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Each Show Is Different

A Glimpse Behind the Scenes at Saint Paul Sunday
by Vaughn Ormseth, May 2000

  Juilliard String Quartet

Saint Paul Sunday Sessions: Learn more about how a show is produced with this behind-the-scenes slideshow of the Juilliard String Quartet recording at the Saint Paul Sunday studios

WHEN LISTENERS TUNE IN EACH WEEK to Saint Paul Sunday, they usually have the feeling it's broadcast live. That sense of immediacy - the ambiance of rustling scores, tuning, breathing, and spontaneous conversation - is the series' beloved trademark. What most listeners likely don't realize is that each Saint Paul Sunday broadcast, for all its impromptu flavor, is the condensed result of many hours' additional effort on the part of its production team.

Saint Paul Sunday's veteran producer Mary Lee is fond of saying "each session is different." Sometimes she says this with a twinkle in her eye, because it's an understatement honed by years of being ready for anything. An observer passing through the studio on a given day this season might find a band of musicians tuning 17th-century instruments, a traditional string quartet discussing a phrase, a singer requesting hot tea, a choir bringing down the house with African-American spirituals. Each session is different, and everyone who works for the program soon learns that one chief constant on the series is change.

Still, certain particulars stay the same from session to session. Saint Paul Sunday usually records in the Maud Moon Weyerhaeuser Studio, known informally as "Studio M," a spacious wood-floored room at American Public Media with a wall of 20-foot-tall windows looking out at St. Paul's cathedral district. It's an inviting atmosphere. By the time musicians show up to record, they've been thoroughly greeted, their seating has been configured, and there's a table of sandwiches and fresh fruit waiting for them (if music is a universal language among mortals, food seems to be a universal language among musicians!). Each of these elements contributes to making the sometimes strenuous four hours ahead as relaxed as possible.

When the musicians are ready, the studio doors are closed and the producers and engineers begin the process of setting microphone levels. Music producer Steve Barnett asks for a sampling of the loudest and softest sections of each work, as well as any upcoming instrumentation changes. Once music levels are set, more sophisticated adjustments are made-primarily for balance and timbre within an ensemble. Finally, the guests are invited into the control room to see if they're happy with the sound. The fine-tuning continues back and forth until both the producers and the artists are happy with what they hear. When they return to the studio to begin actual recording, Mary Lee breaks the tension and gets voice levels - "So, what did you have for breakfast?" usually gets musicians talking.

Sessions usually begin without Bill McGlaughlin present; he likes to greet guests as close as possible to recording time so that any good insights and anecdotes keep the lustre of a first-telling. Once the musicians have agreed upon their sound and everything else feels ready, McGlaughlin is called in, brief greetings are exchanged, and the recording begins. By this time, McGlaughlin, an amazingly quick study, has absorbed the musicians' bios and reviewed the musicological history behind the program, much of which is already in his head.

Occasionally music opens the program, more often spoken introduction and conversation-the repertoire and musicians' personalities determine which, and Lee makes the call. If a pianist is part of the mix, Bill tiptoes over to the bench - in stocking-feet if he's wearing squeaky shoes that day - and turns pages himself. McGlaughlin's delight in the program is real, and he's not afraid to express awe. "If I had been able to imagine this radio program as a kid," McGlaughlin says, "I think I would have been in ecstasy at the idea of having the whole wide world of music to roam around in, and best of everything, being able to invite all my friends to come along."

Musicians sometimes note how unlike their Saint Paul Sunday appearance is compared with other recording experiences they've had. Though the feeling of the program is live and straight run-throughs are encouraged, retakes are in fact possible and sometimes necessary, a luxury - and an added pressure - not present in recitals simply aired as performed. On the other hand, resisting the temptation of perfectionism, of turning the session into a CD recording, is important to preserve the program's spontaneity.

Other than the musicians themselves (who tend to be their own harshest critics), the person who suggests musical retakes is Steve Barnett. With a lightning-fast ear and an even quicker pencil, he follows each work in its score as it's performed, noting problems in interpretation, ensemble, technique, tempo, and intonation. Approaching musicians with these blemishes can be a delicate task - one Barnett handles skillfully, neither pushing too hard nor compromising too soon. "Dealing with retakes has to be handled individually with each artist" Barnett says, "some very straightforwardly, some coming at it 'from an angle'. But almost always with humor and a smile. Most artists on Saint Paul Sunday are of such a caliber that they know already what needs to be redone and just have to be reminded. "

It is senior producer Mary Lee's work to shape each program into a radiophonic whole - she's the conductor. Lee orchestrates the mix of artistic, editorial, and managerial elements behind each program. Having booked the musicians in the first place and developed a program with them, she goes into each session with the clearest concept of how the program will sound and what form its conversational pieces will take. Throughout the session, she offers direction to Bill, the other producers, musicians, and engineers, reminding the host to clarify and revisit his spoken themes throughout the program, and ascertaining continuity at all breaks and edit points. It is Lee, with the support of engineer Michael DeMark and associate producer Vaughn Ormseth, who must finally turn the often messy raw material of an unedited program into the broadcast listeners hear each week.

"First and foremost I try to create the sort of conditions where everyone can do the best job possible - from the musicians to the engineer," Lee says of her work. "With talent of any sort, you always get the best result if you give them a secure and supportive environment. I also need to be the advocate for the listener during our sessions. 'What are they getting out of it?' is the question I ask constantly. It's so easy for musicians to get excited and start talking 'shop,' but they too want the listener to understand music as much as they do and usually only need a gentle reminder that Bill is just a stand-in for the radio audience."

Above all, Saint Paul Sunday sessions are fun. You can fake tuning for a good segue, but you can't fake the joy of music-making that beams to hundreds of thousands of listeners week to week. McGlaughlin's lightly worn knowledge and enthusiasm are really from the heart; musicians love performing for him - and, by extension, for fans he represents. He and everyone else involved in Saint Paul Sunday keep those listeners at the forefront of all they do.