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April 2014
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A Familiar Face from Channel 11

WTTW's Geoffrey Baer

WTTW's Geoffrey Baer

—and a familiar voice. Geoffrey Baer is a master at bringing community to television. His PBS documentaries on everything from architecture to bicycle tours capture not only the structures of a neighborhood, but it’s vibe.

This week Geoffrey crosses over to the radio side of Window to the World Communications—a journey down the hall—to chat on air with announcers during the WFMT membership campaign.

For, Geoffrey was asked if he would answer a few questions about ways in which his work relates to music. His response was so warm and enthusiastic—although he declined the invitation saying his plate was too full at the moment: “I am terrible at remembering these things off the top of my head, so I would need to go back through my past shows to jog my memory.”

An hour later, the following landed in an inbox:

In getting to know Chicago’s neighborhoods, what have you found to be some of the historic musical centers? Church music, band stands, dance halls? Which ones most impressed you?

Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville (designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler as a synagogue) was the birthplace of gospel music under Thomas A. Dorsey. Adler (the engineer) endowed the Noah’s ark-shaped building with extraordinary acoustics. Tragically it burned to the ground a few years ago after roofers started a fire. All that’s left are a few of the outer stone walls.

Thankfully Sullivan and Adler’s Auditorium Building still stands.  It was one of America’s first mixed-use buildings and the lavish theatre has extraordinary acoustics. Unfortunately Adler did not do as well with the foundation. The building settled unevenly, which so distressed Adler that it is said to have caused his early death.

Adler made his reputation as an acoustical engineer when he designed the Central Music Hall which once stood on State Street. One of the two tall entrance columns of the now-demolished hall stands above his grave.

Another music hall that is said to have killed someone is Orchestra Hall (now Symphony Center).  The CSO’s fiery conductor Theodore Thomas had threatened to quit if the orchestra didn’t build him a new concert hall. The famous architect Daniel Burnham (an orchestra trustee) donated his services to build it. But as the January opening concert drew near, the building wasn’t ready. Thomas had a severe cold but insisted on rehearsing the orchestra in the unfinished hall. It was drafty because the doors didn’t close fully, the heating system wasn’t working properly and the wet plaster made it damp. Thomas developed pneumonia and died after just a handful of concerts in the hall.

African Americans were historically excluded from shopping and nightlife in downtown Chicago; so they developed their own commercial district called Bronzeville on the south side. This neighborhood became one of the most important musical centers in the nation. The most important names in blues and jazz appeared in the many clubs there. One of those clubs, the legendary Sunset Cafe on 35th Street is now an Ace Hardware store. Up a half flight of stairs, the manager’s office is on the old stage and you can still see fragments of the African themed mural that was the backdrop for the performers.

Do you have some favorite music spots in Chicago?

I love Ravinia. I grew up in Highland Park and Deerfield and saw so many concerts there! Jim Croce, Carol King, Steve Goodman, the CSO of course. The tradition of schlepping your picnic there and setting it up in style is wonderful. I know a lot of people think those “please be quiet” signs are snobby and obnoxious. But they actually amuse me. They represent the clash of cultures between picnickers and serious listeners that is part of the history of the place. I love the fact that the Chicago and Milwaukee electric railroad created the park as a way to build ridership on the train. It was originally an amusement park! After the railroad went into receivership the new owners began presenting opera there (Ruth Page was the choreographer).

A hidden gem is Space in Evanston: a wonderful, smallish room in what looks to me like a converted garage or stable (big wooden trussed roof).  Wonderful programming!

Pick-Staiger at Northwestern is another wonderful hall. Really fantastic acoustics.

Do you have some favorite Classical recordings, works or memories?

Many, many years ago I went to a Gidon Kremer concert at the CSO. One of my WTTW colleagues took me and I must confess I had never heard of Kremer. For an encore he played Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. I confess I had never heard of Pärt, either. But I was stunned. Simply speechless. It was almost a life-changing experience. As soon as I could, I bought the CD and researched Pärt. I learned that he spent part of his career in “creative silences.” As I understand it, literally refusing to speak for long periods of time. It seems to me that only a truly deep silence could have unlocked this sublime, minimalist work.

A funny memory: I produced a number of operas and symphony concerts for PBS as part of my job at WTTW. One of them was McTeague at Lyric Opera of Chicago. I was backstage one day when director Robert Altman was staging the scene in which McTeague (played by Ben Heppner) kills his wife (played by Catherine Malfitano). Being a film director, Altman made the murder short and sweet. The big, powerful McTeague breaks the poor woman’s neck in one swift gesture. I was standing next to two stagehands watching this. One leaned over to the other and whispered, “that’s the fastest I ever seen a soprano die.”

Have you seen Geoffrey Baer’s latest? His most recent venture took him to Parma, Italy (the hometown of Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini) to interview architect Pier Carlo Bontempi. View the program and special features.

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