Paul LeClerc

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Sunday, April 04, 2004

Paul LeClerc has led the New York Public Library as President and Chief Executive Officer since 1993. He has been described by David Remnick in The New Yorker as "an unassumingly brilliant administrator and Voltaire scholar." A music lover, he joins host Gilbert Kaplan with music from the "Age of Enlightenment."
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Don Giovanni. Overture. Vienna Philharmonic. Josef Krips. Decca 5365948.

George Frideric Handel Semele. "Endless pleasure, endless love, Semele enjoys above". English Chamber Orchestra. John Nelson. Ambrosian Opera Chorus. Kathleen Battle. Deutsche Grammophon 435 782.

Erik Satie Gymnopédie No. 1. Aldo Ciccolini, Piano. EMI Classics 5 67260.

Jacques Brel "Les Vieux". Jacques Brel. Polygram Records 816458.

Christoph Willibald von Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice. "Che farò senza Euridice?" Virtuosi di Roma. Renato Fasano. Shirley Verrett. BMG/RCA 7896.

Richard Strauss Four Last Songs. "Im Abendrot". Houston Symphony Orchestra. Christoph Eschenbach. Renée Fleming, Soprano. RCA Victor/Red Seal 09026-68539.

Kaplan President of the New York Public Library and music lover, Paul LeClerc on today's edition of "Mad About Music."

[Theme Music]

Kaplan He presides over a library with more than 50 million items housed in 89 buildings with a vast internal space that occupies 130 square miles, impressive by any standards, but for "Mad About Music" listeners, consider this: the music collection alone contains over 600,000 books and scores, including some rare original manuscripts, ranging from Bach, Mozart, Brahms, all the way to a first edition of "The Star Spangled Banner." Embedded in that collection is some music that touches our guest today, the president of the New York Public Library, in a most personal way. Paul LeClerc, welcome to "Mad About Music."

LeClerc Thank you, Gil. I'm delighted to be here.

Kaplan Now, I suppose your being a librarian in a way, I should not be surprised that some of your selections today have powerful literary connections. But I see you have concentrated on the 18th Century, the "Age of Enlightenment".

LeClerc The reason that I did that is because that's the period of European culture and American culture that speaks the most directly to me. It's the period of all of world culture that I know the most about, being a former professor of French literature and being someone who trained at the graduate level in French literature of the "Enlightenment", specifically Voltaire. And that intellectual and educational formation, which was based on literary studies, shaped me in very definite and decided ways, up to and including the period of music that I feel the most affinity for, and that speaks to me the most directly.

Kaplan Now, the literary connection as you describe it, I mean, sounds a bit cool and intellectual. What about what your favorite author, Voltaire, had to say about that: "It's not sufficient", he said, "to see and know the beauty of a work, one must feel and be affected by it". After all, music is also about feelings, and I assume the music you have selected speaks to you beyond the literary connection.

LeClerc Well, you've done your homework to come up with a very good quotation from my favorite author.

Kaplan I actually have a few good ones for you today!

LeClerc Well, you know, Voltaire's a guy who wrote 2,500 different works. One can't assume, however, that literature itself doesn't have very powerful emotional content. So music of the 18th Century, music of the 17th Century, strikes me as being in terms of western music, one of the great, great periods for combining serious ideas about the human condition, about love, about fate, about progress, and so on and so forth, with extraordinary musical genius.

Kaplan Well, let's see how that plays out then in your first selection, which I see is Mozart's Don Giovanni. Tell us a little bit about why you selected this piece, and why this music is special to you.

LeClerc I learned the story of Don Giovanni first in school by studying Molière and one of Molière's most important plays, was Don Juan. So that was a play that I read as a student, it was a play that I taught for many, many years as a professor. Even when I was the President of Hunter College, I taught a graduate course for theater students in the French theater of this period, in translation. And that was a text that I loved and the students loved as well. Mozart's Don Giovanni is for me one of the all-time great operas. It's one that I've seen in a number of different productions, but I think perhaps the most memorable was a few summers ago when my wife, my son and I were in Prague, and we had the very good fortune of going to the Estates Theater, where Mozart himself conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni, and seeing it in that house and sitting in seats or in areas in which his contemporaries sat to see him conduct and to hear this fabulous music for the first time.

[Music]

Kaplan The Overture from Mozart's Don Giovanni. The Vienna Philharmonic led by Josef Krips, the first selection of my guest on "Mad About Music" today, President of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc. Let's talk about your work at the library. In any library, one measurement of success is the sheer size of the collection and I emphasized that in my introduction. But you know, your favorite author again, Voltaire, would regard that as perhaps excessive. He said, "It is far better to be silent than merely to increase the quantity of bad books". So, do you ever use that in the way of keeping your librarians under control?

LeClerc I think the objective of a great library is to continually add to the collections, and so we bring in well in excess of one million items a year to add to the existing stock of 50 million. Sometimes those are just ordinary kinds of materials; and sometimes, on the other hand, they are extraordinary. A few years ago, we acquired 95% of the musical manuscripts of John Cage for the Music Division of the Library for the Performing Arts. And that was one of the single most important collections that we've acquired in the area of music in the recent past.

Kaplan But, in the scope of the full collection, what significance do you attach to the music?

LeClerc Well, the music collections are presently the largest music collections available to the public. Certainly in America, maybe in the world.

Kaplan More than the Library of Congress?

LeClerc Anybody can come to use these collections, with basically no questions asked. Obviously, if you want to see an autograph score by Mozart, questions will be asked. What most people don't know is that in the four research libraries, those services are paid for, basically, by the private sector.

Kaplan Well, let's come to that, then, because, although a good portion of your funding comes from the government, I understand that the Library needs to raise around $30 million a year, which I've heard you describe as $600,000 a week. In that context, how difficult is it to find support for the music side of the Library, versus the literary side?

LeClerc Well, I guess I've never really made that distinction, Gil, between individual collections.

Kaplan Well, don't you have a constituency who likes to support music, for example? As compared to supporting the more literary side?

LeClerc Many of those collections come to us as gifts, not necessarily by philanthropists, but by performing artists themselves or those in the world of art. For instance, recently we acquired the video archive of Robert Wilson, the great director-producer-designer and so on and so forth.

Kaplan Well, then, let's turn back to your own music, and to Handel. Has he always been a life-long favorite?

LeClerc I wish I could say yes, because that would have given me many more years of intense pleasure. I really love Handel! I listen to Handel an enormous amount. At home, and sometimes in the car. No, I mean The Messiah; I had heard The Messiah a number of times. But I think I really fell in love with Handel's music back in the early 80s, when there was a series of three concert performances of Handel's, of three operas, at Carnegie Hall, one of which was Semele, with Kathleen Battle and Marilyn Horne. And the performance was exquisite and impeccable, and absolutely perfect, ravishingly beautiful. And there's a wonderful, wonderful aria, "Endless Pleasure, Endless Love," that Kathleen Battle sang and everybody was so enraptured, including Marilyn Horne, that when Battle finished the piece, people went wild, and Horne gave her the most wonderful embrace on stage. I had never seen anything like that. It's a moment I'll never forget, and after that, I started buying and listening to Handel, both operas and oratorios as well as the non-vocal music, seemingly all the time. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but really I play Handel, I think, more than any other composer. And it all began with Semele and that performance.

[Music]

Kaplan An excerpt from Handel's opera Semele, sung by Kathleen Battle with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Nelson. A work chosen by my guest on "Mad About Music" today, President of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc. You can learn more about Paul LeClerc, listen or read a transcript from any of our prior shows, by logging on to our website at WNYC.org and then just click on "Mad About Music". When we return we'll talk about Paul LeClerc's brief career playing the trombone.

[Station break]

Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music", the President of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc. Let's talk a bit about the role of music in your life. Did you ever study an instrument as a child?

LeClerc Yes, in high school, I studied the trombone for four years. I never intended to study the trombone or to play the trombone. I wanted to play the drum or the drums. And the band instructor in my high school…

Kaplan We need a trombone…

LeClerc It was a brand-new high school and they brought in a freshman class as the only class, and so we were always the number one students for four years. So he was starting a band from scratch.

Kaplan Playing the trombone though in high school often means playing in the marching band. Did you do that?

LeClerc This was the marching band! One of the things I do remember was that the trombonists went first because they needed a lot of space in front of them, so after the drum major,

Kaplan Wouldn't poke people, you know!

LeClerc … there were the trombone players. In an orchestra, the trombone was the only one that was allowed to play really loudly.

Kaplan Did it make you practice the trombone more?

LeClerc Catholic school makes you do everything you're told!

Kaplan Not singing, though? I mean, you love opera so much. Can you sing?

LeClerc I can't sing "Happy Birthday" in tune. I just am awful singing! My son, we've been told, has perfect pitch.

Kaplan Now with your preoccupation, your fascination, your love for the 18th Century, I wonder if there's any room to listen to composers of the 20th Century?

LeClerc Oh, of course, although I feel insufficiently educated in terms of a lot of the theory behind atonal music. One of the insufficiencies overall in my education I think is that I never studied - I studied an instrument in high school, but I never studied the history of music and specific composers and specific periods or movements in musical history.

Kaplan But your next selection does bring us into the twentieth century because I see that Erik Satie is on your list.

LeClerc Well, this is an exquisite piece of music, one that I met through a friend, many, many years ago, and it was a gift, to be introduced to Satie and to Le Gymnopédie in particular and there's a kind of poetry behind this music, and most of the selections I have made, I think, are pieces with the human voice as well as with orchestras. But Satie, especially played by Ciccolini, has, to me, a kind of poetry and poignancy and depth of meaning, not literal meaning, obviously, that is extraordinary. And I could listen to this particular piece of music every day for days on end, and be very happy about doing so.

[Music]

Kaplan Erik Satie's Gymnopédie performed by pianist Aldo Ciccolini, a work and an artist selected by my guest on "Mad About Music" today, the President of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc. Now in the heavy program the Library presents you, day and night, how much time do you have to attend either operas or concerts?

LeClerc Not that much, regrettably. If I could, I would be at one of the opera houses every night. But that's just not realistic. The pressures of the position of the Library are such that I work a lot at night, but they tend to be meals with people. We do get to go to musical performances on occasion. There was a stretch just three weeks ago where in the space of eight days, we were at Carnegie Hall two nights and the Metropolitan Opera one night, and that was a really good week for us. So, this season at the Met, we will have gone, I think, eight times, which is …

Kaplan That's not what I would say, not having any time at all. Eight times at the Met's pretty good amount of music. Now, you mentioned that your son might have perfect pitch. Have you introduced him to music?

LeClerc Serious music has always been played at home, and when Adam was young, he used to go to sleep to Mozart piano sonatas recorded, and he loved them. We were in Moscow two years ago this past Christmas, on an official visit to visit the Russian libraries in Moscow. And our hosts organized an evening for us at the Bolshoi Opera to see Aida. And so Adam came along, he was then fourteen, and he loved it! And so, two nights later, there was a production of Forza, which we went to see with him, and he loved that as well, and I said, well, I've got to take you now to the Metropolitan, so you can see what a production in New York looks like. So we went to a matinee of Figaro, which was exceptional, and he loved that. But then at intermission - this was after September 11 - at intermission, we stood up, we're in the orchestra, we stood up to start heading towards the aisle, and about five rows back from us, there was a familiar face, and I said, "Adam, that's Donald Rumsfeld." So, somehow he timed his exit from the row in going up the aisle to coincide perfectly with the Secretary of Defense coming out from his seat, and so Adam said, "Mr. Rumsfeld, don't worry, we're going to get Osama bin Laden." So Rumsfeld said, "I know we are kid! Did you like the opera?" And Adam said, "I loved it."

Kaplan We've always wondered where Rumsfeld got his confidence that he'd be able to carry this off. It's because your son told him!

LeClerc It was nice seeing him at the opera, though. I kind of like that.

Kaplan Well, let's leave the world of opera for a moment and transition to the part of our show which we call the "Wildcard," where our guests have an opportunity to pick music from outside the classical or opera genre. It can be anything: rock, world music, gospel. We've had some wonderful selections here. Peter Jennings picked some music by Duke Ellington; the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt picked The Beatles; and the former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak picked "My Way" by Frank Sinatra and he said, "For reasons that surely need no elaboration." So, Paul LeClerc, what is your "Wildcard" today?

LeClerc Well, my wild card is a song by Jacques Brel, called "Le Vieux," and it's a very tender, a bit poignant and at moments, tough, narrative, exquisitely sung by Brel about getting old, in an older couple in particular and one spouse dies before the other, but then at the end, he reminds us that this is a common fate that all of us has and the pronouns used switch from "them", he or she, to "us." Listening to him, it's just the pure quality of his voice, is something that gives me very, very great pleasure. And I love this song.

[Music]

Kaplan Jacques Brel singing his own composition, "Les Vieux", "The Old Folks", the "Wildcard" selection of my guest on "Mad About Music" today, the President of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc. Now, many of your selections have a romantic undertone to them. Do you regard yourself as a romantic?

LeClerc Well, not in terms of the definition of the romantic period or romantic literature or romantic music. But relationships, and loving relationships are certainly something that I care a lot about. And one of the things that's important to me and is important in my life at home, is having a kind of symmetry in musical tastes. Agreeing about music is an important part of, a building block for a relationship.

Kaplan Now, some of our guests have talked about the impact of music on their romantic life, and you've talked about the importance of listening to music together. Now, former president Jimmy Carter was on our show, for example, and he talked about that he and his wife went to hear a performance of The Student Prince, and found it so romantic and they were so romantically engaged at that moment, he said they went right home and conceived their first child! Have you had any experiences you want to share with us in this category?

LeClerc Many, many years ago, I do remember being on a date and taking a person to a performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons at the Church of the Ascension Saint-Germain des Prés in Paris. And I realized when the person I was with started yawning throughout the whole performance, that this was a romance that wasn't going to go anywhere.

Kaplan Here's a case where music torpedoed romance!

LeClerc Music torpedoed romance, just the opposite of the Jimmy Carter.

Kaplan Well, romance certainly shows up in your next selection of a Gluck opera, an opera that concludes in a triumph of love, doesn't it?

LeClerc Well, it does. The way Gluck and his librettist handled this particular telling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, there's a happy ending to it. It's not always that way. The entire work, I think, is one of the triumphs of 18th Century opera, a work of compelling beauty, but also one of great discipline, and I think the whole notion of discipline, as it appears in the arts of the 17th and 18th Centuries in Europe, is very, very significant, because many writers and artists, composers of this period, worked within a specifically defined and highly rigid framework of conventions. And the question before them, the challenge always, was to seek to create great beauty and achieve a kind of artistic truth about important elements in the human condition of life, love, death, jealousy, rage, revenge, and so on and so forth, within the confines of hide-bound kind of aesthetic. And the stateliness and the pacing of the music and the narrative of Gluck's Orfeo strikes me as being a triumph of almost content over form, or it may be even just a perfect marriage of content and form.

[Music]

Kaplan An excerpt from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice with soloist Shirley Verrett, a selection of my guest on "Mad About Music" today, the President of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc. When we return, we'll hear Paul LeClerc's final selection, perhaps one of the most moving works ever composed.

[Station break]

Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on "Mad About Music" today, the President of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc. Let's return to the Library, because it not only has books and music books, but it also has a performance space, doesn't it, The Bruno Walter Auditorium. Tell me about the music you present there.

LeClerc All of the programs in The Bruno Walter Auditorium at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center are free. And that's really kind of key for people to know, because not only do we not charge, but the artists who perform there, the musicians and the singers, and so on and so forth, don't get anything back from us financially. They devote their time and their talent and their artistry to providing with no remuneration to them.

Kaplan Do you get serious professionals to do that?

LeClerc We do. We do.

Kaplan How do you manage that, when Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center can't do that?

LeClerc Well, we're a very different kind of organization. I mean, my formula is that people are generous to the Library in terms of gifts because the Library, in turn, is so very generous to the people.

Kaplan I keep coming back to your number one author, Voltaire. And in preparation for this show, I discovered that he collaborated with Rameau on three different operas. But in the process, I also discovered that another writer collaborated with Rameau whose name was LeClerc. LeClerc de la Brouilliere. Do you think it might have been a relative of yours, or?

LeClerc Well, I've never known that there was anybody well known or famous in my background, so, who knows? LeClerc is not an uncommon name in France.

Kaplan Well, you know, the opera was called Linus, of 1752. Apparently rehearsed but not performed. So, we should make up for the family's failure to get a performance and ask you whether have you ever thought of writing a libretto yourself, and if so, what great work of this period you love so much would you pick to make a great opera that someone else hasn't gotten hold of yet?

LeClerc Oh, boy! I've thought about writing murder mysteries set in this period. And I've got a few titles already in my head. "Murder at the Comedie Francaise," "Murder at Sans-Souci."

Kaplan Well, I don't know if you'll get to write that libretto, but we now come to your final selection, which is "Im Abendrot," the wonderful final song of Strauss's Four Last Songs. You're in very good company with this selection, by the way, on this show, because former prime minister Sir Edward Heath of Great Britain chose one of these songs, that song, and he said, "One has the feeling that there's nothing left to achieve in life". What does this song mean to you?

LeClerc For me, this song is perfection because it is the most marvelous, the most extraordinary kind of marriage of human expression in both literary terms as well as in musical terms. I should also say that one of the things that strikes me as most powerful about it is, is the fact that it is a story of a couple. And it's the story of a couple that has shared life, shared love, and is now at the end of that journey of life and accepts the end in ways that are highly poetic and very, very beautiful.

[Music]

Kaplan "Im Abendrot", "At Sunset", the final song of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, sung by Renée Fleming with the Houston Symphony Orchestra led by Christoph Eschenbach. The last song and the last selection of my guest on "Mad About Music" today, the President of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc. Well, you know, we started this show today with Voltaire, so let's conclude the show with him also. One of his best-known sayings, as you surely know, comes from Candide, in which he says, "We must cultivate our garden." After listening to "Im Abendrot," which is coming at the end of one's life, one assumes this is a particularly relevant message. And I'm wondering what thoughts go through your mind today when you hear this expression, "We must cultivate our garden."

LeClerc Well, that's one of the most famous lines in French literature, and to me it means "work." It's a metaphor, and my interpretation of that line is that it is in work, in socially responsible and productive work, that human beings find their greatest fulfillment. It's making a contribution. So, when I go to work and help "cultivate the garden" at the New York Public Library, I and all my colleagues there feel that we're really doing something that's very, very significant to our city and to our nation. And indeed to civilization around the world.

Kaplan Well, that's the grandest exposition I've heard on "cultivating a garden", and we're all delighted for the work that you're doing, and so I say, Paul LeClerc, you've been a superb and shall I say, enlightened, to use your period of history, an enlightened guest today. It can't be a bad thing either, by the way, that a man entrusted with leading our foremost library brings a music-lover's sensibility to that task. This is Gilbert Kaplan for today's edition of "Mad About Music."

[Credits]

About Paul LeClerc
Paul LeClerc photoPaul LeClerc, President and Chief Executive Officer of The New York Public Library, was born on May 28, 1941, in Lebanon, New Hampshire, the grandchild of French Canadian immigrants. French was spoken in his childhood home and formed the basis of his later interest in French language and culture. Raised in Queens, he attended parochial schools there. His father died while LeClerc was in high school, and he and his brother both worked and received financial aid for their college studies. LeClerc graduated from the College of Holy Cross in 1963 and spent the next academic year studying at the Sorbonne. Returning to New York City, he completed a Ph.D. in French literature with distinction at Columbia University, writing a dissertation on Voltaire, an author he was introduced to by a Jesuit at Holy Cross during his freshman year.

Dr. LeClerc was a member of the faculty of Union College in Schenectady, New York, from 1966-79, where he chaired the Department of Modern Languages and the Division of Humanities, and received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Philosophical Society to support his scholarly work on the French Enlightenment.

Dr. LeClerc returned to New York City in 1979 to join the central administration of The City University of New York, the nation's third largest university and its largest urban university system. He served successively as University Dean for Academic Affairs, and Acting Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for CUNY. He left the CUNY Central Office in 1984 to become Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs of Baruch College, CUNY, home of the largest business school in America.

In 1988, Dr. LeClerc was appointed President of Hunter College, the largest public institution of higher education in New York City. Under Dr. LeClerc's leadership, Hunter, which provides an education from kindergarten through to the Ph.D., adopted the nation's most comprehensive and diverse undergraduate requirements and moved into 12th place nationally in awarding degrees to minority students. As Hunter College's president, he succeeded in making Hunter the first-choice college of most students applying to the City University of New York. He also held the position of Professor of French and taught during nearly every semester of his presidency.

Dr. LeClerc became President and Chief Executive Officer of The New York Public Library on December 1st, 1993. The New York Public Library is broadly recognized as one of the preeminent libraries in the world, with collections now numbering some 55 million items. The New York Public consists of 89 libraries, spread over 130 square miles of New York City, and serves a more varied set of constituencies and has the broadest mission of any library in the nation. In 2002, there were 15 million reader visits to the library system. The Library is organized as a private, non-profit foundation with its own, non-governmental, Board of Trustees. Its $200 million annual operating budget includes $130 million of public sector support and $70 million of private sector funding. The Library's endowment, which is used to support the operations of its four research libraries, is now $420 million.

Under Dr. LeClerc's guidance and through the enthusiastic support and involvement of the Library's Board, The New York Public Library has implemented a targeted series of initiatives that have made it a world-wide leader in the field of information collecting and distribution. These initiatives, backed by a $723 million capital campaign that concluded in 2000, include: strategic alliances with the most important collections in Western Europe, South America, and Russia; creating for the public's use one of the most advanced IT systems in any library; creating a robust web site that is presently receiving 400 million "hits" per year and serving readers from 170 different countries; acquiring prestigious new collections for the research libraries and achieving substantial new public funding for branch library collections; systematic renovation and modernization of the Library's historic buildings; and creating a new Center for Scholars and Writers at The Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue.

David Remnick described Dr. LeClerc in The New Yorker as "an unassumingly brilliant administrator and Voltaire scholar." He is the author or co-editor of five scholarly volumes on writers of the French Enlightenment and his contributions to French culture earned him the Order of the Academic Palms (Officier) in 1989 and the French Legion of Honor (Chevalier) in 1996. Dr. LeClerc has received honorary doctorates from Hunter College, Union College, Fordham University, Hamilton College, the College of the Holy Cross, Long Island University, Brown University, The New York Medical College, the University of Paris III-La Nouvelle Sorbonne and Oxford University.

Dr. LeClerc has served on a number of non-profit boards. He is presently a trustee of The New York Public Library and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Dr. LeClerc also is a Director of the National Book Foundation, the Council on Libraries and Information Resources, and the Maison Française of Columbia University. He serves on the Editorial Board of The Complete Works of Voltaire (Oxford University) and on the Advisory Committee of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (at Yale University). President Clinton appointed him to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. He was recently elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Director of the American Academy in Rome.

Dr. LeClerc is married to Dr. Judith Ginsberg, Executive Director of the Covenant Foundation, a philanthropy created and supported by the Crown Family Foundation of Chicago. The Foundation provides awards to outstanding Jewish educators and grants to innovative educational programs that perpetuate the Jewish heritage. Dr. Ginsberg is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brown University and received a doctorate in Spanish literature from CUNY Graduate Center using the facilities of The New York Public Library. They have a sixteen-year-old son.
Links & Resources:
» New York Public Library
» The Covenant Foundation
» La Maison Française of Columbia University
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