“Mad About Music”
Guest: Bill Keller
March 4, 2012
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin, “Kuda kuda vy udalilis.” Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Valery Gergiev. Ramón Vargas, tenor. Decca DVD 074 3248.
Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto, “La Donna e Mobile.” London Symphony Orchestra. Richard Bonynge. Luciano Pavarotti, tenor. London: 414 269-2.
Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser. Overture [excerpt]. Staatskapelle Berlin. Daniel Barenboim. Teldec Classics 8573-88064-2.
Alfredo Catalani: La Wally (arrangement by Vladimir Cosma for the soundtrack of Diva) [excerpt]. London Symphony Orchestra. Vladimir Cosma. Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, soprano. Pomme Music: 950 622.
Kate McGarrigle: “Go Leave.” Nonesuch: 2-527267.
Jules Massenet: Manon, “Je marche sur tous les chemins...Obéissons quand leur voix appelle.” English Chamber Orchestra. Jeffrey Tate. Renée Fleming, soprano. Decca 458858.
GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back to MAM with my guest Bill Keller, who last year concluded his eight-year stint as the Editor of The New York Times.
He joined the New York Times 28 years ago in their Washington Bureau. And only two years later was tapped for the challenging assignment of Moscow -- where his five years of reporting on the collapse of communist rule and the breakup of the Soviet Union resulted in his winning the Pulitzer Prize. Working his way up the ladder first as Foreign Editor and then Managing Editor—in 2003 he was appointed as the paper’s Editor. Now, at The New York Times, the top editor’s formal title is actually Executive Editor. He served in that position for eight years, stepping down last fall to return to writing both as a Times columnist and as a feature writer for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. But along his impressive trajectory, music always accompanied him—often appearing at key moments in his life. Bill Keller, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
BILL KELLER: It’s nice to be here. Thanks for having me.
KAPLAN: Let’s begin by comparing the role of the editor and the conductor to connect music with your profession. Now, conductors have power over musicians. They decide what is played and how it is played, and at some publications the editor has those powers, too. How much power over what’s written and how it is written does the editor of The New York Times have?
KELLER: Well, in theory you have as much power as you choose to exercise, but it’s such a big operation that you couldn’t possibly even read, let alone edit every story that goes into the paper. You know, it’s interesting that you make the comparison with conductor because when I was in that job as editor, we used to have an annual off-site, and there would be some sort of a team-building gimmick as part of the off-site, and one year we did it with an orchestra, and the interesting thing that we picked up from that experience was that the conductor doesn’t just conduct everybody in the orchestra, he conducts the first violin and a few other key players, and they transmit the messages on to the rank and file musicians. And it’s pretty much the same way at a newspaper. You know, as the editor you talk to the foreign editor, the metro editor, the business editor, the culture editor about the kind of direction of things, but they do the handing it on to the actual writers.
KAPLAN: Now, conductors nonetheless are expected to have a point of view. I mean, should an editor impose his point of view?
KELLER: Absolutely. I mean, if by point of view you mean a slant on the story, no. We are schooled and try to be very rigorous about avoiding, you know, a kind of political spin on a story, but if we think that the foreign desk is missing an aspect of the story, that it doesn’t have enough people on the ground, that something that is buried in the 18th paragraph of the story is actually more interesting than the lead, you know, we certainly talk about that. And, there is a kind of, you know, point of view, I guess, that has to do with the ethics and standards of newspapering, that you try to transmit more broadly, there is that kind of proselytizing function that an editor has.
KAPLAN: Well, you know, when your successor Jill Abramson was interviewed, when she got the job, she was asked if she regarded the editor’s job as a sort of military expression, a command and control type leader, and she said that was inappropriate. What is your own view about that?
KELLER: No, it’s not. I mean, magazines, actually -- and newspapers are very different. Magazines tend to revolve around the personality and taste, this isn’t universally true, but it’s widely true, of an editor. Newspapers, because of the size and the rhythm, which is not just daily but nowadays because of the internet constant, they are much more collegial operations. Some huge percentage of what happens in the Times newsroom on a given day, the editor is not aware of, let alone controlling.
KAPLAN: All right, but if you change a conductor, everything changes in the music. When Lionel Barber, a colleague of yours, editor of the Financial Times, he was actually on the show, our last show, we discussed this subject also, and he said an editor must show a vision. Now, what difference does it make, who is the chief editor of The New York Times, in terms of how it covers the news? Does it make any difference at all or is it more just in these bigger issues?
KELLER: No, I think, you know, editors bring personal interests, enthusiasms, predilections to the job and you hope that those rise to the level of a vision, sometimes they are just quirks. But somebody like me, who came up as a foreign correspondent, then foreign editor, is probably going to have more to say about the foreign coverage than about, say, the culture coverage. So, yes, you are who you are, you bring yourself to the job. But I, you know, Jill, who has just taken over, was my second-in-command for eight years, and there was a lot of her in the editing that I did, and I think there will be some measure of me in the work that she does. As I said before, it is a fairly collegial style of management.
KAPLAN: Now, as editor, how much interest did you take in the coverage of the arts?
KELLER: Well, a great deal. Particularly since back when I was foreign editor, somebody let me in on a bit of market research that the Times had done. Until that point, as a correspondent, I wasn’t even aware that we did market research. Apparently they had done some intensive surveying shortly after the Times went from being a New York paper to being a national paper, nationally distributed and marketed and so on. And the question that they posed was sort of, “Why do people who don’t live in New York want to buy The New York Times?” And the answer, well, there were lots of answers, but the two prevailing answers were foreign coverage and culture coverage, particularly the, you know, culture coverage that goes beyond just the popular arts, because it’s, there’s not as much of it, I would say not enough of it in the world, coverage of the theater, coverage of the ballet, coverage of classical music and opera, and so on. And, so from that time on, while of course I was foreign editor, what I wanted to hear was that they wanted foreign news. When I became the guy in charge of the whole newsroom, I never forgot that there are a lot of people who buy The New York Times specifically because we stay on top of culture, and so, yes, I paid a lot of attention to it.
KAPLAN: Okay. Now, over the years I know there has been an internal debate at the Times - it’s not always been so public about what was the appropriate level for the coverage of classical music. And I’m narrowing arts now down to classical music. Some felt that because it is such a narrow sliver of total arts, perhaps it had too much coverage. It has more journalists covering it, more space given to it than any other paper in America, and others thought that was absolutely right. Did that issue come up during your tenure?
KELLER: It did, but nobody was seriously challenging the idea that we should do extensive coverage, and in fact, in the time I was there, it expanded in the sense that we began doing much more online. So, we actually found that one of the virtues of becoming a digital newspaper as well as a print newspaper was we could do things with classical music coverage that we weren’t able to do in print.
KAPLAN: I see. All right, well let’s leave music and journalism and turn to music itself. And I see your first choice is a work by Tchaikovsky.
KELLER: Right. It’s widely known as Eugene Onegin, but my Russian teachers would be appalled if I didn’t say that it’s Yevgeniy Onegin. I should probably say at the outset that I feel like a bit of an impostor in this show in that your guests tend to be people who have conducted music, played music, written music, or certainly are very steeped in classical music, and I’m not, but I’ve come up with pieces that sort of uncork memories from my life. And this piece of Yevgeniy Onegin, which is Lenski’s aria from the end of Act II, is a piece of music that my first Russian teacher played for me during a lesson, this would have been back in 1986, when I was assigned to the Moscow bureau and had about nine or ten months to do intensive Russian. Like most Russians, her interest was less in Tchaikovsky than in Pushkin, who wrote the verse novel from which the opera was made. I went off to Moscow in what proved to be the most tumultuous time in Russian history since the Revolution itself; the Gorbachev years, the end of the Communist Party, the end of the Soviet Union -- and so I play this particular opera a fair amount and it always takes me back to what was really the most exciting story I ever covered.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin sung by Ramón Vargas, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra led by Valery Gergiev, the first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the former editor and now columnist of The New York Times, Bill Keller. Let’s talk further about the coverage of classical music at The New York Times. Now, when Zarin Mehta, president of the New York Philharmonic, was a guest on “Mad About Music,” he came right out and said that the critics have never been terribly fond of the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. I’d like to read you what he said directly: “The critics of The New York Times have never liked the music director of the New York Philharmonic. Metropolis 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, and he said that his brother Zubin Mehta was treated badly also, and so on and so on. Now, mind you, this was before Alan Gilbert was appointed music director. Now, did this issue come up at all while you were there, about the coverage of the New York Philharmonic?
KELLER: It didn’t during my time, or at least it didn’t rise up to my level. There may have been the perennial complaints about the Times’ critics by conductors may have continued down at the culture department level, but no conductor ever stormed the building and demanded to see the editor about this. I mean, you know, critics, they are called critics for a reason, and they, unlike reporters who just are charged with covering the news; they’re responsible for making judgments. And they have a little more license to air their personal taste.
KAPLAN: Yes, but you mentioned that critics should have more license than reporters, and of course they do, but the question is, how far can they go? I’m sure you are familiar with what happened in Cleveland, where the chief music critic for The Plain Dealer, the leading newspaper there, was so persistently critical, and some say, really mean-spirited, that they felt it was just too much and ultimately he was removed from the position. Now if that kind of thing happened at the Times, how would you have handled that? If you had a critic who could not find anything good ever to say about the chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic who would no doubt be a world famous conductor, could that go on?
KELLER: It could. I don’t know enough about the Cleveland situation. I mean, I’m familiar with the dispute, but I don’t know the merits of the case, so I can’t really argue one way or the other. But two things: First of all, you know, I’m sure that if we perceived that a critic was carrying out a kind of vendetta against - jihad against a conductor that went beyond the clear merits of the case, we would talk to him, and possibly even remove him from the beat. This is also an argument for having more than one person writing about classical music, you know, a luxury that the Times has, but you know, a paper in Cleveland is not likely to have more than one music critic.
KAPLAN: Of course, at the Times it is usually the chief critic who reviews the New York Philharmonic and the Met.
KELLER: That’s correct.
KAPLAN: But all right. Then let’s return to your music and I see Verdi’s Rigoletto is next.
KELLER: I chose this, although it’s I guess a fairly obvious and conventional choice, because it was the first opera I ever saw. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. My mother, who played piano, not classical but for fun, when I was ten or eleven, took me up to the San Francisco Opera, put on my little ten-year-old suit and tie and we saw Rigoletto. And the experience has stayed with me and it reminds me of my mother.
KAPLAN: The aria, “La Donna e Mobile,” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, sung by the legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who else could it be with that trumpet-like, piercing ending. Pavarotti is accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra with Richard Bonynge on the podium. The first opera heard by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” when he was just ten years old, the former editor and now columnist of The New York Times, Bill Keller. When we return, we’ll continue to explore Bill Keller’s musical tastes.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the former editor and now columnist for The New York Times, Bill Keller. Let’s turn now to music in your life. Did you study any instrument as a child?
KELLER: I took piano lessons for a few years when I was little. It would have been, I guess, when I was about seven or eight, for a couple of years. I dropped it and I, like a lot of us I think, probably wish my mother had forced me to keep at it a little longer. She played, as I said, she would play Clair de Lune, would be about as exotic as she would get. But, you know, I can remember her sitting down and playing for my parent’s cocktail parties and things. And my two daughters are taking piano lessons. And while I’m not going to be a “tiger dad,” I’m encouraging them to stick with it even if it’s not at a kind of frantic pace.
KAPLAN: You know, it’s interesting you talk about some regrets about not continuing the piano because I read a commencement speech that you gave at your alma mater, Pomona College, in which you said that students will always have regrets, but the regrets they should really regret are for things they did not do versus the things they did do. So you’re consistent with your own advice.
KELLER: It’s nice to know that I’m living up to my own philosophy.
KAPLAN: All right. I’d like to move along then with the music again and we now come to Wagner.
KELLER: This music I chose again for purely sentimental reasons. It was the processional at my wedding. My wife chose it. And I asked her recently, because I knew I was coming on this program, why exactly she had chosen this particular piece of music, and she said, “Because it sounds like a trek, and I think of marriage as a trek.” I said, “Well that ...
KAPLAN: That’s not very romantic.
KELLER: That’s not very romantic. But she said, “No, but remember, I chose Widor’s Toccata for the recessional, and that’s the happiest piece of music I can think of.” So she actually redeemed herself.
KAPLAN: Well, I think the opening of Tannhäuser runs about 15 minutes. Does that give you enough time to get everybody down the lane or do you have to play it again?
KELLER: No, that was, that was plenty of time.
KAPLAN: All right, let’s hear it then.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the Overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the Staatskapelle Berlin under the baton of their music director, Daniel Barenboim, music performed for the processional at the wedding of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the former editor and now columnist at The New York Times, Bill Keller. Well, as we’re discussing wedding music, may I ask you a question, and I always ask guests this question on this show these days because I was amazed how many people have actually thought about it. Have you given any thought to music you might want played at your funeral?
KELLER: I have not, except that I know I would like there to be a party. And I expect no Wagner would be played, probably a lot of Bruce Springsteen would be played. Rather than a lot of lugubrious tributes and sagging faces I like to imagine that when I go people will use this as an excuse to celebrate something.
KAPLAN: Lovely idea. All right. We’re about half way through your music list and so far it’s all opera. And as I know what else is coming, I can say its all opera. Now, when you sent me your list of music, you said it tends toward the sentimental. I mean, you might find it interesting that when Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, was on this show, she had said Brahms was her favorite at the moment because he was passionate without being sentimental. Do you regard yourself as someone who as a person is sentimental?
KELLER: Yes. I do.
KAPLAN: Because editors are supposed to be very hard-nosed and not emotional.
KELLER: And I think, you know, judging from what people wrote about my time at the paper, I had a reputation for being sort of calm and collected and even-tempered, which I think some people valued because it was a rocky time for the business as a whole. But, yes, at heart I am a sentimentalist, as my wife and kids will tell you.
KAPLAN: And when you listen to music, is it more an intellectual experience or more of an emotional experience?
KELLER: It’s more of an emotional experience, definitely.
KAPLAN: In the opera house, when you’ve gone, are there moments when you actually can find yourself in tears?
KELLER: Yes, there are.
KAPLAN: Often, or…?
KELLER: Well, I mean it depends on the music, but I’m, you know, particularly in an opera house, where, you know, it’s dark, it’s private, and if you’re tuned to the music, and there is nothing else to be tuned to, really, your emotions tend to be a little close to the surface. Yes, I’ve shed a few tears in opera houses.
KAPLAN: All right. Let’s return to your sentimental opera selections, and next up is Catalani’s La Wally.
KELLER: This was the main piece of music in a French movie called Diva, which came out in 1981. I remember, I had fairly recently come back from what I think of as my belated gap year. I left the Portland Oregonian, where I had worked and just gone off to spend my savings traveling around the world and I had come back and was working at Congressional Quarterly’s weekly magazine in Washington, D.C., and I went to see this movie. I remember - I have the vaguest recollections of the movie itself. There was a, there were gangsters and there was a motorcycle chase in it and it was very kind of French. But this aria, it was just unforgettable and the soprano who played the role of the love object in the film also sang it, Wilhelmenia Fernandez. So, it still kind of gives me goose bumps to listen to.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Alfredo Catalani’s opera, La Wally. Here, in an arrangement by and also conducted by Vladimir Cosma, from the soundtrack of the film Diva, sung by Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez with the London Symphony Orchestra. This is music chosen by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the former editor and now columnist of The New York Times, Bill Keller. When we return, we’ll hear Bill Keller’s wildcard, music that can be neither an opera nor a classical work.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan back with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the former editor and now columnist at The New York Times, Bill Keller. Well, now we’ve come to that part of the show we call the wildcard where you have a chance, in fact an obligation to pick some music that is not classical music, not opera. Over the years, some of the most interesting parts of the show have come during these wildcards. Now, when you sent in your list, you said having to pick your wildcard drove you crazy. What was that about?
KELLER: Well, I listen more to the wildcard kind of music than I do to classical music, honestly. I listen to a lot of rock, I listen to African music, I listen to some jazz, some folk, country, a mix of contemporary music that I grew up with and I try to refresh it from time to time by listening to some new stuff. So, you know, I thought about Arcade Fire, which is something I listen to a lot. I thought about Ali Farka Touré, who is my favorite African musician. I thought about, I’ve been listening lately to a group called The Black Keys and I thought of course about Bruce Springsteen who is one of my great favorites. And I ended up, partly because all these selections are in a sentimental vein, with an utterly sentimental choice. This is from an album, the first album by the McGarrigle Sisters, which came out in the mid 70’s - a pair of sisters from Montreal. That first album is just unbearably sweet. It includes “Hard Like a Wheel,” which was covered by a lot of people, most famously Linda Ronstadt. It includes a song that my nine-year-old really loves called the “Swimming Song” which is just a song about swimming. But the one I chose is sung just by Kate McGarrigle who died a little more than a year ago. The song is called “Go Leave” and it’s a woman bidding her lover farewell, saying that he’ll be happier with this other woman, and that’s great for him. This song is just a little spoonful of heartbreak.
KAPLAN: “Go Leave,” sung by Kate McGarrigle, the wildcard selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Bill Keller, the former editor and now columnist of The New York Times. You know, you mentioned before you sometimes have music on when you’re writing or editing. What do you play?
KELLER: Well, it depends on what stage I’m in of the work. If I’m doing reporting, intensive reading, I try to play something unobtrusive. Most of the music that I picked today has voice in it because that’s my favorite instrument, but if I wanted just background music, I either pick something orchestral or something in a language I don’t understand, so it’s not distracting. As the work moves along, if I’m polishing something or if I feel like the writing is going really well, I may put on something, you know, fast, just short of dance music, and it gives me a little bit of energy.
KAPLAN: You know, I read an interview where you said that much of your job at the Times was crisis management. I mean, you said, every kind of crisis you can imagine came up. So, at the end of one of those crisis-laden days, when you finally got home, do you ever turn to music for consolation?
KELLER: First wine, then music.
KAPLAN: First wine, then music.
KELLER: First wine, then music - or simultaneously wine and music. I mean, you know, I come home from a day at the office to a household that’s fairly lively. My wife herself is quite lively and we have two daughters and there’s homework being done, and there is a dog running around, and so -
KAPLAN: No time for consolation.
KELLER: There is not a lot of time for sitting down, kicking my feet up and playing music. I do play music. I play music in the car, I play it in the kitchen if I’m cooking, I play it as I said earlier at the office sometimes, and I have a lot of music on an iPod that I play at the gym in the morning. But I don’t really - home isn’t usually tranquil enough for me to just kick up my feet and put on some music.
KAPLAN: You know, I’ve read it’s fashionable in interviews to say, “What have you got on your iPod these days?” but I’ll change the question a little bit and ask you: what is the latest thing you’ve put on your iPod? Do you remember?
KELLER: I just downloaded a whole bunch of stuff because, you know, I like to not always be listening to stuff from my adolescence. There is an English group called Big Pink, I’ve downloaded some of their songs, who else? There’s a group called Clap Your Hands Say Yeah that I have listened to over the years and they had a new album out last year. There are two or three things that I just downloaded that I can’t even remember the names of that are in the country-rock genre that get my heart beating when I’m on the elliptical machine.
KAPLAN: Okay, let’s then return from that kind of music back to classical and to your final selection, which is Manon by Massenet.
KELLER: Well, one of those albums that I listen to a lot is Renée Fleming’s volume called “The Beautiful Voice” because it is just a beautiful voice, but also I have a very tangential personal attachment to Renée Fleming. Her daughter and my daughters both for a number of years went to a little school on the upper west side of Manhattan called St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s. In the Christmas pageant that the school did every year, we had two - I guess I would say celebrity parents who participated. Dianne Wiest, the great actress, played the voice of god a couple of years in the Christmas pageant and Renée Fleming once or twice sang something. One year, I know one year she sang the Bach piece, “Sheep May Safely Graze,” as part of the pageant. So, you know, even though her kids were different years, different grades from my kids and we didn’t know each other, I feel this sort of slender attachment to her and it is, as I said, an unbelievably beautiful voice. I probably could have chosen just about anything from this album, but the piece that I chose that popped out to me when I was listening to it most recently, was this wonderful aria from Manon.
KAPLAN: An aria from Massenet’s Manon, sung by soprano Renée Fleming with the English Chamber Orchestra led by Jeffrey Tate. The final selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the former editor and columnist for The New York Times, Bill Keller. Earlier I mentioned your advice to students in a commencement speech, and another topic you covered was encouraging risk taking, and you said, “Do something that scares you.” I mean, what is your own history in this category of doing things that scare you?
KELLER: Well, I think the reason that I love the profession or craft, if you will, that I chose is that you are asked to take both short-term risks and long-term risks. I mean, somebody says, “Would you like to go be a correspondent in Moscow?” I had never studied a word of Russian, had certainly not mastered Russian history, and yet I recklessly accepted the assignment as one does, and my life is much, much fuller for having done that. And on a shorter term basis, I mean what I do now, is I, my job is half-writing a kind of longer than usual column every other Monday for the Times Op-Ed page, and then writing pieces for the Magazine in-between. I don’t have a beat anymore, so in a sense every column that I write and every Magazine piece I take is a risk. I’m starting a subject in which I don’t generally begin with a lot of expertise, and trusting that I can get myself to a reasonable level of comprehension that I can explain it and even have a point of view about it.
KAPLAN: Well, that would then take us to the final section of the show we call “fantasyland” where every guest is asked to reveal a fantasy, a musical fantasy, and the question is always the same: That if you could be a superstar in music, would you like to be composer, a conductor, pianist, violinist, what would you like to be?
KELLER: I’d like to be a rock pianist. I’d like to be able to surprise everybody by getting up on the stage and sitting down at the keyboard and playing like Jerry Lee Lewis.
KAPLAN: A whole lot of shaking going on. Bill Keller, you’ve been a wonderful, superb guest, thank you for appearing on the show 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