Classical Mission Brings Radio Host Out of the Studio

July 04, 2008

Bill McGlaughlin's folksy but informed manner as host of the popular radio series “Exploring Music” has pulled thousands of listeners into the classical experience.

But that brings up a question: Why should he confine his missionary work to the studio when there are potentially thousands more to be reached in a live concert version of his program?

Operating on that perfectly sensible theory, the Grant Park Music Festival brought McGlaughlin and his "Exploring Music" to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park on Wednesday night, with the Grant Park Orchestra under Carlos Kalmar to help him survey 125 years of American symphonic music. WFMT-FM 98.7, which produces the series, broadcast the program live in the Chicago area and taped it for later airing on the series it also syndicates nationwide.

McGlaughlin's laid-back narration fit the format as if he had been playing the park for years. He talked about the music and chatted with the conductor, members of the orchestra and two of the composers. Listeners came to the music with ears and minds fully primed. I found it an enjoyable tour of Americana several notches up the sophistication scale from your average holiday-week pops concert.

Along with short works from the first half of the 20th Century by William Grant Still, Leonard Bernstein and Ron Nelson, there were solid newer pieces by Tomas Svoboda (the dancing, celebratory "Overture of the Season") and Chicago composer Stacy Garrop ("Shadow," lambent lyricism offset by boldly dramatic strife).

The strongest impression was made by John Adams' "Slonimsky's Earbox," alive with big, buzzing, pulsing vitality, glinting sonorities and that essential Adams quality of sly surprise. McGlaughlin's reactions to the orchestra's remarkably clean and confident readings were no less enthusiastic than the rain-depleted audience's.

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune