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'Sunday Baroque' host still discovering new things about the music

Joelle Christine Photography

Since 1987, Suzanne Bona has been delighting audiences each weekend with her program, “Sunday Baroque,” presenting music from roughly the years 1600-1750 in a radio setting that’s about enjoying the music first and foremost, and learning a little along the way. TPR’s Nathan Cone recently learned a little from Bona herself via a phone interview. Listen to their conversation, or read along with the transcription below (lightly edited for length and clarity).

Nathan Cone: I understand that you came to hosting from a different department at the radio station. What were those early years like, and did it take long for you to find your on-air groove?

Suzanne Bona: Well, I feel like I'm still finding my groove! I've been finding it for 36 years now. It was kind of a blind date. When I started in radio, I was a fairly recent grad from college with a music degree. The ink was still wet on my flute performance degree from the University of Connecticut, and I needed a day job, and they had a full time job in the underwriting department (which in public broadcasting is the sales department). And then they had some part-time [on-air] slots on the weekend. And I basically just said very boldly, "How about if we smoosh these jobs together?" So they kind of threw me on the air… on that first Sunday and just said, "Play Baroque music!" That was pretty scary. I think back to those early days and I think it's a miracle I pushed the right buttons. I feel like I have evolved, and I think I think the show has evolved as well, because I've really tried to let the music speak for itself. And I think the music is saying different things at different times, right? Over these last 36 years, 36 years as a local program, about 25 years as a as a national program. Like I said, I think I'm still finding my groove on the radio.

What are the new things that you're discovering then about your own work in radio?

I think I've really started to take more seriously, for lack of a better way of putting it, the educational component. I try very hard not to be pedantic or, you know, professorial. I like welcoming people in. I like talking about the music with people. You know, I'm on your side, I'm taking your hand, I'm opening the door, we're going to discover this together! I really try to bring people along rather than to talk at people or give them lots of facts and figures. But the world of music and the world of recorded music and the world of classical music are rapidly changing. And I've always really tried to have a commitment to listen to and introduce people to composers they've never heard of and new and up and coming performers. And so in the last couple of years alone, there's been this wonderful explosion of groups and performers that we haven't heard from, a lot of underrepresented performers… a few underrepresented composers. Unfortunately, that's a little bit of a harder thing with the Baroque era, because it was such a different time in history. There weren't a lot of composers of color whose work was valued enough in that time to be preserved so that we can still enjoy it today. It's exciting and I try to bring the excitement to it and not to focus too much on the musicological aspect of it, but really to focus on the human and humanity aspect of, of all the music and all the performers that we're hearing.

What makes Baroque music feel special to listeners? There's 500 plus years of music, but what is it about Baroque music that you think people really respond to?

Oh, that's such a great question. It's something I often ask other musicians when I'm interviewing them. I think one of the things that makes [Baroque music] so listenable is that there are some things that connect with other genres of music that are very familiar to people. Even pop music. And pop music has certain chord progressions. It has a certain kind of catchy melody that you can follow, and it keeps coming back. And I think that there's something about a lot of Baroque-era music that has that same quality to it, and so it doesn't sound like you're going off on some tangent, you know, harmonically, melodically. It has that that same kind of symmetry that a lot of pop music has, and also jazz music. There are a lot of similarities in terms of performers of jazz music or any improvisational form along with Baroque music, because that was definitely an important skill in the Baroque era.

I just think that that's something that people who, on a Sunday morning, want to just kick back and they, you know, it's a day off Sundays, a day off for people. And I think people like stuff that's listenable. They want to read the paper and they want to have a cup of coffee and they want to have their breakfast and they want to work in the yard or go for a run. And there's just something about it that's got kind of a familiarity. Even if they don't actually know that particular tune, it just has a kind of a comfort level… like comfort food, right? This is comfort music.

Suzanne Bona, performer.

Well, you're a performer too, as a flutist, and of course your repertoire as a flutist goes all over the map. It's not just Baroque music. We were lucky enough to get a few of your recordings here, and I just loved hearing a piece that came out about five years ago now by Rick Sowash, called “Seasonal Breezes.” I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about the process of working on that piece and with the Sylvan Trio and working with the composer.

Well, I would love to! So, Rick Sowash is very important to the Sylvan Trio, which is my trio with pianist Greg Kostraba and cellist Josh Aerie. Rick was kind enough to write that piece for us. And it's, it's essentially Rick Sowash's "Four Seasons," right? So a lot of composers have written "Four Seasons" and not just Vivaldi. And so working with him, I mean, he's so unassuming, he's so humble. He doesn't even like to call himself a composer because he feels he's an amateur musician and he's very, very modest. Too modest, in my opinion, because he's a he's a very good musician, is a very good composer, and he has a very good sensibility for the idiomatic elements of playing various instruments. I don't think he plays the flute, and yet he actually can write music that's very idiomatic for the flute.

So working with him was sometimes… it was a little bit frustrating simply because we would ask him a question. We'd say, "Okay, so you don't really have a dynamic marking here. We're wondering, like, could we do this or did you mean this?" And he'd say, "Whatever you want to do!" And we'd say, "Well, well, what would you like us to do? Or what did you have in mind? Or, we could do it this way because of this, or we could do it that way because of that. What do you think?" And he'd say, "I don't know. Whatever you prefer!" He's very, very hands off when it comes to the final product. He's so enthusiastic and excited when someone wants to play his music because it's such a personal pleasure for him to write that. He really doesn't want to get in the way. His music is kind of like I was saying about Baroque music. It's very accessible, it's very lovely, tuneful. And there's a familiar quality, even if you don't necessarily specifically know the piece, because it's very well-written. It's like reading a great story that just, you know, brings you in immediately that you can't put the book down.

How far in advance do you work on your shows? Is it truly a weekly thing?

Well, I hope I'm not bursting anybody's bubble…It's not live! We're on about 266 stations right now. And because of that, we're on [in a lot of] different time zones and a lot of stations [are] running it at different times on their schedules. So we really do have to have it ready to go ahead of time. My team and I tend to work about three weeks ahead. I do some traveling to play, as well, and visit stations and whatnot. And so when I'm going to be away, I'll work a little farther in advance-- because we've never had someone else step in and host for me, and we produce a fresh show 52 weeks a year.

It's a lot of work and we all appreciate it.

Oh, thank you. It's a labor of love. And I know that sounds cliché, but still after all these years, I love what I do. I love not only the music, I love radio, I love this business and I love the interactions with listeners. And I love hearing from your listeners and I love hearing from people all over the world, actually… and I really take it as a task, like I'm a tour guide for people and I love it. I don't think I can't imagine doing anything else really.

One question that still may be hotly debated. I don't know if this is a thing in classical music world anymore or if they've gotten past this, but do you have an opinion on the period instrument versus new instrument thing?

Oh, well, it's a good question. A lot of our colleagues are still sort of hung up on that. [laughs] You know, I guess my feeling is that I am anything but a purist. I also think there are some wonderful recordings now and instrument makers have gotten better and ensembles have gotten better, and schools are churning out amazingly talented and skilled players and wonderful recordings are being made. And so I do not object to period instrument performances, and I also do not object to modern instruments. I feel, in fact, that they complement one another. But that's my opinion.

I always do listen to the show every week on the radio... because I want to listen like listeners do. There are some times I think, “Yeah, I'm not going to play that one again” or, I hear something and I think I'm going to make a little note on that, that’s especially beautiful. I'll give you a perfect example of that. Rochelle Sennett is a fantastic pianist. She's working on this ongoing series called "Bach to Black," and she's pairing music by Johann Sebastian Bach with Black composers’ solo piano music. And she is astonishing. I actually interviewed her for my podcast, and then I think one of the first times I played her music on the show, I was listening and I hadn't heard the intro. I, you know, was off doing something. And then, you know, the coffee machine was on or whatever. And then I heard this piano playing and I was literally my jaw just dropped. I thought, “Who is that?” I can't remember because, you know, was three weeks ago, right? And I'm listening, I'm thinking, oh, my gosh, this pianist is just like, I have goose bumps it’s amazing. And that was exactly one of the things that happened. I heard myself back announce it, and I thought, I got to put a note on that. That is just exquisite. It is amazing. I don't know if I really answered your question, but I guess I have no shame in playing either!

Well-said, and glad you gave us something to look out for as well, that's cool for as far as performers go. Which leads me to the final thing I was going to ask you. Maybe we can close with this: If you were to choose one piece of Baroque music as someone's introduction to the art form, what might that piece be?

Goodness. Well, I think it would probably have to be Bach. I mean, I just think that, you know, there are rap musicians and jazz musicians and like, you know, Keith Richards and, you know, all these people who, you know, Bach is sort of their foot in the door to classical music in general. So I think it would have to be Bach. And I'm going to be really selfish because it's one of my favorite pieces of all, and it's the Bach Double Violin Concerto. I just think it is just so gorgeous and there are a million recordings of it, again, with early instruments, with modern instruments, all different tempos. And I just I think it's such a beautiful piece and it's so soulful… its virtuosity… I think it's just kind got everything. But that's a hard question. But that but I think that that would do it. I think that that would be something someone would hear and go, “Oh, wow.”