Throughout the past 10 years, Carnegie Hall has enjoyed a close partnership with New York’s classical radio station WQXR, producing the Carnegie Hall Live radio broadcast and digital series. In that time, more than 100 live concerts have been brought into the homes of listeners around the world. In celebration of this milestone, the hosts of Carnegie Hall Live—WQXR’s Jeff Spurgeon and New Sounds’s John Schaefer—reflect on the past 10 years of the series and the importance of live performance in 2021.
There is a range of music presented throughout the Carnegie Hall Live season. How do you prepare for each broadcast?
John Schaefer: Jeff will spend two or three sleepless nights studying the scores for each piece and researching the historical and sociological contexts for which they were written, distilling this information into a series of bullet points that he’ll bring to the Hall so he has everything he needs at hand. I, on the other hand, will stumble in five minutes before showtime from whatever local tavern I’ve been holed up in, glance over at his notes, and then deliver the material on the air as my own. In truth, preparation for these concerts mostly involves two things: first, making sure we know the program and researching any work that isn’t familiar; and second, collecting audio clips from the artists or composers for use in those moments before the first downbeat and between major sections of the program.
Jeff Spurgeon: The idea, for me, is to be a bit of a host and a bit of a concert companion, to share enough information so that listeners know what’s going on in the music and in the performances—in short, to welcome people “in.” So I look for what’s interesting about the works being performed, about the musicians, and about the connections among the works, the performers, and other elements of the concert. We try to have conversations with the featured artists ahead of time, because who can have more to say about the performances than the people who’ve been shaping them for days, weeks, and months? Our sound engineers—some of them fine musicians in their own right—read the scores and plot where microphones will be placed to best capture the music. And if I can, I like to take a walk onstage before the house opens to see how orchestras are placed, keep an eye out for exotic instruments, and just feel the quiet, pre-performance excitement.
Why is it important to broadcast a concert from Carnegie Hall live instead of recorded?
Schaefer: There is nothing quite like live radio. No matter how you package a recorded concert with hosts and guests and interstitial audio, it simply can’t have the same energy as a live broadcast, where we have to be constantly aware of the likelihood that something unexpected will happen. The pianist has wandered back onstage to play an unscheduled encore? You’ll hear us trying to guess what they’re going to play—or afterwards, what they’ve just finished playing. The audience has (gasp!) applauded between movements, then laughed good-naturedly at itself before subsiding? That would be edited out of any recorded broadcast, but I think it shows what the vibe in the Hall is. The point is to let the radio audience feel like they’re at an Event—capital E—just like the listeners who are there.
Spurgeon: If we didn’t realize it before, the pandemic has made us understand the thrill of connection in a live performance—the musicians with each other, the musicians with the audience, and perhaps most especially audience members with each other. Classical music fans experience the audience connection much less viscerally than pop music fans; we sit in our seats and frown at people with noisy candy wrappers, while the pop concert crowds are on their feet, dancing and bumping against one another. As the vaccines help us feel safer to be together, even audiences who never touch physically are realizing in a renewed way that communal listening is very powerful and very affirming. The energy of an attentive, involved audience can even make a concert—dare I say—better than it is. The magic in some performances lives only in the moment, and if you’re not there, you miss it. We’ve all heard someone say, “You had to be there.” Well, we are there, and we know that a lot of that excitement is transmitted in our live broadcasts right along with the music, which means lots of other people are there, too.
How do you contextualize the live experience to the audience listening at home?
Schaefer: One of the great things about our location—we are just offstage in the wings (stage right) where the orchestra and conductor and soloists are—is that the sound helps set the scene before either of us says a word. We do not have, nor do we want, the luxury of a pristine studio to broadcast from; we are there, with the crew opening the stage doors and maybe moving a piano onstage; with the violin soloist running scales before her appearance; with the brass section who weren’t in the first piece and are now waiting their turn to enter onstage. The sounds of Carnegie Hall are part of what makes these broadcasts so special, and we will often refer to what’s happening around us while setting up the next performance.
Spurgeon: Our mics pick up snatches of the conversations of musicians and stagehands. We see what performers are wearing and get a glimpse of their “game face” before they go onstage. Some are subdued, keeping their energy under wraps, while others are relaxed and chatty. We try to share what we can of that atmosphere, and to explain what’s going on when the music isn’t playing.
After more than 100 broadcasts, can you tell us about some of the most memorable moments?
Schaefer: There are little things, like Michael Tilson Thomas walking past us to get onstage with the San Francisco Symphony but pausing to make a goofy face at us as we mentioned his name. But mostly, of course, it’s memories of the music: Accademia Bizantina and violinist Viktoria Mullova doing a Bach violin concerto in 2016 that felt like they were making it up on the spot; and opening night this season, already a special event as it signified the reopening of the Hall after the pandemic, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony like his pants were on fire.
Spurgeon: No one person looms larger for me in these broadcasts than Sir John Eliot Gardiner, whose knowledge, passionate enthusiasm, and ability to communicate have made the Beethoven and Berlioz concerts by his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and The Monteverdi Choir some of the most thrilling music making I’ve ever experienced. Jordi Savall’s musicians make very old music as alive and vital as anything created today, and the depth of his humanity brings a quality of something almost sacred to his concerts. There’s the delight Joyce DiDonato takes in performing—she’s another amazing communicator both on and off the stage; the quiet, old-world elegance of Sir András Schiff; and many conversations with musicians so excited to experience the pleasure of performing at, and becoming part of the history of, Carnegie Hall.
To see a schedule of upcoming Carnegie Hall Live broadcasts, and to stream past broadcasts, visit carnegiehall.org/wqxr.