Steve Robinson's blog

Holy Shostakovich, WFMT!

Aug 23, 2006

(Note: Blogging for Steve Robinson this week, please welcome WFMT Program Director, Peter Whorf--)
I'm very excited about what we've put together to celebrate the 100th birthday of Shostakovich in September. The entire schedule throughout the month features the complete symphonies, operas and concerti of Shostakovich, as well as commentary from the composer taken from the Friday, September 29th special, Shostakovich Speaks. More on that later...

The birthday week itself is loaded with special programming every evening. Our festival begins on Monday, September 25 at 8pm with producer and host Jon Tolansky's I Recall Shostakovich. Jon Tolansky has worked on this special documentary for over a year, chronicling the life and art of Dmitri Shostakovich. The program features commentary from many of the artists who knew and worked with him, including Rostropovich, Sanderling and many others. It's an incredible piece of work, rich in detail and sound.

Tuesday brings Peter VDG's LaSalle Tuesday Night Opera and DSCH's Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk - the work that brought DSCH considerable initial praise. Just two years later (after Stalin attended a performance) it was denounced in Pravda.

On Wednesday at 8pm, we'll re-broadcast Shostakovich:The Seventh and Beyond, which is basically a collage of symphony movements and readings from DSCH letters. Kerry Frumkin is featured throughout the 90-minute special as he reads excerpts of DSCH letters to Leningrad critic and friend Isaac Glickman.

Thursday, Kerry takes our show on the road as WFMT broadcasts live from Avery Fisher Hall. We'll feature the New York Philharmonic with DSCH's Symphony #5 and the first cello concerto with Lynn Harrell. Maazel conducts.

Some of the best is saved for last. Months ago, a listener sent us a recording that he had made off the radio of WFMT's 1973 roundtable with Dmitri Shostakovich - discussing contemporary music and his own compositions. Norman Pellegrini hosted the program, which was made upon the occasion of DSCH receiving an honorary doctorate at Northwestern. It's an absolutely amazing document, and we'll hear it in its entirety. It's very "raw" audio in some ways, but it will be like opening a time capsule.

Also, here are a few DSCH images from childhood through his later years.

Hope you enjoy.

Diary Entries from Israel

Aug 7, 2006

Dear Reader:As noted in an earlier post, I fell off the blogen and, as you may have noticed, I haven’t posted in quite some time. No excuses! (But please don’t report me to the Better Blogging Bureau.) In any case, if anyone is still interested, these are some notes from my recent trip to Israel.

The Idea of the Year!

Jul 26, 2006

THE IDEA OF THE YEAR Note: I fell off the blogen these past few weeks and I want to apologize to my loyal readers for leaving you in the lurch for so long, especially since I was in Israel for a wonderful week with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. I'm almost finished with my Web diary on the trip and I'll post them Wednesday or Thursday (click here to check the WFMT blog). In the meantime: I need to share with you an email I received last night from the CSO's Mark Kraemer. Every once in a blue moon someone writes with an idea that is so fantastic one wants to jump up and yell "Eureka!". Mark wrote with such an idea. Here his is note and my response. "Hi Steve, I wanted to comment on the Merit Focus Group entry (Sorry it's taken me so long to respond to this post-which was entered back in May). I wanted to offer a suggestion on how to reach more young listeners. I play in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and I grew up in Wilmette. I went to New Trier High School which had (and still has) a wonderful music program. I played in student orchestras there, and I can remember very clearly when WFMT played music our high school orchestra was working on. It was such a treat (and an inspiration) to hear the music our ensemble was rehearsing played on WFMT by a professional ensemble. What if WFMT could establish an e-mail relationship with area high schools and find out what music was to be played by the band and orchestra at each school? 'FMT could then program some of this music and send an e-mail alert to each school asking the conductor of the ensemble to announce that the piece their group was working on would be played on 'FMT soon. Students could then plan to listen to the piece they were rehearsing in school. I remember I became a lifelong listener, in part, because, as a high school student, I heard the "St. Paul Suite" for strings by Gustav Holst on 'FMT back in the early 70's--the very piece my school string ensemble was working on at the time. I bet there would be high school music students who would appreciate having this same experience today. You may already be doing something like this, but I wanted to pass this idea along--it worked for me! As always, you guys are doing a great job--keep up the good work!" --Mark Kraemer Bass player-Chicago Symphony Orchestra Mark: BINGO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is an amazing and sensational idea! Honestly, this blows my mind because it's such a terrific way to connect with schools all over the broadcast area in a highly creative way and in a way, as you suggest, that will help us connect with young listeners. I can already envision a multitude of ways to implement the idea on the air but also on our Web page, for example, by setting up a connection point for high school orchestras and bands to list their repertoire while we list when the various pieces will be programmed on WFMT. Frankly, the idea has been staring me in the face for years because I often relate during pledge drives how thrilled my own daughter was when, as a little girl, we'd be driving in the car and a piece she was practicing would come on the radio and she'd exclaim, "Daddy, that's my piece!" It was such an affirmation of what she was doing so I know exactly what you're talking about, it just never dawned on me to make the connection to your idea. So I'm pretty turned on here by your tremendous email. Again, thanks so much for taking the time to send me your idea. It's without question the IDEA OF THE YEAR as far as I'm concerned. Lets talk soon.-SR

A Whole Lot of Catching Up!

Jul 6, 2006

It's been an interesting week and I thought I'd use this diary posting to catch up on a little bit of what's been going on. PLEDGE WFMT's pledge drive ended on June 21st with wonderful results.  We raised $401,000 from 2800 callers and this set a record for an eight-day drive in June.  We couldn't be more pleased.  I said several times on-air that "we just got a call from Bill Gates offering to pledge $200 million with the proviso that we don't do any more pledge drives, and I turned him down because we enjoy doing them too much to give them up." Hahaha.  Actually, we do enjoy doing them because it's a great opportunity to speak to our listeners and hear what they have to say about the station.  This type of interaction is unique to a listener-supported station and is very important to us.  Another point all of us make on-the-air is that a pledge to WFMT is really a way of supporting virtually every classical music ensemble in town because WFMT is devoted to so many organizations.  The list is very long but just a few of the groups we work with include the Lyric Opera, Music in the Loft, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Chamber Musicians, Elgin Symphony, University of Chicago, City of Chicago, Music Institute of Chicago, Chicago Sinfonietta, Harris Theater, Merit School of Music, Ars Viva, Ravinia and too many more to list here.  So to have such a record-breaking June drive makes everyone at WFMT feel terrific.  If you pledged, thanks very much!   TRIP TO ISRAELThe WFMT Radio Network has been talking with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) for over two years about producing a 13-part series of broadcast concerts. Happily, a few weeks ago, the IPO called to say they were able to raise the funds necessary to pull it off and they would like the series to begin in October.  Itzhak Perlman will host the series... October 2006!  Yikes. This means moving into high gear as fast as possible, and we've done just that.  WFMT's Jan Weller is going to produce and he'll join me in Tel Aviv next week to conduct a few dozen interviews with musicians in the orchestra, orchestra management, patrons, critics, historians, Zubin Mehta, and others we encounter during the week that we'll be there.  It's going to be a whirlwind trip.  I'll still be there when my next blog posting is due, so I'll write from Tel Aviv next week.  THE SILK ROAD to HIGHLAND PARK On Monday, June 26th, WFMT broadcast Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble concert live from the Pritzker Pavilion.  It was a spectacular event.  Yo-Yo and his ensemble offered a marvelous evening of music notable for its richness and variety. Yo-Yo was the perfect MC for the concert.  Every seat at the Pritzker was filled and the lawn was jammed.  I was told something like 25,000 people heard the concert.  Thousands more heard it on WFMT and on the WFMT Radio Network, where it was broadcast live.  The host was WFMT's Lisa Flynn with engineering by the amazing Eric Arunas, who offered listeners a sound mix that left nothing out and was superbly balanced and focused throughout.  The broadcast was underwritten by Sony Classical and I was delighted that Michelle Errante, my contact at Sony, came in from New York for the event. From there I zipped up to Ravinia to catch the end of Jonathan Biss' recital at the Martin, where I met with Suzanne Ponsot from the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.  Suzanne and I met earlier in the day with the major donor to the IPO broadcast.  After Jonathan's recital, we repaired to a nearby restaurant to meet and discuss the impending series.  A few minutes into our discussion, in-walked pianist Jeffrey Siegel, just in from a performance at the Music Institute of Chicago.  It turns out that Jeffrey and Suzanne are old friends, so the evening ended on a most convivial note. Back to the Silk Road for a minute: last year, WFMT and the WFMT Radio Network produced a live broadcast of Yo-Yo's Orchestra Hall Silk Road performance.  I was poking around his site the other day ( and discovered that the entire broadcast, hosted by Jan Weller and engineered by Eric, is available on-demand on the site!  The fidelity is amazing and shows, among other things, how far audio has progressed on the Web.  Does anyone remember realaudio 1.0?  It sounded like short wave radio!  (To find the broadcast, scroll all the way down the home page and you'll find it near the bottom.) JEFFREY SIEGELOn Wednesday, Jeffrey gave one of his patented Keyboard Conversation concerts at the Martin Theater.  Jeffrey has been touring his “Keyboard Conversations” to over a dozen cities in the U.S. for over 25 years, including a series at Northwestern—this was his first “Keyboard Conversation” at Ravinia.  His subject was the music of Robert Schumann and he gave his usual insightful lecture/performance, focusing mainly in Schumann's earlier works for the keyboard.  Jeffrey is a fine pianist but I thought he outdid himself last Wednesday with a truly stellar performance.  CENTER ON HALSTED Over the past few years, it's been my pleasure to host one-hour programs on behalf of Chicago area organizations that are engaged in capital campaigns.  I've done them with the Music Institute of Chicago, Harris Theater and Merit School of Music.  Several months ago I was introduced to people involved with a capital campaign for the Center on Halsted. To quote from the Center's website ( "To achieve this vision and create a place where people can come together to play, learn, and talk to one another, the Center’s mission is as follows: In a safe and nurturing environment, the Center on Halsted serves as a catalyst for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender) community that links and provides community resources, and enriches life experiences." Three aspects of the Center's campaign intrigued me.  First, the new building they are constructing on Halsted is extraordinary for its openness, creative use of space and architectural beauty. Second, the building will contain a theater that the Center intends on utilizing for music and other performances on a constant basis.  In fact, they've already formed a strong link with the Chicago Chamber Musicians.  Third, unlike the three capital campaigns mentioned above, the Center was at the end of their campaign and was entering what they call their "public phase."  I therefore thought it was a great opportunity for a radio program. The program was produced by WFMT's program director, Peter Whorf, and aired on Saturday morning.  My guests were Robbin Burr, executive director, and Robert Kohl, chair of the board.  The program discussed the new building, the capital campaign and the cultural activities planned for the theater.  Shortly after the program ended, I received two voicemails from listeners.  Here are word for word transcripts: "I've been going to the Center on Halsted since January and I must admit I'm a whole better, nicer, more wonderful person since I've been going there and I'm really pleased and surprised they are getting some mentions so thank you for taking the time. Even though I miss the music, I do think it's very, very important for the gay, lesbian, transgender community to get this kind of information out.  So thank you very much for your time and consideration and your help...Lord knows we do need it."   Second call. "I am a Fine Arts Circle member and I'm absolutely discouraged and disappointed at this program about the gay and lesbian center. We do not want to have our money on the Fine Arts membership funding this type of thing. You are offensive and disgraceful.  You ought to stop this type of thing or we're going to withdraw financial support in a large way if you don't stop.  That is an offensive program."  And so it goes...


Jun 20, 2006

I produced and announced my first radio membership drive in 1968, and have done at least three per year every year since then. In some years, for example, when I was working at WBGO/Jazz 88 in Newark and was invited for three straight years by the station I had just left (Vermont Public Radio) to be one of the main voices for their drive, totaling six pledge drives a year for three years. I’ve probably been involved in close to 200 pledge drives in the past 38 years in, making me--with the possible exception of Henry Fogel--the most experienced radio pledge person in the history of American radio. That along with $2 and I’m still short the price of a cappuccino at Starbucks. Seriously, I love pledge drives. They are unique in radio because it’s the one chance we have (ok, it's one of three chances per year...) to interact directly with the audience. I especially love taking pledge calls when the phones get really busy because I get to talk directly with listeners and find out what they like about the station. Listeners aren’t shy so it’s not uncommon to take a pledge on the phone and then get an earful about what the caller doesn’t like, as well. But that’s all part of the fun. In fact I said several times on the air at WFMT the other day that “Bill Gates called with a $120 million pledge but he stipulated that in order to qualify for the money we had to stop doing pledge drives and I had to politely turn him down because I told him we love the interaction too much and I’d miss it”. Some who heard me may have guessed I was only kidding, but the idea remains: I love pledge drives. And I’m not alone: the late Ray Nordstrand, a master of ratings, numbers and the other mathematical devices we use to track listenership said that during pledge, listenership actually increases! My pledge drive philosophy all these years has been to try and “put the fun into fundraising.” Also, “it’s not what you say it’s how you say it”, meaning that the enthusiasm in ones voice is far more important than what one actually says on the air. I like to tell people that I’ve only shuffled around about 10 different sentences over the past 38 years, but I’m successful at it because of the enthusiasm I’m able to project in my voice. One of my main techniques is to do virtually all of my on-air work (known in the trade by the highly technical term “pitching”) in the phone room with the volunteers. I call it working “out in the trenches.” The pitchers at almost all radio stations lock themselves up in the control room and make oblique references to the phone room. Crazy! The action is out where the phones are ringing and I often do on-air interviews with volunteers about their love for the station during pledge breaks. More often than not, they have far more original observations to make and offer listeners more interesting reasons to call than I do (see 10 sentence comment above). (An illustration of how effective this can be happened many years ago when I was single and living in New York and I actually asked a volunteer out on a date during one of my impromptu on-air interviews. It was all very low-key and most of the people at the station missed it but the volunteer said how much she enjoyed music and the station. I asked her what she was doing after her pledge shift was over. She said not much and I suggested we go to the Village Vanguard to hear some music. She thought that was a splendid idea, and so we did. We dated for a year. I’m not sure you needed to know that but there you go anyway.) As far as I know, WFMT is the only station in the United States that 1) is commercial, 2) has all commercials read by the announcers with no pre-produced “jingle” type commercials that rattle ones ears and nerves, 3) is non-profit and 4) is member supported. In fact, our entire membership effort was created because of the income we were losing year after year from #2 above: many agencies would not place ads on WFMT because of the “read only” policy so the Fine Arts Circle was created to make up some of that income.In the years since the Fine Arts Circle was created, millions have been pledged by loyal listeners in our three pledge drives per year. We now have over 22,000 members and our membership income has grown each year to the present: over $2.5 million per year. At the moment, we’re in Day Five of our June pledge drive and doing very well. In efforts to balance the books, we started the drive last Tuesday needing $495,000 and as of this writing (Monday morning) we have about $160,000 to go. Since we’ve been known to come close to $90,000 or even $100,000 on the final day of a drive (this one is scheduled to end on Wednesday) the goal is within sight and we’re confident of making the goal. All announcers are firing on all cylinders and all shifts have been successful. There are too many highlights to this drive to mention them all but some include: Henry Fogel’s two on-air shifts on Saturday and Monday morning ignited the phones as they always do; Andy Karzas split the uprights on Saturday afternoon (as he always does) and was joined this time by Norman Pelligrini who heaped considerable praise on Andy for his spectacular program, From the Recording Horn, which has been on WFMT for decades and, to my way of thinking, is the finest program of its kind on American radio. Norman also discussed the book he’s just published about opera in Chicago. The Midnight Special hit it out of the park on Saturday night, as it usually does, but it never ceases to amaze me that this three-hour program on Saturday night typically accounts for about 10% of the total raised on the entire drive, a tribute, to be sure, to Rich Warren’s dedication to the program listeners’ dedication to him; and countless other highs too numerous to mention. The goal going into the drive was $395,000. This is hugely ambitious for a June pledge drive (totals are always higher in October and February) and we think we’re on target if we get over $300,000 but as of Monday night, with just $135,000 to go it appears as of we’ll make it and, if so, or even if we come close, it will set a record for a June pledge. As I often say on the air, a call and a pledge to (773) 279-2010 represents support not only for WFMT, but also for many other performing arts and other organizations in and around Chicago. This is because WFMT works with an amazing array of groups, from the Lyric, CSO and Ravinia to the Merit School of Music, Music in the Loft, Chicago Chamber Musicians, Ars Viva, Chicago Opera Theater and dozens of others. Therefore, our success is their success. When the drive ends on Wednesday, I'll provide the final set of figures. Until then, congratulations to everyone involved in the drive, and also to all the arts organizations who help make WFMT's air sound so wonderful.