GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back to “Mad About Music” where my guest today is the new Executive and Artistic Director of the New York City Opera, George Steel.
Over eleven years he transformed Columbia University’s Miller Theater into an acclaimed showcase for both early and modern music. And in February, after just a few months stint running the Dallas Opera, he was tapped to be the head of City Opera – an institution with a rich history, and now one facing some daunting challenges. George Steel, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
GEORGE STEEL: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me on.
KAPLAN: So let’s start with the challenges: first, the audience. Now City Opera missed its last season as its home, the State Theater in Lincoln Center was being renovated. And I guess I would call your first season now “a mini season” because it only features five operas and 37 performances. Then of course there are money challenges – holding your donor base together, and avoiding the costs from a threatened strike with the singers and production staff – now maybe that won’t happen - but as was recently reported though, City Opera had to dip substantially into its endowment to cover its costs. It does sound daunting to me at least and how about to you?
STEEL: Well, I mean I have a big job to do, but I can tell you now I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t see that it was absolutely do-able. Our supporters our donors our ticket buyers have been incredibly loyal to the company and frankly that loyalty was one of the great things that showed me how bright and possible the future was. As far as labor conversations, of course we’re having labor conversations, we’re having conversations with everybody at the organization to find ways to move forward but I think they’re going very well. We have terrific people who work for the opera and it’s a joy and an honor for me to get to work with them. But thing’s that worry me – I mean, it’s really - my job is to put on operas and get people to come and my only concerns are in making sure that I do that to the best of my ability. But I have big challenges on all fronts but I think they’re all absolutely do-able. We have a wonderful season ahead and the real challenge is looking two and three years out and building bigger and better seasons.
KAPLAN: Well, you’ve recently announced your new season, jumped in very quickly. People were surprised you could pull it together. You said that the season is symbolic of the history and the aspirations of the opera, and you created five slots, so to speak: modern works, new productions, underperformed works, war horses, and Baroque. Will you stay with that formula as you expand to a much bigger season?
STEEL: Well, I think we hope to cover a large number of kinds of work. American music, obviously Baroque and early music; certainly twentieth century works, and even twenty-first century works, both “middle-of-the-road” and “gnarly,” as we say, but every kind of music, as well as rediscovering great pieces from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And even re-imagining classic works, “war horses,” as you would call them, but finding new, visionary ways to present standard repertoire.
KAPLAN: I suppose I should have asked you what aren’t you going to do.
STEEL: We can only look back and find my sins of omission retrospectively. But I hope looking forward: everything.
KAPLAN: OK. Well, you know, you had a predecessor who wasn’t really a predecessor. He didn’t stick around very long, Gerard Mortier, and as you also know, he had a plan for emphasizing modern opera, and for the traditional operas his plan was to bring in directors, maybe some unknown, but who would do bold, some might say “shocking productions.” Where do you come out on this question of how different productions should be of traditional works in the context of City Opera?
STEEL: Right. Well, I think I should point out that Gerard’s planned season, what I knew of it, included some twentieth century work, but in fact, we’re opening our season with a much more recent piece than any of the ones that Gerard was thinking of, the wonderful opera Esther, by Hugo Weisgall, which had its world premiere in 1993 - so a very recent work indeed. As far as reimagining standard repertoire, it’s something that every director has to do with every production. There’s no such thing as a kind of retrospective version of an opera. You must take it into yourself and imagine something new. And whether that means updating the period or not updating the period, or coming up with some nutty concept, or not coming up with a nutty concept, those are all very personal decisions made by every director.
KAPLAN: But sometimes directors are picked because they will go one way or another, and I think that some directors - I’ve seen productions of where they hang people by their feet, and they’re singing upside down, and this only happens if the boss wants that direction to come.
STEEL: Well, I suppose, remember you’re dealing with artists here, and you don’t call up a director and say “give me a thing where the guy hangs upside down by his feet.” You talk to a director whose work you love and admire and have a conversation about what pieces that director might be interested in, and build the process collaboratively. But sure, it’s true that you look at a director’s track record and you have a sense of maybe where they’ll go. But for instance, we’re commissioning a new production of Don Giovanni from Christopher Alden, a fantastic director, whose work is much too diverse for me to be able to predict exactly what the project is going to look like. I know only from having worked with him in the past, that he’s a marvelous director; I know his other kinds of stage work, and I have an idea of the range of his work, and as the project evolves, I can have input and get feedback from him about what he’s thinking and where the piece is going. But it’s not buying a box of detergent off the shelf; it’s being involved in an organic creative process, it’s something that I love, it’s something that director’s love, and the piece evolves. It’s a living artwork until it hits the stage, and even after that.
KAPLAN: All right. Well, having talked about music, let’s turn to some and your rather eclectic list today. I’d say it’s one of the most original lists we’ve had from guests on the show. And we start with Chausson.
STEEL: Well, Chausson is one of my favorite composers, and he’s a composer one doesn’t hear much of. He has exactly one opera, a spectacular piece called King Arthur, or Le roi Artur which is seldom done. It’s something that’s on my secret wish list. And this piece was really my gateway piece for Chausson, if I may call it that. It’s called Poème de l’amour et de la mer; A poem of love and of the sea. People who speak French better than I do, like to pooh-pooh the poetry as a little over the top, but it’s quite wonderful for me, who failed French three times in high school; it seems like terrific poems. It’s a three movement, huge work. It’s about a half hour long, in three movements, and I first encountered it in this extraordinary recording which for me still has not been surpassed, sung by the inimitable Jessye Norman; and for me, for my whole career, from being a kid until now, Jessye Norman has been synonymous with one of the great voices, an opera star, a concert star, an extraordinary force in music. So she sings the Chausson incredibly beautifully, the sound of her voice is one of the great glories of twentieth-century music, and in this piece, she is full-on delicious.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Chausson’s “Poem of love and the sea”, the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra, Jessye Norman with Armin Jordan on the podium. The first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Executive Director of City Opera, George Steel. Now you’ve been a champion of modern music and so therefore you know the audience has tended to be more specialized and much smaller than for, say traditional music. When Pierre Boulez was on this show he pointed out “it’s always been that way.” But doesn’t that make it more difficult to fill the number of seats in the State Theater?
STEEL: I just don’t think that’s true. I think there is a degree to which audiences historically have felt a little alienated by music that’s more challenging. But I don’t think that necessarily an audience’s attraction to new music is based on technical aspects of music. You know - is it twelve-tone music – is it atonal music, is it minimal music - those things don’t matter to the audience. What matters is how it sounds, as Duke Ellington taught us, and if it sounds good, it is good. So I love new music that knocks all of that nonsense out of the way. New music is not about its technical apparatus; new music is about how it sounds and how it affects people. Protestations by Igor Stravinsky to the contrary, it’s how it makes people feel and what it expresses to them. That’s not to say it’s droopy and poetic in the manner of some nineteenth-century music all the time; it can be crisp and tart and astringent and exciting and primitive and modern, and all of those things. There is not one kind of new music; there are infinite kinds of new music, and the music of the eighteenth century is far more homogenous than the music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, which is much more diverse.
KAPLAN: I mention one other thing to you, because earlier on this show we had another opera director, in this case the Director of the Vienna State Opera, Ioan Holender, and he said that his resident expert on the history of opera said that since the last aria in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, that was the last genuine melody ever written in opera.
STEEL: Well, that’s – I mean, I respect my predecessor on the program, but that’s of course nonsense. There are many, many, many, many great melodies written since Die Tote Stadt, and you’ll hear many, many, many of them on the New York City Opera’s opening night gala, which will be an all-American program, featuring many works written after Die Tote Stadt, which was 1922, or something. I think that’s an empty comment.
KAPLAN: Would you make a suggestion of one or two obvious, truly melodic arias in opera since then?
STEEL: Well, if you, I mean try Samuel Barber, for instance. Try the closing scene is it of Act II of Anthony and Cleopatra which we just read in Carnegie Hall and it’s a staggeringly beautiful tune. So, if you’re looking for nineteenth-century sounding music, there’s plenty of that. If you’re looking for great tunes of the twentieth century, I mean, look no further than the gorgeous lullaby in The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky from something like 1954. I mean, there’s endless beautiful tunes. I could go on at length, and we’ll have a whole other show on great tunes written after 1922.
KAPLAN: I will pass that on to…
STEEL: Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place, my god, from 1984, has some absolutely heart-breaking music in it and beautiful tunes I think that you and I would both agree are great tunes.
KAPLAN: All right. Well, in keeping with the notion of you as enjoying all music, I see your next selection is truly classic classical music, and it’s Haydn.
STEEL: Yeah, Haydn is – I mean, it sounds ridiculous to say, one of the greatest composers of all time. He’s one of those composers who hide in plain sight. People know about Haydn, and maybe they know The Creation and one or two other things, but there’s an ocean of his music, and people know very little of it. His operas, for instance, people know almost not a note of, and there are many of them, many of them very wonderful, and he wrote so many string quartets it’s almost impossible to get one’s head around it, so I’m going to help your listeners by telling them what the very best Haydn quartets are, so I hope you have your paper and pencil ready. They are the “Sun Quartets,” so-called “Sun Quartets”, Opus 20, and Haydn, like Bach and others, grouped his pieces in groups of six. So Opus 20 is six string quartets. They’re called the “Sun” Quartets,” I think because there was a giant rising sun on the cover and it’s my belief that they are the quartets to which Mozart was responding; Mozart wrote six string quartets, and called them his “Haydn Quartets,” they’re dedicated to Haydn. They have a whole collection, confusingly a whole different collection of opus numbers, but they’re Mozart’s most brilliant quartets, I think, and I think these are Haydn’s. Some people say that Mozart was responding to Haydn’s Opus 33, but you needn’t worry yourself about that. The Opus 20s are ravishing, but the hardest thing to find for the Opus 20 quartets is a great performance. Its performers’ music; its intimate conversational music, and I think the very finest performance of these on record is by this wonderful Austrian group, the Hagen Quartet. And they are almost all siblings, I think; it’s a whole family, the Hagens. They play this music beautifully and they understand its conversational nature, they understand its polyphonic nature, because Haydn ends three of these beautiful quartets with fugues. And I was reminded of a trip when I was in college, I was with a singing group and we traveled around, and we had a stop in Austria. We were invited out to the country, to Bad such-and-such out in the mountains, and we stayed with this extraordinary family of crazy Austrians, in their twenties and thirties. Unbelievably athletic so they dragged us up a mountain, in dirndls they were wearing, by the way. They didn’t force us to wear dirndls - that was sweet of them. But then we came back down the mountain, we were all exhausted. Then they went fishing and caught fresh brook fish and grilled it on an outside grill, and then after dinner they sat down and picked up string instruments and started reading Haydn quartets. So that struck me, as a kind of ridiculous and wonderful example of what these quartets were meant to be, which is interesting, wonderful conversation among friends. And the Hagens, another group of Austrians, play them with extraordinary poise and aplomb and wit, and all the things that Haydn has, and genius most of all.
KAPLAN: The minuet and fugue from Haydn’s String Quartet No. 2 from his “Sun Quartets” – performed by the Hagen Quartet, regarded as the finest recording of the “Sun Quartets” by my guest George Steel, Executive Director of City Opera. When we return we’ll explore how George Steel and City Opera plan to compete with Peter Gelb and the Met.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music” the Executive Director of City Opera, George Steel. All right, let’s return to City Opera. In deciding what you want to perform, I suppose you have to take into account what the Met is doing – it is of course just across the plaza at Lincoln Center.
STEEL: Well, I’m a huge fan of the Met, and a huge fan of Peter Gelb’s. And of course we pay careful attention to what the Met is doing. They’ve planned many more years out in advance than we have. I mean, I started February the first, and there were no plans in place for the fall. So we took care to try to avoid overlap with what the Met is doing. But at the same –
KAPLAN: Do they share this information with you? What they’re doing?
STEEL: Oh absolutely. Oh yeah. They are terrific colleagues. But also trying to pursue the identity of New York City Opera, which is a unique and vital identity, not only in New York City, but nationally and internationally, in opera. And we have championed works that otherwise have been championed by really no houses, particularly leading role in the revival of Handel’s operas. And that has been an international phenomenon. A major role in performing great twentieth century works, usually for the first time in New York City. Die Soldaten we did a number of years ago, Moses und Aron got its first New York premiere at New York City Opera and championing American works. I mean The Ballad of Baby Doe is a great example, and by the way, full of beautiful tunes for you. And things like Hugo Weisgall, a wonderful American composer whose name is not that familiar to people, sort of the same case as an opera from the nineteenth-century, that the composers who wrote the greatest operas are often not those people famous for concert work. So, Wagner is not famous for his symphonies, any more than Donizetti is. But the same is true of Hugo Weisgall. An extraordinarily talented composer of opera, and we’re opening our season with a wonderful piece of his, Esther.
KAPLAN: Now it’s just struck me, though, that the way the season is organized, and the way you’ve described it, is a little bit different in that you have two of five pieces in your first season, Don Giovanni and La Bohème which are real staple staples of the Met.
STEEL: Well, they’re real staple staples of every pair of ears on the planet. They don’t write operas better than Don Giovanni, it’s a spectacular opera; but one of its chief glories is its ambiguity and that ambiguity makes it incredibly ripe for a new interpretation. And Christopher Alden is an absolute genius at reaching inside a piece with characters that rich and bringing them to the stage in a new and powerful way.
KAPLAN: Do you think you have a tougher job in trying to distinguish City Opera from the Met than you would have had, say, when Joe Volpe was running the Met, who was a real traditionalist, and very rarely ventured into some of the areas you are talking about. Peter Gelb is attracting some of the directors which Gerard Mortier said he had often worked with. Things like that.
STEEL: Well, Peter’s a great guy, and I’m a huge fan of what he’s done over there. But, no, there’s plenty of room left in the universe of opera for New York City Opera to reclaim its historic identity. I think people will see, there’s a great distinction, you don’t have to choose favorites, but certainly we have different missions, and much different public profiles.
KAPLAN: Then, let’s come back to your music and a composer some people would say maybe started the modern area – Stravinsky.
STEEL: I would call him the greatest composer of the twentieth century, an extraordinary guy who bridged every single style of music. I think it was my wife who quoted to me, the stat that he was a composer who met Tchaikovsky and heard the Beatles. There’s a guy who bridged some different eras! And of course his three early ballets that everybody loves so, and they get a lot of air time, were like the bible to me when I was a kid, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring; each one incredibly different. And it was only later that I fell in love with his late music. And Stravinsky’s late work that’s so, concentrated form of his wit, of his love of the grotesque, of his sharp sensibility. He’s bleached away all the excess, all the dripping Spanish moss of The Firebird is gone, and what’s there is absolutely glorious music. And maybe the most theatrical of these late pieces is a piece called The Flood. And I adore The Flood. The Flood was written as a TV opera and it was apparently an incredible flop. But it was the Balanchine choreography, Stravinsky wrote the music, sets and costumes, the whole thing. It was done on television with room for toothpaste ads in between. And it was just apparently a complete flop and that was the recording that was available for many years. It was not persuasive, and I sort of listened to these old LPs of it, and I thought, “hmm, not so crazy about it.” Here I thought it was going to be a great piece, an operatic piece, it’s sort of a mystery play, a theater piece, dance piece, from a church source. It’s the story of Noah and the Flood, and I thought “oh, this will be great for me - that’s where I came from!” And I sort of hated it, and it was the wonderful composer and conductor, Oliver Knussen, who went back to these late works of Stravinsky and re-recorded them. And thank God he did, because one hears in these new recordings something so beautiful in The Flood, and in another difficult work, Abraham and Isaac, and of course the orchestra variations, which I already fell in love with, but a fabulous CD, and The Flood is funny, it’s tart, it’s delicious, it’s theatrical. I don’t know if it has any of your coveted great tunes, but it’s certainly gripping theatrical music, and something I think that would be great to see live on the stage, instead of on an old six inch black and white TV.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Stravinsky’s opera, The Flood, the London Sinfonietta, singers, narrators and a chorus, all under the baton of Oliver Knussen – music chosen by my guest today on “Mad About Music”, the Executive Director of City Opera, George Steel. Now as we discussed earlier your upcoming season is really a mini season. How far along are you in planning your next season?
STEEL: Well, I’m doing sort of spade work in thinking about what the right size of the organization is, but at the same time, a lot of delicious dreaming with my artistic team, conductor George Manahan and Ed Yim, who is our director of our artistic planning, and Steve Blier, who is our casting advisor. And we have a fantastic team, and we’re basically thinking about all the wonderful projects we want to do, talking to directors, talking to artists, talking to composers, listening to opera, studying scores, and coming up with an absolute treasure trove of great ideas. It’s really a matter of how do we get those things out to the public and in what order, and what makes a balanced season but really wonderful projects are ahead.
KAPLAN: Have you had any decisions yet on any new conductors you’ll engage?
STEEL: Yeah. Well we have several. I can’t release them on this program, oh that I could; but we have a couple of wonderful conductors coming next season. We have four wonderful conductors coming next season, but a couple of special ones, new to New York City Opera. And our own beloved George Manahan, of course, will be conducting our opening night gala, and will be conducting Butterfly and Esther, so a special season ahead for conductors.
KAPLAN: All right, well then let’s come to that portion of the show we call the “wildcard,” where you have a chance to select music from outside the classical or opera genre. And I’m wondering with your selections so divergent, what did you bring us today?
STEEL: Well, I brought you something so delicious I had to share it with everybody. It’s a little tune called “La rumba que no termina,” “The rumba or rumba that never ends,” and it’s performed by a great, great Cuban group, called Clave y Guaguanco - a crazy name. So we think of rumba as something you know from Ricky Ricardo days, played by big bands, but in fact it’s a very strongly African form of Afro-Cuban music that was outlawed. It was, I believe associated with religious ceremonies, and it was something that the Spanish colonial folks in Cuba wanted to outlaw and forbade people from playing it. And so, Guaguanco grew up, they began to play it on other instruments that weren’t say African drums, and this group in 1945 wanted to rediscover that beautiful music. There’s nothing wrong with sort of classic ballroom rumba, but this is something else altogether; deliciously ambiguous, rhythmically incredibly complicated and intricate, and yet flexible - those two things. And it’s worth remembering here, this is the strong influence of West African drumming traditions. Those are the same drumming traditions that say Steve Reich fell in love with and went and studied. And in fact, it was Leonard Bernstein, who famously, Bernstein went to Key West, Florida when he was a young man, in the late 40s. And it was there he turned on the radio, and heard Cuban music, and it was that Cuban music which inspired much of his writing for West Side Story later. So, I associate this music both with what Leonard Bernstein was maybe hearing in the 40s, on his radio in Key West, Florida, but also with the extraordinary richness and vitality of African-American, in this case, Afro-Cuban music.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from “La rumba que no termina,” “The Rumba that never stops” performed by Clave and Guaguanco, the wildcard selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Executive Director of City Opera, George Steel. You know, as I said in my introduction, talking about your accomplishments, you certainly changed the artistic profile and the popularity of the Miller Theater at Columbia University. I’m wondering - what lessons did you carry away from that experience that might be useful at City Opera?
STEEL: Well, one of the things that sort of came to me at Miller Theater was, always program something you actually want to hear. That programming something that you think you are supposed to have programmed is always a mistake, because that sense of lassitude and boredom, inherent in doing something you think you’re supposed to do will spread to the audience like wildfire and you will find a remnant of a bored audience. But if you do things that you’re really absolutely crazy about, and not things that you’re doing because they’re old-fashioned or things that you’re doing because they’re new-fangled, but things that you passionately want to hear yourself, you will find the house full of people eager to hear it too.
KAPLAN: Well, those words sound like a perfect description of your next piece from Delius.
STEEL: I love what I call “opulent music” and my Chausson selection was certainly opulent music. And Delius is one of those composers who was always sold to me as an opulent composer, but in fact I found his music in many cases, sort of runny and unpersuasive. But I came across this opera of his called Koanga based on a George Washington Cable story, and I fell in love with it. And one of the things that holds it together, that gives it some metrical rigor, is the inclusion of a spiritual, an African-American spiritual. And Delius, who was of German parents, but was really thought of as an Englishman, lived in Florida as a young man, at an orange plantation that his father owned in the 1890s. He later moved to Virginia, in Danville, and taught music up there. But the music that he heard, particularly African-American music in Florida made a huge impression on him, and later in life, he wanted to write three operas: one about the gypsies, one about black slaves in the U.S., and one about Native Americans. And this was his delivery on the black slave’s issue. Koanga, the title character is an African prince who’s brought into slavery in Florida. It’s a very modern story and has this African American hero at its center, which is quite extraordinary. It’s not a dialect opera, like Porgy, it’s quite a heroic Wagnerian music drama, with this remarkable figure at its center, and one of the most beautiful pieces of music, in a very beautiful score, is this spiritual. I don’t know the name of it, but I can tell that it’s a real spiritual, because I don’t think it is the kind of thing that Delius could have dreamt up on his own, but beautifully scored for a trio of cellos and harp, and it’s a great tune that permeates the whole first act.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Delius’s opera, Koanga, the London Symphony Orchestra with Sir Charles Grove on the podium, as we continue to listen to musical selections by my guest today on “Mad About Music”, the Executive Director of City Opera, George Steel. When we return we’ll talk about what opera George Steel might conduct himself.
This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music” the Executive Director of City Opera, George Steel. You know, you’re a bit too young for my next question, but I do ask it to just about every guest on this show and it concerns whether you have thought about what music you might want played at your funeral.
STEEL: Well, you know, this will sound crazy, but because I spent many, many years as a choirboy, I think about service music all the time. I’ve given some modest thought to it, but not a huge amount. But there’s a set of things that one sings called “Funeral Sentences,” Henry Purcell wrote a great setting of, a collection of them, and so I’ve always thought about little, tiny funeral sentences, and some things come to mind like the second half of a glorious piece by William Mundy called “Vox Patris Caelestis” which is a sort of summons from the heavens to come to the afterlife and put on golden vesture and so on. It’s actually addressed to the Virgin Mary, so it’s probably presumptuous of me to think of that. But there’s a text that I have always wanted to have said. I know of only one setting it’s absolutely dreadful, wonderful dreadful, by George C. Martin, in a piece called “Ho, Everyone That Thirsteth.” That’s the kind of kitsch I like. But the text is from the end which I think is the most beautiful text for a funeral, which is, I think, from Isaiah, it says “Then ye shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and hills shall break forth before you into singing and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
KAPLAN: Well, you have thought about it. You know, we’ve been talking about City Opera, its future, music that you love. Let’s talk about you as a conductor. You said maybe next season you might conduct one of your favorite operas. Which are some of your favorite operas from a standpoint of the ones you could conduct the best?
STEEL: Me, personally?
STEEL: Wow. Well, I haven’t given it that much thought but there are all kinds of operas. I mean, Koanga’s something that might be good for me. I’m mad about Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place. I know his music very well, and I’ve conducted a lot of it. I’ve actually conducted – I mean Stravinsky’s a composer I’m crazy about, but I think I would rather produce The Flood than be on the podium. You know, I could make a long list. But our music director, George Manahan, is the guy who I think is my ideal partner in bringing these things to the stage, in most cases. I think I will pick something very special to work on myself as a conductor; and otherwise, stay on the concert stage.
KAPLAN: All right, let’s go to something else you think is really excellent, a composer very little known to our audience I suspect, Zorn.
STEEL: Well, I don’t know if he’s little known to your audience, but I hope he’s not. John Zorn is one of the most exciting American musicians working today. He has made music in hundreds of different varieties. I mean, he has many, many bands; he had a hard-core punk band, called “Naked City,” quite extraordinary; he had a whole string of klezmer ensembles which seem to continue, called “Masada” of different varieties, and wrote a bunch of beautiful, basically Jewish-inflected tunes in the jazz standard sense; he is one of the great improvisers of the downtown scene in New York City, and one of the most exciting composers of concert music. He has an extraordinarily beautiful violin concerto, which I had the great pleasure of conducting myself in Finland, an astonishingly wonderful piece; he wrote a set of orchestra variations dedicated to Leonard Bernstein for the New York Philharmonic, and I think this string quartet, he’s written something like five string quartets, maybe his greatest string quartet, it’s called Necronomicon. It’s a slightly fanciful name, I think it’s a sort of made up name of a book, sort of a register of the dead, I guess, Necronomicon. But the piece itself is obsessed with the connection between the devil and with violins, which is a long-standing connection in classical music. But there’s a kind of renaissance of all things now in New York City of string quartet writing. So, we listened earlier to Haydn, and he came from that glorious period of Viennese string quartet writing, but I think we are in an equally golden age, all kinds of wonderful composers writing for string quartets in New York. And John Zorn is at the very top of the list. And this wonderful piece Necronomicon has found champions around the world, but none better than people right here in New York City, led by the great Fred Sherry who performs on this recording.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Zorn’s Necronomicon, performed by the Crowley Quartet, a final music selection by my guest today on “Mad About Music”, Executive Director of the City Opera, George Steel. As we head toward the conclusion of this show, I always pose a question about fantasy – musical fantasies – in this case yours. Now, you’re already such an accomplished musician it’s a difficult question to put to you but if you could be a star in some aspect of music you haven’t yet mastered, what would it be?
STEEL: Wow, well, gee whiz. I’ve done a lot of conducting. I did a lot of singing – I haven’t sung in a long time, and that’s something I miss desperately. It’s a very primal kind of release for a musician to sing, more so even than playing an instrument. But I don’t play a stringed instrument, and I always have a fantasy of my family, because my wife is a beautiful cellist, and I have two wonderful children, one of whom is learning viola da gamba. I don’t think I’m a monster of a parent, but she is, and she loves it. But my fantasy would be that we sit around together and play quartets, either on the viols or on the violin family, like the beautiful Hagen quartet. It’s a somewhat outré fantasy, and I won’t wish it, I won’t enforce it on the kids, but if you ask me, that kind of beautiful, intimate family music making I think is my real secret fantasy.
KAPLAN: All right, George Steel, you’ve been a wonderful guest, and we wish you great luck as you undertake this big, big challenge, a challenge, not only for yourself, but also for the audience, and for the whole state of music in New York. Thank you for joining us today. This is Gilbert Kaplan, for “Mad About Music.”
“Mad About Music”
Gilbert Kaplan, Executive Producer
Heidi Bryson, Producer
Marcela Silva, Associate Producer
Leszek Wojcik, Recording Engineer