Kaplan Today on “Mad About Music,” we meet an acclaimed musical journalist who rose to become the President of the Doubleday Publishing Group, Stephen Rubin.
Kaplan He started out as a music journalist and soon became known for his unflinching point of view and stylish interviews with opera stars and conductors that appeared in the The New York Times. For a while he also served as an editor at Vanity Fair. Then he leaped into the world of book publishing, quickly rising to become the publisher of a division of Bantam Books and today serves as the President of the Doubleday Publishing Group which under his leadership has grown to a staff of 160 people and publishing more than 300 titles a year, including some spectacular best-sellers: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and all the legal thrillers of John Grisham. Not bad for someone whose first love has always been classical music. Stephen Rubin, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
Rubin It’s a pleasure to be here.
Kaplan Let’s start with that phenomenal success you had as a publisher with The Da Vinci Code and take it right into the world of music. Could that be the basis of a good opera?
Rubin It would be a very complicated opera, I’ll tell you, because The Da Vinci Code is a very complicated novel, but, sure, sure! It’s very operatic at times.
Kaplan And it has all the elements of deceit, treachery, love …
Kaplan So then who would you look back in history to be as just the right person to capture that music? Which composer?
Rubin What a great question! I think Mr. Verdi.
Kaplan He has a lot of experience with that.
Rubin A lot of experience.
Kaplan Could Wagner do it?
Rubin Yes, he could, but I think his strengths lie in other directions.
Kaplan All right, well I won’t follow up on that, but I do see that half of your music list today is in fact made up of opera. So let’s discuss your first selection.
Rubin Well, I chose an extraordinary live performance from the Teatro Colón of Verdi’s Aida, starring a wonderful American soprano named Martina Arroyo, an artist who I’ve heard many, many times, who I know personally, and who I enjoy enormously because she’s famous for her rather flamboyant sense of humor; but I don’t think I’ve ever in my life, either on recordings or live at the Met heard her sing with the kind of passion and purity of tone that she does in this extraordinary rendition of this very, very beautiful aria, “O patria mia” from Aida.
Kaplan “O patria mia” from Verdi’s Aida sung by soprano Martina Arroyo with the Orchestra del Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, led by Bruno Bartoletti – the first selection of my guest on “Mad about Music” today, the President of the Doubleday Publishing Group, Stephen Rubin. Now, as I said in my introduction, you spent a considerable part of your early career writing about classical music. But how did you first come to music as a child?
Rubin Well, my mother always said that when I was a kid, she had me in a high chair, and the classical music station was on. So that’s her explanation, which I’m perfectly willing to accept. I can tell you this, that I remember when I received some cash from my bar mitzvah, I ran out and bought – I’m sort of ashamed to admit that, but I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, André Kostelanetz’s suite for Carmen. So I think I was in the right direction then. Earlier than that – that was thirteen – at eleven, my parents took me to a very dressy benefit performance of the Tales of Hoffman at the old Met at Broadway and 39th street, and I can’t tell you whether I was more impressed with the music, which I adored, or with the fact that there were all these gorgeously dressed people around me. But that made an enormous impression. I also remember, as a kid, being quite fond of Maria Callas, and having my mother – we lived in a private house, and I was upstairs, and my mother screamed up from downstairs, “Shut that awful woman off!” because Miss Callas’s voice, as we know, was not to everyone’s liking. And my mother liked pretty voices.
Kaplan You must have been playing it pretty loud, too!
Rubin I was always playing it loud. To this day, I play it much too loud.
Kaplan Now, what about your own music education? Did your parents make you do the compulsory piano lessons as a child?
Rubin Well, I was a brat. They tried to. But I said, no, no, no, everyone does music lessons. I’m going to do art lessons. So I wasted all that possible talent on music in art, for which I had zero talent.
Kaplan Do you regret that you didn’t take lessons and learn an instrument?
Rubin I sort of go both ways. I do regret, sometimes, and there are other times when I feel I bring such a fresh approach to it because I don’t have the technical knowledge. But God knows I have opinions, and a set of very good ears. So, bottom line? No, I’m not sorry.
Kaplan All right, now you may not have studied an instrument, but you did study music, and one chapter in your life, I would say, truly fits the name of this show, “Mad About Music.” And I understand that you devoted perhaps an entire year to listening, studying, searching, to try to uncover what you would determine to be the finest performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. What compelled you to do this, and what did you conclude?
Rubin Utter madness! I was just fixated on it. I was living in London at the time, and I can’t explain to you why I did it, all I know is I was running around in these odd little dingy record shops in London, trying to ferret out all these performances of the Brahms D minor, and I got so many of them, and then I finally found one by a pianist I was never particularly fond of, Alfred Brendel, and – it’s a studio recording. I much prefer live performances, but to me, it knocked my socks off the first time I heard it, and every time I hear it again I feel the same way.
And I actually brought it with me. I was discussing this with a friend of mine, the brilliant American pianist Jeffrey Siegel, and he said something to me which I thought was so incredibly astute. That “the first movement of the Brahms Concerto is a titanic struggle, an inner struggle – a struggle with outer forces, a struggle for dominance between the soloist and the orchestra, and a stupendous struggle for the poor pianist to try and negotiate the super-demanding, particularly clumsy piano part.” Now, clumsy is the operative word here. Brahms wrote this originally as a symphony. It was originally called a symphony with piano obbligato. It is not a normal piano concerto and I think that’s one of the reasons it appeals to me. It’s a weird kind of piece. And I think that Brendel gets underneath the notes in a way that nobody else I’ve heard can touch. And he’s not afraid in this struggle to be “unbeautiful.” I think this performance just is amazing.
Kaplan An excerpt from the first movement of Brahms First Piano Concerto, Alfred Brendel with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt – the finest recording of the work according to my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the President of the Doubleday Publishing Group, Stephen Rubin. Now, looking over your list of musical selections, two themes seem to emerge. First, you’ve chosen mostly artists of an earlier era, didn’t you? And second, your recordings are mostly live performances. So let’s start first with the issue of live versus studio recordings and how you come out on that.
Rubin Well, I’m a child of recordings. And ninety percent of them were studio recordings. As I’ve gotten older, I find that those studio recordings tend – and this is very dangerous to generalize this way – they tend to have a canned quality to them. And I have just been so uplifted by some of the live performances, and since I’m not a musician, I probably won’t pick up the mistakes that someone like yourself would pick up in two seconds. But it doesn’t bother me because I think ultimately it’s the totality that works, and the live performances just give me a buzz that the studio performances don’t.
Kaplan Now, what about the artists? You have choices not only of opera singers, but also, I see there’s a conductor on your list and a violinist, all come from a much earlier era. Were they better than today’s performers?
Rubin Well, let’s put it this way. I don’t know anybody today who moves me the way these artists do, so I suppose, yes.
Kaplan But, say, among the opera singers today, who do you admire?
Rubin I admire Rolando Villazón; I admire Anna Netrebko; and I love Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
Kaplan Well, you pronounce it very Russian-like!
Rubin I studied Russian once.
Kaplan You did? “Maladietz!” I see your next selection features something that fits this formula, both a live performance, and an artist from an early 1957 recording.
Rubin Her name is Anita Cerquetti, she’s Italian, and she’s had a very singular, short career, short because she stopped singing suddenly and no one knows why. There are all kinds of rumors about nodes on her vocal chords. She herself said that she stopped singing because she gave birth to her daughter, but her daughter was born in 1965, and she stopped singing way before that. Anyway, it’s academic. What we have on records are amazing in that I don’t know of any dramatic soprano, that I’m aware of, who has such an evenness of tone, who has such an ease of singing no matter what register she’s in, and who brings just enormous passion to what she does, as she does in this aria that opens the second act of “A Masked Ball.”
Kaplan An excerpt from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera sung by soprano Anita Cerquetti with the Orchestra of Teatro Comunale in Florence, a favorite recording of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the President of the Doubleday Publishing Group, Stephen Rubin. When we return, we’ll discuss some of Stephen Rubin’s groundbreaking interviews in his earlier career as a music journalist.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the President of the Doubleday Publishing Group, Stephen Rubin. All right, let’s talk about your early career as a music journalist. Who were some of the most memorable interviews you can recall?
Rubin Well, without a doubt, the most exciting interview that I ever had with anybody was with Leontyne Price, the great American soprano. I say exciting because I think we really hit it off, and I got her to talk about many things, including race, which she referred to as “the monkey on my back.” And we had a lot of sessions and we really made music together, and I did two or three pieces on her, and they were all things I’m most proud of.
Kaplan Any other artists come to mind?
Rubin Georg Solti was a fantastic, fantastic…
Kaplan What did you talk to him about?
Rubin We talked about everything! I remember once he said to me, “My dear, dear young man! When it comes to rehearsals, everything, everything must be rehearsed, even the Sonnambula referring to Bellini’s La Sonnambula, for which he had obvious disdain. He was great. Conductors in general were wonderful, wonderful interviews, and believe it or not, Arthur Fiedler was an amazing interview, and when he talked about the fact, very touchingly, that every clown wants to play Hamlet, he was referring to himself. And then I did an amazing interview with Renata Scotto, where she virtually negotiated her contract with the Met in the pages of The New York Times. I did the first interview ever for American papers with Luciano Pavarotti. The headline was “Pavarotti, Mama Mia!” And he was fabulous, he was just, at that point, the most adorable human being you’d ever met.
Kaplan Of course you covered subjects other than music, but I’m wondering whether your knowledge of music puts you in touch with people which might be unexpected.
Rubin Yeah, it actually did in a wonderful way once. I discovered that the reclusive Burt Lancaster was an opera nut. So I actually managed to get Opera News to give me an assignment to do the piece, and I got to him only because I promised to speak about nothing but classical music. Of course, I tried to throw in some other questions but he wasn’t having any of it. He was quite wonderful. His memory was a little faulty, he grew up in New York and he talked a lot about going to the old Met, and he would say things like, “Yeah, one of my favorite tenors was that old man Martinelli, and I love that opera ‘Elizabeth Stuarda’.” He made a little mistake there. It’s Maria Stuarda. But it got me an interview with Burt Lancaster which no one else could get, and only because we talked about classical music, and he was quite wonderful.
Kaplan You obviously continue to read about music, even though you’re no longer writing about it. I have often heard it said that the quality of writing about classical music today simply isn’t up to the level it used to be. What do you feel about that?
Rubin I think the quality of music writing today is absolutely appalling. The two people who I have nothing but the utmost respect for are Norman Lebrecht, the very naughty British music writer, and Peter Davis, the critic of New York Magazine, because I think they are both lively writers and I think they both have extraordinarily good taste.
Kaplan I guess I would be remiss if I didn’t say you seem to have left out the place with the most music writers, the notable New York Times.
Rubin Yes, I have. I’ll get into so much trouble. Oh, well.
Kaplan All right, well we’ve talked about your work as a journalist. Let’s come now to your work in the book field. I suppose you don’t publish too many books about music because I gather there’s not a huge audience for them.
Rubin Unfortunately, it’s one of the great tragedies of my life. Here it is, my major passion, music, and I can’t publish books about music. I’ve published altogether only two or three, and various degrees of success. The public just doesn’t care. They just don’t care. And we’re not an academic press, so we can’t publish these wonderful biographies, and things of musicians because they’re just too specialized. The only thing we could do would be major personalities, and there are so few major personalities in classical music today.
Kaplan What were the books you did publish?
Rubin I published the second volume of Beverly Sills’s memoirs, which was very successful. That was in the eighties when I was at Bantam Books. And I recently published a book by Herbert Breslin who was the manager of Pavarotti, which I thought was a wonderful book and frankly disappointed us all.
Kaplan All right. Well, then, if classical music isn’t selling, let’s move across the street to something more popular, and we now come to that part of the show our listeners know well, called the “wildcard,” where you have a chance to pick music from any genre, and we’ve had some very wild cards over the years. So, what did you bring us today?
Rubin Well, I brought a recording that I use at parties more than any other that I know of, and that is a recording of the great song, “Right as the Rain,” done by a soprano who’s letting it all hang out to the point that no one’s able to guess who it is. I’m not going to say who it is. Let the listener see if they can guess, and then I’ll tell you afterwards.
Kaplan “Right as the Rain,” the jazz “wildcard” selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the President of the Doubleday Publishing Group, Stephen Rubin who in announcing his choice for this recording, challenged our audience to identify the singer. Did any of you figure it out? Well, it’s time for true confessions. Who was the soprano?
Rubin The soprano is Leontyne Price.
Kaplan Oh, my goodness!
Rubin It’s really shocking, isn’t it?
Kaplan She sounds like a classic jazz singer, not an opera singer trying to sing jazz. All right, well we leave the “wildcard” then, and we come to the role music plays in your own life today. Since you prefer recordings that are live performances, I assume you are often still attending performances live of opera and concerts?
Rubin Yes, indeed! I went last night.
Kaplan What did you listen to?
Rubin I listened to Andrea Chénier in a splendid performance at the Metropolitan Opera.
Kaplan In a typical month, how many nights out will you have for music?
Rubin Two or three, that’s all. I’m very selective.
Kaplan Well that’s a lot, two or three. And at home, when you are reading manuscripts, or editing, do you keep music on in the background?
Rubin Well, thank goodness, I don’t have to edit, but I only read manuscripts. I have music on all the time, but only symphonic music. I find that operatic music is much too disturbing for me. It’s intrusive.
Kaplan You have to listen to it.
Rubin No, it’s just intrusive. I listen to the symphonic stuff also, or a concerto. It just doesn’t seem to intrude as much as the vocal stuff does. And I try to put on performances that I know, so I’ll pay less attention to them.
Kaplan Now we talked about your favorite opera singers before, and now, as we turn to your next selection which involves a famous historical violinist, I wonder who are your favorite violinists playing today?
Rubin Tetzlaff. I’ve only heard Tetzlaff live once, at a “Mostly Mozart” concert, and he impressed me enormously, and I’ve listened to recordings of his. Other than that, I used to like Kennedy. I don’t think he’s doing very much these days, and I can’t think of any other fiddlers who really are special for me at the moment.
Kaplan All right, then let’s turn to your next selection which features a fiddler, but in this case, a fifteen-year-old one.
Rubin A fifteen-year-old fiddler named Yehudi Menuhin, recording with Sir Edward Elgar on the podium, the extraordinarily beautiful Elgar Violin Concerto.
Kaplan What would be your assessment of how far along Menuhin was in his career, talent at this point? Did he get much, much better, or at fifteen, did he already have his eighty percent, ninety percent of what he’d be able to do?
Rubin That’s a great question. I think that he was very, very accomplished at fifteen, and I think that given the way his career went, and the way he went into conducting, my guess is, he got a little bit bored with the fiddle, and needed to have some other ways of expressing himself. And sometimes I’m afraid that his later fiddle performances sort of, I think, portrayed that.
Kaplan You know, in choosing recordings by Menuhin and earlier by Alfred Brendel to play today, you cited their connection to a particular recording. But if you had to pick a pianist and a violinist who in your mind were simply the best ever today, who would they be?
Rubin Well, I think when you’re dealing – this is going to be very controversial, and I apologize for…
Kaplan I’d be grateful for that!
Rubin I think, I think that when you’re dealing with soloists like Heifetz and Horowitz, they’re in another league technically, that nobody can touch them. But I must honestly say that I don’t listen to Horowitz and Heifetz very often. But I surely listen to Mr. Oistrakh and Mr. Milstein more often than that.
Kaplan All right then, let’s return to why you selected the fifteen-year-old Menuhin for his recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto.
Rubin This recording, which is a studio recording, appeals to me on two levels. One, it is an amazing historical document because you have the composer on the podium, and you have a fifteen-year-old who is going to go on to have a brilliant career. But just on a pure visceral level, it almost brings tears to my eyes, in the beauty of his playing. I happen to be an Elgar nut, and there is no recording of this concerto that I find as moving. There might be some that are more exciting, but not more moving.
Kaplan An excerpt from the second movement of Elgar’s Violin Concerto with fifteen-year-old Yehudi Menuhin as soloist. The London Symphony Orchestra with Elgar himself conducting, a selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the President of the Doubleday Publishing Group, Stephen Rubin. When we return, we’ll talk with Stephen Rubin about his favorite conductors and hear what I regard as the most original musical selection any guest so far has presented on “Mad About Music.” Stay tuned.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music,” the President of the Doubleday Publishing Group, Stephen Rubin. Now, we’ve been working our way through your views on singers, violinists, pianists – so let’s now talk about conductors. I think there seems to be a real consensus today that there is a shortage of great ones, or at least in relation to the number of jobs that are available. Who are your favorites on the podium today, or at least conductors you have heard live?
Rubin More and more, I find myself going back to performances by Leonard Bernstein, who I heard live many, many times. He was like an octopus, with so many different arms, that people didn’t understand what a great conductor he was, and I think that history will bear it out that he is one of the all-time great conductors. And I find myself listening a lot to his recordings, and interestingly enough, the earlier ones rather than the ones he rerecorded. He tended to rerecord his entire repertoire over again for Deutsche Grammophon, and I find those performances to be a little bit too prettified and too perfect, and there’s a kind of roughness to the New York Philharmonic performances that really appeal to me. Yes, the playing is not as gorgeous, necessarily, as the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic, but the spirit of the performances to me just move me enormously.
Kaplan Of course, Bernstein you heard, but he’s no longer available to the New York Philharmonic or to anyone, and I’m wondering, as the New York Philharmonic is going through this search to find a successor to Lorin Maazel, their music director, do you have any advice for them on who they ought to pick?
Rubin Well, I was fascinated at Mr. Maazel nominated Mr. Barenboim himself, which I think is a very interesting choice. Unfortunately I haven’t heard Mr. Barenboim enough live to venture an opinion. But one thing I will guarantee you. There really is a shortage of great conductors today.
Kaplan All right, well, then we should keep to your pattern of focusing on artists from an earlier era, and I see your next selection features a former music director of the New York Philharmonic as well.
Rubin Indeed it does. Probably one of my favorite conductors, because as opposed to let’s say someone like Toscanini or Furtwängler, to use opposite poles, you almost pretty much knew what you were going to get when they conducted a performance. With Mitropoulos, you never know. And Mitropoulos’ range was amazing. I mean, he did Mahler, he did Verdi. He did Puccini, he did Strauss. He was all over the place. And when he was really in a piece, I think the kind of intensity that he brought to it was just phenomenal. And the choice that I’ve chosen is a live performance of the Mahler Sixth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic from 1955. That is for me the best performance of this symphony I’ve ever heard. I’ve chosen the first movement because it’s an impassioned sort of march theme, and I read somewhere that Mahler wrote that the players should play as though furious with anger and I think that Mitropoulos brings that intensity in a way that no one else does for me.
Kaplan An excerpt from the opening movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony performed by the New York Philharmonic with Dimitri Mitropoulos on the podium. A live 1955 performance, regarded as the finest recorded performance of the work by my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the President of the Doubleday Publishing Group, Stephen Rubin. It was Mitropoulos by the way who brought Mahler’s Sixth to America, leading the U.S. premiere with the New York Philharmonic in 1947. And sadly to say it was while conducting a rehearsal of Mahler’s Third Symphony seventeen years later that Mitropoulos tragically died right on the podium. All right, let’s turn to happier thoughts and to your interest – or should I say your non-interest in composers because I am wondering if there are any mainstream composers you just don’t connect to?
Kaplan And could you give a feeling of why the music doesn’t touch you?
Rubin Bores me silly. I was once, almost had to be removed from a performance of Pelléas et Mélisande. I think Debussy is a particular blindness, blind spot for me.
Kaplan How about contemporary music, especially as so much of it is atonal. Does this pass you by, or do you connect with it?
Rubin I like some of it. I love John Corigliano. But he’s not really atonal. I suppose the people I like are not atonal. Although I like some of Schoenberg’s stuff.
Kaplan Any others? Do you like the minimalist school at all? Glass?
Rubin No, Glass gives me a headache.
Kaplan Steven Reich?
Rubin Glass absolutely gives me a headache.
Kaplan All right! Well, I don’t want you to have a headache. We’re coming to the close of the show; I have to keep you fresh! And before when we talked about your favorite singers, though, you mentioned the tenor Villazón. And that provides a very nice transition to your final selection, which is a virtual menu of tenors. I can say unequivocally that this is the most original musical choice any of my guests ever presented on “Mad About Music.” And I’ll let you describe it for yourself.
Rubin I don’t know who, but some lunatic went into a studio somewhere and patched together 29 tenors singing the great popular aria from Rigoletto, “La Donna è Mobile” in a flawless way. Now, there’s no way on God’s earth that I am going to make a fool of myself on National Radio and try to identify them. I can identify a couple of them, but I can’t identify all of them. But it is such fun.
Kaplan But mention a few we’re going to hear.
Rubin OK. I know that Richard Tucker is there. Franco Corelli. Fritz Wunderlich. Jussi Björling. Luciano Pavarotti. Mario Del Monaco. Giuseppe Di Stefano and Carlo Bergonzi.
Kaplan Well, just so the audience is clear about what is to come, you are about to hear 29 different tenors each singing just two measures before passing on the melody to the next tenor. Great fun, indeed.
Kaplan A remarkable compilation of 29 tenors singing the well known aria “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, a discovery and the final selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the President of the Doubleday Publishing Group, Stephen Rubin – who believes he can identify at least eight of these tenors, including: Tucker, Pavarotti, Björling and Corelli. Some may say a bit too gimmicky but still a charming idea in my view on how to conclude today’s show. But before we sign off, I have one further question and it involves fantasy, a topic I often bring up at the end of the show. In your case, the fantasy question is connected to opera since you stressed it so much today. So, if you could have been an opera star yourself, would you have been a tenor – then you could have been the thirtieth tenor on your Rigoletto recording. And what would you like to have sung?
Rubin I’m going to shock you. I would not have been an opera singer. I would have been a conductor.
Kaplan All right.
Rubin I’ve always wanted to conduct, and I’ve always wanted to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic.
Kaplan And what would be the repertoire?
Rubin Mahler. And Schumann. And Sibelius. And some operas. Have to do them in concert performances.
Kaplan Now I expected you to be a tenor, and then I expect you if you were a conductor, to want to conduct opera, so I’ve learned something fresh in the final moments of the show. Well, we certainly wouldn’t want to miss any of those performances. Stephen Rubin, thank you for joining us today. You’ve been a superb guest with your encyclopedic knowledge of music, and also your never-ending passion for it. Until our next show then, Sunday May 6, at our usual 9:00 p.m. time, this is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”