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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Pipedreams at Twenty

A Milestone Observed, a Glance Backward, and a Look to the Future
by Mary Ann Dodd in collaboration with Michael Barone
February 2002

Reprinted by permission of document The American Organist Magazine

“Grace happens,” indeed! Thank you, Michael, for sharing the delightful and heartwarming story that appeared in last month’s document TAO. And congratulations to you from all of us for 20 years of excellence in broadcasting. As the Pipedreams anniversary commences, let us pause and reflect a bit on the significance of this program—its present status, and its future possibilities. Who is this fellow who puts it all together, and what part might we have to play in this ongoing story?

On January 3, 1982, the first nationally syndicated broadcast of Pipedreams took to the air, carried by 64 stations. The primary contents of those first 14 broadcasts were performances taped during the 1980 AGO National Convention in Minnesota. Today, 20 years later, Pipedreams is aired by more than 175 stations, reaching a quarter of a million listeners each week. That’s pretty decent. Pipedreams consistently rates in the “top five” regular weekly classical music programs on public radio (in terms of station carriage). And unless you can come up with better statistics, it would seem that Pipedreams has provided more hours of serious organ music to a national radio audience than any previous program. The stars of the show, at least as Michael would have us think, are “us” —organists, organbuilders, composers for the organ, friends of the pipe organ. Our best selves are showcased, and Michael is our guide on this weekly sonic adventure.

Using his wonderfully rich and resonant radio voice, Michael Barone has become our musical pied piper, who beguiles and, sometimes, even seduces. His genuine enthusiasm is contagious. Wonderful scripts combined with astute programming skills continue to surprise us by putting new “spins” on composers and music frequently regarded as humdrum at best. Interesting juxtapositions reveal unexpected delights, new perspectives, and surprising discoveries. He gives our ears and our imaginations work to do, so that as listeners we are fully engaged.

Barone on Barone:
What I bring to the work that I do—and the fact that I’ve ended up being Michael Barone, the guy who does the Pipedreams program—is kind of mysterious and unbelievable. It is not something I set out to achieve. But in 1980, no one had been covering AGO convention concerts, and it seemed like an important thing with which to get involved. After all, it was happening right here in my own backyard. The rest grew from there. If I succeed, it’s because I’m not trying to sell ‘me.’ I’m the conduit, not the topic. And I try to get along with everyone. I’m not a threat to players because I’m not much of a performer. And I’m not a threat to the various musicological camps because I don’t have an axe to grind. I can be (and am!) a Virgil Fox fan and a Harald Vogel follower simultaneously. I’m intrigued equally by a Wurlitzer theater organ or a Schnitger, by a meantone instrument from the Renaissance era or a marvelous Aeolian-Skinner. Viscerally, at the very deepest spiritual level, I really just love the sound of organ music—all of it.

And from where did this love come? Quite literally, from a childhood (unwittingly amongst organists!) in Kingston, Pennsylvania, in the Susquehanna River’s historic Wyoming Valley, where Michael was on the cutting edge of the postwar baby boom (born 1946). His parents, Michael and Jean, enjoyed good music but were not performers. Young J.M. was listening to records (fragile 78s) long before he could read their labels, and whereas many young children take a favorite stuffed animal or a blanket to bed, Michael could not fall asleep without his favorite albums (he did have a teddy bear, too). By the time he was four he had cut his teeth (almost literally) on such unusual fare as Procession of the Sardar by Ippolitov-Ivanov, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, and the Shostakovich Leningrad Symphony. Oh, and Rusty in Orchestraville.

As for the pipe organ, Michael remembers, as a small child, watching the black-robed Marion Wallace at the Möller console of the electrified turn-of-the-century Hook & Hastings organ during services at Kingston Presbyterian Church. The family sat up front, and after the service Michael and his younger brother Chris would stand next to Miss Wallace during the final pages of the postlude. Then one or another of them would be allowed to turn the blower switch off. Wow.

Since even modest organists should begin with piano lessons, Michael’s commenced at age five with Stella Pickett, the retired former organist at Kingston Presbyterian and a friend of the family who lived just down the street (she also had taught Michael’s mother and aunt as children). Advanced piano study continued with Marion Wallace through high school, though without prizewinning results. This was not her fault, since distractions were provided by sousaphone and string bass lessons at school, and participation from the fifth grade on in band and, later, glee club. Howard Hallock and Robert Henderson provided instrumental guidance.

Another important influence was school chum and organist Bob Wech. He lived just down the street and introduced Michael to organ music on disc (LP and unbreakable by this point). He preceded Michael by two years at Oberlin Conservatory. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

During his middle school years, Michael began his record collection, financed by the proceeds from his afternoon paper route (another area of Bob Wech’s influence). Beginning with Schweitzer at Gunsbach, it quickly expanded to include Biggs at Busch-Reisinger, Biggs at Great Packington, Biggs in Spain, Biggs in Europe, Whitehead at the Academy of Music, Zamkochian at Boston Symphony Hall, Robert Owen in Bronxville, and much more. Oh, add Leonard Leigh at the Saint Paul (Minn.) Paramount Wurlitzer (was this fate, or what?).

This was by no means an organ-only accumulation. Michael was a musical omnivore. Also included in his home stash were orchestral discs of Bernstein, Roy Harris, and Prokofiev, chamber music by Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Bartok (Juilliard Quartet), Bach and Beethoven on the piano played by Jrg Demus, Edwin Fischer, and Rudolf Serkin, Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Stokowski, the Norman Luboff Choir, and the Morton Gould Symphonic Band; plus the Swingle Singers and Anna Russell.

Before high school graduation, Michael had taken some exploratory organ lessons from Bob Wech, gotten a more serious introduction from Miss Wallace, and then school choir director Dorothy Turner (another important influence and also an organist!) arranged for Michael to learn service playing as a summer substitute. The marvelous process of discovery had begun under the tutelage of a group of talented, well-trained teachers with high standards. Might there be a lesson here?

1964, Michael set off for Oberlin College (which had been recommended by Wech as a “good place for someone who loves music, even if you’re not studying it”). Despite his background and enthusiasm, Michael had never seriously considered music as a profession. He didn’t think he had the ability, the focus, or the coordination to be a fine performer. Neither did he want to be a teacher. His first Oberlin year included standard college courses and not-for-credit organ lessons from Shirley Renshaw, a conservatory classmate of Wech’s. Shirley must have done a decent job, since the next year Michael successfully auditioned for organ lessons with Haskell Thomson. The conservatory environment was cordial and stimulating, college courses in physics and calculus proved daunting, and Michael began to think in terms of a music history degree as a way of staying in music, yet avoiding the performance route. The downside was that he seemed headed straight down the track towards a teaching position. After all, what else could one do with a music history degree?

Radio? Hardly an academic pursuit, but for Barone it all began on the Oberlin campus. At the end of his freshman year, a friend (and later campus roommate), Timothy Foley (now commander of the United States Marine Band), persuaded Michael to take over the last couple of shifts of his two-hour classical music program. Michael somehow managed to summon his courage, but still remembers his nervousness when faced, for the first time, with an open microphone. But by the following year he had become the assistant music director, advancing to music director in his junior and senior years, with a show of his own and responsibility for the oversight of other student classical music announcers. By the end of his senior year, not wanting to proceed directly to grad school, and typically not knowing just what else to do, Michael figured that he might be able to put bread on the table by announcing classical music and getting paid for it.

“The delicious way that Fate plays” is a phrase that often finds its way into Michael’s conversation, and here it seems most apropos: One day, just by happenstance, I picked up a broadcasting journal and spotted this little ad: Wanted: classical music announcer/producer for KSJR/FM, Collegeville, Minnesota. I didn’t know what Collegeville was or where. But I soon found out.

In the autumn of 1968, Michael was hired as music director for the modest new station that William H. Kling (former SJU student) had begun in 1967 on behalf of Saint John’s Abbey and University, “…because they didn’t want to let the Lutherans down at Saint Olaf’s in Northfield be the only game in town.” Given a professional staff of five, this meant Barone was also 50 percent of the announcing contingent of a service that ran from 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. daily. Lots to do, and lots to learn. Within the year, Saint John’s allowed Kling to turn KSJR and its sister satellite station, KSJN, 75 miles to the south in the Twin Cities, into an independent, non-profit operation, Minnesota Educational Radio, which in 1974 was renamed American Public Media.

In the beginning, there was The Organ Program. Well, almost. Beginning in 1970, Michael parlayed his interest and knowledge of organ music into a weekly broadcast on KSJR. Father Gerard Farrell, OSB, abbey and university organist in Collegeville, was shepherd of an impressive guest recital series on the Holtkamp organ in the famous and acoustically resplendent Marcel Breuer-designed Abbey church. KSJR chief announcer Arthur Hoehn had already begun recording these events for broadcast. Now it was Barone’s turn, making tapes of Gillian Weir, Robert Anderson, Guy Bovet, Xavier Darasse, Jane Parker-Smith, Barbara Harbach, Robert Pitman, and many others, with additional resources in the Twin Cities and a growing LP collection also available.

With organbuilder Charles Hendrickson and “local musician” Richard Proulx, Barone produced a two-hour special on “historic organs in Minnesota.” Dr. John C. Grant (a physician in Sauk Centre and a fiendish organ “nut”; also creator of the Episcopal Choirmaster Handbook) provided encouragement and underwriting support. The Organ Program became a American Public Media fixture and favorite. But how did it morph into Pipedreams?

In 1980, the AGO’s national convention took place in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis and Saint Paul. That week was rich with music of every sort, and in keeping with our policy at the time, American Public Media recorded virtually everything on the convention calendar and even broadcast several events live to our local American Public Media network. After everyone had gone home, I realized that I had all of these remarkable tapes of organ events and felt that there might be justification in giving them national exposure. So I presented the notion to Nicholas Nash, my program director boss.

Nash, it turned out, was more than a bit attuned to the delights of church music and an unabashed Anglophile, among other things. While at American Public Media, Nash was responsible for brokering the ongoing American broadcasts of the Christmas Eve Nine Lessons and Carols Service from King’s College, Cambridge. He approved Michael’s idea of putting the AGO convention material into a package for national distribution, a process made more practical by the recent advent of a public radio satellite distribution system.

Since there was no applicable American Public Media budget allocation, Nick volunteered his sister’s husband, another organ “nut,” as a possible underwriter of the costs of distribution, and that is how Mr. and Mrs. Wesley C. Dudley came to be household names to regular Pipedreams listeners. Nick also hinted that “The American Guild of Organists National Bicentennial Convention Recital Series” was a bit unwieldy as a title (even the acronym, TAGONBCRS, didn’t work). Said Nick, “Why don’t we call it Pipedreams?” And so it was . . . and remains!

Though the convention was in the summer of 1980, the first Pipedreams broadcast did not debut until January 1982. “I’m a slow worker,” says Michael, who produced 14 programs for that initial satellite feed. But meanwhile, he had arranged to record the 1982 AGO National Convention in Washington, D.C., and after an interim period for “review and contemplation,” with materials from that event plus some tapes from Radio Nederland and other sources, Pipedreams resumed national syndication in October 1983. The programs, formerly of variable length, settled into the regular 90-minute format and have been moving along steadily ever since.

For these past two decades, Pipedreams has been the semi-official audio archive for all of the intervening AGO national conventions: Washington D.C., San Francisco, Detroit, Houston, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, New York City, Denver, and Seattle. I can think of no better way to demonstrate what this entails than to relate one of my favorite Pipedreams anecdotes:

Unlike ordinary conventions, which are mostly held under one roof, organ conventions happen at many venues spread all over the host city, wherever interesting instruments are to be found. Most organs live in churches not nearly large enough to accommodate the huge crowds of conventioneers, so logistics are challenging, and it is not unusual for several events to be taking place simultaneously. You’ve been there; you know.

At the 1990 Boston AGO convention, with one car, two kits of recording gear, and the help of his longtime companion Lise Schmidt, Michael managed to be in three places at once, almost.
We got up early, set up one recording kit at Old South Church, where I left Lise to push the ‘start’ button. I proceeded to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, set up the other package of equipment, and showed the resident organist how to push the ‘go’ button, so that when McNeil Robinson started playing things would get recorded. Then I drove back to Old South, packed up Lise and that equipment, and headed over to the Church of the Advent, where we set up for Ludger Lohmann’s recital. As soon as I’d gotten that started, I went back to Saint Paul’s, waited for the event there to finish, packed that stuff up, drove back to the Church of the Advent, and waited until Ludger Lohmann had concluded, then packed that stuff up and was done. So between 7:30 in the morning and 1:30 in the afternoon, we had—since two of the recitals were back-to-back repetitions—five events in three locations, recorded with two sets of equipment, all managed with only one automobile. The cherry on top of the sundae was that this was done without getting a parking ticket in downtown Boston!

Over the years, Pipedreams has continued to hold its own in the increasingly competitive public radio marketplace. Carriage has held steady, and the audience is not inconsequential. Those who’ve been fortunate enough to listen over the years have been exposed to a multiplicity of marvels. The finest shows have a sharp, sometimes unexpected focus, tying musical elements together with a magic thread that leaves us on the edge of our seats right through to the final decay of that very last chord of the very last piece. There is much to be learned about programming here; teachers and aspiring performers, take heed.

But Pipedreams is not only for, or about, organists. I was somewhat surprised but very pleased to discover that many of the program’s most loyal listeners are not organists at all. We’ve already learned about young Grace. Here’s a sampling of some others who have written: a trendy, Jewish woman in her early 30s whose boyfriend collects motorcycles listens because Pipedreams is unlike anything she has ever experienced and she finds it interesting; the father who e-mails that his teenage son listens to only two public radio programs, Pipedreams and Car Talk; an American Public Media coworker who discovered that the man giving her estimates on thermal-glazed replacement windows for her house was a devoted Pipedreams fan; or the 20-something college dude whose enthusiasms embrace both Elton John and Pipedreams, and he has links from his personal Web site to theirs.

Clearly, Pipedreams engages a wide range of listeners—not just organists—and that is the magic and the beauty of it. Pipedreams is not only an ongoing course in organ repertoire, but it is also a door for people who have never yet heard a pipe organ or gone to an organ recital. Those non-organists who listen have discovered the program on their own. And what is the potential for new listeners?

If you think I’m about to make a pitch, you’re right. This is not just about Michael and his program. It is about our program. Pipedreams provides us with the very best sort of outreach to an audience we might never otherwise engage. Pipedreams also provides us with something that is not all that easily obtained—a public validation of the art and craft to which we all dedicate so much of our time and energy. Pipedreams is our calling card, and we are invited to take ownership and use it.

This is not only about listening or writing a check. It is about serious, dedicated personal involvement. Let’s benefit from this resource that is available to us. Here is a short list of things that you can do (just to get you started):

First, support your local public radio station by renewing, upgrading, or initiating your membership, always mentioning Pipedreams and your allegiance to it. If we don’t support our program in tangible ways, who will? Do not take these broadcasts for granted.

Make certain that potential listeners know where and when to hear Pipedreams. A regular listing of local radio and Web site information in any organ-related publicity, recital program, or church or Guild newsletter is a must. For example:

Enjoy organ music in its infinite variety each week on Pipedreams, a 90-minute broadcast by WXXX-90.1 FM in Anytown, every Sunny Day at 11:00 a.m. Also 24/7 access on the Web. For more information, call the station at 999-999-9999.

Take advantage of mailings already in circulation among potential listeners: church newsletters, publicity mailings for a music series, church bulletins, recital/concert programs. This is not rocket science, but how many of us take the time to do this? And the added few sentences are essentially cost free!

Promote an AGO members’recital with the help of your public radio station, the proceeds of which could go to support the station. Everybody wins.

If you are a teacher, download the monthly program lists from the Web site and post them on your bulletin board. Consider making the program required listening for your students. Look for creative ways to tie it into the curriculum. Invite your students to your home, or other appropriate gathering place, to listen as a group. Talk up the program among your non-organist colleagues and acquaintances.

If you are a church musician, you’ve probably already been surprised by the number of your choir members who listen to Pipedreams. Look for opportunities to talk informally about the program around the church: before and after meetings, choir rehearsals, coffee hours, etc. Share your enthusiasm for a particular piece, an interesting organ, an inspiring sound, a stunning performance, or perhaps a fascinating theme that captured your imagination during last week’s program. Genuine enthusiasm truly is contagious.

Some of us are old enough to remember the days of the Tupperware parties. How about inviting a group of non-organists to a Pipedreams party at broadcast time (Sunday evening, for many)? Once they’re hooked, they can be encouraged to host gatherings of their own, and so the ripples might spread.

An important and relatively recent Pipedreams resource is its Web site, available at any time at document www.pipedreams.org. Barone’s young assistant, Brad Althoff, with invaluable help from the American Public Media “media division” worthies, manages this veritable treasure trove of information, photographs, resources, and links of every kind. Detailed program listings are available for downloading, and at least a year’s worth of past broadcasts are instantly accessible for rehearing in an audio archive. Learn about Pipedreams Live, a programming concept that just might bring Barone to a church or a concert hall near you. And if you have not already bought them, the three Pipedreams compact discs (iconoclastic in content, just like the program) belong in every organist’s library. Ordering information is available online.

From the very beginning, the cooperation between Pipedreams and the AGO has been friendly and fruitful. Let’s resolve to make it even more so. The opportunities and the potential are there. By working together, it is within our power to bring an unfairly marginalized instrument back into the mainstream. What better way to help ensure the future of our profession?

In the final analysis, I’m left to wonder: what is it that has kept Pipedreams alive and well and in our ears for these past 20 years? I believe it is Michael’s genuine love for the instrument and its literature and his irresistible invitation to each of us to join him in a grand adventure. Even some of us jaded professionals, who tend to think we’ve heard it all before, find ourselves listening in new ways and with fresh ears as if for the first time.

Happy Birthday, Pipedreams! Many, many happy returns. May you long continue to help us celebrate the organ in all of its timelessness and diversity.

Or, as Michael himself might say: “Ah, the power and wonder of the music from this great, grand, ageless instrument. Until next time, for Pipedreams, I’m Michael Barone. Thank you for listening.”

The unattributed quotations in the foregoing are Michael Barone’s and are taken from an interview in New York City on October 9, 2000.

© 2002 by document The American Guild of Organists
Reprinted by permission of document The American Organist Magazine