Boundless Energy and Classical Music: An Interview with Eric Friesen

Rhubarb: You have dedicated most of your professional life to presenting classical music to audiences on the radio, whether at CBC, Minnesota Public Radio, or now at Golden West in Winnipeg. What is the connection between that impressive career and your Mennonite background, growing up in Altona, Manitoba?

Eric Friesen: Growing up in Altona imbued in me a love of classical music, a love fostered both in our home and in the valuation of high culture among the Russländer. My father was a record collector and my earliest aural memories are of baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert lieder as I was falling asleep. Our house was always filled with recorded music, Arthur Rubenstein at the piano or Bach cantatas on those beautifully packaged Arkiv LPs from Germany. Altona also confirmed my romance with radio, a romance begun before CFAM arrived on the scene, but certainly emboldened by the presence of a radio station in my hometown, and which drew into a small prairie town such interesting and unusual characters as Ben Horch and Leonard Enns.

Rhubarb: Why do you think classical music needs to be on the radio or even streaming on the Internet? What does it do for listeners that other musical forms don’t?

Friesen: Classical music needs to be on the radio and streamed on the Internet as a public validation of its place in our culture. It’s like our national parks system: not everybody uses it, but without its existence something critical is lost in the enrichment of those who want to be part of it. Similarly, art galleries or great architecture or ballet companies or libraries (and bookstores) are there to hold up that which is best in our culture. Remove them, ignore them, abandon them, and our society is mysteriously diminished, even if only five percent of the population participates. My definition of classical music is very simple: it is that music which survives when everything else fades away. Classical music is like all great art, indispensable but vulnerable. It survives to claim the very best of our hearts, minds, souls, and spirits. Without it we are impoverished.

Rhubarb: Sometimes the media runs dismal statistics about the tiny percentage of classical music and jazz (so-called serious music) that’s purchased in any form in North America. And of course symphony orchestras all over the continent are in trouble, as are opera companies and other performing arts organizations involved with classical music. What are your thoughts on how we got into this mess, and how we get out?

Friesen: There are many reasons for the crisis: composers in the twentieth century who abandoned their audience; orchestras failing to change with the times; the corporatization of the arts, from boards to management to unions; the high cost of tickets; governments abandoning their role as arts patrons; the decline of music and arts education in public schools. Now everybody is playing catch-up, and when the money has decreased and the art is marginalized, the challenge is enormous.

There are also many signs of life in classical music and jazz, and you need look no farther than to our own Winnipeg backyard for the seeds of renewal: orchestras that live innovatively within their means, the best university jazz program in North America, audiences who care and support because it enriches life in a daunting climate, philanthropic generosity, new immigrant communities welcomed into the cultural family, a true sense of community, and above all, really good artistic leadership. Moses led his people out of the wilderness, and good leaders, those who really believe in the art form and for whom it is not just a career, will do the same for the arts.

Rhubarb: You’ve recorded a YouTube video for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting where you suggest that CBC radio’s future lies with hiring the best and brightest people, and then getting out of their way. How would you assess the way in which CBC radio is moving forward, especially with respect to Radio 2? Are they taking your advice?

Friesen: In a word, no, they are not taking my advice. CBC was always at its best in a slightly anarchist model, where true creative types could somehow make their way despite the best efforts of management to control them. In Radio 2, most of the gifted troublemakers have left, and those that remain are tightly controlled by a visionless management who have lost their sense of mission and are desperate only to survive another fiscal crisis. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, that creative success can only be encouraged, never controlled, never ordered. Radio 1 still has a bit of that old tradition surviving (Jian Ghomeshi, Michael Enright), which is why it still rules.

Rhubarb: What evidence do you see that there might be an ongoing connection between the Mennonite community and classical music, whether in the form of a choral tradition or amateur orchestras? Or is that connection gone?

Friesen: I think Mennonites, like Jews, are still disproportionate carriers of culture in Canada. Some of the cultural richness of Winnipeg can be attributed to the high-culture instincts (and support) of Mennonites. In Winnipeg, it is not uncool to love classical music. It’s no accident that it is in Winnipeg that a new classical radio station is born. In most of the rest of the world, classical radio is either declining or barely holding its own. In Winnipeg, Classic 107 is a beacon of hope not only to Manitoba listeners, but also to classical music lovers everywhere simply by its very newborn existence.

It’s interesting to me that while symphony orchestras everywhere are struggling and even dying, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra is having some of the best days of its sixty-five-year history. A lot of this can be credited to its Mennonite executive director, Trudy Schroeder.

Rhubarb: Since you were an English major in college at Waterloo, it’s not surprising that you have kept up connections with the literary world, whether writing for Queen’s Quarterly or interviewing writers like Vikram Seth and Ian McEwan. What is the connection for you between the worlds of music and literature?

Friesen: As a broadcaster, I have spent my professional life trying to describe in words the experience of listening to music. I think it was Martin Mull who coined the phrase, “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Exactly. And yet, we who work in the media aspire to do just that. I find inspiration in writers and poets who listen to music and can articulate the mysterious emotional experience that comes only from music, or who can describe a great work in words, as for example Ian McEwan did in his novel Saturday about Bach’s Goldberg Variations. That enriches my listening in new and wondrous ways, and gives me the courage to keep on trying to find words to describe what music does to me.

Rhubarb: You’ve had a notably vigorous career, between your work as a broadcaster and involvement as a board director for organizations, including the Roy Thomson Hall/Massey Hall, Conrad Grebel University College, and Minnesota Opera, among others. Now you’re on the radio in Winnipeg five mornings a week. What keeps you going?

Friesen: As a Mennonite, I am wired to work, and I thrive on doing work I love and being involved with organizations I believe in. I remember once interviewing the American conductor David Zinman at the end of a season, when he was completely exhausted by a brutal schedule of travel and concerts. He was apologetically limping through the interview but told me the moment he would start conducting the rehearsal that was about to begin, he would feel the music filling him up. I find music, and engaging with it in the ways I do, fills me up and makes me feel that I am doing what I was meant to be doing. For that there is boundless energy.