Jordan M. Whitelaw — 1920–1982

From Larry Creshkoff — 2000

Jordan’s c.v. starts off reading like that of a prototypical Upper Class Establishment figure: Born in New York City; prepped at Andover; Harvard A.B. cum laude; WWII service in the OSS (predecessor to the CIA), both in uniform and, later as a civilian in Heidelberg, Germany; Harvard A.M.; completed all requirements except dissertation toward a Harvard Ph.D. in American history.

So, how did somebody with that kind of background become the one who ultimately shaped the look and feel and sound of televised orchestral music in America over a period of nearly 30 years? In his memoir, One Way to Run a Railroad, Ray Wilding-White notes, somewhat flippantly, that Jordan “was recruited into the music staff on the basis of a huge record collection.”

When asked in 1977 how he had managed to metamorphose from a graduate student into the pre-eminent producer of symphonic music on television that he ultimately became, Whitelaw responded with his idiosyncratically characteristic directness:

“Let me put it immodestly…. I think I have a damned good ear. Even as a snotty adolescent of 15, I knew that the sound of Symphony Hall made the sound of Carnegie Hall look sick. And I remember what I felt about records. When I first heard the Toscanini recordings out of Studio 8H, I was horrified. So, I was reasonably lucky to have a good sense of what reproduced music should sound like, and I think I could say that as a result of my experience in radio, I’m one of the few people in television who knows as much about audio as about video. I was able to project from simply aural to visual things.”

“He Turns Orchestras Into TV Stars,” by Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 10/2/77, Section 2, pp. 19–20

Whitelaw came to work at WGBH-FM shortly before the station went on the air in October, 1951. Because of his expertise in recorded music, he became responsible for such regular series as “A Basic Record Library,” “Tomorrow’s Symphony,” “Music of the Baroque,” and “Music of the Ballet.” At first, the Boston Symphony Orchestra live concerts were not within his domain because the then-manager of the BSO (George Judd) felt that Jordan’s blunt acerbity (1) might not be appropriate in that assignment. By 1953, however, after Judd’s retirement and after two other producers had served with mixed success as producers of the BSO pickups, Jordan was made WGBH’s music manager, and he took over as BSO producer.

In time, he led the way into the regular local live simulcasts of BSO concerts on FM and TV, and beginning in 1973, into the weekly one-hour videotaped telecasts of “Evening at Symphony” on PBS. Ultimately he also became producer for the Boston Symphony Orchestra Transcription Trust. For more than a quarter-century, the team of Whitelaw as producer, Bill Pierce as announcer, and Bill Busiek as audio engineer, became synonymous with the broadcasts of the BSO, first in Boston, and then throughout the country. Jordan was very demanding — of himself as well as of his colleagues, and the results were self-evident: the highest standards in sound, thoughtful use of cameras, intelligent treatment of subject matter. To say that he was fastidious in his work would not be an exaggeration.

Given Jordan’s persona, it was not surprising to discover that he was fastidious in other matters as well. Some oldtimers remember an episode in 1953 when he had been assigned to spend the summer at Tanglewood to oversee audiotaping of many concerts by both the BSO and student ensembles at the Berkshire Music Center, for subsequent broadcast on WGBH-FM. A single room with very Spartan accommodations was provided by the Center; the furnishings did not, however, include bed linens.

Because Jordan was unwilling to entrust his personal linens to the tender mercies of the local laundry service, station management agreed to supply him with two sets. Parker Wheatley’s secretary was commissioned to purchase sheets and pillow cases and have them shipped to the dormitory in which he would be living. Being a New England Yankee, she leaned toward frugality in her choice of materials. When Jordan arrived on the scene and opened the package of linens, he was fit to be tied. A telephone call to the hapless secretary followed. “You expect me to sleep out here for six weeks on muslin sheets?!” With Hartford Gunn’s exasperated acquiescence, a substitute set (percale) was dispatched. Mistakes do happen.

When mistakes or other unanticipated events happened on the air — especially when one or more cameras failed — the results could be very trying, and tiring. All the carefully planned shots would have to be re-arranged on the fly, almost as if there had been no rehearsal. In the 1977 Times interview cited earlier, Jordan recalled an occasion during a performance of Scheherezade when Conductor Seiji Ozawa inadvertently skipped a page in the score. The brief period of confusion that followed was subsequently corrected on the audio track, but there was no way to fix the video. In the final tape, the conductor looks somewhat at a loss, but the orchestra sounds as though nothing had happened. “One thing about Ozawa,” said Whitelaw. “I have never seen him palm off a mistake. Other conductors? They come up with all kinds of excuses.”

From this peak of success in 1977, when “Evening at Symphony” had achieved nationwide recognition and circulation, it was to be a matter of only four years before the BSO TV concerts ceased to be. Writing for publication in the Harvard Class of 1942 Fortieth Anniversary Report, Jordan had this to say:

“Other than grisly medical details, life keeps going along the same well-worn paths. The one real negative thing is that my Boston Symphony Television shows have disappeared from the air because of the lack of adequate funding for PBS on the part of the local business community. With the Boston Symphony celebrating its 100th Birthday, this is, indeed, ironic.

“Still more ironic is the fact that with my television shows disappearing, on Sunday, May 17th, 1981, I received an honorary doctor of music from the New England Conservatory of Music as recognition for the quality of my radio and television symphony programs … certainly a first for the industry.”

Thus, after years of worrying about his failure to complete his Ph.D. in American history — in part due to the demands of his professional career, Jordan ended up with an honorary doctorate that was conferred on him because of his achievements in his professional career. The citation reads:

“Jordan Whitelaw, pioneer in the broadcasting of serious music on radio and television, you have brought the ever-expanding world of audio and visual technology into the service of the masters of music. Your distinguished career has many sides: as director, interviewer, and producer. You have demanded the highest standards of studio quality and have insisted that the visual product be ‘musically viable and enjoyably instructive.’

“You have been instrumental in bringing quality music to national audiences beyond the confines of the concert hall. For this invaluable gift … I have the honor to present for the honorary degree of Doctor of Music, Jordan M. Whitelaw.”

Less than nine months afterward, Jordan Whitelaw died in Boston, on February 8, 1982.

Footnotes

1 Jordan’s insouciance in the face of authority figures and his tart tongue are recalled by some who were in the TV control room on the day after a choral and instrumental program was aired. Hartford Gunn was expressing his negative take on the sound work to the audio engineer (Wil Morton) who had handled the show. Jordan, who had also heard the broadcast, happened to walk in and overheard Hartford’s critique. He bellowed his way into the midst of one of Hartford’s pronouncements, “What’s wrong with you Hartford? That show sounded great! Gawd, Hartford! You must have wax in your ears!”

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