You could call it one of Connecticut’s biggest cultural exports: Sunday Baroque, a classical music program produced out of WSHU’s studios at Sacred Heart University that is heard every week by about a quarter-million people on about 230 radio stations nationwide. As it marks the 20th anniversary of its syndication, the six-hour show featuring music from the Baroque era, roughly 1600 to 1750, has grown steadily in popularity and is today broadcast in 44 states as well as Guam and Puerto Rico.
Not bad for a program that started in 1987 as something of a lark. WSHU’s program director at the time needed to fill some Sunday morning air time and assigned the young, newly hired Suzanne Bona to program an hour and a half of Baroque music. Why Baroque? He liked it, but he also wanted to forestall any ideas the eager, fresh-out-of-college music major might harbor about playing odd, off-the-wall music, Bona says. “It was less youth and inexperience than the dreaded music major he worried about,” she recalls with a laugh.
“It was very much a little bit of an accident,” continues the effervescent Bona, who remains the program’s host, producer and driving force. “That’s what became Sunday Baroque. This is my baby and my child. I feel we have grown up together.”
A flutist, Bona didn’t count Baroque music as a specialty. She knew the period from her studies, but her performances focused on 19th- and 20th-century music, particularly from France. Bona quickly grew to love the style, which she calls “highly embellished” and likens to a “beautiful gemstone.” Baroque wasn’t just a musical epoch, she notes. It was also an artistic and architectural movement that produced over-the-top churches and paintings dripping with ornamentation to the point of gaudiness. She traces Baroque’s genesis to the increasing sophistication of Western music as it added harmonies and expanded its tonal range.
“If you think of music as an outfit, you put on an outfit, then you think a pendant would look nice; then you decide to fluff up the hair and put on earrings,” she says. “Music is like that — layers and layers. The logical next step in Baroque was OK, let’s go crazy.”
Janice Portentoso, WSHU’s communications director, says the show is one of the station’s most popular. In the late 2000s, WSHU decided to stick with classical music as most of its sister public radio stations switched to a talk and news format. Sunday Baroque is a key part of the station’s lineup, attracting devotees and donors nationwide, Portentoso says. She’s also a fan. “I love all of our classical music, but there’s something about Baroque,” she says. “It’s not only beautiful, it’s calming and serene.”
Some of the world’s most famous and beloved classical music, works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and Georg Friedrich Handel, was produced during the Baroque era. Those giants will always be a mainstay of Sunday Baroque, Bona says, but she also highlights the era’s lesser-known composers. She is increasingly focused on finding and playing music by neglected female composers and musicians of color, Bona says. She cites as examples Isabella Leonarda, who entered a convent at 16 where she wrote a large body of music, and the contemporary Brazilian musician Vladimir Soares.
“For me, that’s such a win, finding these intriguing, terrific musicians and composers who deserve to be heard,” Bona says. “That’s the kind of stuff I’m digging for. I have the opportunity, I have the mission to be able to share this music.”
Over the years, Sunday Baroque has evolved from 90 minutes of music on one radio station into a multi-platform extravaganza. The show has an extensive website from which it can be streamed that includes lists of every piece of music played on the program with a link to purchase a CD or digital file of the performance. Bona also writes a blog where she posts daily music links and interviews musicians and experts for a podcast. Bona enthusiastically embraces whatever technology will help her share Baroque music, which she acknowledges is a little ironic given its age.
Bona grew up in Fairfield and loved music from an early age. After earning her degree from UConn in 1985, she began performing in Connecticut and New York but soon realized she needed a day job. WSHU hired her as underwriting director to sell sponsorships, plus do a few hours on the air, which became the beginnings of Sunday Baroque. Not long afterward, the program director quit and the longtime station manager, George Lombardi, who retired in December, offered her the job. “I had no business being the program director, but George saw something in me,” she says. “I was really smitten about everything about my job. I’m forever indebted to him. I’ve never looked back.”
About nine years later, Bona, who had grown Sunday Baroque into a staple of the station’s programming, was offered a position at WGUC in Cincinnati, another classical music station. Deeply torn, she tearfully informed Lombardi she was leaving, upon which he suggested she could continue to do Sunday Baroque from Cincinnati. Bona took the job and took him up on his offer. Today, she splits her time between Cincinnati and a home in New Milford. She also performs as a flutist all around the country, traveling as far away as Guam.
Looking ahead, Bona, 57, is planning the next 20 years of Sunday Baroque. She hopes to spend more time visiting the show’s many partner stations and explore new technologies to further expand its reach. “Anniversaries are nice, but I also feel personally and professionally that we are always in a state of growth and acknowledging where we are and where we are going,” she says.
Listen to Sunday Baroque on 91.1 WSHU from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., and on 89.9 WSUF at 10 a.m. Stream it at wshu.org.