June 6, 2019
The Live Radio Experience: “Making a Little Community for a Few Hours on a Friday night”
On June 14, 2019, Classical Minnesota Public Radio announcer Brian Newhouse gave voice to his final Minnesota Orchestra broadcast. For more than 25 years (1986 to 1992, and 1998 until 2019, Newhouse hosted the Orchestra’s live Friday night concerts from a tiny backstage broadcast booth at Orchestra Hall, masterfully interviewing artists, describing the intensity of a Beethoven passage and filling with ad-libs when onstage surprises occur.
In the following essay, which Newhouse wrote in 2017 before a special concert celebrating MPR’s 50th anniversary, he reflects on memorable moments and “what it takes to make a little community for a few hours on a Friday night.” On behalf of the entire Orchestra family, we now offer deep thanks and gratitude for the weekly magic Newhouse has conjured from that darkened booth—and for his extraordinary ability to give voice to the indescribable: the power of music.
I remember that night so well because I’d never kicked in a door before. I was a few months out of college and living alone in a rented farmhouse. The cornfields that stretched for miles around the house were buried in snow. A northwest wind had drifted the roads shut and badgered the house all day. Just after dinner the bathtub pipes burst. It sounded like two small firecrackers. Twin rooster tails of water sprouted from the pipes and sprayed the walls.
A frantic call to the landlord in town. He told me where in the basement I’d find the main to shut off. He didn’t mention the lock on the basement door. So I kicked it in. That sounds way more Rambo than it actually was, but the door was as rickety as the farmhouse walls and it popped right open.
As I mopped up the water, I couldn’t get over the cry of the wind and how the house shuddered. What if the power went and the roads were still closed?
I turned on the radio and a few minutes later there was this reassuring voice: “Good evening from Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, and welcome to a live broadcast by the Minnesota Orchestra.” Something about that moment struck me, and I just sat there on the floor with the cold wet rag in my hands: someone was talking to me from hundreds of miles away, talking to thousands of us in the same moment, gathering us wherever we were, making, for at least a little while, a kind of community in the winter dark. When the Orchestra played Brahms’ Second, oh man, it was like pouring 40 minutes of June sun into that January night.
Fast forward a few years and I sat down at that very Orchestra Hall mic, stupefied at my good fortune. My first live broadcast was of a Sommerfest concert in 1983. An hour earlier, though, a gully-washer of a thunderstorm had blown a roof vent off Orchestra Hall. Rainwater gushed in and the smell of wet carpet filled our broadcast booth and the whole hall. For years after that, I’d walk in the Stage Door and take a little breath in; a hint of that smell still hung there. I liked it. It reminded me of a warm, muggy night when I’d found a new kind of home with 90 amazing onstage artists.
I’ve stepped away from the mic a few times since then, and these hosts and engineers have kept the live broadcasts thriving: Silvester Vicic, Preston Smith, Nick Kereakos, the late Mark Sheldon, and Eric Friesen. For the past decade-plus, engineer Michael Osborne has been the invisible genius behind the on-air sound you hear of the Orchestra.
After nearly 25 years hosting the Orchestra’s broadcasts, I still feel inordinately blessed. Memorable moments? There are dozens, but here are three: Elgar’s Nimrod Variation, when we were desperate for music in the unnervingly quiet and frightening empty-sky days immediately after 9/11. That heartbreaking moment when Osmo Vänskä turned to the audience and asked for no applause at the end of his Farewell Concert during the lockout. And when the Orchestra played the Cuban National Anthem, and the translator standing next to me in our Havana broadcast booth burst into tears.
After nearly 25 years I’m still trying to get it right, still trying to make a little community for a few hours on a Friday night wherever you are, still trying to convey what a wonder an orchestra—this Orchestra—is.
Following his final broadcast as host of the Minnesota Orchestra's MPR broadcasts, Brian Newhouse will continue to serve as the Managing Director of Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media's classical programming, including SymphonyCast, Performance Today, Pipedreams, and the national 24-hour service, Classical 24. Newhouse holds degrees in voice and English from Luther College, and has been a soloist with the Dale Warland Singers, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and an Artist-in-Residence at the Oregon Bach Festival. He won a Peabody Award for writing the radio documentary The Mississippi: River of Song. He's the author of the memoir, A Crossing. His Minnesota Orchestra broadcast host successor, Melissa Ousley, began at the start of the Orchestra's 2019-2020 season.