Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Interview with Suzanne Bona, host of Sunday Baroque

Suzanne, you are an accomplished "modern" flute player. What is it that influenced you to start a radio program about baroque music?

As a performer, I'd never thought of myself as a "modern flute" player, because I learned and performed all kinds of music in the classical tradition. I was completely unaware of the segregation that can exist between eras and types of instruments. Like many people in the arts, I needed a "day job," and found radio was a perfect fit for me. My first boss assigned me to cover Sunday mornings and told me to "play baroque music," so getting into it was really beyond my control! But the assignment gave me focus and sparked my curiosity, and I immediately began making it "my" program - exploring the music, the composers, the instruments, and the nuances. Because I'd never viewed baroque and early music as separate from the rest, I had no preconceptions, and just sought out whatever sounded good both to me and to listeners.

Cincinnati is fortunate to have you here. Traditionally, this city has focused on a romantic musical tradition, although it seems to be changing with your program, ensembles like Catacoustic, and local ensembles embracing more pre-Beethoven music (CSO's recent Mozart program with Sir Roger Norrington). What brought you to Cincinnati, and what do you think about the standing of "early music" here in this city?

WGUC brought me to Cincinnati, although not specifically for Sunday Baroque. That came later! When we came here, my previous station in Connecticut asked me to continue producing Sunday Baroque long distance because it was a successful, long running part of their schedule. And, seeing that success, WGUC realized it would be a good addition to the local airwaves too, and we agreed on making that part of my job here. Thanks to ensembles like Catacoustic Consort, I think early music is growing and becoming more accepted, little by little, here and across the country. People come to your concerts, hear the exquisite music, see these beautiful instruments like the ones you and your colleagues play, and learn about the people who played them and wrote music for them centuries ago, and they want to know more. Annalisa, you do a great job of bringing people in, making it non-threatening, enjoyable experience. You talk to the audience in layman's terms, translating foreign terms, and that's the right way to open people's minds and embrace new listeners.

How do you feel about the future of classical music and the future of baroque music?

Those perennial rumors of classical music's imminent demise are greatly exaggerated, in my opinion. For decades those dire warnings have made headlines, but it hasn't happened yet. I was a classical music geek as a kid, mostly because my parents exposed me to it, but I have noticed that once we hit our 30’s, my contemporaries started coming around to it little by little, too. Maybe people get tired of the narrow music they liked as teens and twenty-somethings, or maybe they're finally mature enough to broaden their horizons, but maybe it's just a genre that some people have to grow into. I'm also on a soapbox about breaking down the artificial barriers that exist between those who do and don't know about this music. For example, we've done a "MARVELOUS" job creating a code language to talk about music that excludes anyone who isn't familiar with musical terms, or anyone who doesn't speak fluent Italian, German, or French. It's this exclusive little club we've created, and we show you that you don't belong by using words you don't understand and literally speaking other languages. We've also perpetuated an almost oppressively intimidating environment for novices - ostracizing people who clap at the "wrong" time, for example. As a performer, I am truly tickled when someone is moved enough by the music to clap between movements, but many of us act as though it's an insult or major etiquette blunder. I'd love to see the classical music world do everything possible to make the music accessible and the concert experience less intimidating.
Annalisa, here's another way you do a great job - the atmosphere at Catacoustic concerts is relaxed and casual. You always explain what "viola da gamba" means, literally, and you describe who would (and would not) play the various instruments at Catacoustic performances. It's not professorial or condescending; it's courteous and gracious, just as you'd introduce guests to one another at a party.

You share many interpretations of baroque music, including baroque music with period instruments and on modern instruments. Do you see a new attitude of musicians today toward baroque music?

Unfortunately there are so many prejudices and misconceptions about what early music is and who should (or shouldn't) be playing it. I'd love for listeners and performers to simply experience and enjoy music for its own merit, and not get bogged down by notions of orthodoxy. I've never bought into purist dogma on
anything, really. And it frustrates me when people insist there's only one "right" way to do something. Where do you draw the line, really? If we insist on the so-called purest, most authentic experience, doesn't that mean we should sit in cold, dark churches crowded alongside people who haven't bathed? Music is a living art form, and I see no problem using a variety of instruments to play music, whether or not they are authentic to the time the music was written.

Are you seeing a new trend in recordings of baroque music? What would you advise a group like Catacoustic to consider in programming and recordings?

In the two decades since originating Sunday Baroque I've definitely seen a giant leap in the quality of what's available on cd - both performance and technical quality - and a greater variety of what's available. Once upon a time, when the interest in baroque and early music was revived in the middle of the 20th
century, it was an arcane genre and the focus was on scholarly discovery more than technical proficiency. The quality of performances is vastly improved from those early days, partly because more musicians are approaching this music, playing both period and modern instruments, and the skills and training have been absorbed by a new generation. In the past couple of years, though, the record companies have been in some trouble. There are fewer new recordings being released, and more re-releases. That reflects a desire and need to economize; recycling existing recordings is much more efficient and cost-effective than starting from scratch with a new recording project. But the good news is that it's never been easier to self-produce - lots of musicians are marketing their music online and making it available in downloads, rather than relying solely on cds. That's the way to go! Catacoustic does two things in particular that are right on target -- you build programs around "themes" - it creates cohesion and adds a dimension that can help people understand better. You also offer some historical context. Those narratives help bring music to life, especially for people who don't know a lot about the music. So, you're not only making an appealing recording, you are bringing listeners along for the future.

How can our blog readers listen to your radio program and learn more about Sunday Baroque?

90.9 WGUC broadcasts Sunday Baroque on Sunday mornings from 8am-12noon. There's also an online audio stream of the most recent program, updated weekly on Mondays, at www.SundayBaroque.org