Meet Jeff Spurgeon

Friday, October 23, 2009

As WQXR's morning host, Jeff Spurgeon is a vital part of many listeners' morning routines. In the first of a series of host profiles, we ask Jeff about working the early shift, his favorite pieces, and the state of classical music today.

Hometown: Scottsbluff, Nebraska
Current Home: Kensington section of Brooklyn
Years in Radio: 33, "and thanks loads for reminding me"
Years at WQXR: Twelve -- and counting.

You work the morning shift, from 5:30 am to 10:00 am. What are your impressions of the time slot? Have you gotten accustomed to the early morning routine?

In the course of more than 30 years of work on the radio, most of it spent in some capacity in morning drive programs, the 5:30-10AM slot has never been anything less than very, very early. I keep hoping 5:30 will somehow come later in the day -- say, just after lunch. But it never does. Apparently it has something to do with the sun. My body clock has
definitely adjusted, though; on weekends, the latest I sleep in is 7:00. But don't call until 9:00 anyway.

Do you do anything special to keep your voice in shape for radio?

Funny you should ask. At a recent event where the crowd was asked to get loud for a few moments, I was happy to applaud, but I didn't yell, and I realized that I've made it a habit not to, to avoid becoming hoarse.

You got your start in New York radio in 1989 working for Mix 105. What’s the biggest difference between classical and popular formats?  

I'm very proud of having worked at WNSR (later WMXV), and of the fact that four members of the staff there in the ‘90s are morning hosts at other New York stations today: Jim Douglas at Fresh 102.7, Jim Kerr at Q-104, Dan Taylor at CBS-FM, and me. The biggest difference between classical radio and pop radio is, in a word, pace. Pop radio is faster and it pumps a lot more energy out of the speakers. Classical radio is slower and calmer. Here’s another way to sum up the difference and the similarities: Pop music on the radio gets you going; classical music on the radio transports you.

Do you have a favorite composer or piece?  

Sending me to a desert island, eh? All right. It’s Bach. And the only other thing I’d take with me is Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2. Together, that covers the sacred and the secular, I'd say.  But my choices may change, so check back in a week or two.

Are there any pieces or composers you feel are underrated or people don't fully appreciate?

I don't feel qualified to call anybody underrated or underappreciated, but I will say that I'm always especially happy to present Berlioz, Saint-Saens, and Grainger recordings. Berlioz, for me, is golden, never tarnished, always fresh. Saint-Saens is always rewarding. And I love the wildness in some of Grainger's music. They're not under-appreciated composers. I guess I'm just a big fan of them.

Have you done any particularly memorable interviews over the years? Anyone you’d still love to interview?

I've enjoyed rich and wonderful conversations with lots of amazing musicians.  David Robertson talks about music with great passion and intelligence and love for all its aspects.  He makes you want to hear the music, and makes you listen better when you do. Peter Sellars thinks about classical music in very unexpected ways, and you come away hearing with an added layer of meaning, and more grateful for the art form. Just as he was retiring, I spent an hour with former New York Philharmonic Principal Clarinet Stanley Drucker, who shared great stories from his career spanning more than 60 years. When I went to talk to Anna Netrebko at her New York apartment, she answered the door just out of the shower, wearing only a towel, which made that interview unforgettable in ways that had nothing to do with anything she said.  (Come to think of it, I can't remember anything she said.) But I think the most memorable of all was with French composer Henri Dutilleux, who invited us into his Paris apartment one spring afternoon, and was incredibly gracious and accommodating.  And he took all of our crew out afterward for a drink at his neighborhood café.

There’s been concern about the aging of classical music audiences. Do you think the art form can connect with younger people?

That concern has been around for at least half a century, but classical music seems to be thriving.  The record industry isn't thriving the way it used to, and neither is commercial broadcasting, but that's true of more than just their classical segments, and has less to do with an aging audience than an ever-growing world of alternative media. It seems to me that classical music seems pretty well connected to young people--check out the music schools, where, every year another class of terrific musicians graduates into a world with fewer performing jobs than there are great players. There are new works being written and presented all the time, and the melding of traditional and new sounds in classical music continues, with young people leading the way. If you're worried about the future of the art form, support an orchestra or a favorite ensemble; give a gift for education to a music school -- better yet, give a gift for music education to a school where no music is taught; look for concerts young people would enjoy, and then buy some
tickets, and take some young people with you to the performance. Don't wring your hands about the future of classical music. Get to work helping to build it!

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