Kaplan: Welcome back as we open the New Year with my guest, the President of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy .
Kaplan: He runs the largest arts complex in the world – Lincoln Center – with the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the Juilliard School, theatre and ballet companies, with many other institutions on its campus, not to mention the Center’s own presentations of visiting orchestras from around the world, the Mostly Mozart Festival – all these attracting more than 5 million visitors a year. It’s also a special challenge to run Lincoln Center, balancing the Center’s own needs with those of a dozen fiercely independent constituents, not to mention masterminding a new campaign to raise about a billion dollars to revitalize the16-acre complex. Reynold Levy , welcome to “Mad About Music.”
Levy: It’s very good to be here.
Kaplan: Now having described you as sitting on top of this vast colossus of arts, let’s go back to the beginning, though; your own personal beginning. When did you first know that classical music was really you?
Levy: Well, I grew up in a working class home in Brooklyn, and my father was very involved in music, and in fact was a tap dancer. And on Saturdays when he was home, he would put on world music, classical music, and he’d actually put a brown sheet of paper over the living room floor and ask me to depict in painting what I was listening to. To imagine the mood of the music, the tempo of the music, and he asked me to draw what I heard at a very young age. I must have been five or six.
Kaplan: So your father, actually, predated Stokowski’s “Fantasia.”
Levy: He did. He did.
Kaplan: And how did you then migrate over to classical music?
Levy: Well, it really wasn’t until I was 32 years of age, and found myself the executive director of the 92nd Street “Y,” and presided over the Kaufmann Concert Hall and had an impresario named Omus Hirschbein reporting to me, where I listened to an enormous amount of classical music, at home and in concert halls. And had Omus as a tutor and a guide. I guess at Princeton, they call them “preceptors.” And was able to ask him any and all kinds of questions about chamber music, about orchestral music, about solo artists, and listened with greater and greater care to classical music and fell in love with it.
Kaplan: I see. Well, I see the first work on your list today to play is Bach, a work very often played at the “Y”.
Levy: It’s often played at the “Y” and one of my fondest memories, and that’s the reason I selected the piece. Actually, it might have been the first piece I heard in the Kaufmann Concert Hall – Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Very moving, very memorable, a piece that the moment a chord is played, the moment a measure is played, the rest of the piece flows for you.
Kaplan: An excerpt from the first movement of Bach’s first piano concerto performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy with the London Symphony Orchestra led by David Zinman. The first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the president of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy: . In fact, the first classical work he came to love. Let’s now turn to your work as president of Lincoln Center. You know, it wasn’t too long after you arrived that performing arts centers received a blistering attack from your colleague Michael Kaiser, who runs the Kennedy Center in Washington. He basically described the situation as sick and desperately in need of a new approach. Now others tut-tutted about that, but you really blasted him on the Op Ed page of the Washington Post. Here’s what you wrote: “Kaiser badly misdiagnosing the state of arts in America. He underplays its diversity, originality and managerial strengths.” And then you really let him have it: “I’d urge Kaiser to leave his predictions of Cassandra and the wailings of Jeremy backstage.” Pretty strong stuff. Now you come across in our discussion so far as a rather mild-mannered man, I would say. But do you regard yourself in general as combative when things like this happen?
Levy: Not really. I think Michael raised an important issue, an important challenge and I thought it ought to be joined. And we did so. In fact, I think in non-profit life in general, and in artistic circles in particular, we need more of a serious dialogue and a serious conversation about the future of our art form and what we are all doing. So, in fact, I very much welcomed – although I disagreed strongly with Michael’s view – I very much welcomed his posing it and the opportunity to join issue with him.
Kaplan: Well, you know, when President Kennedy once heard similar dire predictions about the decline of classical music, he retorted that there were more people attending classical music concerts in America than baseball games; and that he didn’t think that was necessarily a bad thing for the country. Sometimes a little humor can work and I recall that when you were appointed as president, a newspaper quoted one of your close friends as saying you are a person of virtue, virtuosity and wit. So with all the serious things going on in your job, tell me something funny that has happened to you.
Levy: This will take a moment, if I can indulge in a story. When my father passed away, one of his final express wishes to me was that I drive the car that he had purchased, two years before; and that I continue to use the car. The car is a 1993 Mercury Marquis, and to this day, I comply with his wishes. When I arrived at Lincoln Center on my first day, the garage attendant stopped me and I introduced myself as the new president of Lincoln Center. And he looked at me, and he stepped back and looked at this jalopy, and said, “are you sure you’re the president of Lincoln Center?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” And then, finally his face opened up and he came to the conclusion that my real car was in the shop, being fixed, and then waved me into my parking space. It was the only way that he could possibly believe that the president of Lincoln Center would be in a car some thirteen, fourteen years old, with about 107,000 miles on it.
Kaplan: All right. Well, let’s continue though, with Lincoln Center then as a place, as an arts center. And as you know, there is always a debate about Lincoln Center, whether it is a genuine arts center, where the interconnection of the parts forms a whole; or whether it is basically a venue shared by a number of independent constituents. How would you characterize it?
Levy: I would say it is both. Our 16 acres house 12 world-class constituents, that range from film to opera to dance to theatre, to classical music; and to world-class academies. Each with their own mission, each with their own constituency, each with their own board. But that the concentric circles, the space that those concentric circles fill, is getting larger and larger. There is more and more interaction between these companies, and I can cite many, many examples, but just to pick one: the Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera are, together, co-presenting the “Ring” cycle, brought to us by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater this coming summer. Neither of us could do it alone; both of us could do it together; the city would be impoverished were it not to be presented and we are co-presenting it.
Kaplan: Well, I think, though, you would have to admit that over the years, there have certainly been – it has been my observation – that the person in your position has very limited power to decide “let’s do something,” because you have to get the cooperation of these different organizations and I think the New York Times commented when you were appointed that you held an unwieldy command. No real power was their point. So it’s to that issue – of course in the case of the opera with Gergiev and the Met at Lincoln Center, that makes perfectly good sense – but is there a possibility, or is it just too difficult because of everyone’s independence to really have some sort of uniform artistic view about where the Center ought to go, in which they would fold in, as opposed to having had their arms twisted?
Levy: I don’t think that there ought to be a uniform view of where the arts ought to go. I think the strength of Lincoln Center is its diversity. Let me challenge you and the New York Times, if that’s an accurate quote on the question of the power of the Lincoln Center president. Part of the power of Lincoln Center resides in our power to persuade and to our willingness to be helpful. We see the success of Lincoln Center as only possible if all of our constituents flourish. And we work very hard to be as helpful as we can. Lincoln Center is the largest presenter of arts in the world. There is no organization that presents more art as distinct from producing more art, and we control what art we present. That is a major role of the largest and most consequential presenter in the world, and we control that start to finish. We also have a redevelopment of our campus underway. We now have an agreed-upon about $750,000,000 of work. We are reinvesting in Lincoln Center for the next generation of artists and audiences. And that is an act of leadership on the part of Lincoln Center. That engages all of our constituents, but it is Lincoln Center that has created the framework, the structure and the incentives to make that possible.
Kaplan: But in terms of collaboration, I would ask you this one other question. I don’t think it’s any secret that the former head of the Metropolitan Opera, Joseph Volpe, was not exactly a team player. How much easier is it to work with Peter Gelb on these kinds of issues?
Levy: Well, I think Peter brings a fresh approach. Joe had twenty years of running the largest opera company in the world, and inherited his own challenges, and I think there is little question that he left a strengthened institution, compared with what he inherited. And I think Peter is taking a somewhat different approach to audiences, and to the craft of theater, and to his vision of drama and music and opera being combined on the stage. It’s most welcome, and I think all of his colleagues are very much looking forward to working with him, as am I.
Kaplan: Well, you’ve talked about his artistic view. I’m talking about him as a team player. Will it be easier to go to him than it was to Joe Volpe and say, “look, let’s do this together,” and expect you might get a little more collaboration?
Levy: Well, I’m not sure that it’s helpful to engage in comparisons. I’m looking forward to working with Peter.
Kaplan: All right then, let’s come back to your music, and I see your next selection actually has a connection to Lincoln Center.
Levy: Well, it does have a connection to Lincoln Center. The selection is really the Beethoven String Quartet No.16. Well, the Juilliard Quartet has produced a very well known and very well-distributed version of the Beethoven String Quartets, and we’re quite proud of it. The Beethoven string quartets, for me, of all of the music I’ve listened to, are the most profound, the most evocative of life’s travails and life’s joys. I find listening to this music profoundly moving, and if I were to take a single piece, change the title of your program to “Music For a Desert Island,” this is the piece that I would take with me.
Kaplan: The second movement of Beethoven’s sixteen string quartet, the last quartet he composed and a work chosen by my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the president of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy . When we return, we’ll explore the power of the Lincoln Center president to influence artistic decisions.
Kaplan: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music,” the president of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy . We were talking earlier about the enormous number of performances that Lincoln Center itself presents – these are in addition to those that the Met and New York Philharmonic themselves present. But what role do you personally play in artistic policy?
Levy: The broad strokes of our programming are reviewed with me by Nigel Reddin for the Lincoln Center Festival, by Jane Moss for Great Performers and, by and large, they are terrific professionals who are given, and should have, a broad range of freedom. I’m quite proud that there are occasions when there is a certain piece that I would love to see performed at Lincoln Center, that I encouraged Nigel or Jane to go out and listen to, and more often than not, it appears at Lincoln Center and it gives me no small pleasure. A good example of that was Ariane Mnouchkine’s epic piece about refugees, which hooked together parts of my own life, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival season before last.
Kaplan: I’m sure that’s the fun part of the job, to be able to participate in artistic decisions, but of course your main task is the efficient running of the Center. Now for many years, you were a guest lecturer at Harvard, weren’t you, Harvard Business School, teaching a course on how to run a non-profit organization. And a serious problem always in these occasions is the size of the staff ballooning. So, did it surprise you when you came to Lincoln Center to discover you had a payroll there of 8,000 people which would contrast, say, with the 300 people who work at Carnegie Hall? But before you answer that, I should make a disclosure. I think you know I serve on the Board of Carnegie Hall, but I’m also on the faculty of the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center, so I am associated with both institutions. That out of the way, how about the size of that payroll? 8,000 people! Actually, I better be careful here, I suppose that I am included in that head count!
Levy: Well, we’re talking about 8,000 full-time equivalent people, I’m not sure that the 300 is comparable to the 8,000. The full-time equivalent people include stagehands, actors, and actresses. The Metropolitan Opera alone produces twenty-seven operas a year, and has an aggregate audience significantly in excess of Carnegie Hall. That’s just one constituent of Lincoln Center. The constituents of Lincoln Center spend about seven hundred million dollars a year, that’s their budget, that’s about seven times the size of Carnegie Hall’s budget. And have an economic impact on the city of New York of about $1.4 billion a year. So you’re talking about an operation that has 3.8 million ticket buyers, that attracts about five million people a year, and that represents a major tourist attraction. Karl Marx used to say, “a difference of degree if large enough, is a difference of kind.” I think Lincoln Center represents a difference in kind.
Kaplan: All right. Well, following on the issue, then, of competition, when Zarin Mehta appeared on this show, the president of the New York Philharmonic, he expressed his feeling, his belief that the reconstruction of Fisher Hall would produce an acoustically superb hall, he said on or almost on the same level as Carnegie Hall. Do you have enough information to have an opinion about that yourself?
Levy: I do not, and I’m delighted by Zarin’s confidence in the improvements that can be made in the hall. One of my predecessors once said that acoustics is hearsay, and everyone knows the difficulty that is involved in this alchemy of science and art. But I will tell you this, Gil, when there’s an exciting orchestral performance in Avery Fisher Hall, no one complains or talks about the acoustics. And I think acoustical issues related to Avery Fisher Hall are significantly exaggerated, even in its current condition.
Kaplan: Well, I happen to agree with that, and one work that in my view does take advantage of the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall is a chamber-size Mass. And I see your next one is a Mozart Mass.
Levy: Well, we at Lincoln Center are extremely proud of the Mostly Mozart Festival, which has just completed its fortieth year. It is the oldest celebration of Mozart in the country. And particularly proud of our conductor, Louis Langrée, who’s made a magnificent start. He’s just completed his fourth season as the conductor of the Mostly Mozart Orchestra. The Mass in C minor is his most recent piece that he has conducted and recorded for Angel Records. And so we’ve been playing it frequently around the office. And we find the work so moving and spiritually and ethereally it takes you to another place. It moves you out of your secular environment and your day-to-day activity and brings you to another place. This is the spiritual side of music, the side of music that captivates you, the side of music that transports you.
Kaplan: An excerpt from Mozart’s Mass in C performed by Le Concert D’Astrée led by Louis Langrée, a selection of my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music,” the president of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy . As we’ve been discussing challenges you face running Lincoln Center, let’s talk about the audience – all those seats you have to fill. And I’m particularly interested in your recent announcement to create a separate building where people can purchase last minute tickets priced, as I understand it, the way retail stores often price store clearance sales – the closer you get to the final date, the lower the prices go.
Levy: Well, this is the equivalent of what people have become familiar with in going to the TKTS facility in Duffy Square to buy a Broadway ticket. Every Lincoln Center venue will make available tickets day of, maybe even week of, for discount pricing, from the Film Society on the one hand, to the Metropolitan Opera on the other, from our classic campus on the one hand, to Jazz at Lincoln Center facilities on the other. You’ll be able to come to the Atrium and purchase a ticket on the day of at half-price or perhaps less, plus a modest administrative charge. We hope that this will allow those who make last-minute decisions to see a performance, to come to Lincoln Center and think of Lincoln Center; and we hope this will attract a demographic of those for whom price could be a barrier. And we want to lower those barriers.
Kaplan: I understand the idea is why have any empty seats in a hall, which, after all, like the airlines, it’s not going to cost you any more to bring another person in, but I gather there was some resistance to this for some time by different constituents, I guess who were worried that people might stop buying full-price tickets.
Levy: I don’t think that was the concern. I think everyone at Lincoln Center is familiar with principals of yield management, and everyone at Lincoln Center goes to, sits on an airplane or goes to a resort, knowing that the person sitting next to them, the price of that seat right next to them might have been higher or lower. There’s a level of sophistication about that. I think the concern was more practical. Broadway shows don’t have subscribers. Broadway shows don’t have donors. Broadway shows don’t have sponsors. So, figuring out the logistics of how you set aside those seats in light of subscribers, donors, and sponsors was the major challenge. And it’s a challenge that, practically, we’re now working through.
Kaplan: But as you begin to try to blend more, say pop culture, at Lincoln Center, which has never been without it, I suppose I would be remiss in asking you about something which some people thought might have gone a bit too far, and I can see by the look on your face, you have figured out where I’m going! And it has to do with the “Scuba Man,” who was put into a tank, trying to set a world record for living in an aquarium. And I gather you had some flak from some of your constituents on that, also. Was this your idea? Did you get involved in this decision? Was it a good idea?
Levy: I was involved in the decision. I didn’t think you would notice, Gil. I thought you were abroad and just didn’t get a sense of what was going on at Lincoln Center at the time. The public spaces at Lincoln Center, we have sixteen precious acres of public space. We’re very proud of the way they’re maintained. Maintaining that facility and securing that facility is costly. And so we allow the use of these public spaces in exchange for some rental fees. We thought the idea of having ABC do a special that would broadcast to the entire country the face of Lincoln Center was a good idea. There were mixed opinions about it. If we had to do it over again, I think we’d give greater consideration to the down side than we did.
Kaplan: A very refreshing answer! All right, well, as we continue the exploration of pop culture, we now come to that part of our show that we call the “Wildcard,” where our listeners surely know, this is your moment when you can pick music from outside the classical or opera genre, and it can be as wild as you like. So, what did you bring us today?
Levy: Well, I brought you what we regard at Lincoln Center as a hometown product. I brought you Audra McDonald. You were talking earlier about the degree to which the constituents at Lincoln Center cooperate and collaborate and share artists. Here’s Audra McDonald, a graduate of the Juilliard School, who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera house, who has performed at the State Theatre, who has performed at the Allen Room at the Rose Auditorium at Lincoln Center Theatre, a four-time Tony Award winner, who most recently appeared on a “Live From Lincoln Center” broadcast, doing the work of singer-songwriters, drawn from her most recent CD. I’m prepared to do many things to support this program, Gil, but you cannot be the chairman of the Audra McDonald Fan Club. That is my title, and it is a lifetime title. And we bring you a song from Audra’s most recent album by John Mayer, “My Stupid Mouth.”
Kaplan: “My Stupid Mouth,” sung by Audra McDonald, the “Wildcard” selection of my guest – and self-appointed chairman of the Audra McDonald Fan Club – the president of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy . When we return, we’ll ask Reynold Levy to assess his own performance as the president of Lincoln Center.
Kaplan: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music,” the president of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy . Now over the years, you’ve served on many search committees and boards where you had to evaluate the performances of people who basically have the same job you now have. So although it’s just a few years into your tenure as president, it’s certainly enough time to ask you to do a little personal assessment. Let’s start with what’s gone right.
Levy: Actually, it’s been four and half years. I think one of the things I’m most proud of is the leadership that I have been able to gather around me: in a much larger, and I think stronger board of directors, and in an enhanced staff. Great leaders unleash the power of creative people around them, and facilitate the achievements that they can win. And I’m extremely proud of the team of lay people and staff that are now drawn to Lincoln Center, driven by its promise, eager to bridge the gap between its promise and its performance. I think the second that I would point to is untying the Gordian Knot that was Lincoln Center’s redevelopment, and forging an agreement between our constituents on an enormously complex project, that now covers all of 65th Street from Broadway to Amsterdam Avenue, and that affects every single constituent along it. This represents a really massive change, and it required, I think, a considerable effort of diplomacy, an effort of creative problem solving, and the development of some real incentives for everyone to engage and support this major effort.
Kaplan: And what about where you might have stubbed your toe, have regrets, have doubts?
Levy: I can’t think of any. I think there’s work to be done. There are opportunities yet to be seized, and I could talk at some length about our plans and the plans we’d like to realize. One good example of that is the application of 21st century technology to the performing arts. We live in a world that’s filled with promise, and I think we’re just beginning to explore the edges of that promise to reach more and more of the population with content related to arts, using 21st century devices. I think there are many opportunities that we have yet to pursue.
Kaplan: So, other than the “Scuba Man,” you have no experiences that you wish maybe you hadn’t done it quite that way?
Levy: Well, the executive committee and the board of Lincoln Center annually assess my performance, and I’m sure they’re prepared to invite an outside guest, Gil, if you would like to join them.
Kaplan: Okay, let’s come back to music, and as we have been talking about the opportunities at Lincoln Center, I suppose your next selection fits right in, the “Ode To Joy” symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth.
Levy: I chose the Beethoven Ninth in part because of my fascination with conductors. With the capacity of a human being to assemble such creative forces, and that in a moment in time, mobilize them towards the achievement of a grand musical end. We recently had Bernard Haitink do all of the Beethoven symphonies, including the Ninth, and to watch his conducting method; in fact, to watch his rehearsals and to see the efficiency of movement and the unrelenting focus of the players on the conductor, playing this absolutely rapturous piece of music, assembling all of the forces of voice and orchestra is a very, very special experience. No one who hears this music in the concert hall or over the radio can fail to feel privileged.
Kaplan: An excerpt from the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The London Symphony Orchestra with Bernard Haitink on the podium. A work chosen by my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the president of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy . From the way you just described your experience listening to Beethoven’s Ninth, it is clear that you are moved by music and I understand, by the way, that you are attending concerts and performances of one kind or another almost every night of the week. So here’s my question – what activities and personal interests have dropped out of your life that you now really miss?
Levy: I miss exercising as much as I could if I weren’t out every night, and I miss reading. I read at the hundredth hour of the week. I also miss accompanying my wife on visits to galleries. If she had her choice, I think she’d be looking at pictures at least as much as listening to music, and she finds herself accompanying me frequently and listening to music. And then, of course, time with the family. We can, of course, bring our kids with us, and we often do, to music, but we find ourselves entertaining a great deal, donors, and government officials, and others at Lincoln Center events.
Kaplan: Well, you’ve discussed earlier, your hopes of great harmony among the constituents of Lincoln Center – I see your next piece wouldn’t be an appropriate sound track for that experience, and it’s war music from Shostakovich.
Levy: You know, I selected the Shostakovich because, in part because, of the connection between the artists and the time they live in. We’ve been talking about music that transports you out of a secular life and out of a political life, that’s eternal, and not related to an experience that’s time-bound, and here is Shostakovich, very much influenced and very much moved by his times. Twenty million Russians were killed in the Second World War, and the experience of Symphony No. 7 chillingly reflects the realities of war. It is the musical equivalent of Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front.
Kaplan: The glorious conclusion of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony, his Seventh Symphony, performed by the combined forces of the Kirov Opera Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, all under the baton the music director of both institutions, Valery Gergiev. The final selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the president of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy . Well, when you think about Valery Gergiev and the other great artists associated with your musical selections today, it poses for me a natural lead-in to what will be my final question, and it’s a question that I often ask colleagues of yours, by the way, so you’re not alone – colleagues who are managing arts institutions but of course are not performers themselves. So it’s fantasy time. Have you ever given thought to what you would most like to be, if you could be, a performer? Would it be an opera singer? A conductor? Composer? Play an instrument?
Levy: Well, you know, I was a big fan of Danny Kaye’s, and Danny Kaye used to do these fantasy performances as conductor, and I identified with those very strongly. I’d mentioned earlier that a chief executive really should bring out the very best talent that one can, and that’s what I fashion a conductor does. But if truth truly be told, stand-up comedy is what I yearn for.
Kaplan: Ah, ha! So your friend did know you when he said you had great wit! Well, Reynold Levy , thank you for appearing on “Mad About Music” today. You’ve been a fascinating guest, and we wish you great success as you tackle the challenges of Lincoln Center. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”