For nearly 2.8 million classical music lovers across the country, what they hear on their radios or computers originates in downtown St. Paul, from the headquarters of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media. So who's responsible for what those 2.8 million people listen to? Joe Goetz.
The new music director for the classical services of APM and MPR, Goetz has been telecommuting from Bloomington, Ind., since starting the job Nov. 16. He and his wife and two young children plan to begin house hunting in the Twin Cities in March.
He's joining an organization that had a rough 2020. Fourteen employees took buyouts in May and 28 more were laid off in June. In September, APM's lone Black classical host, Garrett McQueen, was fired for regularly departing from his approved playlist — a dismissal that was controversial since it followed the killing of George Floyd — and longtime arts reporter Marianne Combs resigned, feeling a story about sexual improprieties by an MPR host had been squelched. But Goetz, 36, is focused on determining what music meets the ears of his services' far-flung listeners. We sat down via Zoom with this 15-year radio veteran to discuss how he sees his job as a chief curator of classical music. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Classical MPR has a feature asking listeners to "Share your classical story," in which people talk about an experience with music that proved a turning point in their lives. Tell us your classical story.
A: I can think of two things specifically. One was early in seventh grade when I switched piano teachers. Eleonore Paul was this little old Swiss lady who studied at Curtis [Institute in Philadelphia] with Rudolf Serkin. She just turned my piano education on its head. Up to that point, I was doing the Suzuki method and going through those things. And she said: "Nope. Here are some Schubert Impromptus. Let's get started." Unfortunately, we had to move after I'd only been with her for a year and a half.
I played a lot of sports in high school and actually gave up piano for a while completely until I got to college where, just on a whim, I decided to take composition as an elective during second semester of sophomore year at Colorado College. I was studying meteorology, environmental science, physics, and wasn't doing particularly well at that. But I realized that I could be kind of a standout with the music department instead of just an average science student. I went to the registrar's office, dropped "Plate Tectonics" and added "Jewish Music." And the lady at the desk was like [raises an eyebrow], "OK, then."
Not long after that, I found out about an internship at KCME, the classical music station in Colorado Springs. It turned into a part-time job, and here I am.
Q: In programming music for all the different services, how do you balance the familiar and the new?
A: As our audience becomes more diverse, our offerings need to become more diverse. So I'm trying to put an emphasis on more modern music, more music by people of color, more music by women — groups that have been historically underrepresented in the canon of classical music. And it's not an easy process. It's a medium that is filled with white men over the centuries. So we're really trying to break that mold as much as we can.
Just yesterday, I programmed the Schumann Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma, and immediately followed it with his Silk Road Ensemble playing music from the African nation of Mali. That's the kind of sonic and cultural space I want to try to explore more.
Q: How about 21st-century music? Do you want to have more of that?
A: Absolutely. When it's appropriate. We're not trying to tell our audience to take their medicine and listen to this music. It has to make sense. It has to sound good. It has to fit in context with everything around it. And I want to emphasize that a commitment to including more diverse music does not mean abandoning the pillars of classical music that we built the format on and that people know and love. It's about keeping those things, but rethinking the connective tissue.
Q: With the difficulties of the pandemic and an awakening of social consciousness, what do you see as classical music's place as part of the soundtrack for this point in American history?
A: That's a heavy one. One of the challenges we face in programming classical music on the radio is to make it relevant, but also knowing that people use it a lot as a departure. If they just can't stand hearing the news anymore, they'll turn us on. So I think that's kind of our role. To be there for you when everything else just gets to be too much. And I recognize that there's a profound amount of privilege that comes into saying something like that, that music can be an escape. That's something I'm grappling with personally.
I don't know if the music we play will necessarily change that much, other than our commitment to increasing diversity. With all this stuff going on in the world, we try to strike that balance of being aware of it, but also being an escape from it at the same time.
Q: Do on-air hosts often make suggestions of things to play?
A: It depends on who. Some are more open than others to making suggestions. I've reached out to everyone. And anytime I feel I have a really different idea, I'll bounce it off the host and say, "Do you think this would sound good?" Because I really believe in the collaborative effort here. My title is music director, but I really don't envision my role as being dictatorial at all. I want to make sure we sound good. And making sure that everyone is on board and has bought into the same vision is crucial to making that happen.
Q: You talked about the history of classical music being mostly white and male. You say you want more diversity in what you play. Would you like more diversity in your on-air people, as well? Is it too white?
A: That's a difficult question. American Public Media is committed to diversifying our staff across all departments. I'm still new here, so I'm still learning the goals and benchmarks of the organization.
I'm a white male, but I think that generational diversity is an important factor, too. I think there's a misconception that our audience is overwhelmingly people of a certain age. But we are finding that there are a lot more young people interested in classical music. Even kids. We have Melissa Dundis doing the "Classical Kids Corner" on Saturdays. That gets a lot of traction, especially online.
And that's another thing we have to be thinking about: Not only who our audience is, but where they're finding us. The digital space, the potential there is unlimited.
Q: Do you see a day when streaming will replace broadcast radio altogether?
A: I don't know about altogether. I think there's always going to be a place for broadcast radio. But there's definitely going to come a time — and it's not going to be too long in the future — when streaming overtakes it. But in terms of having hosts, I feel that's always going to be there. Live, curated, hosted music: I don't see that going away, just because of the shared experience.
Goetz's five essential pieces
Works of particular importance to MPR's new classical director, with his recommendations for a recorded version:
Antonin Dvorak, Piano Trio No. 4: "The first piece of chamber music I ever performed as a pianist. I will never forget that experience." Best recording: Young Uck Kim, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax.
J.S. Bach, Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor: "The Chaconne steals the show, but the whole piece is an epic journey." Best recording: Stanley Ritchie on baroque violin. "His tempi make the dances actually dance, and the Chaconne has an overwhelming sense of momentum not found in most modern-instrument recordings."
Kate Moore, Canon: "A relatively new work by the Australian composer, for four piano parts; as recorded by Saskia Lankhoorn, one piano and one pianist overdubbed four times. A remarkable contemporary answer to Pachelbel's famous Canon, it's 15 minutes of harmonic bliss. I first heard it while streaming Classical MPR late at night last winter driving home to Bloomington from Chicago."
Johannes Brahms, German Requiem: "A joy to listen to emotionally and physically taxing to sing. I got to perform it as part of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus in 2012." Best recording: The New York Philharmonic with Kurt Masur. "Quicker tempi than most, and my dear friend Sylvia McNair's soprano solo in 'Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit' is transcendent. I might be biased, though."
Francis Poulenc, Salve Regina: "The flamboyant composer of colorful operas and ballets also was a devout Catholic. His a cappella choral works are sublime, and this one I have sung numerous times. It's as if someone took Palestrina and teleported him to the 1930s." Best recording: The Sixteen with Harry Christophers.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic who was an associate producer for American Public Media's "Performance Today" from 2007 to 2009. firstname.lastname@example.org