Hearing the World, While Staying At Home
by Matthew Gurewitsch
HONOLULU — Top musicians travel all the time. Aficionados often wish they could do the same, but not Gene Schiller. To Mr. Schiller, the music director of Hawaii Public Radio, the feeling of wanderlust is unknown.
"People think Hawaii is just a rock in the middle of the Pacific," he said here in a recent interview. "But we have some world-class music."
And, thanks to Mr. Schiller, others on the islands get to hear world-class music all the time. Spinning records, preferably vintage, and conducting the odd on-air interview with big names as they pass through, he provides some of the most kaleidoscopic, inventive and compulsively listenable classical programming to be found anywhere.
Granted, that proposition is hard to prove. The national Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio (to which Hawaii Public Radio does not belong) claims more than 600 members at more than 330 stations. And with few exceptions classical announcers exist in hermetic bubbles, known only to their flocks, ignored by their peers. Still, excellence defines its own parameters.
Bill McGlaughlin, one of the few syndicated celebrity hosts in the field, describes the broadcasting booth as the occupant's personal universe. "It's a bit godlike," he said on a recent visit to the islands, where Hawaii Public Radio presents his series "Exploring Music" on weekday afternoons. "You give the time and the temperature, and no one can tell you you're wrong."
Having family on Oahu, Mr. McGlaughlin comes around periodically, and he knows Mr. Schiller's work well.
"Gene has such a beautiful voice, such beautiful presentation," Mr. McGlaughlin said. "He works very close to the mike, in a very soft voice, but with so much color and so much skill, like a Hollywood actor doing voice-overs. He takes such delight in surprising you. I've never heard him laugh, but he makes me laugh. Gene doesn't say a lot on air, but it's like someone said once in the movies: What he does say is cherce."
Mr. Schiller is a walking encyclopedia, almost literally. He walks to work, and has never bothered to get a driver's license.
"I'm not going anywhere," Mr. Schiller said. His core audience is far from astronomical. The state's population has yet to crack 1.4 million, while the Hawaii Public Radio listenership hovers around 160,000. But streaming at the radio station's Web site puts its offerings at the fingertips of anyone with Internet access.
Some of Mr. Schiller's examples of world-class classical music in Hawaii make him sound like Methuselah: His benchmark performances by the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Honolulu Symphony), include not only a Berlioz "Symphonie Fantastique" under Andreas Delfs, the principal conductor from 2007 to 2009, but also a Ravel "Daphnis et Chloé" under Robert LaMarchina, who conducted here about a half-century ago.
The visiting royalty Mr. Schiller singles out are old-timers too. "Everyone who was anyone used to come through at least once," he said. He missed Igor Stravinsky conducting "The Firebird" here for lack of a ticket but vividly remembers Aaron Copland's performance of his Symphony No. 3 — "a carbon copy of his Everest recording" — and Eileen Farrell's rendition of the "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." "People were swooning," he said.
Mr. Schiller is actually a mere 60, and in person, with his Cheshire-cat moon face and curly ginger mane, he might pass for 48. On air his urbane tenor speaking voice conveys a cool omniscience and authority that seem ageless.
"Pronouncing foreign names like you know what you're talking about, that's what really impresses people," he noted with unblinking candor. Like everyone else in his line of work, he guesses wrong sometimes, but he never lets on that he is guessing.
Mr. Schiller's voice is not the only one on his station's air. Packaged content — Saturday matinees from the Metropolitan Opera, American Public Media's "Performance Today," various symphonic series from international orchestras and more — accounts for some 80 hours of classical programming every week. Two paid and four volunteer D.J.'s generate another 40 hours; Mr. Schiller does 26. (A second, parallel stream is reserved for news and talk.)
Mr. Schiller's weekday shifts begin at 8:30 a.m. with Checkfield's "Good Brown Earth," a pastel of birdcalls and instrumental noodling apt to send 10 o'clock scholars right back to bed. For 90 minutes he picks music by themes, corny to catchy: spring has sprung, film fanatic, the seven deadly sins, the wonderful world of vinyl, to name a few. Brief remarks between selections do an elegant, sometimes subversive, job of connecting the dots. But after the midmorning news break, editorializing and explicit contextualizing cease.
"I don't want people to think that they have to learn something all the time," Mr. Schiller said.
Beyond repertory staples he has no end of curios up his sleeve: the overture to Hans Pfitzner's Christmas opera "Das Christelflein," all snowflakes and fairy dust; Joseph Rheinberger's somber tone poem "Die Sieben Raben," an epic in miniature; the dizzying "Buddhists" movement of Josip Slavenski's choral "Sinfonia Orienta"; the narcoleptic intermezzo "Il Sogno" from Pietro Mascagni's opera "Guglielmo Ratcliff"; Zdenek Fibich's bucolic Quintet in D for piano, clarinet, French horn, violin and cello; red-blooded numbers from the Red Army Choir; Mario Nascimbene's Celtic-twilight soundtrack to Kirk Douglas's camp classic "The Vikings"; oddments of Siegfried Wagner (son of Richard), Frederick Delius, Julius Röntgen, Lorenzo Perosi, Astor Piazzolla.
Some 2,000 rarities on vinyl and hundreds of out-of-the-way CDs in the Hawaii Public Radio library are donations from Mr. Schiller's personal collection. "I ran out of shelf space at home," he said.
Born in Los Angeles but raised on Oahu, Mr. Schiller comes from a clan of musicians. A grandfather, conservatory trained in Czechoslovakia, settled in Hollywood as an orchestrator for Universal Studios. A cellist grandmother also sang, notably the soprano part in the sextet from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," if only on a soundtrack for Looney Tunes. A violinist uncle recorded Schubert's "Ave Maria" with the soprano phenomenon Rosa Ponselle.
Mr. Schiller's father, Eugene Hans Schiller, made his living selling insurance. "Like Charles Ives," Mr. Schiller pointed out. "But he was also a trumpeter who as Gene Schiller played gigs every weekend well into his 80s."
"My musical education came from recordings and radio," Mr. Schiller continued. "And my taste was largely formed by what my dad could get, which is to say, what he could afford."
The small, random stash included tapes of Berg's "Wozzeck" from the Met ("lots of shouting") and Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande" in concert from the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Jean Morel ("the best I ever heard, and still my favorite opera"), along with final-sale items his father picked up cheap. One featured Renata Tebaldi in forgotten Italian arias that have remained so. As a child Mr. Schiller heard Jussi Bjorling, that Swedish paragon of tenors, and longed (as many have done) to become a singer but knew better than to shoot for the stars.
"I don't read music," Mr. Schiller said. "I took some lessons here and there but never developed any chops. Just ears."
Mr. Schiller left the Hawaiian archipelago just once in his life, in his mid-20s, for a disappointing year selling records in Santa Barbara, Calif., and checking out a derelict Los Angeles. Back in Honolulu he bounced around for several years as a parking-lot attendant, airport security guard, busboy and, worst of all, teleresearcher. In his early 30s one on-air gig on a big-band station led to another in easy listening, and that led to an off-air position as a board operator on Hawaii Public Radio.
"After a few months of doing not much," he said, "I got to sub for the music director. The next day the president of the station shook my hand and said: 'Great job! Too bad we have nothing to offer you.' "
The situation did not immediately change when the music director decamped a few months later, nor did Mr. Schiller expect it to. "It would have been unrealistic of me to say, 'I want to do this.' There's one job like this in the state. And for jobs like this people want college grads, which I'm not."
Under the new music director, Mr. Schiller picked up an early-evening assignment totaling 10 hours a week, which lasted for seven years. Then, in 2001, that music director died young of a heart attack, and Mr. Schiller stepped in.
His interplay with his audience is at its most fascinating on Sunday mornings, when he programs by request. From the Big Island, the Dutch-born Karin Hazelhoff calls in frequently with challenges running the gamut from Sweelinck, a Dutch organ master of the early Baroque, to mariachi numbers.
"I love to test Gene," she said one recent Sunday morning when I was sitting in on the broadcast. "But I've rarely stumped him. When I do, I send him stuff."
No sooner had Ms. Hazelhoff hung up than a caller from Maui asked for what just might be the selection that best typifies Mr. Schiller's flair for neglected treasure: the extremely flashy, extremely obscure "Maximilian Robespierre" Overture by the composer, publisher and keyboard sensation Henry Litolff, known in his day as the English Liszt.
The only known recording is Arthur Fiedler's with the Boston Pops of 1950, spread over two sides of a 45-r.p.m. translucent red-vinyl single. Mr. Schiller, who acquired this prize at a mail-order auction for $8 many years ago, dusts it off with some frequency.
Historians of the French Revolution know Robespierre as an architect and the chief apologist of the Terror and, in time, its victim, sent to the guillotine without a trial.
"Bang!" Mr. Schiller sang out off mike with boyish glee at a climactic crash. "They shot him." After evoking the gunshot wound to the jaw (possibly self-inflicted) Robespierre suffered on the dreadful night before his execution, Litolff sheers off in pandemonium with surely the maddest arrangement of the "Marseillaise" ever devised.
"The sound is definitely getting worn," Mr. Schiller said, smiling a philosopher's smile. "But the exuberance of the performance is staggering."
Sunday morning. A rock in the Pacific. Gene's at his console. All's right with the world.