Long-running seasonal series offers low-key, noteworthy discussions
The Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning is pleased to announce a new season in its “Musical Conversations with Great Performers” program has commenced — wait, that sounds a little stuffy, and SILL’s Music Mondays are anything but that.
The popular series is indeed back, with its usual mixed assortment of musical guests who come to play a little, talk a lot and have a good time all the way around Monday mornings at Church of the Palms, and again Monday afternoons at Venice Presbyterian Church in Venice.
For those who may not be familiar with Music Mondays, they are a combination of informal but informative conversation with talented music makers, interspersed with a song here and there, and capped with questions from the audience.
“I refer to it as subversive education,” says Edward Alley, who is in his third season hosting the morning sessions in Sarasota, "because the audience is entertained, they get to know a lot about the artists, and maybe they come away knowing a little bit more.”
Music Mondays are light and loose, Alley says, and based on a format established by the show’s previous host, Alley’s late wife, June LeBell.
LeBell had been the nation’s first female announcer on a classical radio station, WQXR-FM in the New York City area. After retiring to Sarasota, LeBell was asked to take over what at the time was SILL’s music appreciation lecture series, which, at the time "was something of a yawner,” Alley says. Based on her radio experience, LeBell began inviting guests onto the show, and the lectures morphed into interviews.
“We developed it together, and it just sort of grew organically into the current format,” Alley says, and that format went over big.
The show eventually had to move from the 450-seat Holley Hall to Church of the Palms, which can hold more than 800. Popular demand then dictated the addition of the afternoon edition in Venice.
Alley coproduced the series for several years with LeBell as host, "and, of course, she lost her battle with ovarian cancer about three years ago,” Alley says, "so the board asked me to continue it. And I said I was privileged to do it.”
Alley has stuck to the format and the strategy he learned from June: Never plan the questions, let the conversation flow naturally. While Alley hosts the morning sessions in Sarasota, the hosting duties in Venice are split between Dr. Joseph Holt, who is, among other things, the artistic director of Choral Artists of Sarasota; and Robert Sherman, “the father of classical music interviewers,” as Alley calls him. “He’s been at WQXR in New York for something like 60 years. He spends about three months a year in Sarasota, and it just so happens to be the same three months of Music Mondays.”
Having different hosts in the morning and afternoon helps keep things fresh for the guests, Alley says, which makes for a livelier, more spontaneous presentation.
The guests, of course, are what makes Music Mondays. “I try to balance the programming between people who are very well known with a few of our local very good musicians and occasionally with young people who are coming up,” Alley says.
The key, Alley says, is no matter who the guest is, to keep the conversation, well, conversational. These are not deep, academic discussions. Instead, Alley says he’ll try to think of questions the casual music fan might want to know.
For instance, Alley says, let's say the guest is an accomplished violinist, “Violinists are always picky about their bows,” he says. OK, so what makes one bow better than another? Get a violinist in a mood where he feels at ease, like he's shooting the bull with friends, Alley says, and he may explain it to you, and how many times does the average person get that chance? That’s what Music Mondays are all about.
“It's like two people sitting on a couch or in the kitchen talking and maybe playing a little bit of something,” Alley says. “It’s like being in your living room, except it's just a very large living room.”