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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Twenty Years on the Organ Trail

from the Plugged In section of Minnesota Monthly magazine
January 2002

Grace Newman has been listening to Michael Barone introduce organ music for three years. She respectfully refers to the host of American Public Media’s nationally distributed Pipedreams as “Mr. Barone.” When she’s asked about her favorite radio host, she imagines him “going to sleep and listening to his Pipedreams.” Grace is 3 years old.

You might not expect organ music to delight such a young listener. That it does says something about both the voice and sensibilities of the program’s creator.

Michael Barone’s warm and eloquent delivery, not to mention his brimming passion, make Pipedreams as attractive to a newborn in her crib as to two-decades-loyal fans in their easy chairs.

Another secret to the success of the program—which celebrates its 20th anniversary in January 2002—is Barone’s commitment to keep timeless music fresh.

“The sound of wind through pipes essential to the age-old organ tradition . . . remains a potentially beguiling, stimulating, thrilling and soul-penetrating energy,” he says.

It’s a conviction that reminds him of one of the most common misconceptions about the organ: that it’s used exclusively for church music.

Barone tries hard to overcome this misconception. He recognizes that despite the organ enjoying one of the most varied repertoires of any instrument (everything from concertos to solo symphonies to fugues to dances), its religious connotations can turn some listeners away.

During his 90-minute weekly national radio program Barone tries to “get people to set their religious prejudices aside, along with their musical ones, and to search out the organ for what it can do as an emotional and spiritual engine.”

Nearly a quarter-million listeners to some 175 public radio stations each week do just that.

The show’s large audience testifies to its broad appeal, which Barone achieves in part by offering his listeners “off-the-wall juxtapositions, sometimes within a single program.”

Imagine a jazzy German Te Deum, followed by a trumpet voluntary from Texas and a Bach fugue played on an organ made in 1730 by an acquaintance of Bach. It’s Barone’s way to intrigue a range of listeners into the instrument’s vast expanse of possibilities.

Still, he keeps a target audience in mind. “I do the show for the curious person.”

He thinks listeners often discover the program in a public radio environment in which Pipedreams stands out as the only show dedicated to “the king of instruments,” and where there is a dearth of organ music in most regular classical music schedules.

“Because of the accessibility of radio, someone can stumble upon [the show] and have an experience that they weren’t expecting. It’s what makes radio so magical,” he says.

In fact, that is exactly how 3-year-old Grace came to be a fan. Her mother started listening during pregnancy to assist her breathing exercises. Occasionally, she’d put the headphones on her stomach to calm her baby-to-be.

After Grace was born, Mom slipped Pipedreams into her regular Sunday evening routine, right after bath and story time. Now Grace calls it “pretty music time,” and refuses to go to sleep without it.

It’s stories like Grace’s that make the past 20 years “seem all the more real, necessary and pleasurable” for Barone.

And for more than 214,000 public radio listeners, it’s Michael Barone and his Pipedreams that have brought them 20 faithful years of the magic and power of “the king of instruments.”

Thank you, Michael!