You won't want to miss this remarkable show on the power of classical music in the lives of 25 high-profile guests with riveting stories told to host Gilbert Kaplan by Condoleezza Rice, Jimmy Carter, Ehud Barak, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Patrick Stewart, Mike Nichols, Renee Fleming, Valery Gergiev, Philippe de Montebello and many others.
Fernando H. Cardoso
Philippe de Montebello
Fritz Kreisler Caprice viennois. Fritz Kreisler, violin. Carl Lamson, piano. RCA 5910.
Sigmund Romberg The Student Prince. “The Drinking Song.” Philharmonia Orchestra. John Owen Edwards. Jay Master Works Edition CDJAY2 1252.
Johann Sebastian Bach Cantata BWV 50 [excerpt]. Bach-Ensemble. Helmuth Rilling. Hänssler Classic 98857.
Carlos Gardel “Por una Cabeza.” (“By a Head [of a Horse].”) The Tango Project. “Scent of a Woman.” MCA Records MCAD10759.
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 9. Third and Fourth Movements [excerpts]. Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Sir Georg Solti. London 430804.
Franz Schubert Sonata in A, D. 959. Andantino [excerpt]. Alfred Brendel, piano. Philips 438703.
Gilbert Kaplan Welcome to the summer edition of “Mad About Music” where we revisit our acclaimed two-hour Fifth Anniversary show. The first hour aired in July and tonight we hear the second part revisiting appearances of 25 of our most fascinating guests.
Kaplan Over the years many conductors have appeared on “Mad About Music” and one of them, Sir Edward Heath also happened to be the British Prime Minister once upon a time, so I asked him who wielded more power: a Prime Minister or a conductor.
Edward Heath That is a very interesting question. And I think the answer is quite clear – the power of the podium is far greater than that of a Prime Minister. A Prime Minister in this country, of course, is Prime Minister in the Cabinet and all are equal. He has to get agreement for what he wants and has to handle the discussion of all the members of the Cabinet on the things that they want. And this has to be very realistic, very realistic or else the Cabinet begins to break up. Now when you're conducting an orchestra, that's quite different. You are absolutely in charge and if you show signs of not being in charge then the orchestra ignores you.
Kaplan That sometimes combative relationship between conductors and orchestras that Prime Minister Heath touched upon was further explored by the music director of the New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel.
Lorin Maazel Well, I think the main problem in the relationship between music director and the orchestra he has been asked to guide, is the vanity of the conductor. To the extent that it is overblown there will be increasing friction with his colleagues in the orchestra because that simply doesn't wear well in the long run. And orchestras are also a captive audience – conductors that go on forever telling jokes or explaining what the music is all about eventually become very unpopular and rightfully so. I'm someone who's interested in making music. I get along well with the music I'm making and love to perform and I think I communicate this to the folks around me and I find that it, a good relationship is really based on mutual respect.
Kaplan That need for mutual respect took on a further dimension when the high-voltage Russian conductor Valery Gergiev appeared on “Mad About Music.”
Valery Gergiev Cooperation with orchestra is very important. Orchestra should never feel that conductor hates the music. Because if they start to feel it, they become totally – let's say – abandoned.
Kaplan Did you say that a conductor would be hating the music he’s conducting?
Gergiev Well, sometimes you feel that conductor maybe doesn’t like the music.
Kaplan Why is he conducting it?
Gergiev Well, that’s a good question. But we are all professionals. It’s a very good word, but it’s also a very dangerous word. Some people think they have to simply professionally do it. They go and do it. Maybe some of them just beat the time, some of them are fantastic professionals, they will beat time very well. But do they really love the music, and why they love it? The answer is go and listen to a Furtwängler recording of Toscanini; I addressed to the same spot, that any young conductor who will hear, he will be disturbed, maybe by a couple of pizzicato played not together. But if he’s really gifted young man, he will have to be shocked by the depth of reading of Brahms Fourth Symphony, for example.
Kaplan Gergiev also cautioned today’s conductors not to make the mistake of thinking they are more talented than they actually are.
Gergiev And there are performances which, after you do it, you start to think that, well maybe this performance was not a must, it was not maybe needed, it was just – believe me, many performers, many artists, if they will be honest enough, they will say that only a portion of what we do is really important, and maybe really successful or really good. Conductors normally are very egocentric, so they think of themselves of course very highly, but at the same time, subconscious always tell them, well, there were big people in the past, and they were so big, can we compete? So at least I always feel that we have shortcomings rather than advantages.
Kaplan Gergiev’s idea that there will always be a challenge for today’s generation to measure up to the great performers of the past was also taken up by violinist and concert master of the New York Philharmonic, Glenn Dicterow, when he appeared on “Mad About Music.” In inviting him, I stressed his musical selections should be works he loves as a listener, not as a performer. When I saw that so many of his selections were violin pieces, pieces which he surely must have played, I asked him for an explanation.
Glenn Dicterow Well, basically, these particular pieces I feel are owned by either the composer or the violinist playing them. In the particular case of Fritz Kreisler, he put such a mark, an individual mark, on those works that I can’t even conceive of doing them in any other way but as an imitation of what the original master did. And therefore I feel that even though you’re not hearing the live performance, we still have wonderful recordings of these masters playing, in particular Fritz Kreisler playing this fantastic Caprice viennois; the way he achieves these double stops, and the fact of the matter is the way it was recorded, the old-fashioned way of into the horn or with a very, very basic mike, onto a 78. You still hear an amazing amount of overtones that only he can achieve. I’ve never heard anything like that before, so I am really in reverence. I just can’t conceive of it in any other way. So, I leave it to the great Fritz Kreisler.
Kaplan The legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler playing his own Caprice viennois, a performance so shattering that, as New York Philharmonic concert master Glenn Dicterow told it, many outstanding violinists, including Dicterow himself, refuse to perform the work. Such are the challenges sometimes posed by great artists of the past. But soloists more often face a different challenge, one when they and a conductor don’t see eye to eye. We learned about a classic when the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Glenn Lowry, appeared on the show. He reported on the now legendary confrontation between Leonard Bernstein and the acclaimed but highly idiosyncratic pianist, Glenn Gould.
Glenn Lowry But of course there are the rare moments when a performer or a conductor gets an insight and compels us to rethink the way we understand a work. And one of the great examples of that, to me at least, is Glenn Gould’s performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, and Leonard Bernstein’s comments and reaction to that performance, in a recording that is absolutely mesmerizing. Bernstein introduces Gould’s performance by talking about how deeply disturbed he is by the way in which Gould has changed the tempo, slowed it down in certain passages, and he questions whether or not it’s the right thing to do, and in fact he even questions, as he introduces this piece, whether he should be conducting it. And then he comes to the conclusion that Gould is a brilliant pianist, and that his interpretation is not frivolous, but the result of deep meditation and thought, and feels because of that that the audience needs to give Gould the chance to argue his case and listening to Leonard Bernstein talk about Glenn Gould and Brahms is one of the great, I think, musical introductions to why we should always give our sympathy, our understanding to performers who are willing to take risks.
Kaplan Museum of Modern Art’s Glenn Lowry on the odd coupling of Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould. Conductors do exercise a certain amount of power, but sometimes they too can be subjected to power, as we discovered when the conductor and composer Pierre Boulez appeared on the show. When conducting in Switzerland, Boulez was shocked when the police suddenly arrived at his hotel before dawn and arrested him, still in his pajamas. I asked what had happened.
Pierre Boulez Well, I don’t know, still. I must say they apologized, but they did not give me any explanation, but it was surprising, I must say that to be woken up at 6:30 in the morning, by the police precisely, and they asked for my passport, they asked for my plane ticket, everything – and two hours later, it was cleared, but they never explained to me why. So I had to accept this part of the mystery.
Kaplan Ah, well, the mystery to some extent was explained, if you believe the press accounts. They said at some point in your career, you had written a speech or in a book, in I suppose a metaphorical way that we ought to bomb the opera houses and this in turn put you on the list as a possible terrorist. Do you think it might be that?
Boulez: Well that was an interview in the magazine, German magazine, Der Spiegel. And that was the title of the interview. Let’s bomb the opera houses because of the routine, and I said, it would not be the most economical but the most radical solution, and it was not without humor; but people very often have read the title, and not the article.
Kaplan Being misunderstood has also been a problem for Pierre Boulez as a composer. So many music lovers have rejected modern music, including Pierre Boulez’s because of its difficulty and lack of melody. I started to explore this issue by asking Boulez this question:
One of the reasons that’s often given by people who don’t embrace contemporary music is there seems to be a law that has been passed by the contemporary composers that it is against the law to write a beautiful melody, with any of the traditional harmony that one has grown up with. And I think that you would agree this is not a characteristic of most modern music. Or almost any modern music. Now why is that melody, as we know it, has been banned from music?
Boulez That’s not banned at all, that’s the same argument always! And that’s a different type of melody, different type of harmony, and then, if you know how to listen to it, you recognize the melodic line. That’s simply a kind of new territory, and you have to get familiar with it, that you can recognize really the melodic aspects.
Kaplan So you would make the case that contemporary music has in it real melodies, hummable melodies, which you might leave the hall being able to reproduce.
Boulez Well, I think, if you ask, I don’t know the last string quartets or even in Mozart, some symphonies, and you know, if you want to, to whistle the G-minor Symphony, you would have some problems, I suppose.
Kaplan [Whistles the melody]
Boulez Well, the beginning of course! But then after the beginning, please go on.
Kaplan Well, I actually could have whistled quite a bit of the whole movement! But all right, we’ll leave conductors and their power and turn to a different aspect of power – the romantic power of music, a topic explored by many of our guests. But curiously, it was a politician, President Jimmy Carter, who provided the most remarkable tale of the potent effect of music.
Jimmy Carter Well, when Rosalynn and I were in the Navy in my earliest days of married life, we made a total of $300 a month and we spent over $150 on food and lodging which only left us a little bit. But I was assigned to go to Philadelphia to learn about pending new radar equipment and one night we decided to splurge and went out to an actual restaurant and afterwards we went to Sigmund Romberg's performance of The Student Prince. It was so overwhelming to us to hear this music in live that we I guess became a little more romantic than usual and that night we decided to have our first child, so our oldest son Jack was conceived that night after we heard The Student Prince.
Kaplan The “Drinking Song” from Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince, music so romantic, as President Jimmy Carter told it – he was our first guest on “Mad About Music” in 2001 – so romantic that it led to the conception of his first child – perhaps the most personal and revealing story about the power of music told by any of our guests. I always encourage guests to select music for which there is a good story to tell and I often pass on President Carter’s tale as an example. One guest wrote back though just before his appearance that he wouldn’t have any stories that could possibly match President Carter’s, but he was encouraging his wife to listen to The Student Prince. Well romance was certainly the theme when award-winning Hollywood director Mike Nichols was on the show. His love of Richard Strauss was in a way a family matter. It turns out that his grandmother translated Oscar Wilde’s original French libretto for Salome into German, the German we hear in performances of the opera. In fact, so many of his musical selections, including another Strauss opera, Rosenkavalier, were so romantic that I asked if he regarded himself as a true romantic.
Mike Nichols I would say in the end, probably and ineradicably. I’ve tried to do things about it, but I end up romantic, no matter what. And the Trio from the Rosenkavalier was just out and out, a way of getting girls, you know, it was simply saying, have I got something to play for you, and sitting them down and playing them the Trio, which it has to be said, almost always worked. It just breaks your heart. It is sort of a definition of bittersweet, which means that you feel for all of the characters and that sort of sense of one of them giving something up, and two of them finding love is just touching and it’s sexy, and Strauss had this thing that he did, that gets me every time, which is, he just makes you work quite hard for a long time, and then, finally, finally, at the end of the opera, comes through with this sea of music that transports you and puts girls in the right mood, and just makes you love life.
Kaplan It sure does. Mike Nichols and music for seduction. When we return, we’ll continue our exploration of these remarkable stories about the romantic power of music.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan and we are celebrating the Fifth Anniversary of “Mad About Music” in this two-hour special, revisiting the most memorable moments from nearly 40 shows. Just before the break, we learned that Strauss’s Rosenkavalier was Mike Nichols music of choice for seduction, but it was Bach that philanthropist Mercedes Bass turned to for comfort after a youthful romance ended sadly for her.
Mercedes Bass Ah, yes, when I was very young, I had as every young person does, an unsuccessful and sad romantic experience and I would come home every night and listen to the concerto for two violins by Bach.
Kaplan Mercedes Bass also disclosed she had music that connected to a highly successful romance when I asked her if there was any work she shared especially with her husband.
Bass Yes, there is. I think he will kill me for revealing this to you in public, but when we met, and he said to me, “If you really want to know me, just listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Third Movement, and you will know what I’m all about.” And it has remained one of our favorite pieces. Whenever it’s being performed, anywhere in the world, we go together, we listen to it and it’s a very, very romantic moment. And we do not invite any guests with us.
Kaplan If Beethoven was a musical link for Mercedes Bass and her husband, Bach has provided a bond between the dean of Harvard, Jeremy Knowles, and his wife.
Jeremy Knowles Over the years, I and my wife had sung in various cantatas and knew a number of them. Slowly and incrementally I obtained all 69 CDs of all the Bach Cantatas. Where are they? They're all in Vermont. We have a little house in Vermont and it is a routine that for breakfast in the middle of the forest my wife and I have a Bach Cantata. This one, No. 50, is unique amongst all the Bach Cantatas in having just a single movement. It's an eight-part chorus of the most wonderfully intricate contrapuntal writing.
Kaplan An excerpt of Bach’s Cantata BWV 50 by the Bach-Ensemble conducted by Helmuth Rilling, a work chosen by the Dean of Harvard, Jeremy Knowles, who always shares a Bach cantata with his wife over breakfast in the romantic Vermont forest. But if music can trigger romantic impulses, a story told by the president of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc, revealed that music can also serve as a warning signal that a romance was not meant to be.
Paul Le Clerc Many, 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 And finally, actor Patrick Stewart demonstrated that sometimes the romantic power of music can be so overwhelming that it can actually create a false sense of falling in love.
Patrick Stewart One night I was wrapping my work on “Star Trek” early and I didn’t know if there was anything on at all, but I called down to Peter’s office, and there his assistant said, “Yes, there is, but I’ve got to warn you, it starts very soon, it’s a long opera, it’s five hours, we’ve got Berlioz’s Les Troyens on tonight.” “Oh, gosh,” I said, well I love the story of Troy, and yes I think I know a little bit of it – “I'm on my way”, so they held a seat for me and down I went. Well, I was simply overwhelmed by the experience! You may hear the emotion rises in my voice, as I recall that night. Five hours, it passed all too quickly. Oh, there’s a little additional story. I actually did take a date to The Trojans, and I was very attracted to this woman, and I began to think, as I listened to the great duet that ends Act IV, between Dido and Aeneas, that I might just possibly have been falling in love. I realize now in looking back that I think it was entirely the music! And there was no reality about my feelings at all!
Kaplan So, actor Patrick Stewart and more documentation on the romantic power of music. Our final look at music and romance brings us to the tango, a dance discussed by both the current president of Juilliard and the former President of Brazil. Juilliard’s Joseph Polisi took tango lessons to prepare for his daughter’s wedding. But he revealed that he had long been attracted by the dance’s sensuous allure.
Joseph Polisi I brought you a tango that was composed by Carlos Gardel, Por Una Cabeza. I had first heard the melody in the film, “Scent of a Woman,” and I thought it was charming and I’ve always found tango to be a fascinating experience, how people can dance in such a sensuous and in many ways, emotional way, with all sorts of variations of movement that seem to be quite choreographed, but yet are not.
Kaplan Yet, there’s no denying the potent force of the tango, so I asked Brazil’s former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso if the difference is in the temperament, in the personality of the Brazilians versus the Argentineans, could just possibly be explained by differences between the samba and the tango.
Fernando H. Cardoso Well, you know, the tango is dramatic. The tango is waiting for disaster. Brazil is the opposite, we are waiting for a good life. You see? And the samba is always much more – basically love is the subject matter. You see? Maybe sometimes you are not very happy with your lover, but then you believe that it could be improved, even when she decides to leave you for another man, you say, “Wow, you see that God will take care of that.” So we are much more optimistic than the Argentineans. The Argentineans have the Hispanic sense of tragedy. You see?
Kaplan It’s interesting you characterize the tango that way. I’ve always imagined the tango as a great love dance between two people.
Cardoso But tragic. Love is a tragedy, not just love. It’s a passion capable to kill. And Brazilians prefer not to kill.
Kaplan Por una Cabeza, a tango by Carlos Gardel, which many of us will always associate with the movie “Scent of a Woman” and Al Pacino dancing to it. The tango, a topic explored by Joseph Polisi, president of Juilliard and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former president of Brazil. This is Gilbert Kaplan as we continue our two-hour special of “Mad About Music” celebrating our Fifth Anniversary, we are reconnecting memorable moments and guests from about 40 of our shows. Whether a tango or Beethoven, the musical choices we all make are so personal that I have often wondered if the character of that music is really a mirror of our own personality. A comment by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made about Brahms certainly seemed to suggest this.
Condoleeza Rice Brahms someone once described to me as passionate without being sentimental and that's how I think of Brahms and I just love – Brahms is probably my favorite composer at this stage in my life.
Kaplan Passionate without being sentimental. Could that be a description of you?
Rice Oh, now that's a good question. I suppose I'd like to think of myself as passionate about life. I'm certainly passionate about music and I'm passionate about my work, passionate about family and about my faith. I can be sentimental as well, but I prefer my composers pretty straight.
Kaplan You know, I wonder if you have two personalities, the music personality and your regular personality, if I can call it that. Media accounts always mention that you're impeccably dressed, which I can testify to today, tidy, and disciplined. But my question is, what happens when you sit down at the keyboard? Is there a different Condi Rice lurking beneath the surface?
Rice When I sit down at the keyboard, I think it’s the same Condi Rice, but it’s a Condi Rice that has to be really disciplined.
Kaplan Well what about just playing with abandon and disregarding all that tidiness, organization, discipline and just going for it?
Rice Well, one reason that I love Brahms and Mozart is one can't play with abandon. You have to be pretty disciplined. I'm one of those people now if you put it in front of me, I can read it. But if you ask me to play it by ear or with improvisation, I have a much harder time, so I guess I'm tidy and disciplined even when I'm playing the piano.
Kaplan Tidy and disciplined. If Condoleezza Rice was willing to play the game of matching music and personality, actor Alec Baldwin certainly wasn’t. He had selected Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Wondering whether Mahler’s music matched Baldwin’s personality, I posed this question:
It is very profound music and continuing with my attempt to connect your musical selections with your personality, this symphony combines in an almost surreal way, two opposing personalities. The third movement, which Mahler called the "Rondo-burlesque," is really a demonic whirlwind charging ahead, almost out of control. Then, it turns into perhaps the most reflective, probing, sensuous music Mahler ever composed. Do you see anything of yourself in that description?
Alec Baldwin You missed your calling! You should be a forensic psychiatrist with the police department. Well, I'm going to cop out here and say, these analyses of yours might apply maybe more to the characters I play than to me myself. I mean, I might have an appreciation of....
Kaplan You're a mild-mannered reporter of The Daily Planet.
Baldwin ... of a quaint metropolitan newspaper, who fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.
Kaplan Well, tell me about your feelings about this Ninth.
Baldwin Well, the Ninth was probably, I would say, like many people, when you first hear this piece, it's just so searing, and so powerful. This was the first Mahler piece I think I heard when I was in Los Angeles, during that time I was listening to classical music on the radio incessantly, and it just had this incredible effect on me. And it's one of the few symphonies, actually, where the whole piece, I could sit and listen to the whole piece in one run. Sometimes I'll take some certain symphonies and listen to movements, I don't really feel the need to listen to the whole piece in one meal. And this is one where you just almost have to play this whole thing.
Kaplan Well, I wish we could play it end to end, but of course it would take the whole show. So let’s hear then that clash of personalities I talked about before as that whirlwind “Rondo-burlesque” dissolves into the dreamy opening of the Finale.
Kaplan The concluding moments of the Third Movement and the opening passage from the Finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Sir Georg Solti, a musical selection of actor Alec Baldwin when he appeared on “Mad About Music.” I had asked Baldwin whether Mahler’s Ninth with its many different but intense moods mirrored Baldwin’s own personality. And I explored a related issue – whether the personality of the performer we see on the stage is their true, but sometimes hidden, personality. I put this question to acclaimed soprano Renée Fleming:
You have said so often throughout your career in interviews that you always regarded yourself as the quintessential “good girl.” But then I read recently that by now, you say it is really the erotic aspect of music that attracts you. Quote, "My real taste, my real sensibility, lies in the music I feel is sexy.”
Renee Fleming Well, you know what it is? You’ll find this in a lot of actors will make statements about how kind of quiet and nerdy they were, and there’s always in secret that, the wild secretary who takes off her glasses and lets her hair down, in a lot of us who perform. So, I think in every performer and in many performers, there is this dual personality, the one who wants to come out and the one who is inhibited, and that’s why we go onstage, so we can actually lose that for a little while, and become someone else.
Kaplan Well, the onstage/offstage personality issue also showed up when the late Peter Jennings, ABC’s news anchor, appeared on the show. As delivering the news is also a kind of performance, I asked whether his detached cool delivery was the real Peter Jennings.
Peter Jennings Well, I think training is easy – it’s not a difficult answer for the stuff I do on television, though I lose it on occasion. When Ronald Reagan went to Houston some years ago to comfort the wives of the Challenger astronauts who died, he was doing the thing that Ronald Reagan, I think, did as well as any President in modern history, probably better; Bill Clinton does it quite well also. Which is to comfort people, to physically and publicly comfort people. And in the background they began to play the Navy Hymn and I just was – I could hear my producer in my ear saying, "steady, steady," because I was about to lose it. But it's true. On the air, it's not my role to superimpose my emotions on other peoples' who have their own, God knows, when they're listening to what goes on everyday. But it's quite true, off the air, as I think you know a little, I'm quite a different person.
Kaplan He certainly was and is surely missed. A wonderful and moving story from the late Peter Jennings. Beyond keeping their own emotions under control, though, artists also have to cope with the audience’s emotions which can often be quite cruel. I asked Renée Fleming how she does this when the audience – rarely, in her case – starts to boo.
Renee Fleming You know, one becomes accustomed to it, it’s kind of a way of life in certain theaters and in certain houses, and singers can also develop a thick skin, just as we may have to develop a thick skin in regards to reviews, of booing. Another thing that has always amazed me, is if you go to a baseball game, if you go to Shea stadium or Yankee stadium, the insults and the screaming and yelling that comes from the gallery, even from fans. I always think, gosh, these guys, how do they just – do they ignore it? How does this just roll off their backs? So, it really depends on what’s normal for any given theater or any given sport, you know. Opera has been called a “blood sport” as well. For me, it was difficult, because I wasn’t used to it!
Kaplan Renée Fleming on coping with the audience. But beyond the audience’s reaction, there is also the matter of the critics. On Broadway, a really bad review in The New York Times can sometimes actually kill a play. But what impact do the critics who cover classical music have? I put this question to the president of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta.
Zarin Mehta Look, critics are a fact of life in every city and New York is no different. Again, historically, the critics of the New York Times have never liked the music director of the New York Philharmonic. Mitropoulos was run out of town, by how he was treated. Lenny Bernstein was devastated by the New York Times. Boulez did not have a good time, my brother did not have a good, Masur was good and bad, and so on; and Lorin has become good and bad – it started off badly, but now they’re raving about him. It does not have an effect on us. We think that the public is smart enough to make up its own mind, and it has made up its own mind.
Kaplan The president of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta, making the case that the audience can make up its own mind and doesn’t have to listen to the critics. But what about performers? Do they really care what the critics write? I asked conductor Valery Gergiev about this.
Valery Gergiev Could be. I certainly have to be criticized and happily I accept that I have to be criticized all the time because as Georg Solti, famous colleague and supporter and friend of mine, Sir Georg Solti told me, "Don’t read reviews". Why, I was shocked, surprised and upset. It was a time when out of ten, nine reviews would be so-so good about me. I was a young conductor 94, 95, 96. And he told me, well, if you believe good ones, then you have to believe bad ones. Don’t read them.
Kaplan Don’t read them indeed. Advice I suspect Maestro Gergiev has never followed. But critics are hardly an issue for most of the guests on “Mad About Music” who, after all, are not performers, but only love music. Some, though, harbor intense fantasies about what it would be like to be a performer and when we return, we’ll learn about some of them.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan and we are celebrating the Fifth Anniversary of “Mad About Music” in this two-hour special, revisiting some of the most memorable moments from nearly 40 shows. Very few of our guests on “Mad About Music” are performers, but a few do play an instrument – some remarkably well. Others can only fantasize what it would be like to be a performer. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is one who could have developed a professional career as a pianist. But being the realist she is, one day concluded she ought to do something else.
Condoleezza Rice I planned a career as a concert pianist but I realized in my sophomore year, at the end of my sophomore year in college that I was pretty good but not great. I went to one of those Aspen Music Festival summer programs and I met 11-year olds who could play from sight what had taken me all year to learn and I thought I'm maybe going to end up playing piano bar or playing at Nordstrom, but I'm not going to end up playing Carnegie Hall and so I started looking for something else. But the great thing about music is that you can love it all of your life, you can pick it up at different phases. Fortunately, when I made the decision to leave, I was good enough that I could now bring it back into my life and play chamber music and it’s a real joy.
Kaplan While Condoleezza Rice continues to play the piano – even encouraged, she says, by President Bush to do so – the late Peter Jennings of ABC News never really got started. He never studied an instrument but told this charming story how as a child he tried to fool people into thinking that he really could play the piano.
Peter Jennings My mother taught me a tiny little thing with my left and right hand on the piano and I still play it with great adroitness. My grandfather had a player baby grand piano. I used to sit at the piano, put the piano roll in, and I would just wait for people to look in from the streets so that they would just really think it was me playing the player piano! That's as far as I ever got.
Kaplan The director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, got much further than Peter Jennings, but at some point found it too daunting to continue his studies. Still, he found a way to continue to play at least a certain kind of music and it always provides an extraordinary experience for him.
Philippe de Montebello I can read music and I follow music, I follow scores. I love to follow scores, especially with complicated music, let’s say chamber music where there are many voices, and I can play the right hand of a lot of let's say slow pieces of music. And one of the great moments of solace for me at the end of a long day, I sit at the piano and I have a number of slow movements, Mozart, specifically Schubert, and I just play for myself the slow movements of Schubert. So this to me is music in which I have a direct participation and really goes deep into the soul. That Andantino – achingly nostalgic and sad – is just such a dream.
Kaplan An excerpt from the Andantino from Schubert’s Sonata for Piano in A major performed by Alfred Brendel on this recording, but also played – only the right hand part, that is – in quiet personal moments by the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello. This is Gilbert Kaplan as we continue to celebrate the Fifth Anniversary of “Mad About Music.” “Deep into the soul” was Philippe de Montebello’s description of the impact of the Andantino. It could also describe the impact Beethoven had on the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but for a different reason. He has played the piano since childhood, but as Prime Minister, the only time he found to play was around two o’clock in the morning, often prompting his neighbors to call the police to complain. For a long time he was afraid to attempt Beethoven’s challenging “Appassionata” Sonata. But one day he did finally manage to learn it and his first performance is one I’m sure he will never forget.
Ehud Barak My father was clearly the real engine behind my awareness of the beauty and sensation of listening or performing in music. He was the one that always escorted me to every, almost every training session on the piano and more than any other individual, was encouraging me to try to never to be deterred by either technical or other obstacles in playing the piano. He passed away several months ago at the age of 92. But I believe that one of the most moving moments for him was when he was already lying in his dying bed. I remember that all along my life he tried to encourage me to play the "Appassionata." And I thought that I will never be able to perform the "Appassionata" just by listening to it and he insisted that I will try. And in fact it happened that I tried in the last year and found it possible after all. I played it to him through the telephone. He could hardly talk, and when I ended he told me, "I told you all along your life, never be deterred from experiencing more in music."
Kaplan If Prime Minister Barak needed encouragement to pursue Beethoven, the chief executive of Sony, Sir Howard Stringer, certainly didn’t to play Handel. He was a natural musician as a child, an outstanding boy soprano who earned pocket money by singing at weddings and funerals. Early on he distinguished himself on the trumpet. Then came a performance of The Messiah.
Howard Stringer By the time I was seventeen, I was first trumpet in the school orchestra and we were going to be recorded playing the Messiah and obviously the trumpet part in the Messiah is quite tricky. I played the solo, “The trumpet shall sound,” and I had played it in rehearsal that morning and I got it perfectly; I had done it perfectly. I was complimented by the conductor. I played it with the soloist. Then when the time came, at the end of a long period of sustained trumpet playing that is part of the Messiah, before the Messiah comes the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which has a wonderful high trumpet part with cascading trumpets and so forth, and I attacked that with ferocity. And then came the moment when I stood up to play the solo for “The trumpet shall sound” and I got half way through it and I blew up. My lip went. I just sagged. And it was heartbreaking – the organ stepped in and played the trumpet part.
Kaplan Oh my.
Stringer And I sank to my seat in despair. It is and still remains the most traumatic experience of my life. Nothing at Sony is going to match that feeling in front of friends and colleagues failing to finish off that solo and it was cut out of the record. So, that was the final ignominy.
Kaplan Sir Howard Stringer facing every performer’s nightmare. For most of our guests, though, performing on the stage is only a fantasy. I sometimes ask guests, especially those who love opera, to confess the role they would most like to perform in their fantasies. Philanthropist Mercedes Bass had no trouble selecting a role to play, but actually she had something much more ambitious in mind.
Mercedes Bass Traviata. Actually, I would probably like to do all of it. I would like to direct it, I would like to produce it, I would like to design the costumes and I would definitely would like to sing Violetta. And I would like to choose my Alfredo. If I could have my own way.
Kaplan Do I dare ask who that would be?
Bass Placido Domingo, I think, would be my Alfredo.
Kaplan But do you think that you would become, then, one of those unreasonable and demanding divas?
Bass You ask Joe Volpe, he would say yes!
Kaplan Joe Volpe being the general manager of the Met for 16 years. If the idea of performing Traviata was a dream for Mercedes Bass, it was a nightmare for actor Alan Alda.
Alan Alda I think Traviata was my first opera – and some of it delighted me, but the older I got, the more difficult it was for me to watch some of the acting and the staging. People would come out and wander around until their cue comes. I know what this sounds like to somebody who really knows it and loves it. I'm just giving you an outsider's view of it, which I hope is amusing to you.
Kaplan Do you think you would be capable of directing an opera that would come off with the staging and the drama and the acting that you think it really needs?
Alda I would find it very hard to find an opera that I would be interested in being involved, but first of all I should only do things that I love. I mean, I'm not trying to conquer new worlds. I saw Norma the other night and the libretto goes: "The Romans have defiled our altars (these are Druids singing) and we have to get rid of them and we have to stab them and kill them and make their blood flow like rivers." This is pretty strong stuff and the music goes "Yep ba ba da bump da bump da bump…." What is this? I wouldn't know how to direct that.
Kaplan All right, then, let’s turn to your next selection….
Kaplan And so it went with Alan Alda! If Alan Alda had no interest in directing opera, Will Shortz, the celebrated crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times, wasn’t particularly interested in any classical music. Needless to say, I was surprised.
Will Shortz You know, people do assume that something intellectual like the Times crossword has to be put together by someone who likes classical music. People make that assumption all the time. But, as you could guess from my “wildcard” selection, “Do Ya” by the Electric Light Orchestra, I’m really more of a rock-n-roll sort of guy. I like music of all sorts. You know, I do listen to classical music, but what excites me the most is good, hard rock.
Kaplan Still, I invited Will Shortz to appear on “Mad About Music” because being a crossword puzzle addict myself, I noticed that some of the words that show up most often in the puzzle are musical terms. I asked him why this was so.
Shortz Well, if you ever try to create a crossword puzzle, you’ll instantly understand the importance of short words with lots of vowels, so a word like "oboe" or "aria" is very useful to a puzzle maker – it’s the glue, it’s the mortar of the puzzle that allows you to do the construction.
Kaplan But the oboe appears to be an easy word to get, but it shows up all the time in the puzzle and I know that you structure the puzzles so that each day during the week it gets harder and harder, and so the oboe shows up not only on Monday, but also on Friday. I mean, how do you work that out?
Shortz Well, that’s right. If it’s a Friday puzzle, I would like the clue for "oboe" to be harder. For a Monday puzzle, it might be straightforward like, a clue might be "Woodwind instrument," or "Double-reed instrument." For a Wednesday, Thursday puzzle, which is medium in difficulty, I might say “BLANK d’Amore” or “Relative of an English horn.” And on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, where it should be the most challenging puzzle, I might say “Orchestra seat,” or my favorite clue is, “It’s in the winds.”
Kaplan Will Shortz went on to reveal that the operas that appear most often in the Times crossword puzzle was first, Aida, followed by Tosca and Otello. For conductors, Otto, as in Otto Klemperer, with only four letters and two vowels in his name. Renée Fleming, three e’s in her name. The No. 1 composer was not exactly a household name – Thomas Arne – again, four letters, two vowels, best known for “Rule Britannia.” Now as we head for the final section of “Mad About Music’s” Fifth Anniversary special, I’m sure you’ll agree that our guests have eloquently testified to the enduring power of music in our lives. But in case anyone has lingering doubts about this, consider these final thoughts. First, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello. Someone had told me he preferred music to art, that he actually said that he could easily live without art in his life but couldn’t survive without music. I asked if this was true.
Philippe de Montebello I obviously didn't have job security in mind when I came out with these unfortunate words, but it’s true. Still if I had to think myself on a desert island I would far rather had a discothèque with me than all of the Skira editions of books. That's just the way it is in terms of reaching deep into the psyche. To me music is fulfilling in a very different way.
Kaplan Then this even more remarkable confession from an actor at the top of his game, Alec Baldwin.
Alec Baldwin Well, sometimes I do think that people in my profession, you know, acting, is something that they do because a greater artistic yearning they had, eluded them. If I could sing – what I wouldn’t give to have that ability! I would just do that for a living, and sing all the time, if I could sing.
Kaplan And then this comment from the late Sir Edward Heath, former British Prime Minister, just a few years before he died.
Edward Heath And I find now today that if I’m deprived of music for some reason or other for three or four days, then I feel starved. Got to find it somehow or other.
Kaplan And finally, Hollywood director William Friedkin, who I suspect probably speaks not only for all the distinguished guests that appeared on “Mad About Music” these past five years, but for most of us as well.
William Friedkin I turn to music when I’m feeling high or low. It completely engulfs my life – the sound track of my life is classical music.
Kaplan Remarkable comments on the power of music in our lives, under which is a soundtrack, the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra with George Szell on the podium. And that concludes our Fifth Anniversary celebration. You’ll want to mark your calendar now for Sunday, September 2nd at our normal 9:00 pm time, when we open the new season with our guest Norman Lebrecht, perhaps the best-known and certainly the most controversial journalist covering classical music. Until then, enjoy the rest of the summer. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music”.