St. John Flynn: Demystifying Classical Music

In the early 1990s, when St. John Flynn first began working as a classical music announcer for WUGA-FM, part of the Georgia Public Broadcasting radio network, the conventional wisdom was that each piece of music should be given a suitable introduction that might include the history of the composer and the music, and an explanation of any relevant musical terms.

 

But, while this emphasis on “musicology,” the scholarly and historical aspects of the music, was fairly standard in classical music back then, Flynn said that may not have been the best way to go. For one thing, it reinforced the misconception that only the educated elite could enjoy the work of Beethoven, Brahms, or Bach.

 

When broadcast announcers give a small lesson before a classical piece, it feeds into the idea that one can’t truly appreciate classical music without a vast store of knowledge, said Flynn, who is also a former classical program director for Houston Public Media and past president of the Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio (AMPPR), the national industry organization for music-format radio stations.

 

Of course, radio announcers themselves aren’t solely to blame for that belief, he said. It’s a widespread perception.

 

But it’s just not true.

 

“There’s absolutely nothing about classical music that says you have to know X, Y, and Z, before you listen to a piece of music — that’s hogwash,” Flynn said. “If we continue to partition classical music off as this special cultural expression that has mystical qualities, that you have to be invited into the fold to be able to understand it, that’s how we kill the music.

 

“The only thing that’s important when you hear it is, do you like it? Does it make you want to listen to more?”

 

That perspective has been guiding Flynn’s work as producer and host of Young Texas Artists’ four-part video series, “YTA Insights.” The series encourages understanding (rather than learning), Flynn said, but above all, he hopes it inspires people of all ages to explore classical music on their own.

 

Lifelong Passion

 

Flynn knows more about classical music than most people, but he’s self-taught; his knowledge is rooted in a passion for the genre that dates back to his boyhood in the United Kingdom.

 

Students at Flynn’s middle school had weekly recorder lessons. In his case, something about the classical music he played on the woodwind instrument drew him in and whet his appetite for more. He began weekly clarinet lessons and sang in the school choir.

 

“When I was still in middle school, I bought my first record album, ‘Selections from Swan Lake,’” Flynn said. “I just loved that record. From there, my family bought me other classical LPs. I used to sit in my bedroom while I was doing my homework, and I had a record player on the edge of my desk. I would listen to these records over and over again because I loved them so much.”

 

While Flynn grew to appreciate other types of music, music by the progressive rock group Genesis, in particular, classical music resonated with him throughout his life. And over time, it became the foundation of his career as well.

 

As a young adult, Flynn aspired to become a professor of medieval French literature. He taught English in France and then taught French and literature at the University of Georgia in the U.S. while completing his graduate studies. But while working on his doctoral dissertation at UGA, he started questioning his career goals. It was around that time that a friend told him about a classical music announcer’s opening at the University of Georgia’s National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate radio station, WUGA-FM. Flynn applied and got the job, which eventually led to a position at Georgia Public Broadcasting headquarters in Atlanta. From there, Flynn never looked back.

 

He moved to Houston in 2008 to become director of classical programming at what was then KUHF-FM, a radio station licensed to the University of Houston. When KUHF purchased a second station, a 24-hour classical music option for Houstonians, Flynn was the founding program director. The station later became part of Houston Public Media, and Flynn remained there until 2016, when he began his current work freelancing as a writer, producer, and consultant in, as he puts it, “all things arts and culture.”

 

Maintaining Contact

 

That was the backdrop to a conversation Young Texas Artists President/CEO Susie Pokorski had with Flynn in 2020.

 

Flynn already had a working relationship with YTA: He’d served as master of ceremonies for the organization’s Finalists’ Concert and Awards presentation from 2014 through 2017.

 

In 2020, because of the alarming spread of COVID-19, the Young Texas Artists Music Competition was cut short. Judges announced gold and silver medalists, and YTA called off the Finalists’ Concert and Awards. In 2021, the competition was canceled altogether.

 

COVID-19 forced YTA, like arts organizations around the globe, to find new paths forward.

 

“Susie came up with this wonderful idea: that one way to maintain contact with the people that supported YTA was to do a video series,” Flynn said. “She brought me on board early on, and we refined the idea and came up with the series.”

 

Pokorski and Flynn decided the series would be informative, but it would not be presented in lecture form. They wanted to avoid the feeling of sitting in a music classroom. Instead, the goal was to take listeners on a musical journey. Even the series’ name supports that idea.

 

“There are musical performances and interviews with musicians, whether they be performers or conductors or composers, who talk with me about classical music,” Flynn said. “The full name of the series is ‘YTA Insights: A Journey Into the World of Classical Music,’ so there is that sense of exploration, a sense of discovery.”

Each episode features a performance by a YTA award winner, too.

 

“YTA is dedicated to these up-and-coming classical musicians, and they give great performances,” Flynn said. “Many are still in college, but they are performing to a very high level. It makes perfect sense to include those quality performances as part of the series because they bring together the goals of the series very nicely.”

 

For Flynn, the experience of creating these episodes has been extremely fulfilling.

 

“One of the things that has been a constant throughout my career has been helping other people to engage with some sort of cultural expression, whether it be classical music, or literature, or the theater, or the ballet. So I have really enjoyed working on these episodes.”

 

You could say Flynn’s work with YTA is coming full circle; on Saturday, March 12, he will once again serve as emcee of the YTA Finalists’ Concerts and Awards.

 

The fourth and final episode of the YTA Insights video series will be released this January on the YTA Facebook page, www.facebook.com/YoungTexasArtists. Episode 4 will feature several surprises for audiences.

 

Episodes 1-3 of YTA Insights are available on the YTA YouTube channel.

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