Lifting Up Unheard Voices
By Julie Riggott
Radio host and Thornton alum Michelle Maestas Simonsen takes on new role as program director at Seattle’s Classical KING.
Michelle Maestas Simonsen (BM ’06, MCM ’12) wants more people to know about Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Nadia Boulanger. She wants listeners to have the chance to hear new music by Julie Giroux and Takashi Yoshimatsu.
As radio host at Classical KING FM 98.1, Seattle’s classical music station, she has introduced countless audiences to talented women composers and composers of color, both old and new. And in her 15-year career at USC Thornton as director of production and operations, she has overseen countless rehearsals and performances that have brought classical music forward, celebrating its history while embracing its future.
Simonsen will continue to prioritize unheard voices as she takes on a new role at Classical KING. In June, she starts a new position as program director at the listener-supported station for classical music and the arts in Seattle, Bellevue, and the Puget Sound Region.
“Classical music is a universal language, and I believe that it should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their background or identity,” said Simonsen, who earned her bachelor’s degree in saxophone performance at the USC Thornton School of Music and a Master of Communication Management – Broadcast & Entertainment from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“By emphasizing diversity and inclusion in our programming, we can help to make Classical KING a more welcoming and inclusive space for all listeners. Classical KING has already done some fantastic work in promoting diversity and amplifying the voices of women composers and composers of color, and I’m excited to continue that work in my new role as program director.”
Classical KING recently partnered with other classical radio stations in various markets and the League of American Orchestras to conduct research to identify who is listening to classical music and what barriers may be preventing others from engaging with the genre.
“By making data-driven decisions based on this research,” she said, “we can work to reach new audiences and engage with more listeners from diverse backgrounds.”
That mission is personally important to Simonsen, whose mother is Chinese and father is (Spanish) Basque. She aims to be a role model, especially for women and girls of color.
“We all play a role in lifting each other up and moving forward.”
Simonsen’s passion for music comes through in her storytelling about the composers she programs.
“Telling their stories and making them come alive to listeners is something I am always striving to do.”
Bologne, for example, is a fascinating historical figure most people have never heard of. Born to a French nobleman and an enslaved African woman in then-French colony Guadalupe, he was educated in Paris and became an expert fencer, virtuoso violinist and the first conductor of African (Senegal) descent in Europe.
“He was one of Mozart’s contemporaries, and he was even more famous in Paris. During the French Revolution, he was a colonel of a legion entirely made up of ‘citizens of color,’” she said. “How can you not tell his story? He was certainly fascinating. I’m glad someone has decided to take his interesting life story and make a film.”
A native of Wasilla, Alaska, Simonsen first got a taste for broadcast at a young age when she recorded ads for Q99.7 FM in Wasilla and hosted an evening hour with other students from her class. As a USC Thornton undergraduate, she was a student intern at KUSC. Then, in 2009, she worked with Alan Chapman and Gail Eichenthal — who both became mentors and inspirations — on live KUSC broadcasts for various special University programs and for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
“I realized how much I loved working with broadcast and live events. I loved getting to know the hosts, how all of the technology worked, and how running the show (my part) worked together.”
It was only later that she thought about pursuing a career in radio.
“During the pandemic I thought about how I could see my future and what my dream would be when I was older. I realized I wanted to do what Alan Chapman was doing. I wanted to do pre-concert lectures, talk about what was great and wonderful about the music introduced on the radio and bring it alive for listeners.”
She reached out to Chapman and Brenda Barnes, the former president of KUSC, for advice and feedback.
“I spent all my free time on evenings and weekends working on the storytelling element, recording and recording and recording again. I sent them both samples and received clear, very no-nonsense, feedback about what to improve. I would go back and work on these things again and again,” she said. “Without their advice and encouragement, I wouldn’t be starting my dream job this summer.”
“I’ve worked alongside Michelle many times in her role overseeing operations at Bovard Auditorium,” Chapman said. “She made the production of live concert broadcasts a breeze. Her organizational skills and way with people, combined with her multidimensional musical background, insure her success at KING.”
Eichenthal has also been a champion for her over the years, she said, and has called on her for special events for KUSC and the Los Angeles community.
“I’ve learned so much from her and also her ability to carefully consider and dissect the important story whatever the case,” she said. “She certainly was an inspiration for pursuing a new career.”
“Michelle has a unique ability to instill confidence and trust,” Eichenthal wrote. “No matter how high-pressured the situation, she puts her colleagues at ease. I can’t think of another person I’ve worked with who has such wide-ranging skills: the administrative know-how to manage a large production, the musical knowledge to understand the nuances of performance, the uncanny ability to trouble-shoot the smallest details, and the people skills to work with everyone from her crew to literal rock stars.”
Part of an Inspiring Community
Simonsen’s passion for classical music developed early.
“One of my favorite compositions from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty was already ingrained in my memory by the time I was five years old,” she said. “I also vividly recall the awe-inspiring experience of hearing the San Francisco Symphony perform Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf as a child, even though I couldn’t see over the seat. These magical moments ignited a spark in me, compelling me to learn how to participate in creating such beautiful music.”
Her maternal grandmother, a painter and pianist, instilled in her the importance of music education. She attended Interlochen Arts Camp and later the Interlochen Arts Academy for high school before starting at USC Thornton.
“USC Thornton was an incredible experience for me because it allowed me to explore different aspects of the college experience beyond pure performance,” Simonsen said. “I studied saxophone performance, but I also had the opportunity to play with jazz ensembles and take lessons from many different teachers, including composition and jazz. Additionally, I was able to study entrepreneurship with the Marshall School of Business, which ultimately inspired me to start my own contracting company with my husband, a fellow Thornton alum.”
Like many Thornton alumni and professional musicians, Simonsen has assembled a multi-faceted career. She has played saxophone all over Southern California with many bands including two of her own, the Red Light Brass Band and West Coast Edition. With the Red Light Brass Band she has recorded three albums. She’s a voiceover artist and podcaster. Additionally, she and her husband, Dr. Walter Simonsen, who earned his master’s degree and doctorate in jazz studies trumpet at USC Thornton, handle full-service consulting and live ensemble booking for events.
And on top of all that has been her full-time job with USC Thornton for the past 15-plus years, in various roles including treasurer of the Staff Council, chief emergency officer and, finally, director of production and operations. She said the job found her.
“I had been working for the Music Department and Guest Talent at Disney, while also playing in the Los Angeles Lakers Band, when a serendipitous conversation during a Lakers game led me to the opportunity at USC Thornton. The drummer asked if I would be interested in producing concerts for USC, and I applied for the job. I was fortunate enough to have [Associate Dean for Operations] Jeff de Caen, one of my greatest mentors, take a chance on me.”
While working full-time, she completed her Master of Communication Management and put her learning to practical use. She proposed some changes to the Thornton staff’s reporting structure and was promoted to director of operations and production.
Over the years, she worked on a number of major events, including producing three Piatigorsky International Cello Festivals and executive producing special events and concerts for Thornton, including live KUSC and Met Opera broadcasts. In addition, she was involved in University service, serving on the boards of the Thornton Alumni Association and various USC alumnae organizations working to raise money for scholarships. For her outstanding service, she was honored with the Widney Alumni Award in 2013.
While producing concerts featuring prominent artists, from Steve Miller and the Beach Boys to Yo-Yo Ma and Elton John, has been an incredible opportunity, she said, collaborating with her University colleagues and the faculty and students at USC Thornton has been a source of “real joy and love.”
“They are the heart of the Thornton community, and I am continually amazed by the incredible talent and dedication of everyone involved. Often, the young artists I work with turn out to be rising stars in the industry, and it’s incredibly rewarding to help them achieve their goals. Giving back to the school that gave me my start has been my greatest joy, and I feel privileged to be a part of this dynamic and inspiring community.”
“Thornton and its faculty and staff have been a centerpiece in my life story,” Simonsen said, “and I am grateful for the relationships and experiences I gained there.”
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