The voice of classical music in Eugene is about to go off the air for good.
Catriona Bolster, whose sultry, thoughtful, BBC-ish voice has announced Beethoven, Brahms, Bach and more with perfect decorum for the past three decades on radio KWAX, FM 91.1, plans to retire from her job at the end of June.
Bolster, who is 71, said in an interview Thursday that she’s simply ready for a change.
Though she’s widely assumed, on account of that voice, to be English, Bolster is in fact Irish. (Her Gaelic first name is pronounced “Katrina.”) She got bachelor’s degrees in music and French at University College in Dublin, and then got a master’s degree in musicology at the Yale University. She moved to Eugene with her then-husband, University of Oregon historian Glenn May, and started announcing at KWAX in 1986.
And, yes, that voice. It’s been described in various places over the years as “elegant and sophisticated,” “calm, sometimes faintly amused and always engaged,” and “warm and sultry.” A Eugene Symphony staffer wrote a few years ago that her husband “fantasized Caitriona as a sexy, stylish redhead” before meeting her in person.
“I’ve never quite understood how that took over,” Bolster said. “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t understand it. I never bought into being ‘the voice.'”
More seriously, Bolster is both amused and chagrined that she’s benefited from a common American cultural stereotype. “I’m not always too thrilled that to do classical music, you have to sound like this upper class British toff.”
She never set out to be a radio personality and music journalist. While at Yale, she worked for the Yale Oral History of American Music, where she got her first experience interviewing musicians. After Yale she moved to Dallas, Texas, where she worked for public radio station KERA, becoming its classical music director. In the 1980s she came to Eugene, worked briefly as general manager of the Oregon Mozart Players, and in 1986 went to work at the UO’s radio station, KWAX.
Despite her very public persona, Bolster has a shy side. “I’m a strange mix of someone who is an introvert and someone who enjoys company,” she said. “But I don’t like to be the center of attention. I am much happier living in the shade.”
Over the course of her career, she’s seen tremendous changes in the classical music world. For one thing, classical music radio has declined in the U.S. KWAX is now one of perhaps a dozen stations that offer around-the-clock classical music programming.
“But you can’t say that nobody is listening to classical music,” Bolster said. “There is YouTube — where you can hear everything! And podcasts. The scene is very different, and it must seem very confusing.”
A greater problem is the place of classical music in American culture overall, she said. The major orchestra/concert hall business model may no longer be sustainable in many places, she says; instead, smaller ensembles performing in smaller venues may be the future of orchestral music.
Bolster plans to enjoy some travel — she has her sights set on India and Japan — after her final day on the air at the end of June. She’s interested in volunteer work, and has already joined the Assistance League.
And she’s happy to be contemplating a new chapter in her life. “I’ve always believed in moving over, and making room for other people,” she said.