Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Last Great Oak Falls - Norm Pellegrini is dead

I feared something was up when I started to see a number of hits to my website that came off of Google searches for Norm Pellegrini, and late last week, the fears were confirmed: Norman Pellegrini, program director for Chicago fine arts station WFMT for nearly fifty years, died on Thursday at the age of 79. For years, I would see him taking his lunch at, of all places, the food court atop Chicago Place. He was legendary for his outbursts of temper at FMT, but when I dedicated a contribution I made to a Lyric Operathon in his honor, I received not long thereafter a handwritten note from him thanking me.

He was the last survivor of a group of often contentious individuals, all now gone - Bernard and Rita Jacobs, Ray Nordstrand, Studs Terkel - who created one of the golden eras in Chicago's cultural history: a radio station that reinvented the very idea of classical music broadcasting into something that adhered both to the highest standards and most democratic impulses. No, I didn't go to college. I almost felt that I didn't have to. WFMT was my higher education, my introduction to the world of classical music and opera, Beethoven and Mahler and Verdi, and, through a special series, contemporary composers, as well. It's through FMT that I first encountered Job and Godot, and through Studs, people like journalist James Cameron and the voices of Hiroshima's survivors, through the Midnight Special, the great American musicals, Steve Goodman, and that the unearthly falsetto, as chill as death, of Richard Dyer-Bennet, taking us across that lonesome valley, a new baptism at the close of each week.

What went out over the air sounded seamless and perfect but, as chronicled by the Chicago Reader's Robert McClory all the way back in 1987, what went on beneath was apparently not entirely unlike Italy under the Borgias. Everyone had their own ideas of what made the station great and how to keep it that way. Rita Jacobs despised those taped transcript ions of performances of the Big Five orchestras and San Francisco Opera that I loved, that brought such soul-changing events as Tennstedt's first Beethoven with the Boston Symphony, and Giulini's Mahler 9th with the Philadelphia.

It all had started to unravel even before I became a listener. Ill health forced sale of the station, and a citizens group that included Nobel-prize winning author Saul Bellow, who I always remember poking fun at an FMT announcer's pronunciation of the word fondue in one his novels (Humboldt's Gift?), scuttled the station's purchase by WGN. Instead, the station was turned over to WTTW, where it's been in the hands of bureaucrats ever since. The management structure there, shared with WTTW, lists no fewer than eight Vice-Presidents - they threaten to eventually out-number the ranks of on-air talent. The titles, themselves, are masterpieces of obfuscation. Not one identifies anyone as general manager for either FMT or TTW. Steve Robinson, who used to have the title of WFMT General Manager, is now EVP for "Radio & Project Development". For TTW, there's a "SVP and Chief Television Content Officer." It's hard to imagine any place on such a roster for what was, for decades, Stud's official title: "Free Spirit."

The worst fear of the 1980's - that the station would be sold - has yet to come to pass, but many others have: - the sale of Chicago magazine without creating an endowment, a risible staff-cutting announcement of ending Sunday newscasts positioned as a gift of providing an untroubled Sabbath to listeners, followed by putting the day on autopilot, leading to one Sunday where an entire hour of programming was lost without anyone in management seeming to notice.

To be sure, even its compromised state, combining the worst of commercial radio (commercials) with that of public radio (endless pledge drives), WFMT remains a Chicago treasure - I've just heard Howard Shore's The Fly from the L.A. Opera, I'm listening to Andrew Patner as I write this - but brought down from a creative boil to room temperature, veering towards the tepid. There seems to be a lot more talking down, a lot more of the idea that everything has to explained to listeners.

Although I see him regularly at various events, I've never met Steve Robinson. He seems a very nice man, and I have no doubt he is very dedicated, but when I look into his eyes I don't see the fire I could see in Norm's even in a brief encounter at the food court when I told him how much I enjoyed still being able to hear his voice, that inimitable voice - warm, assured but approachable, inquisitive, and, always, almost breathless with enthusiasm - on the Lyric Opera broadcasts. Even now, it still hangs in the air. I strain my ears to catch every last trace. I don't want to let him go.


Jim Iska said...

With all the celebrity deaths this week this one slipped past me. Thanks for your wonderful tribute to WFMT and Norm Pellegrini.

He was there when I first began my love affair with opera in the mid-seventies. I was also an avid listener of the Midnight Special way back then when I learned to love all those Old Town folkies as well as the show tunes and silly bits like the guy who did Chicago locations in (by today's standards politically incorrect) ethnic accents.

Finally his was the voice that guided my son into his first foray into opera just this year.

Like you I will miss "that voice" most of all. I feel that I've lost a small but vital piece of my life with his passing.


Anonymous said...

Lynn, you have here a wonderfully wriiten piece about a sad event. Thank you.

I am a forty-five year old male and have been listening to classical music and WFMT since I was fifteen. I have never met Norman or spoken to him, but it is good to understand that there was a heart behind those operations and a kind and understanding person behind the heart.

I know only small parts about the the life of Norm -That he was program director of WMFT for over 40 years, that he was there from the beginning and guided the station to its identity that has drawn so much warmth from so many listeners.

I used to listen to WFMT much when a teenager but gradually as I aged, the busyness of my life led away from such partaking and now I only very occasionally listen to that source. Part of this absence is the expansive growth of my own audio collection but after reading so many of these tributes, I have realized that WFMT is certainly not the interesting outlet it once was. Above all, when I do tune in these days, there seems a vapidness or desolation over there that is just depressing. It's difficult to put a head on it, and perhaps it's just a reflection of classical performance art itself that some have said is finally succumbing to that of an anachronism. But whatever its causes, I understand that WFMT died, sometime when left, Ray, Norm, Don, and others, who were the sustenance that we all had hoped, somehow, would be around forever.