Introductions Showcases Chicago’s Young Talent: Broadcast from Millennium Park celebrates classical music students

Mike Lawson • Features • November 4, 2018

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Michael San Gabino grew up in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois, learning to play saxophone. In college he studied music and creative nonfiction writing at Northwestern University, and he became the drum major in the Wildcat marching band. All his life, he hoped to make a career in music.

After college, he took a job in a Northfield law firm, thinking that maybe entertainment law would suit him. It did not.

“I was sitting in my car listening to WFMT Radio one day and I thought, that would be a great place to work! And lo and behold they had advertised a position on Facebook: production assistant to the program director, David Polk,” San Gabino says. “As part of my interview process, to test my ear, they had me listen to students auditioning for the Introductions program, and I observed a live broadcast. That was in 2014. I’ve been part of the program for three-and-a-half years now, and I became the host and producer a year-and-a-half ago.”

Meet Introductions

Polk had founded the Introductions series in 2008 to showcase Chicagoland’s young musicians. Each Saturday morning on WFMT, Chicago’s longtime classical music station, Introductions welcomes a local pre-college musician for performance and conversation.

“The program was very grass-roots at the beginning from what I understand, and when David would talk to colleagues from other radio stations, everyone said, ‘That’s a great idea, but you’ll never have enough talent to fill the program every week,’” says San Gabino.“ That’s far from the truth, though!

“We’re bursting at the seams. There’s an incredible amount of talent, and there are so many first-rate institutions that we partner with to support these musicians: the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, the Merit School of Music, Chicago Children’s Choir, the Academy of the Music Institute of Chicago and the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory in Highwood are all programs that work with us.

“David Polk is still associated with the program as our executive producer, and I can’t say enough about his incredible work in building the program from the ground up and establishing partnerships with many of these youth music organizations in and around Chicago. There are so many amazing, intensive extracurricular programs for young musicians, and that’s why Chicago has become a center for pre-collegiate training.”

San Gabino, who also plays locally with the Northshore Concert Band, auditions guests for Introductions via WFMT’s website. “We ask musicians to provide information about who they study with and whether they’re associated with a school of music. We ask them to list honors or achievements, and then they upload a sound file or YouTube link,” he explains.

Before each musician performs on Introductions, he or she completes another questionnaire that helps San Gabino develop unique topics of conversation for each show. One performer, for example, was an award-winning figure skater as well as a pianist.

“We go over everything before the interview portion, so they can be prepared,” San Gabino says. “I don’t want to make anyone nervous, so I don’t sit in the room when they’re warming up. We make sure the musicians know when the breaks are, and I go over the repertoire with them, pronunciation of their last names, their teacher’s names. We want no surprises and we want to make the musicians as comfortable as possible.”

Musicians’ schedules and the size of any ensembles determine whether Introductions episodes are to be prerecorded or broadcast live. When scheduling is an issue, a solo performer or a group of fewer than 40 musicians can be prerecorded in the WFMT radio studio, an acoustically treated space with a Steinway D concert grand that’s ready for anything.

“Our piano is tuned almost every day, because we have so many recording sessions and live broadcasts,” San Gabino says. We also pay accompanist fees the students, including rehearsals. So, typically you won’t hear solo violin; it will be violin and piano.” If a large orchestra is scheduled, San Gabino and the show’s engineers, Mary Mazurek and Eric Arunas, will take their show on the road to the Chicago Symphony Center, or various other performing arts venues around town.

Variety and Highlights

“There’s a wide variety in these performances,” San Gabino says. “The repertoire they play is intensive and it’s not just Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. That’s a core part of it, but it’s not uncommon for guests to be playing music by a living composer. They’re a full view of what it means to be a musician in the 21st century. And I think it’s important to mention that I never interview adults on the program. Sometimes people suggest that we talk to a teacher or a mentor, but we really only feature pre-college musicians.

“One of the biggest surprises during my time here was about two years ago,” San Gabino continues. “I was at the Chicago Mariachi Festival, and I saw this pre-college group called Mariachi Herencia de Mexico. The students are all classically trained musicians. A lot of them play in the Chicago Youth Symphony as well or have some classical experience, and they were nominated for a Latin Grammy Award [for Best Ranchero/Mariachi Album for their debut album, Nuestra Herencia in 2017].

“I invited them on the program but I thought, how am I going to make a classical listener care about mariachi? So I had them talk about how it’s not that different, actually. It’s quite rooted in classical music: You have violin. You have brass. You have structure and form to it. The students eloquently talked about the relationship between mariachi and classical, and the performances were great.

“I just had them back on the program this year, too. They are so talented, and they’re the most humble students I’ve ever worked with—so professional, and so thankful for the opportunity to be on the radio. Some of them are first generation in this country. Our listeners really enjoyed hearing them and a lot of them wrote in to request their album.”

Another of San Gabino’s favorite ensembles to perform on Introductions was a foursome of high school-aged pianists that call themselves 88Keys to Cure. These young musicians have established their own nonprofit, and they regularly play benefit concerts to raise awareness and funds for charities such as the neonatal intensive care unit at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, or the University of Illinois at Chicago’s robotic surgery lab.

A National Audience

Over the years, Introductions has expanded its audience with the addition of Facebook Live broadcasts. Now social media users all over the world can appreciate Chicago’s young talent. “Our program was one of the first on WFMT to do a simultaneous Facebook Live broadcast along with a live radio broadcast, and we do that pretty consistently now,” San Gabino says.

“The first and foremost thing for WFMT is the sound quality of the station. Our engineers, along with Keegan Morris, WFMT’s video producer, really took the time that was needed to understand what technology was available.

“We use the camera system called Sling Studio, which is operated through an iPad. We have three cameras, and our web producer can, with just the flick of his finger during the broadcast, change the camera angles or switch in and out of another video. It’s different from radio, of course. We have to pay attention to how everyone looks. We have to remind performers not to focus on the cameras— just focus on the conversation. There are a lot of moving parts.”

A City Celebrates

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Introductions, and fortuitously, San Gabino and crew are celebrating with the entire city of Chicago. The milestone for the radio show happens to fall in the year that mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events have declared the “Year of Creative Youth” in the city, and when we spoke with San Gabino, a massive event was set to take place in Millennium Park on September 22, including a special live broadcast of Introductions in its usual Saturday 11 A.M. timeslot.

“When I heard about this Year of Creative Youth initiative in January, I said we have to be part of this,” San Gambino says. “So, I contacted the Department of Cultural Affairs, and I found out they had planned a Youth Arts Showcase to be held at the Pritzker Pavilion stage. That’s the city’s most public stage to the world.”

San Gabino developed an Introductions episode that will feature the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Children’s Choir, with each ensemble getting about half an hour for music and interviews.

“WFMT broadcasts every summer from that stage with the Grant Park Music Festival, but this will be the first live broadcast from the Pritzker Pavilion for Introductions,” San Gabino says. “It’s the best way I can think of to celebrate ten years of the program on WFMT.”

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