Clarinetist  John  Bruce  Yeh

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie,
mainly about the basset horn



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John Bruce Yeh joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1977, the first Asian musician ever appointed to the CSO, and is now the longest-serving clarinetist in CSO history. Having joined the CSO at the invitation of Sir Georg Solti as Clarinetist and Solo Bass Clarinetist, John is currently Assistant Principal and Solo E-flat Clarinet of the orchestra. He served the CSO as Acting Principal Clarinet from 2008-2011, and has also performed as guest principal of The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Seoul Philharmonic in Korea. A prize winner at both the 1982 Munich International Music Competition and the 1985 Naumburg Clarinet Competition in New York, he continues to solo with orchestras and perform on chamber music series and festivals around the globe. A Yamaha Performing Artist since 1990, John has toured China under the auspices of the Yamaha Corporation.

John has performed concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on several occasions, including the 1998 American premiere of Elliott Carter's Clarinet Concerto with Pierre Boulez conducting, and the 1993 performance of Carl Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto with Neeme Järvi. A concert recording of the Nielsen was released on the CSO CD set Soloists of the Orchestra II: From the Archives, vol. 15.  In 2004, John was featured in Leonard Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs in collaboration with the Hubbard Street Dance Company and the CSO conducted by David Robertson.

An enthusiastic champion of new music, John is the dedicatee of new works for clarinet by numerous composers, ranging from Ralph Shapey to John Williams. His more than a dozen solo and chamber music recordings have earned worldwide critical acclaim. A 2007 release by Naxos is a disc titled Synergy, of single and double concertos with clarinet featuring John, his wife Teresa and his daughter Molly.

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John is director of Chicago Pro Musica, which received the Grammy Award in 1986 as Best New Classical Artist. With clarinetist Teresa Reilly, erhu virtuoso Wang Guowei and pipa virtuoso Yang Wei, John formed Birds and Phoenix, an innovative quartet dedicated to musical exploration by bridging Eastern and Western musical cultures.

Passionately committed to music education, John has taught master classes at Juilliard, Eastman, Manhattan School of Music, The Cleveland Institute and many universities and arts academies worldwide. He is on the artist-faculties of Roosevelt University's Chicago College for the Performing Arts, and Midwest Young Artists in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. John is the proud father of Jenna Yeh, a culinary artist and wine specialist in Chicago; Molly Yeh, a percussionist and award-winning blogger in Minnesota; and Mia Reilly-Yeh.

===  From the Yamaha website (artists)  
===  Links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  






As noted in his biography above, John Bruce Yeh is a clarinetist, and as such, has explored not only the usual instruments, but literally the entire family... even the rarest ones.

In July of 1987, we got together specifically to chat for WNIB, Classical 97, about the CBS recording of Mozart
’s Music for Basset Horns.  Naturally, we spoke of a few other musical topics, but this was the main thrust of the conversation . . . . .


yeh Bruce Duffie:   We’re going to talk about the basset horn, but you are a clarinet player by trade?

John Bruce Yeh:   That’s right.

BD:   Is there any real difference in playing the basset horn and playing the clarinet?

Yeh:   The major difference is the low notes, the so-called
basset notes that extend beyond the written range of the regular clarinet, which is down to low E.  The basset horn goes down to low C written.

BD:   So, it’s another third down?

Yeh:   So, it’s a third, yeah, involving four extra semitones
E-Flat, D, D-Flat and Cthat you have to learn the fingerings for.

BD:   There are extra keys for your fingers?

Yeh:   Yes, thumb keys and little-finger keys.  A lot of times it requires great agility to play some of the basset horn literature that goes down there.  For example, in the Trio of the first Minuet in Mozart Gran Partita, K. 361, that features clarinets and basset horns, there’s one real tricky lick for the second basset horn that requires a lot of thumb motion.  The other real difficulty is the basset horn fingerings.  Even amongst the French clarinet manufacturers, things haven’t been standardized, so you have to learn one for one manufacturer and, if you happen to switch to another, it will be different.  If you start on a Leblanc, for example, and you happen to switch to a Selmer, you have to learn a different fingering.

BD:   But basically, most of the range is the same fingering as the clarinet?

Yeh:   That’s right, basically.

BD:   Are the keys a little further apart?

Yeh:   Yes.

BD:   So it is almost like switching from violin to viola?

Yeh:   Something like that!  I would say that’s a very good analogy, yes.

BD:   Is the basset horn that you use really an alto clarinet, or is it different from the alto clarinet?

Yeh:   The alto clarinet as we know it in bands and wind ensembles, is pitched in E-Flat, and it only goes down to written low E, which is almost the same as a basset horn except it doesn’t have the extension, and it’s pitched a whole tone lower.  The true basset horn is actually a smaller-bored instrument than the alto clarinet.  The basset horns that we use, made by the Leblanc company of Paris, are actually alto clarinets in F, because they have wider bores, which make them more similar to the alto clarinet in the wind ensemble.

BD:   So, if people in a wind ensemble really wanted to play basset horn literature, they’d just pick up an alto clarinet, and they’d be close?

Yeh:   They’d be close, yes.  In my high school and college career, I played the Gran Partita of Mozart on alto clarinet, which is not a very good solution, but at least it comes closer than having to play them on a regular clarinet.

BD:   Do the basset horns come in different sizes, as the clarinet does?

Yeh:   No.  The basset horn is, by definition, pitched in F, so it’s one size, one length, and has all the low notes.  So, that’s standardized.

BD:   There’s no such thing as a soprano basset horn or a bass basset horn?

yeh Yeh:   No.  If you’re talking about soprano basset horns, you might be referring to what’s commonly known nowadays as the basset clarinet, which is the clarinet in A, or even B-Flat, that has been extended down to written C.  I happen to have one, and nowadays more and more performers are playing the Mozart clarinet works on these instruments.  For example, the Clarinet Concerto and the Clarinet Quintet are played on the extended A clarinet, which is known as the basset clarinet.  So, if you want to talk about the different ranges and the different sizes of basset horn, this isn’t a true basset horn but it’s a basset clarinet.

BD:   Is there knowledge of why Mozart used the basset horn instead of the clarinet?

Yeh:   Yes.  From the scholarship that we’ve been doing in recent years, it’s come to light that the person who was the dedicatee of most of the Mozart clarinet works
Anton Stadler (1752-1812)and his brother, Johann Stadler (1755-1804), and a couple of other fellow musicians, were all in the Masonic Lodge.  [In 1782, Emperor Joseph II issued a decree to have the Stadler brothers hired as members of the Vienna Court Orchestra, where Johann played first clarinet, and Anton played second.  In 1801, Beethoven wrote the basset horn part in the ballet Creatures of Prometheus for Johann.]  They all played clarinet, and the Stadlers had specially-made instruments that were extended down to low C.  So, they were adept at playing this extended-ranged instrument, and that’s why nowadays it’s become fashionable.  But I think it’s more advantageous to play the Mozart works on the extended clarinet because of the historical reasons.

BD:   So whenever you’re asked to play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto or the Quintet, you’ll insist on using the basset clarinet?

Yeh:   Yes.  Since I now own one, I would certainly relish the opportunity to play those pieces on the more authentic instrument.

BD:   Is there any reason at all now to play them on the standard clarinet?

Yeh:   Not if you have an excellent basset clarinet, not at all, no.  The basset range is much more colorful, and it follows the musical contours better.  You can see exactly why Mozart would have liked to have heard the works that way.  And, as you know by listening to some recent recordings of those pieces, it’s hard to go back to listening to the other way.   

BD:   Think about the clarinet choir
, a choir of clarinets from the little ones to the big ones.  Does the basset horn fit into that at all?

Yeh:   When you’re talking about a clarinet choir, it’s more in the traditional wind ensemble style, mostly to be found in universities, and they don’t usually have access to basset horns.  Although I must say I’m not familiar with it, most of the literature is probably written with alto clarinet in E-Flat in mind.  The basset horn really is less rare now than it was ten or fifteen years ago, but it still is a very rare instrument, and you generally wouldn’t find it in a clarinet choir.

BD:   Is it satisfying to play the basset horn?

Yeh:   Because of the repertoire that’s been created for it by Mozart, and by some more modern composers like Strauss for example, it’s very satisfying to play the great music that’s been written for the instrument.  By far, Mozart wrote more music for the basset horn than anybody else.  The Divertimenti, which are often played on two clarinets and bassoon, also have been shown to have been originally written for three basset horns.

BD:   Three basset horns of the same size?  [Besides the photo of Yeh and his Chicago Symphony colleagues on the LP jacket shown below, to view anoher photo of three basset horns held by performers, see my interview with Sabine Meyer.]

Yeh:   That’s right, but there’s a top voice, a middle voice, and a bottom voice.

BD:   But two clarinets and a bassoon would be two different ranges?

Yeh:   That’s right!  The third basset horn is generally written in a lower tessitura, of course, whereas the first basset horn never uses any of the basset notes.  So, in that way they are different ranges, but you play them on the same instruments.  So, it’s three equal instruments playing the different ranges.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Does the basset horn require the same reed as an alto clarinet, and the same ligature?

Yeh:   That’s another thing.  The basset horns that we use are made by Leblanc.  The Chicago Symphony has two of them, and they are really alto clarinets in F, so we use alto clarinet mouthpieces.  However, I usually use alto saxophone reeds because they seem to work well, and they fit okay.

BD:   Is that a little heavier reed?

Yeh:   It’s a little bit heavier, and it’s got a little more heart to the sound than the alto clarinet reed.

yeh BD:   Do you spend a lot of time whittling on reeds?

Yeh:   Oh, yes!  [Both laugh]  Every clarinetist really has to deal with that, but on the basset horn it’s probably less critical a problem than it is for the regular clarinet, simply because it’s a larger instrument.  That’s maybe not a fair statement but its how I feel about it.

BD:   When I played bassoon in high school and college (studying with Wilbur Simpson of the Chicago Symphony), I was always whittling on reeds.

Yeh:   Right!  Reeds are the bane of the reed player.

BD:   Maybe we should have taken up the flute...  [Both laugh]

Yeh:   No, I love the clarinet family, and the repertoire that’s written for it.  So, we put up with that aspect of the life.

BD:   In your career, have you played all the instruments in the clarinet family, from the little tiny ones to the great big huge ones?

Yeh:   Yes, I think I have played each one at one time or another.  I can’t really say that I’ve regularly performed on the extreme members of the family, although we have, on occasion, performed pieces in the orchestra requiring contra-bass clarinet in B-Flat.  That’s always a very amusing, if not greatly satisfying experience.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is it at all like playing contrabassoon?

Yeh:   I’m not quite sure it’s like the contrabassoon, because bassoonists generally have opportunities to play contrabassoon, whereas the contra-bass clarinet is really a very unusual instrument.  In fact, it
s funny that the point should come up, because the Donald Martino Triple Concerto was written for soprano clarinet, bass clarinet, and contra-bass clarinet, and we have plans to play this at the University of Chicago with the Contemporary Chamber Players, and Ralph Shapey.  [In the interview, Martino said it was a wonderful performance.]  So, it’s an exciting plan, and I’m going to be playing the contra-bass clarinet.

BD:   [With a slight nudge]  The three of you drew lots and you lost?

Yeh:   [Smiles]  No, I’ve always had in mind playing that part, and I’m going to try and get the best instrument possible.  I don’t own one unfortunately, but there are some very beautifully made rosewood contra-bass clarinets.

BD:   Probably some obscure small high school will have one.

Yeh:   You know, I think they have them.  So, if there are any band directors out there, we’re looking for a very good B-Flat contra-bass clarinet [about nine feet in length].

BD:   B-Flat, or double-B-Flat?

Yeh:   It would be double-B-Flat, that’s right, one octave below the bass clarinet.  Also, at the other end of the spectrum, there is an A-Flat clarinet [fourteen inches] that is even higher than the piccolo E-Flat clarinet [nineteen inches], which I generally play in the orchestra.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  You’re kidding!?!

Yeh:   I once had an opportunity to play the A-Flat clarinet in Vienna, where the Schrammelmusik Quartet performs.  It plays wine-garden music, and consists of two violins, a bass guitar, and a tiny A-Flat clarinet.

BD:   I would think you’d be afraid of breaking the thing!

Yeh:   [Laughs]  The guy that was playing it was so tiny, that the instrument looked like a regular piccolo E-Flat clarinet when he was playing it.  But when I picked it up, it looked like a toothpick, and it felt very interesting to play.  Certainly, the range isn’t that great, but the colors you can get in the low register are beautiful for that combination of instruments.  So that’s the range of the clarinet family, and it runs the gamut.  Then there are the basset clarinet and the basset horn between the A clarinet and the alto clarinet [forty-three inches], plus the bass clarinet [four and a half feet].

BD:   If you play this same note at the same pitch on the alto clarinet and the basset horn, will they sound identical?

Yeh:   Not really.  The basset horn has a more covered sound, and is a bit less treble sounding.  It really would sound similar, but it wouldn’t necessarily sound the same.  It really depends on the register.  In the higher register of the basset horn, it might start to approach the sound of a clarinet, but in the middle register or the lower register, it has a much more covered, less penetrating quality than a regular clarinet.  For example, if I were to play a low F on the basset horn, and then switched over to the regular clarinet, there would be a definite difference, particularly in that register.  But if you go up to a higher octave, they would be much more similar.  So, the real difference with the basset horn is what gave it its name, which is the lowest notes.  The basset hound is a low dog.  The basset horn is a low instrument, but it’s not really a horn.  It’s just been dubbed that for some reason.
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BD:   Just as the english horn is neither English, nor a horn!

Yeh:   Right.

*     *     *     *     *
 
BD:   For the basset horn, do you use a neck strap to help balance the instrument?

Yeh:   Yes, because of the need to use the thumb not only for support, but also for low fingerings.  Sometimes you have to rely on the neck strap to support the entire instrument if you’re using the thumb a lot to play the fingerings.  When we stand, it’s really mandatory to use the strap.

BD:   Bass clarinets sit on the floor?

Yeh:   That’s right!  We have a peg, also.  When we’re sitting, there’s a peg that you can fix to the bell of the basset horn.

BD:   Do you ever think of using a
Rostropovich endpin?  [That is the one with a bend in it.]

Yeh:   When we’re sitting down, the basset horn is practically vertical, up and down, and you can tilt it, but certainly not that much like a cello.  It’s a very wide-ranging instrument.  Besides the low notes, it can go very high.

BD:   Does the basset horn have more notes on it than a clarinet?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Robert Carl, and Howard Sandroff.]

Yeh:   Yes, it does simply because of the fact that it’s got the low notes.

BD:   It has all the same upper register, but then it also has extra notes at the bottom?

Yeh:   That’s right.  It’s too bad that more modern composers haven’t written for it, because it does have a showy range.

BD:   If you’re asking a modern composer to write for it, would you suggest that they write for the basset horn as a solo, or in ensemble with other instruments?

Yeh:   Both ways are very effective, but more so in an ensemble because that’s where the experience of playing a basset horn really has come.  There are very few solo pieces for basset horn.  It would be nice, of course, to enrich the literature for the basset horn solo, but there are only a handful of pieces.  Alessandro Rolla (April 23, 1757 - September 14, 1841) wrote a concerto, and there’s a piece by Alois Beerhalter (July 8, 1798 - March 8, 1858 [though other dates appear in various articles, these are according to MGG, the foremost German-language music encyclopedia]) called Variations on a German Folksong.

BD:   Were they both friends of Stadler?

Yeh:   These were later than Mozart, but they had been influenced by at least that line of heritage.

BD:   If a composer wrote something for basset horn, would the several players who play basset horn grab onto it immediately and take it around?

Yeh:   I would imagine so.

BD:   That’s a guarantee of performance.

Yeh:   Certainly there would be people interested in doing it.  Of course, there aren’t that many players that specialize in the basset horn, but I’m sure those that do would be interested.

BD:   Have you specialized in the basset horn, or do you specialize in the whole clarinet family?

Yeh:   I specialize in the whole family.  Just the fact that we have access to a basset horn is a reason to be a specialist, because they are very hard to get a hold of.  We’ve had this advantage, therefore we have been able to play the literature.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Have you ever had the vision of becoming a touring basset horn virtuoso?

Yeh:   [Bursts out laughing]  No, to be quite honest!  Actually, Stadler probably was the closest to that, that ever has been, and he was a clarinetist first and a basset horn also.  With the way the literature is, that’s the only way one could really make a career of playing the basset horn.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you like the sound that comes back at you on the recordings of the basset horn?

Yeh:   Referring to our Chicago Symphony Winds recording of Mozart Music for Basset Horns, we’re very pleased with the way that turned out.  The engineers, Larry Rock and Jim Unrath, and CBS did a wonderful job in mastering, and we really couldn’t have asked for more.


BD:   [Noting that the LP set (shown below) had recently been re-issued on CD]  Are you pleased with the CD sound in general?  [Remember, this interview was held in 1987, when sales of CDs were about to eclipse those of LPs, and would overtake cassettes in 1991.  Just for reference, after having been introduced into the market in 1983, by 2018 all the big retail outlets had phased out their sales of CDs.]

Yeh:   Yes, in fact in this particular case, the CD is a slight improvement over the other formats.  The acoustic in which these recordings were made was very reverberant and wet, and on the CD this effect has been a little bit dried out, so there’s more clarity.  It worked out very nicely, and I’m glad that they finally did issue it on CD, because that’ll certainly attract a lot of attention.  Nowadays, the CD is the format is attracting the most attention from the buying public.


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BD:   You’re an orchestral player who plays in the live orchestra all the time.  How do you feel about people who listen to records perhaps too intently?

Yeh:   Recording is really a different aspect of music than live performance.  It is a different process.  A recording is generally made under conditions that couldn’t possibly be the same as in a live performance.  First of all, there’s not usually an audience.  Second, microphones are placed all over the place, and often the piece is recorded in small segments, and then put together to ensure note accuracy.  Often times, and I’m very sorry to say especially these days, the sound on some of the recordings is overly manipulated.  I really don’t think sometimes that the representation of records is a true and accurate picture of what’s actually coming out of the orchestra.

BD:   At what point does it become a fraud?

Yeh:   That’s a very good way to put it. 
Fraud is maybe not too strong a word to use in some of our modern-day recording products that come out with individual players or individual sections turned up or turned down.  One can really manipulate, the sound of an instrument or the sound of anything very widely these days with modern technology.  Once in a while a recording engineer will go a little bit too far, and manipulate too much, and actually create balances in the control room that are contrary to what the performer has in mind.  That is the point at which the recording becomes a fraud.

yeh BD:   Should the performer or the conductor be involved in all of this to make sure that that kind of thing doesn’t happen?

Yeh:   They should!  They should definitely be the only person that’s involved in doing this sort of balance, with the assistance of the engineers, of course.  But often times a conductor or a performer is... I wouldn’t say disregarded, but perhaps led to believe that the way the engineer wants a recording to sound is fine, and that’s the way it should be.  But then, in the end, it probably doesn’t sound right to the musician, or at least to me, sometimes.

BD:   Despite that, is playing the clarinet fun?

Yeh:   [Enthusiastically]  Yes!  I would say it’s a lot of fun!  It can be entertaining to play certain repertoire.  Particularly the chamber music and orchestra literature is so rich for the clarinet.  I would say that when we have a great piece like the Brahms Quintet or the Gran Partita of Mozart, playing the clarinet is fun.  Playing music is fun, I would say, very enjoyable.

BD:   Let me ask you a great big philosophical question.  What is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

Yeh:   Oh, boy!  That is a great big one!  I would say it’s to enrich people; to enrich people’s outlook; to create a response in people, perhaps a positive response, or happy feelings, or maybe an introspective feeling.  Like any art does, it is a way of stimulating the senses of humanity.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Yeh:   Oh, sure!  I’m very optimistic about the future of music!  For myself, at least, it’s wonderful to be a performing musician.  I don’t know what my life would be without it, but it certainly wouldn’t be as enjoyable or as full as it is.  In terms of new repertoire and of performers, it’s mind-boggling.  Every year we hear the quality of young performers stepping onto the stage.  For example, in front of our orchestra we have a young-performers competition, and each year there is just consistently a high level of quality amongst the finalists.  They perform, and it’s incredible.  I can just look ten years back to when I was at Juilliard, and some of my classmates have been catapulted to world fame, and it’s not for no reason.  It’s because they’re wonderful players.  Great music is being created nowadays, and the future of music looks good.  In terms of artistic quality and enrichment of the culture, I’m very optimistic.

BD:   When you’re playing a concert, is there ever a time, or even an evening, when you attain that real perfection?

Yeh:   Yes.  There are often those moments when you feel especially good about performing.  There are certain real highs that occur, and that
s what makes being a musician great.  Its the only thing that I would do.  It’s because of those thrills.  It’s because of the musical satisfaction that comes with making music with great players, with great conductors, and playing great literature.

BD:   How long does it take the orchestra as a whole to adjust to a new conductor?

Yeh:   It really depends from conductor to conductor, and from orchestra to orchestra.  Specifically referring to the Chicago Symphony, one conductor put if very aptly, saying it has the best digestive system of any orchestra in the world.  That’s indicative of the fact that everybody is a very sensitive musician, and can react very quickly.  Our orchestra probably would take less time to get used to a new conductor than just about any other orchestra.  That’s amply displayed in the wide variety of recordings and concerts that we give with all sorts of different conductors.  The sound changes very definitely when we move from one conductor to another.

BD:   So, the orchestra lets the conductor mold the sound of his taste?

Yeh:   That’s right, particularly if the conductor is a great musician.  If a conductor is technically very proficient, you can play very cleanly very soon with that sort of conductor.  But getting used to his sort of expression may take longer even with a conductor that’s very proficient.  On the other hand, if you have a conductor that communicates differently, maybe on a deeper level that perhaps goes beyond simple baton-technique, you can get used to certain aspects of that very easily, also.  We’ve had very good fortune in our orchestra with conductors.

BD:   The Chicago Symphony can demand the best.

Yeh:   Right, and it’s been very rewarding.  I can remember some incredible experiences with conductors like Carlo Maria Giulini, and Carlos Kleiber, and Sir Georg Solti, of course.

BD:   Before you came to the Chicago Symphony, you played in other orchestras?

Yeh:   Only in student orchestras.  The Chicago Symphony was my first professional position.  I came here on bass clarinet, and a couple of years later moved several octaves up to the E-Flat, so I’ve run the gamut.

BD:   Did you know that would happen when you were hired as the bass clarinetist?

Yeh:   No, that didn’t even cross my mind.

BD:   Did you want to spend forty years playing the bass clarinet???

Yeh:   [Laughs]  Well, at that point, I was so happy to have been accepted into one of the great orchestras of the world that I was happy to be doing that at that time.  It didn’t really cross my mind what would be in the future.

BD:   Are you where you want to be now?

Yeh:   Right now, I’m very pleased in my position, yes.  I’ve got the flexibility of playing all different instruments.  Playing chamber music is a great love of mine, and I have the opportunity to do that with Chicago Pro Musica, and with the Chicago Symphony Winds.  It’s a very well-balanced musical diet.

BD:   You’re very lucky.

Yeh:   I am very lucky I must say!  It’s been a fortunate road for me.

BD:   Thank you for speaking with me today.

Yeh:   Thank you.  I
’ve enjoyed it very much.




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See my interview with William Neil



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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the home of John Bruce Yeh in suburban Chicago on July 9, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two weeks later, and again in 1997.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.