Powell Hall, Saturday night. Nervous expectation buzzes. On stage, the St Louis Symphony Orchestra tunes up.
Imagine that we leave the stage, walk through the backstage bustle, through sound-proof doors to an entry hall. We ride the elevator to the seventh floor, walk through a doorway into a small office. To the left is a small room. Inside, machines hum, televisions flicker, microphones wait.
This is the engine room of the St Louis Public Radio’s live broadcasts of the SLSO. In the booth each Saturday night are host Robert Peterson, producer Mary Edwards, and commentator…me!
The 2019/2020 season marks the tenth anniversary of these broadcasts. To celebrate, I sat down with Robert and Mary to discuss the history, highlights, and challenges of creating a live radio show each week.
The opportunity to produce these broadcasts “was a dream come true,” says Mary. "I got into radio from the classical music end,” she says, “so this work alongside the symphony was coming full circle.”
Robert was thrilled to “have the opportunity to share such an incredible world class orchestra with people throughout the St. Louis area.” His role is key, he says, but feels that the spotlight is rightly on the orchestra itself: the music, the musicians.
Adam Crane, former SLSO Vice President of External Affairs, spearheaded the project from the symphony’s end, acting as co-host. “It added so much,” says Mary, “to have an SLSO commentator, someone who knew the musicians and understood the ins and outs of the concert process.” Also important were the close ties Adam had in the community, “having grown up in St. Louis,” says Mary, “and having been inspired by the orchestra from an early age.”
After Adam left in 2017 to work with the New York Philharmonic, SLSO Creative Partner Tim Munro joined the team as co-host.
Tuesday: Eric Dundon, Public Relations Manager, confirms interviews for the week. The goal: to have all interviews live, to catch the inspiration (and sweat and sometimes tears) of the moment.
Wednesday/Thursday: Robert and Mary might gather to pre-record an interview. The interview might run 15 or 20 minutes. Mary’s expert pruning brings it to four and a half minutes.
“Live interviews give the listener a chance to have an experience with a performer,” says Robert. “You get to feel the intensity of it happening live and in the moment."
Mary recalls an interview with SLSO Chorus Director Amy Kaiser. “She came into the booth, and before she sat down you knew that she was in seventh heaven, because her chorus had sung their hearts out to such great effect.” And Amy was able to sit at the microphone and communicate that ecstasy and love to the Public Radio audience.
Mary has also loved observing Stéphane Denève’s sense of community. He will remain in the booth after an interview, she says, so that he can listen to an interview with one of his colleagues. Then, “as he leaves the room, he always takes time to catch my eye and make a friendly gesture” of farewell.
Friday: Robert sends out a draft of the broadcast script. Included: all of Robert’s introductions, transitions, and drafts of live questions.
Saturday, 3:00pm: I send back a revised draft. This includes my scripted introductions for each work. Mary uses her eagle-eyes to scan this version for errors.
What are the highlights from a decade of broadcasting? “There are too many!” says Robert. Mary points to a thrilling performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes; Robert mentions a Michael Daugherty piece, Hell’s Angels, when the SLSO’s bassoons entered the booth in full biker regalia.
Mary learned so much from David Robertson, who would spend time in the booth before every concert, she says, “sometimes perilously close to the concert time. He’d talk about all sort of interesting things. To be able to do that every week was amazing.”
Both Mary and Robert say that interviews with the musicians of the orchestra are a true highlight. “They’re sharing their passion for the music,” says Robert.
Saturday, 6:00pm: Robert, Mary and I gather in the booth. The “booth” is a small conference room kitted with soundproofing materials. It has a warm, comforting feel. Recording Engineer Lee Buckalew and his team assemble the tech each week: mixing console, cameras, microphones, cables…even script-stands and pens.
Saturday, 7:10–7:35pm. Recording Engineer Paul Hennerich drops by to confirm final technical details. Then an SLSO communications team member drops in to discuss logistics, timing. Intermission logistics are important: when the applause ends, the conductor has 60 seconds to be escorted to the elevator and to ascend to the seventh floor.
When asked about the challenges of live broadcasts, Mary immediately mentions the uncertainties of timings. “There was one occasion when there was an unexpected delay at the beginning of the concert. We had to fill for seventeen minutes!”
More often the opposite occurs. “There are many times when we have much more we’d like to impart,” says Mary, "but there is not time.”
The challenge of interviews is that there can often be too much to say. "Sometimes there’s a pre-recorded interview,” says Mary, “and I have to edit fifteen minutes of great material down to four and a half minutes.”
Saturday, 7:45pm. I am scribbling final notes. My job is part–music enthusiast, part–baseball commentator. If there is a delay, I may have to talk, unscripted for five or ten minutes.
Mary thinks these broadcasts serve an important purpose. “The SLSO is a world class orchestra,” she says, “and it needs to be shared as widely as possible. We are on the FM network and stream on the internet, so you can hear the broadcast all over the world.”
Robert believes access is important. These broadcasts serve listeners who, because of physical or financial constraints, cannot attend SLSO concerts.
“We had a devoted SLSO fan,” he says, “who was unable to attend concerts due to a major health issue.” But thanks to the broadcasts he was still able to feel connected to this orchestra, this community.
Saturday, 8:00pm. Mary holds her finger aloft, listening, waiting. The finger falls, cueing Robert to begin: “Live from Powell Hall, this is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.”
“They are wonderful people,” says Mary, “this orchestra. And week after week the soloists come in and say, ‘This group is so welcoming, and it is not like that at all places. It’s like a family.’
“I feel like Robert and I have been let into that family…just a little bit.”