Poster Michael shares a laugh with Barbara Dennerlein.
Michael Barone shares a laugh with organist Barbara Dennerlein during a concert that was recorded for 'Pipedreams' in 2008.

It was a 'Pipedream': How the nation's longest-running pipe-organ show came to be

The Twin Cities American Guild of Organists chapter hosted the AGO National Convention in 1980. The program committee had come up with some tasty bits — premieres of works commissioned from Dominick Argento, Alberto Ginastera, Conrad Susa, Calvin Hampton, Richard Hillert, Robert Ward, Donald Erb and Gerald Near. And the Choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, would be making its first visit to the United States. What was not to like?

Michael Barone
Michael Barone

I was still Minnesota Public Radio’s music director back in those days (1968-1993) and thought it would be a keen idea to record as much of that convention week as was possible (and affordable), rounded up a team of MPR recording engineers and did the deed. Some programs were broadcast during the week (the concert of the St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir, at our Cathedral of St. Paul, aired nationally via satellite, and the grand finale event conducted by Philip Brunelle that included Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and Hector Berlioz’s Te Deum went live to the statewide MPR system), but the rest remained in a stack of analog tape reels, awaiting a plan.

Although I had been producing The Organ Program on Sunday nights since early 1970, the convention materials seemed “good enough for prime time.” In addition, in lieu of the former labor-intensive mailings of multiple mass-duplicated analog recordings, the then-new NPR satellite distribution system made the sharing of syndicated concert productions much more convenient.

I approached my boss, MPR program director Nicholas D. Nash, with the idea of a limited series of nationally distributed concert programs drawn primarily from the 1980 convention. He liked the idea and asked what I would call the programs. Having not thought that far ahead — and realizing that the AGO National Biennial Convention Concert Series did not have much pizzazz nor make a good acronym — I was (oddly) at a loss for words. Nick, with just a moment’s pause, suggested “Why don’t we call your program Pipedreams?” Why not? And to make up for the fact that I was coming to him with a necessary expense several months after the official fiscal-year budget had been approved, Nick called his brother-in-law. Happily, Mr. and Mrs. Wesley C. Dudley (Cinda and Wes) agreed to help out. More on that in a few paragraphs.

(Note: Nick also came up with the idea that MPR ought to become the distributor of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which at the time was heard pretty much everywhere else in the world except in the United States. He cold-called the BBC with an inquiry, and history was made on Christmas Eve 1979.)

Having a 3-foot tall stack of good analog tape concert recordings in hand is just the beginning of the process of making syndication-worthy programs. Enhancing those concert programs with artist interviews required additional time and travel. As a result, the first Pipedreams program did not reach the air until January 1982, and the national offering contained only 14 shows. While a sufficient number of other stations had elected to broadcast Pipedreams, enough to consider the venture a success, there was no thought of doing more. And after our regional broadcasts of this material on Sunday evenings, MPR’s schedule reverted to local-only broadcasts of The Organ Program.

However, wheels had begun to turn. By the time of the last broadcast in that first limited series of Pipedreams programs, the next AGO National Convention, to be held in our nation’s capital, was just around the corner. Although the AGO had not received any similar national media attention before Pipedreams, it seemed that neither NPR nor the two classical music stations in Washington, D.C., had any interest in getting involved. Since fools jump in where angels have other thoughts, I volunteered to explore the possibilities. With the help of audio guru Curt Witting and Skip Pizzi, one of Curt’s D.C.-based colleagues, we did the deed in summer 1982. I recall that, following a torrential evening downpour, vapor clouds graced the nave of the National Cathedral as we set up for the opening convocation!

Again, I took some time to gather the necessary additional materials, but the notion that — with AGO biennial conventions, access to recitals through MPR’s new affiliation with the European Broadcasting Union, my own ongoing regional recording activity, and the never-ending flow of recently released domestic and imported commercial albums (on LPs back then) — it would not be impossible to provide content for an ongoing nationally syndicated weekly program. As a result, we revived Pipedreams in October 1983 and have been going at it ever since.

Happily, 40 years. Who would have thought?

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