Kaplan Welcome back to this special edition of “Mad About Music” as we explore music by American composers – works chosen by 11 of our guests including Tom Brokaw, Condoleezza Rice, Alan Alda and Renée Fleming – all part of WNYC’s 2007 weeklong “American Music Festival”.
During the six years that “Mad About Music” has been on the air, 11 of our 55 guests have included a work by an American composer. Aaron Copland was the most popular followed by George Gershwin. Sometimes the choice reflected just a love of the music, but for some, it was a reminder of a personal encounter with a composer or a memorable childhood listening experience – and for a few of our guests, the choice was a work they had performed themselves. All in all, a fascinating mix and we start with NBC News luminary Tom Brokaw who for 21 years anchored the evening news. His musical selections were traditionally classical: Mozart, Bach, Haydn and Handel. But for his final selection, he turned to “Mad About Music’s” most popular American composer and a work that could be described as “America’s Official Fanfare.”
Brokaw It is Fanfare for the Common Man. Copland, I think I’ve grown to appreciate Copland more as I grow older and listen to his music. I did A Lincoln Portrait with the Boston Pops one summer, and as a part of it they sent me a recording with Henry Fonda doing the speaking part. I wanted to crawl under the bed and hide after hearing that, knowing that I was going to have to go and perform the same thing. So I love that piece – you know, I’m a political journalist, so Democrats especially, love to play Fanfare for the Common Man at their conventions, thinking it will be a connection of some kind. But it is a very American piece of music, and Copland, I think, did strike the right chords about this country, about who we are. There is this majesty about it, but it is not elitist, somehow, to me. And it’s very moving and it’s a big piece of music, and we’re a big country, but it’s not overpowering. It seems to me to be commensurate with the ideals of this country and the contours of our land.
Kaplan Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, the London Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of the composer himself. A selection of NBC News leader Tom Brokaw who regards this Fanfare as the quintessential piece of American music. It would be hard to imagine a better way to kick off this special edition of “Mad About Music” where we are focusing on American composers; works selected by our guests over the years, and this is all part of WNYC’s weeklong “American Music Festival”. And one the most interesting guests was James Wolfensohn, an accomplished amateur cellist who was President of the World Bank when he appeared on the show. Like Tom Brokaw, James Wolfensohn favored mainstream composers: Bach, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Mahler. His favorite American composer is Leonard Bernstein. I had heard that he showed up so often at Bernstein’s concerts, that Bernstein began to refer to him as a “groupie.” So I asked him about this.
Wolfensohn Yes, in fact, in my office at the World Bank I have two remarkable photographs of Lenny, which are inscribed to me as "leader of his groupies". I had the great good fortune to get to know him as an admirer and subsequently as a friend. My history with Leonard Bernstein really goes back to Australia where I was born. And indeed, the first recording that I ever owned was of the Jeremiah Symphony. And I was just haunted by this work. And I really adored his music. And then in a different genre, became impassioned with West Side Story. And at that time I applied to come to study at the University in the United States and I remember the very first night that I got here I went to West Side Story, which subsequently I saw 13 times. As you can see, I get these crazy passions. But, I didn't choose any of those works but the reason that I chose the work that I did, which is the Candide Overture is really because of the most poignant moment that I can remember when Leonard Bernstein died. You will recall the tremendous sentiment that there was in the city at that time where construction workers, if you'll remember, during his funeral were paying tribute to him as the cortege was passing by. But there was nothing more remarkable than the performance of the New York Philharmonic here at Carnegie Hall. And the first work to be played was the Candide Overture. But on this occasion, the podium was bare and the orchestra came out and a spotlight illuminated the podium and there was no one conducting, and the orchestra started, as you will now hear in this remarkable performance.
Kaplan The Overture to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a selection of James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank when he appeared on "Mad About Music". This is Gilbert Kaplan and on this special edition of “Mad About Music” we are revisiting appearances of guests who selected works by American composers. Another guest’s choice of music was also based on meeting an American composer. But in the case of the late Katharine Graham, the long-time publisher of The Washington Post, it was an unexpected teenage encounter with a composer who came for a visit to her parents’ home.
Graham Well, one of the earliest ones to come up there was a great friend of my sister Bis'. She had these glamorous friends and one of whom was George Gershwin. His friends complained that he would never let the piano alone and I wouldn't have wanted to have him leave it alone, but I guess they got tired of it, sometimes. But anyway, we were playing tennis and he began talking about this show that he was engaged in producing and it was going to come on, I believe, in two or three months in the fall. It was Porgy and Bess. When we went in from tennis, he sat down at the grand piano and he told my sister to beat a certain rhythm on the piano with her hands and she did and he played the opening notes of "Summertime".
Kaplan "Summertime" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess from the historic 1951 recording conducted by Lehman Engel, and sung by soprano June McMechen. A selection of the late Katharine Graham when she appeared on “Mad About Music”, and who as a teenager actually heard Gershwin play bits of the opera on the piano in her parents’ home as he was just composing it. As we continue to explore the role of American music has played on “Mad About Music”, we turn next to a guest who was even younger than Katharine Graham when he had his first encounter with Gershwin’s music, award-winning actor Alan Alda.
Alda I think I was 7 years old and the reason I heard it was that my father was playing the part of George Gershwin in the movie called "Rhapsody in Blue" which was the film biography of Gershwin. He didn't know how to play the piano but he had to train for weeks to be able to get the precise fingering of all the pieces that he would play in the movie. And a recording made by Oscar Levant would be the music that was played and he would do the fingering that was appropriate to that and sometimes when they came in very tight on the hands it would be Oscar Levant's hands. But a real musician looking at my father would think he was actually playing the piano. And I had to do that years later for a movie called "Mephisto Waltz" and then I even got to do it, just as my father had in the movie "Rhapsody in Blue". I sat down in a concert hall and played some – what was it? Liszt – I think some Liszt, and there was the audience standing up cheering and it was some other guy playing the music but my fingers were on the keyboard. I had these vivid memories of lying on the carpet when I was seven, eight, nine years old, listening over and over again to the recordings from the movie itself. But the experience of hearing at that age, music that to me was just exciting music, it wasn't music that I was supposed to like. Nobody said to me, "Listen to this, it'll do you good." It wasn't like eating your vegetables – to me it was ice cream. I loved hearing it and I can still smell the rug as I lay on the floor. I can still smell the electronics in the big cabinet and see the vinyl record going around.
Kaplan The conclusion of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy with Oscar Levant at the piano. An American music selection of actor Alan Alda when he appeared on “Mad About Music”. When we return, we’ll hear some American favorites chosen by conductor Leonard Slatkin, architect Richard Meier and Julliard President Joseph Polisi.
This is Gilbert Kaplan as “Mad About Music” provides the concluding show for WNYC’s weeklong “American Music Festival”. Of the 55 guests who have appeared on “Mad About Music”, 11 selected a work by an American composer. And for one of them, Leonard Slatkin, the Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra it was no surprise. Long before it became fashionable, he was a tireless champion of new music by American composers. So I thought he ought to have an informed opinion about who among today’s composers is likely to endure and become the Mozart of our time.
Slatkin The crystal ball is always interesting for this, but it’s a pretty safe bet, particularly with composers from the United States, that the names Adams, Corigliano, Bolcom, Rouse, Reich, Glass – the list goes on. I think right now, we have this generation which mostly is about my age, in their 60s, going on 70 now, who produced a great body of work, and which is accepted by the audience today. You don’t see nearly as much antagonism as you did, say, 25-30 years ago to these particular composers, and one reason is that they chose to move away from a style of writing that was prevalent right up till the early 70s. And the sort of academic type of writing that you saw from many composers was now changed by a new-found interest in composers themselves wanting the audience to be able to appreciate and enjoy their music on a first hearing. What happens to those people who are coming to concerts for the first time? We can’t expect them to be immersed into the world of Babbitt and Carter immediately. It’s not going to happen. And we don’t know what the long-term result will be of that school of writing. After 100 years of it, it still has not been embraced by the general public. That’s a long time. So, all the composers I mentioned, I believe, have instant communicative spirit to an audience. They may not like all the music, but they don’t rebel against it in the way they used to.
Kaplan As Leonard Slatkin had mentioned Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter as composers whose music is difficult for audiences to embrace, I asked Joseph Polisi, the President of Juilliard, what had gone wrong between the composer and the listener. A work by Elliott Carter was among Joseph Polisi’s selections and Milton Babbitt, who is on the faculty at Juilliard, had once written an article with a remarkable headline – Babbit said it was not his own doing, by the way, but still the headline was remarkable – it read, “Who cares if they listen.”
Polisi I think any musician wants to communicate his or her art. In defense of Milton, I will say, who’s a wonderful member of our faculty, and I think wrote this almost 50 years ago, if not – he contends that that title was not his.
Kaplan Well, I said that….
Polisi … and in fact, if you know Milton, although his music can be quite difficult to penetrate sometimes, in terms of comprehensibility, he very much cares about how people listen to it. I think any composer truly does. But it’s not always the case you know that tonality will be more communicative than atonal work.
Kaplan Well, talk a bit about Elliott Carter, as he’s the representative you brought today.
Polisi Well, Carter, now in his late 90s, is really the manifestation of both intellectual and emotional growth of the American composer. He’s spanned the entire 20th century. And the piece that I chose, which is for four woodwind instruments – flute, oboe, bassoon and clarinet – called Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, is a comparatively early work of Carter’s. But this is an interesting case in point, Gil, in the sense that it’s a piece that’s perhaps more interesting to play, than it is to listen to. And it’s an awful lot of fun to play, and it was one of the most challenging pieces that I’ve ever played. And yet, sometimes when I talk to audiences about it, they find it a little bit abstract or not engaging.
Kaplan Well, as you’ve now scared us by saying this music is more interesting to play than to listen to, you’d better describe for us what we are going to hear.
Polisi We’re going to hear two short etudes, that have to do with, in the first case, extraordinary technique based on a tiny melodic morsel that’s very difficult to play, and very fast, and brought together. And the second one is quite clever, is just one pitch, a G, that is played by all four instruments, one hopes at the same intonation. And what Carter did here was extraordinary in terms of testing the technical and expressive limits of the four instruments.
Kaplan Two etudes from Elliott Carter’s Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, with soloists Michael Faust on the flute, Christian Hommel on the oboe, David Smeyers on the clarinet and Dag Jensen on the bassoon – a work chosen by Joseph Polisi, President of the Juilliard School when he appeared on “Mad About Music”. Earlier on this show you heard Leonard Slatkin, the Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, name William Bolcom on a short-list of living composers whose music is likely to endure. Maestro Slatkin went on to tell a wonderful story of recording a work of Bolcom he particularly admires.
Slatkin Well, Bill Bolcom I knew first as a student in Aspen in the 1960s. And the talent was already there. He was composing a number of wonderful pieces early on. For about 20 years, he was obsessed with the works of William Blake, and set out to literally put all of the Blake Songs of Innocence and of Experience into one gigantic work, which he completed in the 80s, and which was premiered at the University of Michigan. It’s extravagant in every way. There’s a huge chorus, children’s chorus, rock group, ten soloists, madrigal singers, a jazz group – it’s got everything in it. It ends with a giant reggae number. The styles go from 12-tone to madrigal to country & western – it literally is a summation of musical styles. And they all fit the Blake text wonderfully well.
Kaplan The conclusion of William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, music composed to settings by William Blake. Performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the University of Michigan with no fewer than 13 soloists – all under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. As “Mad About Music” continues its special edition focusing on American music, I was pleased to see Leonard Slatkin also choose a work by Samuel Barber, a 20th century composer audiences love and many contemporary composers sneer at – ‘not modern enough’ they say – and certainly too much beautiful melody for their tastes. His Adagio for Strings and Violin Concerto are his best-known works, but Leonard Slatkin chose to air an opera written in the 1950s which had to wait until 2004 to finally be recorded – not surprisingly by Leonard Slatkin.
Slatkin Yes. And actually, it’s the first opera by an American composer to achieve some degree of international recognition. It’s Vanessa of Samuel Barber. It’s a work I’ve always loved, because Barber combines that rare ability to create a chamber music-like atmosphere in the big theater. It’s a work that was written in the 1950s, and surprisingly, did not get a recording since its premiere until now, for a work that most Americans know about. So, rather, it’s a piece that we know about, rather than we really hear. And I was very fortunate to have the chance to do it with an outstanding cast. We had just a terrific group of singers to do this, and it was a lot of fun. Would I do it as a stage work? Probably not. But for a recording, yes.
Kaplan The aria, “Must Winter Come So Soon,” from Samuel Barber’s Opera Vanessa, sung by Susan Graham with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, led by Leonard Slatkin who appeared earlier on “Mad About Music”. As the producers of “Mad About Music” endlessly search for famous people who love classical music, architects have turned out to be a fruitful source. One is award-winning Richard Meier, best known for his stunning design for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He reported though that sometimes in designing a building not intended for music, he unexpectedly created a space with remarkable acoustics. And once that experience brought him in contact with the composer Philip Glass.
Meier In designing spaces for other uses, sometimes one does in fact create a space for music, a space that has extraordinary possibilities in terms of the sound and it’s not because you're thinking about that as use of the space, but it’s almost a byproduct of thinking about how that space is formed, how it's structured and what the experience is of being in that space. I designed in Germany in a small town called Schwendi a cafeteria for workers that happened to have incredible acoustics, which I didn't even know about until we had the opening of the building. Mr. Weishaupt, who was the owner of the building, invited Philip Glass to come and to play for the opening in that space and it was magnificent. Well, it wasn't the first time that I'd heard Philip Glass. I had the wonderful experience of having heard and seen Einstein on the Beach when it was first played here in New York. I thought it was extraordinary. I thought that the music was amazing. I thought the sets by Bob Wilson and the relationship of the design of the entire choreography of the piece in relation to the music was unique.
Kaplan An excerpt from "Building" from Philip Glass's opera Einstein on the Beach performed by The Philip Glass Ensemble, an appropriate selection for architect Richard Meier when he appeared earlier on "Mad About Music". When we return we’ll hear the American composer chosen by star soprano Renée Fleming and a surprise choice from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
This is Gilbert Kaplan as “Mad About Music” provides the concluding show for WNYC’s weeklong “American Music Festival”. Of the 55 guests who have appeared on “Mad About Music”, 11 have selected works by American composers. Now we turn to star soprano Renée Fleming, best known for her opera roles in Strauss and Verdi. But it turns out that new American music has always captured her attention. And the work she selected also showcases a singer who greatly influenced her.
Fleming Well, this was one of the first pieces I fell absolutely madly in love with. I was a student, and I ultimately did study with Jan DeGaetani, that was another reason I chose this piece because she had a huge influence on me as an artist, and I just listened to this piece, once I discovered it, over and over and over again, and I’ve always loved new music, even as a kid. I was very drawn to Stravinsky and to – if I’d go to an orchestral concert that was the kind of thing I really loved. I loved the idea that the unexpected was continually occurring and that the form wasn’t as obvious, and it just appealed to me. And this piece I’ve loved always as well. This is Ancient Voices of Children with Jan DeGaetani.
Kaplan An excerpt from George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, performed by the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, led by Arthur Weisberg with soloists including Jan DeGaetani, a favorite of Renée Fleming. On this special edition of “Mad About Music” we are revisiting appearances of guests who have selected at least one work by an American composer, which brings us to another singer, baritone Thomas Hampson. Though best known for his opera roles, such as Simone Bocanegra and for singing Mahler Lieder, lately he has been focusing on the rich repertoire of songs by American composers.
Hampson Well, Walt Whitman is probably the first great poet and great prophet out of America. Ned Rorem is certainly one of our greatest song composers in the classical world. The meeting of the two is extraordinary. As a lot of people know, I did a big study and recording on Walt Whitman songs set by various composers. I think this is one of the most beautiful songs, and it’s also a perfect example of how a minute and 25 seconds of music can give us a complete cosmos of the human experience.
Kaplan Ned Rorem’s song, “Look Down Fair Moon,” set to the poetry of Walt Whitman and sung by Thomas Hampson with Craig Rutenberg on the piano – all part of “Mad About Music’s” contribution to WNYC’s weeklong “American Music Festival”. Now we return to Aaron Copland – this time for music selected by William McDonough, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York when he appeared on this show. Here he recalls the impact the composer made on him when they met in South America.
McDonough My interest in Copland came from meeting him; I was a State Department Foreign Service officer in Latin America, in Montevideo, Uruguay. Copland visited and I got to know him reasonably well. The enormously wonderful, exuberant personality, the incredible fascination for music, so my first interest is really in Copland the composer. I particularly like Appalachian Spring because I think it captures so much the exuberance of his character, and I particularly like his use of a wonderful Quaker hymn as a principal part of the music.
Kaplan An excerpt from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring with the composer conducting 13 musicians, the original size of the ensemble for which he composed this work, a selection of William McDonough, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York when he appeared on “Mad About Music.” As we approach the show’s conclusion and wrap up WNYC’s 2007 “American Music Festival,” we revisit the appearance of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; a childhood piano prodigy who started out to pursue a career as a performer, but by college discovered the lure of geopolitics. Her musical choices were mainstream: Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Her American selection was unplanned, a spontaneous choice responding to a question I asked her about whether she ever discussed classical music with President Bush.
Rice The President and I don’t have the same musical tastes, I’m afraid. He loves, he does love music. I like country western too, which is what he likes very, very much. But he knows that it’s very important to me and he even asks me once in a while, well, are you playing the piano, because he knows it’s a centering experience for me.
Kaplan When she was on the show, Condoleezza Rice revealed that in a few days after her appearance, she would accompany the President for his first meeting with Russian President Putin. For fun, I asked her if she could pick some music that would be an appropriate soundtrack for that meeting – she replied without skipping a beat.
Rice “Getting to Know You” would come to mind as the soundtrack for that meeting. I think this is going to be great fun for the two presidents because I suspect that they’ll get along very well. But anything that in the musical world would suggest two people getting to know each other, getting to take the temperature a little bit and showing a vision for a peaceful world with a US-Russian relationship that is healthy at its center.
Kaplan And with Condoleezza Rice’s soundtrack for world peace, we conclude our special edition of “Mad About Music” exploring American composers and conclude WNYC’s 2007 “American Music Festival”. When we return next month on Sunday, July 1 at our usual 9:00 pm time, my guest will be Norman Lebrecht, perhaps the best-known and most controversial journalist covering classical music – in his case though, with the instincts of a political or even a police reporter. His appearance is timed to the release of his latest book, “The Life and Death of Classical Music”. You won’t want to miss this show. Until then, this is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music”.