Verne Windham offers a listener-friendly approach to classical music appreciation
By Marcy Stamper
At a music festival held in a barn — where people come in shorts, not tuxedos, and hang out with the musicians after the concerts — host Verne Windham contributes the perfect philosophical take to the music.
“Through all my life being a professional musician, I’ve tried to hear music as a person, not a musician,” said the long-time presenter at the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival. Local audiences see him onstage at the festival, but Windham’s voice is also familiar to listeners of Spokane Public Radio, where he has hosted a classical music program for more than three decades.
Windham has been part of the chamber music festival for almost all of its 21 years. “The first year after the concert under the moon in Mazama, someone called me about the magic of the concert,” said Windham, who has been a host every year since, except one.
In fact, Windham both performed and conducted during the early years of the festival, helping establish its open-air roots. A French horn player, Windham was part of an alphorn quartet that played at the Washington Pass overlook and Goat Wall in Mazama. The 12-foot-long alphorns, originally used by Swiss shepherds to round up their herds, are still made of wood and have no valves or holes.
The informal alphorn concert was designed to take advantage of the acoustics at the pass and to attract people on the scenic highway. “The echo wasn’t as perfect as we had hoped — the rock wall was too far away and there was too much traffic noise,” said Windham. “Harts Pass was better,” he said, after trying out his horn there on a family trip.
As the festival has become more established — with concerts no longer completely outdoors, but held in a barn with custom acoustics and doors that can be closed to buffer the music from the weather — Windham has continued to share his musical insights with the audience. He offers in-depth pre-concert lectures along with briefer introductions of the pieces and performers during the concerts.
Getting the vibe
To plan his lectures, Windham listens to recordings on his drive to the valley from Spokane, but his premise invariably evolves after he arrives. “What I always do when I get here is hear a whole bunch of rehearsals, to get the vibe and appreciate the feeling the musicians bring to the music. It’s different from any way you’ve heard it before,” he said.
Windham believes the uniqueness of the musicians’ interpretation is part of the composer’s goal. “We hope that classical music is that dynamic — not just one statement,” he said. “We hope it’s always going to change and be different.”
Over the years, Windham has mused about hosting a late-night radio show called “Shut Up and Listen” that would build on his approach to music appreciation. “I don’t think you need a college course and that you can’t like classical music unless you’re educated,” he said.
“Classical music is infamous for laying that on people, with all the titles and opus numbers,” he said. “You want people to know exactly what piece they’re listening to, but the know-it-all approach is so off-putting.”
Windham believes experiencing music is what counts. “Just open up and let yourself be within the space with the music — you’ll take what you want from it. There’s not just one way to listen to it.”
When Windham gives lectures about music, he gives people a place to start and one or two elements to focus on. “You can’t tell people 10 things to look for — nobody will remember nine and a half,” he said.
For example, one trio in this year’s festival was composed as an elegy for a cellist. “Every time the cello does something interesting, they’ll think about that one simple fact, and that will help them understand the structure of the piece,” said Windham.
In addition to his 32 years at Spokane Public Radio, as classical music host and now also program director, Windham conducted the Spokane Youth Orchestra for 15 years.
“This is a vacation for me,” said Windham, who made his annual overnight pilgrimage to Harts Pass this past weekend.
“One of the things I really loved when I studied music is that, even though I listen and talk about it, I don’t really know a piece until I hear it performed live,” said Windham. “There are great pieces of music I’ve met at this festival — they’ve truly gone inside me.”