Ten Questions for the Music Maven

(For a forthcoming issue of Of Note, NEPR’s listener newsletter, my wonderful colleagues have come up with ten questions to get me to reflect back on my career, which is ending in December.  And while I’d love an hour with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, she’s got plenty of more interesting people to interview.   A shorter version will appear in Of Note; here’s the complete version.)

What’s made you stick around at NEPR for so long? 

You know, sometimes you get lucky the first time.  I think I did when I came to WFCR and the Pioneer Valley almost directly from college for my first radio job.  It’s been an ideal place to do radio, enjoy music, make a home and make a family.  And while I can’t honestly say I was never tempted to go elsewhere, I’m very glad I didn’t.

If you could pick one highlight of your time on air, what would that be? 

The piece that’s on right now.  Isn’t it great? 

How have your tastes and the styles of music you enjoy changed/stayed the same over the years? 

In some ways, completely.  I’m less snobbish, less focused on just classical and jazz, much more open to popular music, and far wider-ranging in my musical explorations now than then.  In other ways, nothing has changed.  Bach and Louis Armstrong are still at the top of my list, surely never to be displaced. 

How has technology changed over the course of your career? What are the positive and negatives of that?  Access to more recordings, quality, etc.

 The way I see and hear it, with digitization and all its many benefits, technology has moved from the stone age to the modern age in the last 35 years.  I know I’m going against many audiophiles and cultural critics when I say this, but I think the changes have been so overwhelmingly beneficial that I don’t even worry about negatives.  Considering how my love of music has been enhanced by new technologies, and how many more choices the listener has now, I wouldn’t go back to the old ways for a second.  In this way I’m like my wife, who’s fond of saying she has no nostalgia for any time before penicillin. 

How has the audience changed? 

To answer that question honestly, you first need to confront the demographic truths:  the classical audience is, on average, at least a decade older now than when I started, if not more.  But I also think the audience is more adventurous, more open to new sounds, now than then.  That could be in large part because there are lots more new sounds now worth getting excited about now than then.  But you’ve never been able to prove the canard about stuffy, stuck-in-the-past classical fans by me. 

How do you connect with your listener, even though you’re sitting by yourself in a studio for 4 hours? 

Either you can stay connected with the listener, hour by hour, day by day, or you shouldn’t be in radio.  Every time you turn on your microphone, someone’s just tuned in and hearing you for the first time that day, possibly for the first time ever. 

What qualifies a piece of music for that all-important first slot of the day? 

To start the classical show, coming out of news, you want something brief, but which has plenty of character right from the first note.  The classical regulars will tune in on their regular schedules, but the first piece has to grab the ears of someone who’s been listening to the news, and compel them to keep their radios on and set to NEPR.  It could be fast or slow, soft or loud, something new or an old favorite.  But it needs to make the listener pay attention. 

What do you see as the driving force for composers going in and out of fashion? 

The music we choose from the past tends to be the music that conforms best to our present cultural tastes.  For instance, the tremendous rise in interest in early music, performed as authentically as possible, could be seen as paralleling everything from the counter-cultural retreat from “establishment” values to the search for “natural” lifestyles, with its idealization of the pastoral, pre-industrial past.  Among the professional taste-makers and at least a segment of the audience, any music that invites charges of sentimentality or superficial virtuosity is currently out-of-fashion, as one could see in the many articles critical of Franz Liszt during his 2011 bicentennial.  And the incredible rise of Gustav Mahler over the last generation also says something about our thirst for profundity and the “big statement.”  But generally, the composers we prize most from the past were also highly regarded during their own times.  And the vast majority of composers receive almost all of their performances during their lifetimes, after which they are immediately and permanently forgotten.  That may sound cruel, but isn’t it also better than the opposite?

What are you listening to outside of the classical genre? 

Let’s see – I’m enjoying Arcade Fire’s latest, “Reflektor,” though I need another listen or two to really get to know it.  I’ve been listening a lot lately to the early spiritual recordings of the Rev. Gary Davis – his intense vocals and amazing guitar work are simply astonishing, and affect me deeply.  The Wife and I greatly enjoy Paul McCartney’s “New” album – the old fellow has still got it!  One of my sources (thanks, Josh) recently turned me on to the British guitarist James Blackshaw; now I rarely go more than a few days without rewiring my brain with a couple of his mesmerizing things.  The new Nine Inch Nails album, “Hesitation Marks,” has been in my CD player a lot lately.  But that’s this week.  Who knows what it will be next week?  I can’t wait to find out!

What’s next for you? What are your plans for 2014? 

Frankly, whatever answer I give to that question is as likely as not to end up wrong, since I won’t really know until I get there.  But I can be sure that there will still be lots of music – listening, writing, concert presenting and concert attending.  Travel too, not to mention food and wine.  I’m sure I’ll miss daily contact with listeners and colleagues, who’ve all been sensational.  But it’s someone else’s turn to have the privilege, and my turn to pursue some personal interests.  I’m sure I’ll run into lots of listeners at concerts and other events, so it’s not “good-bye,” it’s “arrivederci” — see you later!

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Your listeners have been extraordinarily lucky to have you as their musical tour guide for the past 3 1/2 decades, John.  Congratulations on a job well done, and music well selected.  Bon chance, and enjoy your next journey.

    Julia

     

  2. Anonymous says

    John,

    You have provided such listening pleasure,  such enlightenment….all without stuffiness,  but with dignity and gentle manner.  Thank you!!!

  3. Anonymous says

    Mr. Montanari,

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a music history class but you’ve provided great music history lessons with the music you chose to play.  The variety of music you’ve introduced me to has been another adventure from the classics to ethnic music.  The range of vocal and instrumental music has been quite different on WFCR compared to other classical music stations I’ve listened to. You and your voice will be missed.

    Elizabeth from CT

  4. John Montanari says

    Thanks, Julia, it’s been a great ride.  But nothing would please me more than if my successor did an even better job of it!

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