Johann Sebastian Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. Third movement. Munich Bach-Orchestra. Karl Richter. DG Archiv 463 657-2.
Claude Debussy Preludes Volume I “Voiles”. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. DG 413 450-2.
Pytor Illych Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker [excerpt]. Mariinsky Orchestra. Valery Gergiev. Phillips B00000A1GL.
Hector Berlioz Messe solennelle “Crucifixus”. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Monteverdi Choir. John Eliot Gardiner. Philips 442 137-2.
Franz Schubert String Quintet in C major. Second movement [excerpt]. Amadeus Quartet. Robert Cohen, cello. DG 419 611-2.
Leonard Cohen “Suzanne”. Leonard Cohen. Columbia 34077.
Nicola Porpora Semiramide riconosciuta “In braccio a mille furie”. Giovanni Antonini. Il Giardino Armonico. Cecilia Bartoli. Decca 478 1521.
GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back to “Mad About Music” where my guest today is Costa Pilavachi, the artistic leader of the Universal Music Group, the world’s largest classical record company.
He started out already when he was just a student in college -- running the classical record department of a store in Canada and it wasn’t so long before he was appointed as the Director of the Music Department at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and later he moved on to become the Artistic Advisor of the Boston Symphony. And in what must be a unique career achievement, he went on to serve as the President of no fewer than three major classical music labels: Philips, Decca and EMI. And now, earlier this year, he was appointed as the artistic leader for the entire Universal Music Group, the largest classical record company in the world. As such, he may just be the most influential personality in deciding which artist and what music make it on to CDs or on to increasingly popular downloads. As a note of disclosure, I should add that both my recordings of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra are on labels of this group. Costa Pilavachi, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
COSTA PILAVACHI: Thank you very much. It’s really nice to be here.
KAPLAN: Now, with your vast experience in the classical record business, you’ve headed three companies I mentioned that earlier, you’ve seen this industry go through a lot, and as you know there are lots of doomsday forecasts about the future of the big record companies out there. Now you’ve just taken on a major new assignment, so you’re obviously more optimistic than that. Tell me where you see things stand at the moment.
PILAVACHI: Well, that’s a difficult question, but I’ll try to be very concise. Yes, the music business has gone through a very, very, very difficult period and it continues to do so. But what’s interesting is that there is probably more music being recorded today than ever before. Not only studio recordings, but also live concerts, television, there is music in movie theaters, there is music in public squares, you know, on big screens. You know, music seems to be much more prevalent than ever before. The real challenge for a record company, is how to, I hate to use the word, but I will, how to monetize it, how to actually derive income from it.
KAPLAN: All right, let’s continue to talk about the classical record business. Now, 20 years ago a well-known conductor said to me that if you record a major work in the standard repertoire and if you sold 20,000 copies, this would be a very, very respectable result. Not a home run, but most record companies would be very happy with you. I have a feeling that that number might be as low as 5,000 copies today. When you think about a record, what is the minimum amount a record should be able to sell for you to have an interest in it?
PILAVACHI: There isn’t really a minimum amount, but if a record does at least 15 or 20,000, you know, that’s a start. Frankly, we’d rather aim for 40 and 50 and more. And many classical records, just to give you an example, Cecilia Bartoli’s albums sell about half a million worldwide. The U.S. market is the most depressed classical recording market right now, but we’re very lucky that Japan, Germany, France, Benelux, Korea are very healthy.
KAPLAN: Do you have any idea why the United States should be the one that’s not working at all?
PILAVACHI: The main reason is that because of the illegal downloading of pop the whole retail industry in this country has suffered, you know, practically a collapse. Because of course the retail chains, like Tower and Virgin and HMV and so on, were primarily pop shops that also had a classical department. So, classical recordings, at retail level, have really been a kind of victim of this really big decline in the sale of pop music. And in fact the public for classical music is still there, and we see that because the houses are full, you know, theaters, opera houses, concert halls, are doing very well. So the public is there, it’s just that they, there are no record stores for them to go into anymore.
KAPLAN: Now you mentioned downloading as a problem, but today a substantial portion of pop record music is acquired by listeners through downloads. What is your sense about the mix between downloads and CDs in the classical field, if you had to guess a sort of proportion?
PILAVACHI: On a worldwide basis, it’s something like 10 or 12 percent...
PILAVACHI:…of music that’s downloaded now, in classical music. In the U.S. a little bit higher, and that’s partly because there are fewer record stores in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world right now. But in general, the classical audience would still rather buy CDs and DVDs, which is great.
KAPLAN: Now you mentioned before that you would hope for a target sale of say 40 - 50,000 CDs of something you might put out. But it is my understanding that if the CD is of the standard repertoire, say a Brahms symphony, a Beethoven symphony, even by a great orchestra, well-known conductor, it’s very difficult to launch new copies of those with hundreds of different versions available. Would you say that’s a fair statement?
PILAVACHI: Yes, you’re absolutely right. The orchestral area is probably the most difficult right now, and that’s partly because of the limited repertoire and the difficulty of the public to identify with a conductor and orchestra. It’s easier for them to identify with a singer, or a pianist, or a violinist. And so when I say 40 or 50,000, I’m probably referring to, for example, solo piano recordings or concerto recordings with “starry” pianists, or great singers rather than standard fare with an orchestra.
KAPLAN: All right, well then let’s start with your music today, and I see your first work is by Bach.
PILAVACHI: Yes, Bach has been my God from the earliest days when I started listening to music. And Bach, for me, is the most universal composer. I like every type of music he wrote, whether it’s for the organ, whether it’s the Mass in B Minor, whether it’s the orchestral music. And today I chose the last movement, the Third Movement, of the Second Brandenburg Concerto because when I was a student in Canada, I used to manage the classical department of a record shop in downtown Ottawa. And Saturday morning there were no kids coming to buy records, it was all the adults who came to buy classics, and so I had a free hand in choosing the music that we would play in the shop, and what I would do is find certain, very lively pieces of classical music and blast them out onto the street. And we would have more people in our store than any other shop on the whole street, the main street of Ottawa. And this was the piece that seemed to work the best, and every time I played it, we’d sell about 50 copies just like that.
KAPLAN: The final movement of Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto, the Munich-Bach Orchestra led by Karl Richter. The first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Director of Artists and Repertoire for the Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record company, Costa Pilavachi. So let’s continue. Now, in your job, I suppose, one of your challenges is to find the next great artist. And I understand you’ve had a pretty good track record at this over the years. Tell me some of the people you discovered?
PILAVACHI: Well, I would have to start with the great conductor Valery Gergiev. When I was at the Boston Symphony, before going to Philips, which was my first job in the record business, I had bought a recording of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto because of the young, then young Soviet pianist Evgeny Kissin. And I took it home, put it on, in my CD player, and out came this most incredible outpouring, these amazing musical phrases, and, you know, from the orchestra, and I really could not believe my ears, so I looked and looked and looked, and in very, very fine print there was somewhere in the back a name that was new to me: Valery Gergiev. So I thought, “My god, who is this guy? I’ve never heard of him.” So I did my homework, and I found out that he had just been appointed as the new director of the Kirov, which is now called the Mariinsky again, Opera House in Leningrad, which is now St. Petersburg. And so I immediately offered him a debut with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, for the summer of 1990. And this was in 1988. Now, unfortunately, I wasn’t in Boston, or in Tanglewood, when he came for his debut because I had left the Boston Symphony to go to Amsterdam to run the artistic department of Philips. And there I had another opportunity to work with Gergiev, and I went to see him in Leningrad, and I discovered the fantastic theater there, and great orchestra, and we made a long, long contract, which is unusual in those days, seven-year-contract together, to record virtually all the Russian opera, ballet, and symphonic repertoire, and we embarked on that project. So, I’m very, very proud of that series of recordings. And, you know, there have been a few tenors, Juan Diego Flóres, Joseph Calleja from Malta, who is very, very interesting, perhaps the tenor today who sounds most like Pavarotti, you know that type of singing. And of course I can also tell you that I was instrumental in bringing Andrea Bocelli into the company, and the combination of his sort of pop singing and his light classics, and everything else, I mean, he is by far the best-selling singer in the world today, probably in any genre, you know, over the last decade. And so, yes, you know, bringing young artists in and working with them has been one of the most exciting parts of my job.
KAPLAN: All right, well then let’s come back to your list, and I see next is Debussy.
PILAVACHI: Well, this was an amazing concert, perhaps the most extraordinary piano recital that I ever heard. This was in 1982, in London, and the pianist was the late, legendary Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and he played in London at the Royal Festival Hall. The first half was Beethoven, and then he changed pianos, and I think that was the first time I ever saw an artist do that in the middle of a recital, and in the second half he came back to play the Debussy Book 1, the Preludes. And it’s “Voiles,” which is the second of these Preludes that we’ll hear today, and “Voiles,” which is of course a French word, is an ambiguous word. It can mean “veils” or it can mean “sails.” I prefer the latter, and just listen to this extraordinary music. It’s the most picturesque, the most delicate, the most expressive thing that one could imagine.
KAPLAN: “Voiles” from Debussy’s Preludes Volume One, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli performing, music chosen by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Costa Pilavachi, the man responsible for artists and repertoire at the Universal Music Group, the world’s largest classical record company. When we return we’ll be talking about which artists are guaranteed to produce best-selling recordings.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Costa Pilavachi, Director of Artists and Repertoire for the Universal Music Group. You know before we were talking about artists that are so popular that almost anything they release immediately sells and you mentioned Bocelli for example. Who would be some of the others that are guaranteed best sellers?
PILAVACHI: Well, Bocelli, but I mean, there are no guarantees. Every artist can have a dud recording, but, you know, today the most reliable names are, you know, you mentioned Bocelli, obviously Cecilia Bartoli, Renée Fleming, Lang Lang, Anna Netrebko. In different countries, not necessarily in the United States, Hélène Grimaud, the French pianist, is a very, very popular seller in France and Germany. I mean the best-selling, real classical artist today, funnily enough, is none other than Roberto Alagna, who is like a rock star in his native France. Unfortunately, the sales are mainly in France, but he’s a superstar, and my job is to make him a superstar worldwide. So there are quite a few, and I’m very happy to say that most of them are with us, but there are some with other labels too.
KAPLAN: What were the most successful symphonic recordings that you’re aware of in the last few years, your label or others, of traditional repertory?
PILAVACHI: The two best-selling orchestral recordings, that I can remember, of the last, let’s say decade, were The Nutcracker by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, and the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, which was a live recording with Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic. And those, between the two of them, probably did about a quarter of a million.
KAPLAN: All right then, let’s sample that block-buster recording of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker with Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Orchestra.
An excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, the Mariinsky Orchestra led by its music director, Valery Gergiev, and a selection by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Director of Artists and Repertoire for the Universal Music Group, Costa Pilavachi. You know, we were discussing the thrill of the hunt to discover the next generation of great artists. But when it comes to finding a new composition, I gather from the next item on your list that sometimes something old – but undiscovered – can just fall into your lap. And of course I’m speaking of your next selection which is Berlioz.
PILAVACHI: In 1992, I received a letter from a Flemish organist who claimed to have unearthed a long-lost manuscript of a mass by the young Hector Berlioz. And of course I used to get letters like this all the time, you know, they discovered the third Tchaikovsky piano concerto, the eleventh Mahler symphony, the tenth Beethoven symphony, etc. So you always had to take these with a grain of salt. But nevertheless, I answered his letter the same day and told him that if he would send me a copy of the score I would make sure that Colin Davis and John Eliot Gardiner, the two conductors who I was working with who were real Berlioz specialists, would both see the work and make an opinion about it. And, anyway, to make a very long story short, about a year later we found ourselves in Bremen, in north Germany, with John Eliot Gardiner and his wonderful Monteverdi choir, and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique at the world premiere live recording and second-ever performance of the Messe solennelle of the young Berlioz. And, it was the most extraordinary evening. People were amazed at this piece that Berlioz wrote when he was only 19 and totally unschooled, and all the ideas that came later in the Symphonie fantastique, and the Damnation of Faust, were in there already. We were completely blown away. So, afterwards we had all these press people there and everything else and I had to make a little speech, and I thanked, publicly, the organist who had brought us this project in the first place, and I quipped, “Am I ever glad I answered your letter.” And this fellow jumped up and said, “You were the only one. I wrote to every record company, and you were the only one who answered.” Of course I was shocked. I could not believe my ears. And the bottom line here is that the Messe solennelle was the best-selling Philips Classics disc of 1994.
KAPLAN: “Crucifixus” from Berlioz’s Messe solennelle with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir with John Eliot Gardiner conducting. A selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Director of Artists and Repertoire for the Universal Music Group, Costa Pilavachi. You know, we’ve been talking so much about music and the challenges facing record companies, we haven’t talked very much about you and your own tastes; how you got there. How did you first get attracted to classical music?
PILAVACHI: My father loved music, and at home he had a pretty sizable record collection, and it ranged, you know, everything from Louis Armstrong and Doris Day to Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Sibelius, and I grew up listening to his albums. My brother was also very, very interested in classical music. And when I was quite young I started going to concerts, and music was really a part of my life. I sang in a choir.
KAPLAN: Did you study?
PILAVACHI: I did, yes, I sang in a choir when I lived in Washington, D.C., and when I was in Canada I studied the violin during high school. I wasn’t very good at it, I have to tell you, but I did study it, and it gave me a feeling for how difficult it is, and I’ve never forgotten that. I have incredible respect for, I mean, all musicians, but in particular violinists.
KAPLAN: Well it’s a long leap from your recollections of your youth to my next question, but I think you’re familiar with the show and know I often ask guests whether they have already decided what music they would like performed at their funeral. I used to be shy about asking this question but over the years I’ve been astounded by how many people do make this decision and how happy they are to talk about it. Have you?
PILAVACHI: Now that’s an interesting question. About 30 years ago, I happened to see a film, it was a documentary on the great pianist Artur Rubinstein. And towards the end of the film, he was asked something like that, and he sat at the piano, and he started playing the beginning of the slow movement of the Schubert C Major String Quintet. And then the soundtrack merged into the soundtrack, which was a recording of the actual string quintet. And over that music, Rubinstein said that when he dies, this is the music that he would like to experience. Since then I’ve always felt that this music is what I would like my friends to hear if they come together, after my death. I think it’s the most beautiful and sublime music and frankly, I’d like to hear that when I’m passing, actually. I can’t imagine a more gentle, and more moving and more beautiful way to go into the afterlife.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the Adagio of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major with an expanded Amadeus Quartet. Music my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Costa Pilavachi, head of Artists and Repertoire at Universal Music Group, has already selected to be played one day at his funeral. When we return we’ll talk about contemporary composers and the works Costa Pilavachi believes will endure.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the Director of Artists and Repertoire for the Universal Music Group, Costa Pilavachi. You know, looking over your list of selections today, I would say they are very old world composers. And I was surprised not to find any contemporary works there since I assume that discovering new composers is part of what you do. Do you especially like contemporary music?
PILAVACHI: Yes, I do, and I have to tell you that I listen to a lot of contemporary music in the concert hall, but I find it very, very difficult to excerpt something from a contemporary piece for the radio. I think it’s unfair to the music. It probably needs a larger canvas to be heard and understood properly. And also, I grew up listening to recordings, and most recordings are of old music rather than new music. That might be changing now, but that was the case in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up, so the music that probably means most to me is old music.
KAPLAN: But I suppose part of your mandate in your job is to find the next great composer, right?
PILAVACHI: Absolutely. And that’s something, I mean, we’ve tried, we’ve never been that incredibly successful recording contemporary classical music. It seems that the most successful contemporary music recordings are those of the Minimalist composers, like John Adams, and Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, and so on.
KAPLAN: You know, last month the guest on my show, Ara Guzilimian, the Dean of Julliard, focused on such composers, and I made that observation then, and I think it is true, that maybe you’ve now explained it, these are successful, because I think that minimalist music by and large is embraced by people who maybe don’t like classical music. It’s the sort of bridge between pop music and classical music. But who are some of the composers today who you particularly admire among the contemporary composers?
PILAVACHI: Well, I have to say that I really like the music of Boulez. I mean, just off the top of my head, recently I heard Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct one of his own works, I thought it was absolutely, you know, fantastic. I like Harrison Birtwistle, the British composer. You know, funnily enough some of his music is incredibly thorny and difficult, but it seems to work very, very well in the concert hall. Oliver Knussen is one of my favorites. When I was younger, I used to know the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis and his music is completely mad, and crazy, but I found it incredibly powerful and emotional, especially if it was, you know, for example a ballet score and there was a visual element to it. So, yeah, I think I have a very wide-ranging taste, but quite frankly I don’t listen to this music at home on recordings. I much prefer to have it experienced in a concert hall. I mean, for example, I will never, ever forget that huge Stockhausen piece, Stimmung, which I heard when I was a student in Canada in a church. That was absolutely one of the greatest sensual experiences I’ve ever had.
KAPLAN: I don’t think I’ve ever heard Stockhausen ever described as “sensual” before, that’s fascinating. All right, well, we’re going to make a big leap then from all this to the section of the show we call the “Wild Card,” where you have a chance to play some music that’s not classical, not opera, and I find that this selection is often very indicative of the kind of person who is on the show. So, what’s your wild card?
PILAVACHI: Well, this was the most difficult choice of all because now we’re really getting into the, it’s a cliché, I know, but I’ll say it anyway, the sort of, you know, the soundtrack of one’s life. And I had to think of The Beatles, I had to think of The Rolling Stones, I had to think of the sort of music that my father loved, like “Mack, the Knife,” sung by Louis Armstrong, you know, things like that, and all kinds of pop songs, and folk songs, and French songs, and Greek music, and it was an incredibly difficult choice. And then, for whatever reason, I thought of one of the most delicious and moving songs by the Canadian poet and singer, Leonard Cohen. And because I lived in Canada, Leonard Cohen was maybe, you know, particularly close to us. Montreal was only an hour and a half from Ottawa where I lived, and Leonard Cohen also spent his summers in Greece on a Greek island, very close to the island where I spent a lot of summer holidays. So it’s very likely that I met him when I was younger through my, you know, the various expatriates who we knew in Greece. And so I’ve chosen one of his most moving songs, which accompanied all my early romances, and that’s “Suzanne.”
KAPLAN: “Suzanne,” one of the classic Leonard Cohen songs that my guest today on “Mad About Music” says accompanied him on all of his youthful romances – that guest being, Costa Pilavachi, Director of Artists and Repertoire for the Universal Music Group, the world’s largest classical record company. Let’s turn to your final selection then, a work by Nicola Porpora, not a very well-known composer.
PILAVACHI: Well, Porpora is an 18th century Italian, baroque opera composer, and the reason I’ve chosen this excerpt, which is by the way an aria called “In braccio a mille furie” from his opera Semiramide riconosciuta, which was composed for Venice in 1729. The reason I’ve chosen this, is because Cecilia Bartoli, in my opinion, is one of the world’s greatest singers and artists, and personalities in classical music. And for the last several years, she has undertaken the task of unearthing lost manuscripts of music written for women and also castrati in the 18th century, and her voice is perfectly suited to this repertoire. And she has rediscovered so many unbelievable gems, you know, by Vivaldi and by several other Italian composers of that era, and this is from an album that is called Sacrificium that refers to the supreme sacrifice made by those poor young men who became castrati at the time, and it’s a whole album of, practically all of it is of world premieres, and I just felt that this one represented everything that Cecilia Bartoli stands for, and displays her virtuosity, and quite frankly it makes a great closing.
KAPLAN: “In braccio a mille furie” from Nicola Porpora’s opera Semiramide riconosciuta, sung by Cecilia Bartoli with Il Giardino Armonico led by Giovanni Antonini, the final selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Costa Pilavachi, Director of Artists and Repertoire for the Universal Music Group. Now after that touching performance, we move to the final section of the show called Fantasyland which some guests regard as true confessions. You need to reveal your musical fantasy, which in your case I’m sure it’s going to be complicated because you are so immersed in all aspects of this music and musical life. Still you have to choose: so if you could be a superstar in music, would you like to be a singer, pianist, composer, or a conductor or anything else for that matter -- what would your fantasy be?
PILAVACHI: My fantasy would probably be to be a conductor. And, I’m sure you understand why. That must be the most thrilling experience that one could have, to stand in front of an orchestra of a hundred people and be able to make them play in harmony and together to make beautiful music, and it’s probably the best place to hear the music, is right there on the conductor’s podium.
KAPLAN: Now, as a conductor, would you be strictly faithful to the score, or would you let your own life and experience maybe let you take some liberties, as some of the great ones have done?
PILAVACHI: Oh, I’ve always admired the ones that take liberties, Furtwängler, Bernstein, Gergiev; those are the conductors that I like.
KAPLAN: Well, for us it’s been a great liberty to have you on the show today. I must say, it’s fascinating to hear someone who is to some extent shaping what we hear, and their passion, and the direction you think music is going. Costa Pilavachi, thank you for appearing today. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”
“Mad About Music”
Gilbert Kaplan, Executive Producer
Heidi Bryson, Producer
Marcela Silva, Associate Producer
Leszek Wojcik, Recording Engineer