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Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, or nothing at all, I think we can all agree that this holiday season has felt strange. For 13 years, my wife and I have hosted Christmas to anyone in our families that wanted to attend. Some years, the crowd has been smaller, sometimes it can be 20 or more people coming from as far away as Missouri and Ontario. But not this year.
Just like at Thanksgiving, we tried to make the day as special as possible for the five members of my pod. We hosted a family Zoom call for about an hour, which both felt too long and way too short. We got to see the faces and hear quick stories from our family members, but it didn’t really feel like we saw them.
I miss the rituals that have become tradition, but I also feel like the lesson of this whole year is to look for the silver lining in this new reality and find ways to express gratitude, rather than focus on what is absent. We have discovered new activities, like dipping beeswax candles, and gotten deeper into old standbys like cooking and woodworking. We are grateful for the technology that allows us to connect in new ways, and for our health.
Like most of us, I can count on at least two hands (and maybe more) the single degrees of separation that I have to friends or family members that have received a positive diagnosis of COVID-19. I feel very fortunate that this disease has not yet touched my immediate family yet and try to meditate on that gratitude.
Anthony “Tony” Rudel has spent most of his life immersed in classical music. His father was conductor Julius Rudel, head of the New York City Opera. Tony got his start as an on-air personality at New York’s classical station WQXR and was acting as the VP of Programming in his 20s.
Almost seven years ago, Tony brought his talents to Boston, where he now serves as both General Manager of Music for GBH and as Station Manager at WCRB-FM, our classical station. Tony has brought not only his love of classical music to the airwaves, but also the programming sensibilities of a rock station. At first, this may seem very unconventional, but as a Baby Boomer, he was raised on classic rock in addition to classical. He believes most of his audience was too, which impacts their expectations:
“I listened to what was then called album oriented rock radio. I listened to WNEW in New York. And a lot of the formatic things that they did, I have brought to classical, because my theory is, if you are comfortable in that environment that you grew up with, but the only thing that I’m changing is the food, if you will, the music, maybe you’ll listen to us.”
In my personal experience, the changes during Tony’s tenure have caused me to tune in with more regularity and for longer stretches of time, and I am hardly what would be described as a classical music aficionado. Tony distilled his goals down into the two rules that he uses for programming the station:
“One is, in the best of all possible worlds, when you turn on that radio or your computer and stream us, I want you to have this reaction: ‘how did they know I felt like that right now?’ And while you’re listening to that and we get to the end of that piece, I want a second thought to pop into your mind, which is ‘I wonder where they’re going to take me next.’ If we can program using those two things, we will win.”
In this era, many stations have made the switch to fully automated programming, using canned promos between music instead of DJs. Tony feels it is important to have on air hosts that announce the songs to give the station an identity and allow the listener to form a bond with the hosts. When choosing who he puts on air, he recalled advice he learned from legendary WNEW Program Director Scott Muni:
“He looked at me and I’ll never forget it, he said ‘Tony, I will never put anyone on the air that I wouldn’t want to have in my house for dinner.’ And I have lived by that mantra ever since, because radio is very personal. You turn this device on and all of a sudden someone’s talking to you from, you know, next to you. You can’t see them, but they’re there. You better like that person.”
Tony wants on air talent that is fun and relatable, but not overly pedantic about the music being played:
“We have made it a place where any listener can come and discover this music. And discover it on their terms, not on my terms. I will tell you about a sign I put in the studio when I first arrived. I said ‘let the music speak for itself.’ I don’t need Mozart to be explained to me anymore than I need Billy Joel explained to me.”
I often listen to WCRB in the car, while cooking dinner or washing dishes, or while in my fledgling basement workshop. It serves as background music for me, which I told Tony, although I worried that he might feel I was being pejorative:
“People have criticized me during my career for ‘oh, you’re making it a background music station.’ No we’re not. We’re making it a station that goes with your life. Because I can’t ask you to change your life to accommodate my radio station. A good radio station accommodates your life. Mozart wrote every kind of music imaginable, and if I want to be completely engaged in Mozart, I might turn on The Requiem, or one of his operas, or one of the great piano concertos and really focus on it. But on the other hand, the man wrote hundreds of hours of music that was meant to be played during dinner. And what’s wrong with that? If it elevates my dinner a little bit, well so what? It’s not background, it’s part of my life.”
One of Tony’s biggest accomplishments this year has been to keep the feel of live music alive, despite audiences not being able to visit concert halls. At the holiday season, this took on new importance. Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society has been performing Handel’s Messiah for 166 years, but because of COVID, this year threatened to break that streak.
Working with his team at GBH and the team at Handel and Haydn, the show was able to go on, although in this case, it was recorded at the GBH studio in sections, then edited together and broadcast on TV, the radio, and online as Handel’s Messiah for Our Time.
Tony described some of the planning process during our interview, and the above video offers some additional insights into the process.
Tony also mentioned during our conversation that he had written a personal essay about why it was important to preserve this tradition. He gave me permission to run that essay below as a holiday treat to you all!
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Handel’s Messiah for Our Time
By Anthony Rudel
The composer Gustav Mahler once wrote, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
Every community has its traditions, regularly occurring events that help mark life and connect generation to generation. Boston is no exception, and one of its longest standing traditions is the annual holiday season presentation by The Handel and Haydn Society of Handel’s choral masterpiece Messiah. Though the organization first performed excerpts from the Handel favorite in 1815, their first complete performance of the work was on Christmas Day 1817. But the tradition that is truly remarkable is that, since 1854, H+H has performed Messiah during every holiday season. That first performance in this amazing continuum was played in the Boston Music Hall, which later became the Orpheum Theater. It wasn’t until 1900 that H+H moved the annual holiday season presentation of Messiah into Symphony Hall.
In fact, H+H has performed the piece more than 435 times, through a Civil War, two World Wars, thirty-one Presidents of the United States, and yes, a global pandemic. But, even during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917 and 1918, the H+H forces and their audiences managed to gather in Symphony Hall to come together for this amazing piece, a passionate work that begins with the simple phrase, “Comfort ye my people.” And in that simple phrase lies the central purpose of traditions: they are comforting.
Over the course of generations, H+H has performed Messiah for about 1 million people, and their performances are highly anticipated events. With COVID-19 a constant threat that has so curtailed the arts, this year's presentation of Messiah was destined to be canceled, another casualty of a pandemic that has shut theaters and idled performers.
While that 1854 H+H Messiah was performed at a time when Boston’s minimal street lighting was energized by gas, today we are blessed with the beauty of technology, of machines that to an attendee of that first performance would seem like magic, and maybe magic is what it is. Thanks to the incredible technology available, an idea of how to continue a 166-year-old tradition began to emerge.
“What if? What if…” Those two simple words, which hold the magic of possibility, seemed like a wonderful elixir for these troubled times!
And so, a plan to use technology to save a great tradition began to emerge. “Handel’s Messiah for Our Time” was recorded at GBH’s acoustically acclaimed Brighton studios with protocols developed in collaboration with doctors of infectious disease from Boston University and Harvard University. A production plan employing robotic cameras, special singing masks for the chorus and soloists, and multiple rounds of COVID testing for the musicians was prepared by H+H and approved by the Commonwealth.
A GBH team that has been working on streaming music programs since the pandemic began, relied on unconventional classical music recording techniques to capture Messiah. By recording in a variety of studio spaces over multiple days, the chorus, instrumentalists and soloists were kept socially distant and safe. This music was then layered together in post-production to allow for the majesty of this orchestration of Messiah to emerge. In the final production, some striking visual scenes of the pandemic are overlaid, connecting our troubled times to the music in a powerful narrative arc.
The challenges were many and the technical feat stunning; and the result, a Messiah for our time with the music, itself more than two centuries old, played on instruments from the period, all captured and assembled using technology that didn’t exist a decade ago, let alone a century and a half ago. And in that lies the most rewarding part of this adventure, for, to rephrase Mahler, in this case, it was the fire of technology that has allowed the continuation of a grand tradition. And to quote Handel, “Hallelujah!”
May the show, as unusual and different as it is, bring comfort to audiences everywhere.
If you haven’t yet heard it, Tony’s interview is a really fascinating look at the radio business.
If you live outside of Boston, you can stream WCRB through their website, by downloading their free app, or by asking your smart speaker to “Play WCRB” (that’s the way I listen most often). This station in particular has connected me to the music in ways that other stations simply have not, and they’re worth seeking out even if you don’t live in New England.
Tony is not only a radio station manager, but he’s also a radio historian, having written the really interesting radio history book Hello Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio.
If you’d like to watch the full presentation of Handel’s Messiah for Our Time, here it is:
I was unsure about uploading new shows next week given the holidays, but I am still planning to move forward.
On Monday, I will be speaking with Hal Rosenbluth, who is the CEO of Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. We have a really thoughtful conversation about on-set COVID protocols, the role of local tax credits on production, and how smart investment in a neighborhood can lead to increased development and economic activity.
On Thursday, Emily Jacobsen is scheduled to be my guest. She is a school teacher from New York that helped kick off the viral Ratatouille: The Musical. It started with a single TikTok that Emily made, became a crowd sourced sing along, and now a virtual Broadway performance of the show is being performed as a benefit for The Actors’s Fund. We’ll discuss the origins of the show, plus how TikTok is changing our media consumption and expectations.
If you have questions, comments, thoughts, ideas, or anything else that you’d like to share, please feel free to email me anytime: firstname.lastname@example.org
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