Kaplan Museum Director and music lover, Glenn Lowry on today's edition of “Mad About Music.”
Kaplan If one were to use a musical idiom, he is the Maestro of MOMA, New York 's Museum of Modern Art , not only in managing the diva-like curators, but for the past few years, directing a much larger force in a massive expansion of MOMA's building. MOMA should be grateful that his first music teacher, though, informed his parents that a career in music was not in his future. Glenn Lowry, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
Lowry It's great to be here.
Kaplan So let's start after that fateful juncture when your parents stopped your music lessons. How did your passion for music evolve since then?
Lowry I certainly didn't come to music from any natural ability. I probably was a source of enormous frustration to my music teacher, who at a certain point, as I was trying to learn the recorder, said to my parents, “I really don't think this is something he should pursue”. Not for lack of trying on my part, but for lack of ability. I came to music really because my parents used to take me to concerts, I grew up in a small town in the Berkshires, and because I love sound. I love to listen. And for me, it's pure avocation. It's certainly not something that is the result of extended study or knowledge. And maybe that's what I like most about it. That if I've spent so much time thinking about the visual arts or about literature, what music provides for me is an alternative, another way of thinking, another way of feeling.
Kaplan So you would be different from two of your colleagues, Philippe de Montebello, from the Met Museum, who was once on the show, by the way, and Norman Rosenthal, who runs the Royal Academy in London. Both of them said to me independently that while they love art, and they of course work in art, they could manage in their own life without art, but they couldn't live without music. Where would you fit into that kind of a statement?
Lowry I think I fall somewhere in between. I am really passionately consumed by the visual arts. It's what grounds me every day. And music for me is another mode of being, another mode of expression. It's not one that I pursue with a kind of passion that I do the visual arts, but at the same time, I do think it's an essential part of my life.
Kaplan Well, now, when Philippe de Montebello answered that question, he did say he wasn't thinking about job security, when he said that!
Lowry No, I think there's a fascinating dimension to all of our lives, if you're in the arts, because I don't think you can ever separate it, it's not as if one is important and another is unimportant. It's more the mix that satisfies you, and I think for me music is a critical component of that mix, but may not be the central component.
Kaplan Now, many of your selections today have come from the world of opera. Is that your favorite form of serious art music?
Lowry I love the opera. There's no question about it. It's such an extraordinary experience because it's everything. It's sight, it's sound, it's theatrical, it is the melding of so many different artistic dimensions that I find it overwhelmingly interesting. And if I'm given a choice of what to do with my spare time, I'd go to the opera.
Kaplan Now, when we invite guests on the show, as you know, we never ask a guest to pick only their very, very most favorite music, but music they love, they can talk about, but before we went on the air, you revealed that your first piece today is in fact your very favorite piece of music. Mozart's Don Giovanni . What is it about that piece that grabs you in a way that makes it, say, number one?
Lowry First of all, Don Giovanni was the first opera that I ever heard live, and I heard it in a really intriguing context, where I had been invited by the chairman of the opera to go with her when we were in Toronto, and we were at dinner, and I kept looking at my watch, going, ‘we're going to miss the opera.' And we got up from dinner, and she was walking slowly with her husband, and I said, ‘maybe we should go because I think the performance starts…' And she turned to me and she said, ‘Young man, the performance starts when I arrive!' And I've always admired that sense of power that came with being involved so ardently with the arts.
Kaplan Well, I'm not sure that Maestro Levine would wait for the chairman of The Met Opera to show up before starting the performance, but beyond your fascination with power, talk about what is so compelling about this music.
Lowry It's also one of those operas that captures the depth, the imagination, the power, not just of great music, but of something profoundly human. Of course, Don Giovanni is a rogue, by any standards, but he's a deeply interesting rogue, and I think there is something so moving about the arc of his trajectory from being at the top of his game to in a sense being at the bottom of his game. And a lot of opera can be rather frivolous. This is opera at its deepest, for me, at least, and I think when one listens to Don Giovanni , one can only be moved by the passion in the story.
Kaplan The overture of Mozart's Don Giovanni , the Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Carlo Maria Giulini, legendary conductor who sadly passed away recently. Now, having as a guest the head of a modern art museum tempts me to probe a subject which is a bit abstract, but none the less interesting, and it is the relationship between art and music. As you know, it is sometimes said that in any historical period there will be an overlap between what the painters are doing and what the musicians are composing. And the example that is most often cited is Impressionism, where the painters and, say, Debussy are linked together. But even with Impressionism, the composers came 20 years later, so I'm wondering, what is your view? Do you think there is a connection between the music that's being written, say, in our time, and what the painters are doing?
Lowry I think there is a lot of connection between what musicians and visual artists are doing, in large part because they're often close friends with each another. I think of John Cage and his influence on Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Or Chuck Close and Philip Glass. And it can often cut both ways. Recently, Bruce Levingston commissioned Philip Glass to do a musical portrait of Chuck Close, really a kind of analog to Chuck's portrait of Philip. And there is a lot of resonance there, and partially, it's because artists and musicians are often thinking about the same problems. They share the same concerns. I don't think it's ever given that they are closely related. But it's not surprising when there is an overlap, when there is a connection, and of course, a number of artists like Paul Klee came from musical backgrounds. So it's completely within their orbit to have been fascinated by, and in fact, influenced strongly by music.
Kaplan Yes, and of course some artists have used music as part of a building block or a significant ingredient of their work. I gather your next selection owes its origin to that sort of idea.
Lowry It does indeed. Janet Cardiff is a young Canadian artist working mostly in Germany . And she has become fascinated with sound, and does complex acoustic recordings that are then either worn as acoustiguides that could lead you through Central Park , as she did one recently for the Public Art Fund, which was a tour of Central Park . But perhaps her most powerful and moving work is something called “40-Part Motet,” where she recorded a Thomas Tallis a cappella performance, and then fed each voice into an individual speaker. The speakers are arranged in a large ellipse in a room and the result when that is played, is this powerful, moving three-dimensional acoustic experience in which you literally hear the sound move around the room and then come together within the center of the room, and the experience of that is not only to be moved by the music, which is inherently moving, but also to feel in the most palpable way the impact of sound.
Kaplan Thomas Tallis' Spem in alium , a 40-part motet performed by the a cappella chorus called The Sixteen and led by Harry Christophers, a work that has inspired what I could call a musical sculpture by Janet Cardiff, which is now on display at MOMA, and this music was a selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, MOMA's Director, Glenn Lowry. It strikes me that here is an example of contemporary art created from 16 th Century music. Who are some contemporary composers whose work you enjoy?
Lowry I like John Adams a lot. I think he's a fascinating musician, and has found a fine balance between working with, you know, new ideas about sound and a profound understanding of the history of music. But I also like Philip Glass.
Kaplan Now, when it comes to opera, your favorite, I would expect you not only to understand, but probably enthusiastically approve what are called “modern adaptations” of classic opera. People taking great risks on the stage. Would that be fair to say that would be true, or do you prefer your opera to be more traditional?
Lowry No, I like it when people take risks and reinterpret classics.
Kaplan But what about, say, in the symphonic area? There's always a great debate with how much can a pianist, for example, interpret without willfully distorting? How can a conductor change a tempo so dramatically that maybe the composer would never recognize it. Are you more fastidious about what you expect in symphonic music?
Lowry I think it is often more difficult with symphonic music, 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 Concert 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 An excerpt from Brahm's First Piano Concerto with Glenn Gould on the keyboard and performed with the New York Philharmonic led by Leonard Bernstein, who felt compelled to tell the audience that he and Gould had diametrically opposed views about how the work should be performed. Music chosen by my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the Director of MOMA, Glenn Lowry. When we return, we'll explore the future of musical presentations at MOMA.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest, the Director of the Museum of Modern Art , Glenn Lowry. Let's return to MOMA and music. Over the years, the Museum has certainly had a music program, but now with that vast new building you have many new acoustical spaces. How do you plan to develop your own musical initiatives there?
Lowry One of the great gifts that Yoshi Kawaguchi gave to us is a building that provides a lot of public space that can be used in interesting ways. Space that actually opens on, even explodes onto the city so that it's really very engaging. And we've just begun to think about the development of a musical program that would run throughout the year, and how we might go about doing it. But I think there is something extraordinarily powerful and pleasing about looking at works of art and listening to music. They go hand in hand.
Kaplan Pictures At An Exhibition .
Lowry Pictures At An Exhibition .
Kaplan Well, speaking of pictures, you now have a chance to draw a picture of a different kind, because we now come to that part of our show we call the “Wildcard,” where guests have an opportunity to pick music from any genre. Some of these selections even constituted an entire show we did once, they were so fascinating. So, what “Wildcard” did you bring us today?
Lowry The piece that I selected is a work performed by Nick Drake. Nick Drake is a composer that I never heard of, in fact, a musician that I never heard of. But this spring, I was at a performance at Carnegie Hall, it was music by Brad Mehldau with Renée Fleming. And one of the pieces that he performed was “River Man.” And there's always something startling about listening to a work of music by a composer you've never heard of. And trying to think about why it is so interesting. Turns out he was a bit of a cult figure. He played the guitar, was widely admired by his friends, did, I think, three albums before his death, probably by suicide, in 1976, when he was I think just 26 years old. But “River Man” is a tune that is ethereal, and beautiful, and Mehldau's performance of “River Man” really made me want to listen to and understand Nick Drake's original score, and of course he has not only an extremely remarkable way of playing the guitar, he tuned it differently than almost anyone, but he also has a haunting voice.
Kaplan “River Man,” composed and performed by Nick Drake, the “Wildcard” selection of MOMA's Director Glenn Lowry, my guest today on “Mad About Music.” Now returning to classical music, as I mentioned at the beginning of the show, your choices are very much concentrated on opera. But when it comes to mainstream composers of symphonic music, are there any you just don't take to?
Lowry I'm not, by and large, a great fan of the romantics. Debussy, for instance, or Ravel, don't really get my juices going. For me, music is really such a kind of almost an antidote to everything else I do that I respond really viscerally to most of what I like and there's something about maybe the verging on sentimentality that comes through on a lot of romantic music that I can't respond to.
Kaplan It's interesting that when you say sentimentality, I think about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was on our show, because she didn't have any romantic music, either. And didn't like it especially, and Brahms was where she was most in love at the moment, she said, and someone said of Brahms, that he was passionate without being sentimental. So I asked her whether she thought that might apply to her as well, and in turn, I should ask you, because the sentimentality didn't appeal to you, either. Do you think of yourself as someone who is passionate but not sentimental?
Lowry You may have found the only points of similarity between Condoleezza Rice and myself. I do hope that I'm both passionate and not sentimental. Very much so.
Kaplan All right then, this naturally leads to your next composer, Wagner, who seems to embrace every possible emotion in his music, and I see you've picked Tannhäuser . Is that your favorite Wagner opera?
Lowry It is. How does one pick among Wagner's great operas? But there's something so magisterial and all encompassing about Tannhäuser . And I think what is so captivating about Wagner is the breadth of what he tried to do. It's truly a universe. And it is so big and so all encompassing, in fact, it's so demanding, if you want to listen to the full Ring cycle, you have to be committed to days of listening. But the struggle of good and evil, the tension that he can build through his music, the stagings that add a kind of richness to it, the openness to interpretation that in fact is there in Wagner, I think makes his work among the most powerful operas imaginable. And listening to Bryn Terfel sing Tannhäuser is to be moved by the power of a great baritone whose voice resonates with, I think, the kind of climactic power and ethereal hauntingness and beauty that I associate with Wagner.
Kaplan “Song to the Evening Star” from Wagner's Tannhäuser sung by Bryn Terfel with the orchestra of The Metropolitan Opera led by James Levine, an opera and a baritone admired by my guest on “Mad About Music” today, Museum of Modern Art's Director Glenn Lowry. When we return, we'll be talking with Glenn Lowry further about his favorite singers.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest, MOMA Director Glenn Lowry. Now just before the break, you highlighted the artistry of Bryn Terfel. Who are some of your favorite singers performing today, and historically?
Lowry Well, Renée Fleming, without question. Someone like Cecilia Bartoli, without question. Ben Heppner, without question. The pleasure of listening, of hearing a great voice, that can, in a sense, cut through the nervous system and make the hairs on the back of your spine tingle, to me is a sensation that is the most extraordinary that you can have. And listening to someone like Bryn Terfel sing does that for me.
Kaplan And yet I see for the next work you have selected you've chosen not a contemporary singer, but the legendary historical singer, we can say, Jussi Björling.
Lowry When you listen to Jussi Björling's voice, it's about as close to perfection as I can imagine a voice becoming. It's absolutely astounding. In this duet from The Pearl Fishers , which is about a moment when two friends who have been separated see each other again, you hear the pure sound of a voice that has transcended the language and it's probably dangerous to just say one loves something outright, but Björling is utterly captivating. To me this is the greatest sound, the greatest music that I've ever heard.
Kaplan An excerpt from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers , one of the best-known duets in opera, here sung by the legendary tenor Jussi Björling and baritone Robert Merrill, accompanied by the RCA Symphony Orchestra led by Renato Cellini, the final selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Glenn Lowry. As we come to a close, I'd like to return to the image of you that I suggested at the beginning of the show – the Maestro of MOMA. You expressed your admiration earlier on the show for Glenn Gould and for Leonard Bernstein, for their willingness to take big risks. As MOMA's maestro, are you willing to take big risks?
Lowry I would hope that I'd have Bernstein's courage to produce an environment where one could take risks. I believe that's what's essential about the Museum of Modern Art, that it is a place where those risks can be taken and pursued. And I think that really great institutions are institutions that encourage risk. And that are tolerant of failure. Clearly, you want to get the success to failure quotient solidly on the success side. But I think if you never take a risk, you're never going to push yourself to the limit, and I think what a great curator does is constantly challenge the institution to follow, and the reason they do that is because artists are constantly pushing the envelope, constantly challenging us to follow them, and if we're going to pursue their work, if we're going to try to come to grips with what they are doing, it means by definition we're going to have to take great risks in how we present what we show.
Kaplan Well, with that thought, Glenn Lowry, may I thank you for appearing today, for your passion for music. We'll eagerly watch now for how musical performances will expand at the new MOMA. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music”