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Open Ears, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose: WQXR’s New Classical Music Podcast

In August, I saw the Knights orchestra perform at Tanglewood, the Western Mass music venue that’s also the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was an interesting scene: I reckon that, while the average age of the audience was 70, the average age of the musicians was 35, a gulf that made me wonder about the future of classical audiences. Given the obvious implication of the age spread, how will the classical music scene replenish its audiences moving forward?

That’s a question I see at the heart of The Open Ears Project, a new podcast from WQXR and WNYC Studios hosted by Clemency Burton-Hill, the writer, violinist, broadcaster, and producer who also happens to be WQXR’s creative director of music & arts. (She’s also the author of Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day, which came out last year.)

Open Ears is a bite-sized daily audio show that features everyday New Yorkers — as well as the likes of not-so-everyday New Yorkers like Alec Baldwin and Wynton Marsalis — waxing romantic, nostalgic, and philosophical about a single, beloved piece of classical music. In many ways, it’s a great companion to another podcast that WQXR recently rolled out: Aria Code, hosted by Rhiannon Giddens.

I got to speak with Burton-Hill recently, who shared the thinking behind the new project.

Hot Pod: How much of The Open Ears Project represents an effort to cultivate new — that is, younger — audiences with a little help from A-list friends?

Clemency Burton-Hill: Everything I do in the classical music sphere is geared to opening it up, talking about it, listening to it. Unless we in the classical world do a better job of making people feel welcome, we are going to lose audiences. In a lot of places, I’m gratified to see diverse and younger audiences, and often institutions are doing absolutely everything they can, but they’re hamstrung by many realities. In the US, there’s no public subsidy of the arts.

I wish we could fix it with a podcast. We can take baby-steps to say, “This shit’s amazing. Come listen and decide for yourself.”

HP: How did The Open Ears Project come about?

Burton-Hill: Year of Wonder came out in the U.S. last year, and partly I wrote that because to me classical music is another form of music. For many people that’s not the case. People were approaching me to help them out with classical music, to find a way in. They’d say “I don’t know that I’m listening right. I don’t know if I’m doing it right,” and I wanted to shout from the rooftops, “There is no right!”

There’s obviously a perception that classical music is for an educated elite, and I don’t mean that went to college. I mean, people who are schooled in arcane rituals that surround the art form, that unless you’re in the know, you don’t get to talk about it. Unless you have the technical or musical background, your reaction to it is not valid. That’s problematic; it keeps people out.

I wanted to really show up for that idea that this can be anyone’s music and therefore anyone can talk about it.

HP: The fear people have about not “getting” classical music reminds me of the fear people have about poetry.

Burton-Hill: Poetry and music are more spiritually aligned than we talk about. They act upon us in ways that we cannot immediately understand. The primary way to respond is emotional — how it makes you feel, and that that feeling helps us through our lives, through grief or heartbreak or whatever it may be. Why are a few words arranged on a page or a few notes able to actually do something to us?

It’s a public service to demystify poetry and music because they can have a real impact on peoples’ daily lives. I want everyone to have access to that. I’m not saying everyone should love it, but they shouldn’t be shut out.

HP: Do you get a heads-up about what the guests are going to select? 

Burton-Hill: I have no idea what people are going to talk about. You’re not going to get “Beethoven was born wherever.” It’s much more about the human connection. We’re living in times of real disconnect and disharmony. We’re all shooting into our little voids and these sonic love letters that are very short and intimate might help us hear this thing called classical music differently but also hear our fellow humans, as well.

These are exercises in empathy and connection. The episodes are brief and soulful.

HP: What’s the range of guests on The Open Ears Project? 

Burton-Hill: I’ve had waiters, bartenders, a guy who served in the military, taxi drivers, preschool teachers. No one I have approached hasn’t had a story about classical music.

I invited Call Your girlfriend host Aminatou Sow. We went in cold for the interview and she had me in bits because of the story she told of hearing this Florence Price music on the day she got a cancer diagnosis.

There have been quite a few interviews that have really floored me. Some classical musicians are in the mix — and that was deliberate and important to me; it was giving them the license to talk on a purely emotional level about how something affects them — Eric Jacobsen about his mother and her death. It was incredible to hear mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton talk about how she felt met and received by the Chopin Nocturne, talking about what it was like to be 15 and bisexual and not fitting in.

HP: How do you imagine people listening?

Burton-Hill: I want this to be a joyful, empathy-inducing warm feeling that’s created in you. Hopefully you can create a daily listening habit that can transform your day. It takes you out of your everyday. It’s also bingeable. You open your ears to it and engage with someone else’s story.

The music might move you, and it might not and that’s also great because it will cultivate your own taste. We play the full track at the end of each episode and you can absolutely immerse yourself in it. If it’s not for you — that’s cool. Come back tomorrow because maybe you’ll love that one.

This issue’s guest contributor is Sara Ivry, a freelance writer, editor and podcaster based in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Bookforum, Money, Design Observer and a range of other outlets. Until 2016 she hosted the National Magazine Award-winning podcast Vox Tablet and is currently a co-producer on season two of In It from 

You can check out The Open Ears Project here.