone. There were real people out there.”
After graduating and working for a few years at WSMC while playing cello with the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, he met a young woman who was studying in the Inland Empire. He had no job, but he sent his demo tape to Gail Eichenthal, program director at KUSC, who hired him as an entry-level arts producer.
“He’s really blossomed in a way I’m not sure I could have seen at the beginning,” says KUSC President Brenda Barnes. It was a big step when he replaced Eichenthal, who had been longtime host of the Phil broadcasts, in 2009. “He’s a sponge — he learns very quickly, at the producing level, the announcing level — at every level. Brian is an artist — he still plays the cello — so he gets creative people.”
After walking down memory lane at the Bowl, Lauritzen headed back to KUSC to edit an interview and produce an episode of “Arts Alive,” which included features on the Huntington Library and a documentary about “the biggest house in America.” (The show also regularly features film reviews by The Times’ Kenneth Turan and the answer to a listener question by Rob Cutietta, dean of USC’s Thornton School of Music.)
Lauritzen’s delivery is generally polished and persuasive National Public Radio standard: It often sounds as if it could have a harpsichord playing softly behind it. But his taste, and his way of getting his message out, is youthful and unorthodox. Get him talking about, say, Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” and he gets going on the lurid elements behind the romantic war horse — its combination of unrequited love, opium trip and concluding beheading.
He’s a witty and energetic tweeter, and his blog is smart and generally unpredictable as it ranges across music and visual art. He continues to play cello gigs at places such as Origami Vinyl and the Hotel Café.
He admires institutions that find innovative ways to keep culture alive, such as the LA Opera’s tweet seats at rehearsals or the Chamber Orchestra’s method of group-commissioning new work. He admires Gustavo Dudamel, another relative newcomer to L.A. who is actually a year older than he, for the exuberance and naturalness of his music-making.
The Tennessean sees his role as spreading the word about culture, but he doesn’t despair the way some partisans of the fine arts do. “People my age listen to everything,” says Lauritzen, who follows musicians such as postmodern mandolin player Chris Thile and indie experimentalists Dirty Projectors. “People talk about the audience shrinking, the audience graying.... In a way, though, young people may be more interested in [classical] music than they were 10 or 15 years ago. Music is a much more accessible part of our lives — we can take it anywhere.”
But he’s not a pure booster: A recent Sony Classical recording conducted by Kent Nagano of Beethoven’s Ninth that added narration and a new title (“Human Misery-Human Love”) struck him as such shameless pandering that he slammed it on his blog.
Lauritzen is a lively writer as well, but music remains central for him. “Music is where the soul and emotion of humanity is,” he says. “There are times when you can’t express what you want in words. When we run out of words, there’s music.”
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