Summer Special: The Piano
Kaplan Welcome to “Mad About Music's” special summer edition on the piano and the favorite music of some of our best-known guests, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, award-winning actor Alan Alda, and opera star Renée Fleming.
Kaplan Music for the piano has always played a prominent role on “Mad About Music.” Many of our guests play the piano and a few could have made it their career if they chose to do so. While some guests chose works simply because they love the music, for others it was because of a particular artist they admire. And for some, it was because of a unique personal experience that forever connects them to a particular work. We begin with award-winning actor and director Alan Alda who made a unique contribution to spreading the message of classical music when he included Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in the final episode of the legendary TV show *M*A*S*H. It caused The New York Times to observe that more people – millions and millions – heard the piece that one night than had heard it collectively since Mozart wrote it. Alda's own introduction to music and, in fact, to the piano, was through Gershwin whom he encountered as a young child.
Alda I think I was 7 years old and the reason I heard it was that my father was playing the part of George Gershwin in the movie called "Rhapsody in Blue" which was the film biography of Gershwin. He didn't know how to play the piano but he had to train for weeks to be able to get the precise fingering of all the pieces that he would play in the movie. A recording made by Oscar Levant would be the music that was played and he would do the fingering that was appropriate to that and sometimes when they came in very tight on the hands it would be Oscar Levant's hands. But a real musician looking at my father would think he was actually playing the piano. And I had to do that years later for a movie called "Mephisto Waltz" and then I even got to do that just as my father had in the movie "Rhapsody in Blue". I sat down in a concert hall and played some – what was it? – I think Liszt, and there was the audience standing up cheering and it was some other guy playing the music but my fingers were on the keyboard. I had these vivid memories of lying on the carpet when I was seven, eight, nine years old, listening over and over again to the recordings from the movie itself. But the experience of hearing at that age, music that to me was just exciting music, it wasn't music that I was supposed to like. Nobody said to me, "Listen to this, it'll do you good." It wasn't like eating your vegetables – to me it was ice cream. I loved hearing it and I can still smell the rug as I lay on the floor. I can still smell the electronics in the big cabinet and see the vinyl record going around.
Kaplan The conclusion of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue , the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein doubling as pianist and conductor, a musical selection and a childhood memory of actor Alan Alda. This is Gilbert Kaplan and on this summer edition of “Mad About Music” we are focusing on the piano and on the favorite music of some of our best-known guests. Now unlike Alan Alda, another Hollywood luminary, Academy-award winning director William Friedkin – “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” – didn't discover classical music until his twenties – and all because of a mistake. Driving his car in the wee hours of the morning, he turned the radio dial past his intended jazz station and landed on a performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring . He said the music so gripped him he had to pull his car over. It was a life-changing experience. It wasn't long though before he discovered piano music and the passion of Dinu Lipatti playing Bach.
Friedkin Well, certainly I don't think any selection of music is complete without something by Bach. This particular piece and the way it's played by Dinu Lipatti, who died very young, he died at about the age of 37 years old, but he had a simplicity of touch that I find to be very spiritual. And this piece is about as simple as you can get. It is simply a quiet, solo piano playing nothing but the notes, simply and with great reverence. Anyone who can read the simplest musical score can play this piece. But there is something in the way that he plays it that I find so emotional that it reduces me to tears.
Kaplan Bach's “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring” performed by Dinu Lipatti, a recording my guest, Hollywood Director William Friedkin revealed always moves him to tears. This is Gilbert Kaplan and on this special summer edition of “Mad About Music” we are focusing on the piano and the music some of our best-known guests have selected. Like William Friedkin, actor Alec Baldwin also discovered classical music only after he had launched his career. He developed an instant passion for music, as did Friedkin driving in his car. But in Baldwin 's case this quickly got him into trouble. Along the way though, he discovered the magic of Chopin – and Murray Perahia.
Baldwin So I was putting on classical stations in L.A. and just got pulled in on this incredible level where I was pulling my car up to auditions and the classical piece had not finished, so I'd sit in the car and wait for the piece to finish and then write down the name of the composer, and the disc label, and the disc number and so forth, and the conductor, and the symphony, and I'd write all the pertinent details down. Then my agent was yelling at me, saying I was late for my auditions. I chose this because I find that there's some music that I can listen to – I don't know any other way to put it – to relax me. But not necessarily put me to sleep. You know, there's music I want to listen to in the car, but I don't want to go to sleep while I'm driving. And then there's music I want to relax me on the deepest level, you know, and piano music always seems to do that trick for me. Piano music to me is much more of a meditative thing than anything. And I think the Perahia, who is the pianist on this Chopin "Fantaisie-Impromptu," I believe that we have, is one. And Gould, I collect a lot of Gould. I mean, there are so many pianists that I really, really like. But this is one of my favorites, Perahia performing this Chopin.
Kaplan An excerpt of Chopin's “Fantaisie-Impromptu” performed by Murray Perahia, a favorite musical combination of actor Alec Baldwin. This is Gilbert Kaplan as we continue on this special summer edition of “Mad About Music” on the piano. We've already heard selections from three of our guests from the entertainment world: Alan Alda, William Friedkin and Alec Baldwin. And now we turn to Washington . Over the years I've kept a list of famous people who went wrong by which I mean abandoning a possible career in music. High on that list is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who but for a teenage decision to drop music in favor of international geopolitics, might well have had a promising career as a concert pianist.
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. I took course after course and it was already junior year, so its pretty late to be choosing a major and I fortunately walked into a course in international politics taught by a Soviet specialist, a man named Josef Korbel who was, of course, Madeleine Albright's father, so I have a very firm connection with the former Secretary of State. I really think I found my passion in the study of Russia but, in fact, I continued to be passionate about music, I continued to work at it and to study for quite a long time, taught piano while I was in graduate school and got involved in church choirs, as well, singing with a large Presbyterian church choir in Denver, so music continued to be part of my life.
Kaplan Not only part of her life, but in some ways defining her life – as her choice of music tends to mirror her personality. I learned this when I asked Condoleezza Rice why none of her selections were from Romantic composers.
Rice I've always been much more attracted to Brahms, to Schumann, to a certain extent to Schubert. I don't particularly like programmatic music and Liszt, of course, as the father of that School, has never been particularly interesting to me. 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. I read somewhere that Secretary of State Colin Powell once said you were raised first and foremost to be a lady and 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 Your next selection, Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn – instead of the traditional orchestral version, you've chosen the original version for two pianos.
Rice The reason that I love the two piano version of the Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn is that I think that the matched timbre of the two pianos, the kind of open sound that you get from that, really works very much better in several of the Variations that Brahms wrote. I would be the first to admit that there are a couple of Variations that are better for the orchestra. But on balance you can hear this tremendous ability of Brahms to use very small intervals, like seconds, when two pianos are playing, because you don't have the effect of the strings, with all due respect to the string players, kind of mushing over the sound. Its much clearer and crisper and I love the two piano version.
Kaplan An excerpt of Brahms Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn for Two Pianos, performed by Sir George Solti and Murray Perahia – a work selected by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she appeared on “Mad About Music.” When we come back, we'll return to Washington to explore the special relationship between the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz and a President of the United States .
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan, and if you're just joining us on this special summer edition of “Mad About Music,” we are focusing on the piano and the favorite music of some of our best-known guests. Our first segment was on the entertainment world and included actors Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin and Director William Friedkin. And then we moved to Washington and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Keeping the focus on Washington , I think it's fair to say that no American President has more embraced classical music, made it such a prominent feature of White House life as Jimmy Carter. Recorded music was constantly being played in the background in the Oval Office, often causing telephoning Congressmen to complain they couldn't hear the President speaking. President Carter scored a White House coup by persuading the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz to perform there. Horowitz had last played there in 1931 for President Hoover and every President had tried to lure him back, and only Jimmy Carter succeeded. But when Horowitz arrived at the White House, he presented Jimmy Carter with a surprise – and a challenge for which the President had to fashion a very creative response.
Carter As a matter of fact, one of the things that I wanted Horowitz to do when he came was to play Rachmaninoff; because when I was a midshipmen in the Naval Academy my roommate was a champion pianist in the high school in Arizona . So we used to play Rachmaninoff's concertos by Horowitz, by Rachmaninoff himself and by Rubinstein and compare their techniques and how to play it. So when Rachmaninoff was my choice, Horowitz agreed to play it. When Mr. Horowitz came to the White House on Saturday afternoon to get ready, we had the East Room prepared with a platform there, he brought his own Steinway piano, but he thought the room was too harsh sounding. So I went upstairs myself, with my blue jeans on, as President of the United States, and brought down an oriental carpet and Horowitz and I placed that carpet at different places against the platform until he was satisfied that the resonance in the room suited him. But this is one of the high points of my life to sit there and hear Rachmaninoff's music played by Mr. Horowitz, who had in the past always refused to come to the White House.
Kaplan A Rachmaninoff Polka played by Vladimir Horowitz that dazzled the guests at the Carter White House. Through this recital the President of the United States and one of the world's greatest musicians came to know each other in a special way. This is Gilbert Kaplan, as we continue our special summer edition of “Mad About Music” on the piano, we next turn to the final piano sonata of Schubert. The slow movement was a favorite of former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Sir Edward Heath, who sadly passed away just a few weeks ago. He was an accomplished keyboard musician himself – an organ major at Oxford . He revealed the extraordinary power music played in his life by his behavior just after he led a stunning victory in Parliament for Britain to join the European Community. Prime Minister Heath surprised the politicians by skipping all the celebration parties and instead went home alone, where he sat down at his clavichord and played Bach. Experiencing the elegant simplicity of The Well-Tempered Clavier was his way of celebrating. When it came to piano music, though, Prime Minister Heath often sought out slow, intensely emotional music, which led him to Schubert's last sonata. His reflections on this music which touched him in such a personal way are especially moving today.
Heath This was his last sonata. I played it myself when I was much younger. But it has about it, when properly played, the quality of eternity. I remember the first time I heard it, it was in a festival on the east coast and it was in a lovely church, which hadn't got stained glass windows, just clear windows, and it was played there so beautifully, some would say, slowly, that it just went on and on and on and on. And I felt, you know, this is eternity, we should never stop.
Kaplan An excerpt from the second movement of Schubert's Sonata in B flat , his final piano sonata with Arthur Rubinstein at the piano, a selection of the late Sir Edward Heath, former British Prime Minister, when he appeared on “Mad About Music.” Like Prime Minister Heath, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is in my club of accomplished pianists who went wrong – abandoning possible careers in music. In fact, when he ran for office, one of Ehud Barak's campaign promises was to restore the always out of tune piano at the Prime Minister's residence. And even after winning the election, he still found time to play, but often at two o'clock in the morning, causing one particular neighbor to often call the police to complain. But long before then the driving musical force in Barak's life was his father.
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 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 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 An excerpt from the finale of Beethoven's “Appassionata” Sonata with Murray Perahia on the piano, a musical choice with special meaning to former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak, as he explained when he appeared on “Mad About Music”. This concludes our segment on world political leaders and when we return, we'll hear from opera star Renée Fleming and her favorite piano music.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan welcoming you back to this special summer edition of “Mad About Music” where we are focusing on the piano and the music that some of our best-known guests rank as their favorites. Some of our most interesting shows have been with performers, but performers are also listeners and now we'll have a chance to discover what piano music opera star Renée Fleming loves. It turns out that both she and Paul LeClerc, President of the New York Public Library, both selected Erik Satie's cool and calm Gymnopédie. Each had a personal connection to the music and a strong preference for the interpretation of a particular artist. We'll hear first from Paul LeClerc.
LeClerc Well, this is an exquisite piece of music, one that I met through a friend, many, many years ago, and it was a gift, to be introduced to Satie and to Le Gymnopédie in particular and there's a kind of poetry behind this music, and most of the selections I have made, I think, are pieces with the human voice as well as with orchestras. But Satie, especially played by Ciccolini, has, to me, a kind of poetry and poignancy and depth of meaning, not literal meaning, obviously, that is extraordinary. And I could listen to this particular piece of music every day for days on end, and be very happy about doing so.
Kaplan If Paul LeClerc's pianist of choice was Aldo Ciccolini, opera star Renée Fleming championed the artistry of Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Fleming So this is the famous Gymnopédie by Erik Satie, as played by my dear friend and colleague, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. And Jean-Ives has done a really special recording, because it's the complete works, the piano works of Satie, who is arguably one of our undiscovered treasures and a composer that we don't know all that well; and Jean-Yves, I think, has provided a wonderful service for the music world in choosing to highlight his music, and not to mention the fact that he plays it so exquisitely. And I always say that the simplest pieces are the most difficult, and one can certainly hear that in this piece.
Kaplan Erik Satie's Gymnopédie No.3 , with Jean-Yves Thibaudet on the keyboard, a work selected both by opera star Renée Fleming and the New York Public Library President, Paul LeClerc when they appeared separately on “Mad About Music.” Now we move to the world of architecture and prize-winning Rafael Viñoly whose connection to music runs deep. He has designed buildings for Kennedy Center in Washington , the New Hall for Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia . He is also a member of my special club of distinguished people who abandoned possible careers in music.
Viñoly I had what you would call a sort of typical, sort of kind of by-the-book vocational crisis at around 19 or 20 years old – when I guess I was clear enough to figure that I wasn't as good as others and that architecture, in a way, was a field in which you could actually really develop other skills at the same time. But it was a very gruesome and really wrenching period. I mean, it was – I remember it like as if it was yesterday. I mean, literally, it was a two-week period in which I locked myself in a room and didn't come up until I had made that decision, and I was literally 19 or so.
Kaplan Then let's turn to music in a different way, and your selections today, and I'm not surprised that your first selection is for the piano, the Chopin Preludes . And I'm also not surprised that you, being a pianist, would have a definite opinion about who plays them the best.
Viñoly I think this absolutely wonderful construction, which are the Chopin Preludes , has an enormous well of extraordinary interpreters in history. I remember catching a couple of recordings of Lipatti just recently, not long ago that are absolutely stunning. But for me, Martha Argerich is a sort, the epitome of this kind of interpretation for my taste, and I think that in my view, there is very rare occasion in which a pianist really appropriates the ownership of the music in a way that goes beyond interpretation, and I think that Martha plays these pieces as if she had composed them.
Kaplan Chopin's Prelude No. 16 performed by pianist Martha Argerich, a selection of my guest, architect Rafael Viñoly who feels that Argerich plays this piece as if she had composed it herself. Fellow architect Richard Meier was the youngest ever to win the coveted Pritzker Prize. Beyond his distinctive signature white buildings and the acclaimed Getty Museum in Los Angeles , Meier even designed a piano once. I asked him whether he saw a connection between architecture and music.
Meier Well Goethe had a quote that actually was condensed to say that "Architecture is frozen music"; but actually what he said was that "Architecture could also be thought of as silent music" and I think there is a relationship between architecture and music – you could almost call music "fluid architecture", because in both there is a sense of design, one uses space, one uses form, one thinks about the tonality of the building and always there's an overriding idea in which there's a relationship between the space, the form, the intonation, the mood, the sense of atmosphere. So there are many overriding elements which go into the creation of the idea of the work.
Kaplan Spoken as a good composer I would say. Well, that then brings us to your first selection, which is a work for piano – Beethoven'sSecond Piano Concerto . Is the attraction here for you the piano? Beethoven? Both?
Meier Well, certainly its Beethoven, without question in my mind the greatest composer of all time. But I think it has for me a sense of scale, it has a dynamics to it, you feel that there's proportion in the thinking of, that goes through the organization of the Concerto . There's also a unity about it that somehow pervades and comes through as well as you might say a sense of color and texture and these are architectural terms as well as terms that …
Kaplan Yes, it struck me listening to you, I thought you were describing a building there for a minute. All right, well then, let's hear a little of Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto .
Kaplan The concluding moments of Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto , the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Ferdinand Leitner with Wilhelm Kempff on the piano, a musical selection of architect Richard Meier when he appeared on “Mad About Music.” And with that stunning performance we conclude our special summer edition on the piano. I hope you've enjoyed getting to know the favorite piano music of our rich selection of guests and the role music plays in their lives. We'll return on September 4 th to kick off our new season at our usual time, the first Sunday evening of the month at 9:00 PM . Until then, enjoy the rest of the summer. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”