Kaplan Chief Executive of the Sony Corporation and a lifelong music-lover, Sir Howard Stringer on today's edition of “Mad About Music.”
Kaplan Today he is the Chief Executive of Sony, overseeing an entertainment empire with sales in excess of 65 billion dollars and a staff of some 150,000 people worldwide. Before Sony he had a distinguished 30-year career in television at CBS as an award-winning producer, then tapped to run the news division and finally becoming President of the company itself. A remarkable feat for a man who through his teenage years was mostly immersed in a life of classical music. Sir Howard Stringer, welcome to “Mad About Music”.
Stringer Very glad to be here, Gil.
Kaplan Now, let's begin with the dominant role music played in your life when you were growing up in Wales . Just how important was it to you?
Stringer Well, there is, there is nothing more important than music to Wales . Music separates you from your peers. If you can sing, you're accepted. If you can't sing, you're ignored. And there's an old saying that if three people get together in Wales , you've got a choir. And the mines, the coal mining community had male voice choirs and every year my grandmother and great-grandmother would go off to sing in theMessiah even though they had no money. There was no money in Wales – it was essentially a working class community. So music was the glue that bound the social life of Wales together and you can still hear that at a sporting event when they sing the national anthem. Nobody in the world sings the national anthem like the Welsh.
Kaplan So you studied an instrument as a child then?
Stringer I started learning the trumpet at eleven. I'd been a choirboy for a number of years before that, but I started studying the trumpet at eleven.
Kaplan And for how long did you continue to play the instrument?
Stringer All the way through university. It collapsed when I arrived in an apartment building in New York City and found out that a trumpet was about as anti-social a device as you can ever find.
Kaplan All right, well with your early achievements on the trumpet, I'm not surprised to see your first selection involves a trumpet. So tell us about that.
Stringer Well, Handel's Messiah was something that my school did every four years. We would do the Mass in B Minor , we would do Haydn'sImperial Mass , we would do a choral work, but the Messiah was everybody's favorite. And by the time I was seventeen, I was first trumpet in the school orchestra and we were going to be recorded playing the Messiah and obviously the trumpet part in the Messiah is quite tricky. I played the solo, “The trumpet shall sound,” and I had played it in rehearsal that morning and I got it perfectly, I had done it perfectly. I was complimented by the conductor. I played it with the soloist. Then when the time came, at the end of a long period of sustained trumpet playing that is part of the Messiah, before the Messiah comes the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which has a wonderful high trumpet part with cascading trumpets and so forth, and I attacked that with ferocity. And then came the moment when I stood up to play the solo for “The trumpet shall sound” and I got half way through it and I blew up. My lip went. I just sagged. And it was heartbreaking – the organ stepped in and played the trumpet part.
Kaplan Oh my.
Stringer And I sank to my seat in despair. It is and still remains the most traumatic experience of my life. Nothing at Sony is going to match that feeling in front of friends and colleagues failing to finish off that solo and it was cut out of the record. So, that was the final ignominy.
Kaplan “The trumpet shall sound” from Handel's Messiah , sung by Jon Vickers with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra led by Sir Thomas Beecham, the first selection of my guest on “Mad About Music,” the Chief Executive of Sony, Sir Howard Stringer. A work that always triggers a memory of the teenage Howard Stringer playing the trumpet solo in his school orchestra – and as he just revealed, flubbing it rather badly. You know, based on our experience at “Mad About Music,” your lifelong passion for classical music in a way should have precluded you from getting this job at Sony because I have a difficult time finding almost any other chief executives in this country who are classical music lovers, who need classical music, who have studied it, or at least go. I don't know if you agree with that based on your travels, but if you do, do you have a theory about that? How did you make it through this grid that more or less has stopped everyone else?
Stringer Actually, I'm in an unusual situation. My two predecessors at Sony were both accomplished musicians. Norio Ohga-san, who was CEO, was an opera singer and Idei-san, the CEO before me, played the violin at school with Seiji Ozawa, in a small string quartet with Seiji Ozawa. So Sony and Japan is unlike, I think, the American experience. I think there's musical tradition that would appear to be very strong at executive ranks there.
Kaplan But, of course you could have also mentioned the founder of Sony, Mr. Morita, who was not a musician, but was almost a musical fanatic I would say when it came to opera. So, it is true. But do you come across any other CEOs when you meet with them who you ever talk about music with? Am I wrong on this? I just can't find any.
Stringer I think you're probably right. I mean, if there are them, there are lots of CEOs who are on the boards of Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. But as to their experience in music, I'd be hard-pressed to find somebody.
Kaplan All right, now you were mentioning that being Welsh you of course can sing. And you mentioned earlier that you sang in choirs. Tell us about some of those experiences.
Stringer Well I went to, at the age of nine, I went to a cathedral school in England . Ely Cathedral had a beautiful choir and I went there on an academic scholarship. And every week I would listen to the cathedral choir. And I didn't even know I had a voice. And then one day I was heard singing and I was invited for an audition the same week as I received a scholarship to a different school. So I actually left that cathedral with the music of the cathedral buzzing in my ears, a wonderful cathedral choir, and went to another school where I was put into the choir immediately and I then began to work in my spare time on vacations, at funerals, at weddings – I would get two and six pence for a wedding, I would get three schillings for a funeral. So I was one of those little precocious boy sopranos at the center of attention and quite hopelessly excited by the prospect of that.
Kaplan Now I see that you have selected a work by Benjamin Britten that involves boy sopranos. Is that the reason you've picked it?
Stringer Yes it is. The particular piece which was originally composed for a church in Northampton which was near where I went to school which is how I heard about the piece, appealed to me when I first heard it because boy sopranos sung in harmony in the piece. And we were a much more conventional choir, I was a little bit jealous about the opportunity to do the pyrotechnics of Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols.So ever since then I have always loved the piece and always thought it's a most unusual piece of work and felt attracted it. And he's arguably one of the best British composers, which is something of an oxymoron.
Kaplan So it's a piece you probably wish you could have sung then.
Stringer It's a piece I would love to have sung. I really loved singing. The moment when a boy soprano's voice breaks is another traumatic experience, so the voice is ephemeral goes like a summer squall and you come back from term, come back from holidays, go for choir practice, and it's gone. And it's, it's truly tragic. You're just another ordinary schoolboy. You're no longer special. You're no longer a soloist. You're no longer on front and center on the stage. You're just an also-ran. It's heartbreaking.
Kaplan All right then, let's return to the world of the boy sopranos.
Kaplan Three selections from Benjamin Brittens's A Ceremony of Carols, performed by boy sopranos James Clark and Julian Godlee with the Cambridge King's College Choir, led by Sir David Willcocks. A selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the Chief Executive of Sony Sir Howard Stringer – himself a star boy soprano growing up in Wales. When we return, we'll explore Howard Stringer's first encounter with opera.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the Chief Executive of the Sony Corporation, Sir Howard Stringer. I wonder how many people at Sony have any idea about your background in music, the extent to which you have, the love you've had, this experience of performing.
Stringer I think it's just a rumor underneath in the corridors. I don't think it's widely known.
Kaplan I guess at a place like Sony this can only help you given your history as you mentioned with your predecessors. Now, beyond your love of music as a performer and a listener, you are also in the classical music business in a serious way through Sony/BMG and I think it is probably not an understatement to say that the classical record business is in very bad shape. We've reached a point where orchestras feel a need to make their own records on their own labels because no one will pay them to record anymore. And just recently Apple's iTunes with their download service was listed as one of the tenth largest retailers, raising the question of whether the traditional record store is doomed. I mean, what is your own view of the situation?
Stringer Well, it's certainly in difficulty, and the piracy first and foremost is very profound and even the iPod, a considerable number of songs on the iPod are not paid for, so the iPod is perhaps unwittingly a part of the problem. But in terms of classical music, the collection of CDs became so profound and so all encompassing that trying to persuade the customer to buy another box set of La Bohème or Turandot or whatever has been really difficult. And it's, it's essentially left in the hands of a handful of stars who can carry a CD by reputation and by personality, people like Bryn Terfel and Katherine Jenkins to mention two Welsh singers.
Kaplan I was going to say, Welsh sentimentality coming out there. But do you see a future then for your own company in the classical record business? I'm not talking about the backlist you have. But your predecessor, not your predecessor but the predecessor at Sony, Peter Gelb, who is now running the Metropolitan Opera, had admitted publicly that there was simply no way to be in this business anymore so he initiated what has been called cross-over. But is this, I mean, ten years from now, do you think that Sony/BMG will still be making new classical records?
Stringer Yes, I believe so. I think by then another generation of artists will appear and excite the public in a different way. One thing is for certain, live performances are as popular as ever and you can't pirate those. So there is a basis for getting to know new singers, new orchestras, and I think, I think there will be a revival at some point. At the moment you can still get a lot of classical music on all the labels. It's just that an individual label just simply doesn't do the vast collections that they used to do at CBS when I first started there or at Sony subsequently.
Kaplan All right then. Let's return to music that was recorded during the buoyant years for classical records and your next selection I see is Maria Callas singing Tosca .
Stringer Yes, the first opera I ever saw was Maria Callas in Tosca . My last year at the university in England and she was performing at Covent Garden . And I'd never heard a soprano quite like Maria Callas. I had been a tenor fan. I wanted to be a tenor. When my voice broke I became a perfectly boring, dull baritone. So I was not all that enthusiastic about sopranos but by the time I got to the university, I was rekindling that enthusiasm. And hearing and seeing her at the same time on her comeback trail, one of those many comebacks, was still to me the most profound experience of opera I have ever had. I think there's never been anyone quite like her and it's hard to believe there will, though there are one or two promising newcomers. But she was so dark and mysterious and dramatic and exciting and a voice so unusual with that sort of dark mezzo-soprano quality. And “Vissi d'arte”, which is, I love art, I love love, is really what she was about. She was either singing or in love – I mean, there was nothing else in her life it seemed to me, and she got into trouble in both at various stages. So that aria for me captures the romanticism and the difficulties that Maria Callas endured.
Kaplan The aria “Vissi d'arte” from Puccini's Tosca , sung by Maria Callas with the La Scala Orchestra under the baton of Victor de Sabata. A work and an artist first encountered by my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Sir Howard Stringer, when he was a teenager. So far, most of the music, I think all of the music you've selected – and many yet to come on this show today – are linked to personal experiences in which these works, shall we say, interacted with your life. But what about music that you just listen to because you love it? It has no particular connection beyond the music. On a weekend, you feel like listening to something. What might you be throwing on these days?
Stringer I went through the Beatles period and the ‘60's period. I was in England during the singing 60's, so I listened to a lot of the popular music of that time. But now that I've got older I've drifted back to classical music and I tend to listen to opera compilations or whole operas. And last night I was listening to Katherine Jenkins, which is a new up and coming Welsh soprano that you may have heard about who sings the national anthem at Welsh rugby games. And she's very beautiful. And she has a lovely voice and I put myself to sleep playing that last night.
Kaplan And what about among the symphonies or chamber music? Do you listen to chamber music at all?
Stringer Not as much as I used to. One of the problems that I have with music now is that I don't listen to music as background. I've never been able to. I listen to music and that's all I do. I don't multi-task when I'm listening to music. And so I'm so busy now that most of the time I get to listen to music is on airplanes. And the classical selections on JAL and British Airways are pretty good. And I sometimes take my own music. But that's the time I listen to music. At home and certainly in the office, I don't really have time to do it anymore. So I use the airplane rides to listen to selections that I haven't heard. And I've discovered over the years an enthusiasm for artists on airplanes. I discovered Maurice André, the great French classical trumpet player by accident by listening on an airline. So that's my particular pleasure at the moment.
Kaplan Well all right. Now earlier we talked about the decline of the classical record business, but it has always been difficult to find a mass audience for music on television. Well I don't really want to put you on the spot because you're no longer doing this job, but why not. If you had to pick something today that might be box office on network television classical music, what might it be?
Stringer That's a really difficult question. I think I would probably have to build it around the personality of a great singer and take that person, he or she, on “60 Minutes” or maybe an hour special built around the place where the singer comes from. Give it a different kind of life. I think the audience watching orchestras doesn't find that a very satisfying experience, particularly as the quality of CDs is so good right now, that it's just as, it's more comfortable perhaps to listen to it on a CD. But I think it's personalizing classical music can be done on a much more interesting and imaginative way because there are some great personalities around. “60 Minutes” has done Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, so there are ways to do it. But I think you have to decide that that's what you want to do and there's a certain cynicism about the magic and power of classical music to attract an audience, which I think is misplaced.
Kaplan All right, while you were at CBS you engineered several breakthroughs, one of which was a live broadcast of the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz to mark his return to Russia after being out for most of 60 years. Tell us about that experience and how it connects to your selection today.
Stringer Well, you already mentioned Peter Gelb who was then Horowitz's manager who came to me and said Vladimir Horowitz is going to return to Russia , is there anything you could do with it on network television? And I couldn't in all honesty admit that I could put it on primetime. But I had an idea of putting it on Sunday morning and replacing “Sunday Morning” with it and I went to Charles Kuralt, the host of “Sunday Morning,” and I said Charles, we could do this program. You could host it from Moscow . We could just do it as a one-off. It could be very exciting and something quite different. And he jumped at it. So we went to Moscow and filmed the concert and nobody objected at CBS and actually, it did extremely well in the ratings. Did as well as “Sunday Morning” normally does. I think it was such a novelty and a great success. And as a result, I got to know Horowitz a little bit. Spent some time with him.
Kaplan Can you say a little about him?
Stringer Well, I mean to say he's eccentric is to put it mildly. I mean, Peter Gelb, who looked after him, had wonderful experiences as his manager. From my perspective, I went to his 80 th birthday and at one point I saw the actor, Hollywood actor Richard Widmark, sitting there and I sat next to him and I said have you known Vladimir Horowitz long? He said no, he called me up a couple of weeks ago. He saw one of my movies on the late show and he really liked it and he got in touch with me and asked me if I would like to come to his 80 th birthday, and so here I am. So that's the sense. The other story I remember about him was being invited to dinner with Prince Charles and not wanting to go to dinner, didn't really do dinners, he said. But he did agree to go to tea and then when he went into the Prince's residence, the Prince of Wales residence, he noticed that the piano was not a distinguished, in his eyes, a distinguished piano, it was a Japanese piano. And he said what's the matter, are you running out of money in the royal family? So there was something of an imp about him and mischievous quality and slightly eccentric.
Kaplan Well you've picked the record and I've picked the track, because I thought it might be interesting and important for us to listen to that very first piece he played as he returned to Moscow , so this is Domenico Scarlatti.
Kaplan Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata in E major , Kirkpatrick no. 380, performed by Vladimir Horowitz at his historic return-to-Moscow concert in 1985, an event broadcast by CBS under an initiative by my guest today, Sir Howard Stringer, who today though serves as the Chief Executive of Sony. We're talking so much about listening to singers, which probably is the most emotional level of performing music I suppose. Are you often moved by music? Do you cry when you listen to music?
Stringer I certainly cry, I'm certainly easily moved to tears. That may be for many reasons, given the scale of my job and my travel schedule. But when I'm at the Met, I'm easily moved to tears. Great singing is moving and I am, I think I spent so much of my early life actually singing and would have, would have given everything I had to have been a tenor of even mediocre quality. I'm, I'm very Welsh in that respect. You know that Thomas Beecham line about the English and that they really don't like music but they love the noise it makes. Well, that's never been said about the Welsh. I mean, we, we legitimately love music.
Kaplan Well, you mentioned, you know, you fantasize about music and wish you'd been a singer. And if you had, tell me the roles in opera that would have been your ideal dream?
Stringer Well, I'm resolutely romantic. Italian operas, Puccini and Verdi would have consumed me. That's what I grew up with. I never came to Wagner. Donizetti I like. But I'm fairly romantic in my enthusiasm for opera.
Kaplan All right, well while we await your opera debut, we come to that part of our show we call the “Wildcard” where you have an opportunity to pick music from any genre other than classical music or opera. So, what “Wildcard” did you bring us today?
Stringer Well, I brought Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen and “Bohemian Rhapsody” as my first choice. And I chose that because there are three pop records that I think began to transform the genre. I'm not sure that they really did, but they seemed that way. The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” and the Beatles with “Sgt. Pepper” and the Beach Boys again with “Good Vibrations” perhaps. But Freddie Mercury and Queen on “Bohemian Rhapsody” created a different sound and it stopped me dead in the tracks when I came home after being out of the country, out of America for a while, and thinking gosh, is this something new? I had the same sort of feeling when I listened to West Side Story . But in fact, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the last of that style. But it was so adventurous and so anarchic and so unusual that I still remember it with great fondness and I was once quoted for saying that my enthusiasm for pop music died along with Freddie Mercury, and there's something in that.
Kaplan “Bohemian Rhapsody” sung by Freddie Mercury with the band Queen, the “Wildcard” selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the Chief Executive of Sony, Sir Howard Stringer. When we return, we'll hear Sir Howard Stringer's final selection, a work recalling the moment when the tensions of geopolitics and music crisscrossed in his life.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest, the Chief Executive of Sony, Sir Howard Stringer. Now with your track record of hitting the bull's eye with broadcasts of Horowitz's return to Moscow , it did prove that there is a mass audience for certain classical music. BBC you know recently offered listeners an opportunity to download the entire cycle of Beethoven's symphonies and they got 1.4 million people to do so, free. And it's not unusual in New York City for 100,000 people, say, to show up in Central Park for a free concert of opera or classical music. Now network television is also free, so why aren't there more opportunities for broadcasting that kind of music?
Stringer That's a million dollar question. Actually, I think there's too many fulfilling prophecies on network television or any other kind of television. There's sort of an ingrain feeling that if it's really good, nobody will watch it – they won't watch it. And we've proved otherwise so many times that, that it makes you despair. If you put something different on, it has to be special. And that's true for music and true for any other kind of cultural artform. But it can work. And we did it with a film we made called “The Boston Symphony Goes to China”, which was the vice president of news then, a man called Robert Chandler called me up and said would I like to accompany an orchestra to China. And he didn't know I read music. And because I read music, I got the job. And we went there and filmed at the height, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the beginning of Democracy Wall, when music was new to China . All those instruments had been buried during the Cultural Revolution. And we went with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony and attended two concerts and watched them and filmed them giving master classes and the program did extremely well in the ratings, won a number of awards and I was really proud of it. And I think CBS News was really proud of it. The musical memories that I carry away from that, because I attended many rehearsals, were the pieces that they played in the big gymnasium for the Chinese audience that was wildly enthusiastic and the piece that I remember most was Berlioz's “Symphonie fantastique” which I knew about from the 60's, mostly because in the 60's during the drug culture, “Symphonie fantastique” was always thought of as something of a drug trip. There was a kind of wildness about the music and he composed that at 26 and it captured an energy and a spirit and a revolutionary excitement that I thought was really appropriate in 1978 with Democracy Wall going up and other walls coming down, so that the experience of music in that communist society for the first time in an entire generation is something that for me Berlioz symbolizes and would always symbolize. Every time I hear that piece, I think about China in 1978 and now you of course think of where it's come.
Kaplan The riveting final moments of Berlioz's “Symphonie fantastique” performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with conductor Paavo Järvi, the final selection of my guest on today's edition of “Mad About Music,” the Chief Executive of Sony, Sir Howard Stringer. Now earlier in the show I mentioned that you are a rare bird in that you are a CEO of a major corporation who brings to that job a great passion for music. Now, with you at the helm, do you expect that Sony will become more active in supporting music around the world? I know you must support some now. But is this an objective of yours to increase Sony's profile in supporting classical music and opera?
Stringer Well, I'd certainly at the very least like to be opportunistic about it. We obviously, much of our charity money is given to Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera, and I do that personally. But I'd like to seize moments to create musical opportunities. We did recently, we funded a series of concerts in the People's Republic of China and I was over there with Madame Deng, Xiaoping's daughter, talking about the success of Sony's initiative to support local music, local concerts there. So I think Sony has a strong tradition and I'd certainly like to expand on it. Obviously I have to get the company extremely profitable, but, back of my mind is that Sony has to have integrity and values and its enthusiasm for music has been well documented and well established all the way from the founder, Morita-san to the present. So I want to continue that and if possible expand it.
Kaplan Well, on that happy note for our musical institutions, Sir Howard Stringer, thank you for appearing today and providing hope that there is in fact room at the top of the corporate ladder for someone who has had such a lifelong love of music. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”