‘I was born in the wrong era’
Veteran classical radio station host Peter van de Graaff ‘hooked’ on oldtime radio
Peter van de Graaff, who hosts the nationally broadcast Beethoven Satellite Network from Eugene's KWAX radio station, performs with Radio Redux. Photo by Scott Kelley.
By Randi Bjornstad
Most people probably know Peter van de Graaff best for two reasons: 1) his singing and radio voice, which can only be described as “mellifluous” (synonyms: pleasant-sounding, sweet-sounding, mellow, dulcet, honeyed, lyrical, silvery, golden, lilting, soothing); and 2) his name, about as Dutch as it can get, with its double prefix “van de,” meaning “from,” followed by the double letters in Graaff.
Van de Graaff has been a household name in many parts of the United States for years beyond his home area of Chicago because of his hosting of classical radio programs, most notably the Beethoven Satellite Network. In 1989, van de Graaff began overseeing the network, which broadcasts overnight shows of classical music on more than 150 radio stations nationwide.
But the Eugene area has claimed him as its own since he and his singer and voice teacher wife, Kathleen van de Graaff, relocated to Oregon in 2016. That’s when he became music director at the University of Oregon’s all-classical music station, KWAX-FM 91.1, replacing the retiring Caitriona Bolster.
More recently, he’s also become part of Radio Redux, first appearing in the 2017-18 season.
“I had a tiny part in The Maltese Falcon, and I also was in The Philadelphia Story,” van de Graaff said of his first Radio Redux appearances. In the 2018-19, season, he said, “I’m in Cowboy Christmas (playing Britt Ponset in “The Six Shooter”) in December and then Casablanca (in February 2019). I am a real nostalgia freak when it comes to radio, and I also love old movies — I think I was born in the wrong era.”
Van de Graaff on the air in the KWAX studio in Eugene. Photo by Fred Crafts.
As soon as he heard about Radio Redux, “I was hooked,” he said. “To be onstage, helping to recreate these old programs, is such a thrill. It’s amazing how great vocal actors can create a world using their voices — they can say one word and create a mood.”
Van de Graaff was well aware of Radio Redux before he arrived in Eugene.
“I sort of ‘met’ Fred Crafts before I even got here,” he said. “When Kathleen and I were thinking about making the move, I did an internet search and Radio Redux came up. I sent Fred a message and said, ‘Please put me on your mailing list,’ and he answered, ‘I will do better than that — I will put you in our group.’
“I’m amazed at what Radio Redux is able to do — the scripts, the props, the sound effects, the costumes, the right feel for the era,” van de Graaff said. “It is great to be a part of it.”
For his part, Crafts —Radio Redux’s founder — is ecstatic that van de Graaff came West.
“Peter’s been a delightful addition to the Radio Redux family,” Crafts said. “From his voice — a lovely basso profundo — to his sense of humor to his genuinely-nice-guy persona, we love having him in our shows. We just wish he could be in more of them, but he travels so much we’re lucky to get him when we do.”
Destined for music
Despite his name, 57-year-old van de Graaff is thoroughly American, having been brought up in Glencoe, Illinois, outside Chicago. His parents weren’t particularly musical, he said, but he had a fascination with music from early childhood. As he grew up it became obvious that music was in his permanent future, even though his dentist father “always encouraged me to find something else to fall back on,” van de Graaff recalled.
“I was always drawn to the piano, and I practiced voraciously as a child, and I read everything I could lay my hands on about composers,” he said. “It was something I just had to do — maybe it was my form of rebellion.”
With his boy soprano voice, he also loved singing. “I was always in the church choir, and I sang the part of Amahl (in the Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors) when I was 11,” he said.
Two of his siblings had theatrical bents in high school, although the brother went on to become a lawyer. The sister, Janet, on the other hand, “was always a comedian — she was in The Second City for many years and has had a very successful career in Toronto,” van de Graaff said.
After high school, van de Graaff went to college at Brigham Young University — “I grew up in an LDS family and we had some family in Utah,” he said. The choice of BYU also opened the door to his complementary vocation as a radio host.
“KBYU was a great radio station, and I got the best possible training there,” van de Graaff said of the university’s classical music station. “It’s still doing well — it hasn’t changed that much, and it still trains students in broadcast and production as it did when I was there. You don’t find that opportunity very often.”
During his junior year at BYU, van de Graaff met his wife-to-be, Kathleen, who also studied voice as well as earning a master’s degree in vocal pedagogy.
When the couple were dating, a teacher suggested they might perform operatic intermezzi — an Italian art from that began as short, often comedic theater-and-singing performances between acts at Grand Opera productions — and the art form has become one of their favorite ways to perform together.
“We travel and perform together often,” he said.
Those travels have taken him and Kathleen around the globe. As a solo artist, he’s performed and recorded with the Czech State Symphony and, in Poland, with the Czech Philharmonic. He appeared in Berlin with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and in Budapest with the Budapest Concert Orchestra. In Tel Aviv, the Israeli Chamber Orchestra joined him in a Mozart Mass. As a recitalist he has appeared in Tokyo.
His singing has also taken him throughout the United States, in engagements with the Houston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Utah Symphony, San Antonio Symphony, Syracuse Symphony, Louisiana Philharmonic, Omaha Symphony, Wichita Symphony, Colorado Springs Symphony, Richmond Symphony and others.
Conductors with whom he has worked include Pierre Boulez, Christopher Wilkins, Paul Freeman, Bernard Labadie, Paul Hillier, Joseph Silverstein, Robert Page, Thomas Wikman, Jane Glover, Klaus-Peter Seibel, Victor Yampolsky, James Paul, Daniel Hege and Nicholas Kraemer.
Peter van de Graaff as Britt Ponset in A Cowboy Christmas. Photo by Scott Kelley and Mike Sanders.
Van de Graaff has made a specialty of the Baroque repertoire, which has brought him as soloist to the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival, Costa Rica International Music Festival, Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, Pittsburgh Bach Choir, Grand Teton Music Festival, St. Louis Early Music Festival, Boulder Bach Festival and others.
His recordings include three intermezzos on the Naxos label and Menotti’s The Medium, Vorisek Mass in B-Flat and Mozart arias and duets, all on the Cedille label.
In September 2010, he was awarded the sixth “Karl Haas Award for Musical Education” from Public Radio International, joining previous winners Leonard Slatkin, Michael Tilson Thomas, Peter Schickele, Bill McGlaughlin and Martin Bookspan. Van de Graaff has also been heard on other national broadcasts, such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Van Cliburn Competition, Music of the Baroque and others. He was a finalist for host of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts.
He’s not sure how long his singing career will last, but he expects to continue doing radio — and some acting — indefinitely.
“The singing voice inevitably starts going eventually,” van de Graaff said. “After about 60, the voice changes, with loss of muscle tone and more difficulty keeping a pitch. It’s inevitable.”
In the meantime, he’s become accustomed to living in Eugene after so many years in Chicago.
“The arts are wonderful here, and the weather is amazing,” he said. “We enjoy many of the activities we have been able to do here.”
Randi Bjornstad's work can also be found at Eugenescene.org.
Peter van de Graaff as Macaulay "Mike" Connor in The Philadelphia Story. Photo by Scott Kelley.