Igor Stravinsky Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) [excerpt]. London Philharmonic. Kent Nagano. Virgin Classics VCK 791511.
George Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue [excerpt]. Philadelphia Orchestra. Eugene Ormandy. Oscar Levant. CBS MK 42514.
Giacomo Puccini Tosca “Vissi d’arte”. La Scala Orchestra. Victor de Sabata. Maria Callas. Musical Heritage Society 524973H.
Richard Wagner Die Walküre “The Ride of the Valkyries” [excerpt]. Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Mariss Jansons. Seraphim 7243 5 73299 2 7.
Sigmund Romberg The Student Prince “Drinking Song” [excerpt]. Philharmonia Orchestra. John Owen Edwards. Jay Master Works Edition CDJAY2 1252.
Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier. Act III, Final Trio [excerpt]. Philharmonia Orchestra. Herbert von Karajan. Teresa Stich-Randall, Christa Ludwig, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. EMI Classics 5 67609 2.
Carlos Gardel “Por una Cabeza.” (“By a Head [of a Horse]”) [excerpt]. The Tango Project. Scent of a Woman. MCA Records MCAD10759.
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 9 Rondo-Burlesque [excerpt]. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Bruno Walter. EMI Classics 7 63029 2.
Franz Schubert Sonata in A, D. 959 Andantino [excerpt]. Alfred Brendel. Philips 438703.
GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome to our first show as “Mad About Music” joins WQXR. We’d like to introduce ourselves to our new listeners – and provide some vivid memories for our regulars by presenting some of our most fascinating, compelling and moving moments on the show as told by Alec Baldwin, Jimmy Carter, Condoleezza Rice, Philippe de Montebello, Alan Alda, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mike Nichols -- you name it, we have many more to come -- moments that illustrate as nothing else can the power of music in our lives.
So we begin our exploration with a topic I have always found fascinating – the defining moment when people actually discover their passion for music. Often it occurs in childhood, but sometimes lightening strikes only much later. For film director William Friedkin, who would win an Academy Award for “The French Connection” and a nomination for “The Exorcist,” that magical moment had to wait until he had already started his career and, as it happened, suddenly, in the wee hours of the morning on a deserted highway.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I sort of discovered classical music when I was in my early 20s, when I was in Chicago. I can remember the night, not the day, the date, but I used to work at WGN Television in Chicago. I was a director; I started as a floor manager, then became assistant director, and then a live television director. And I used to sign the station off. In those days, the station would sign off at 2 o'clock in the morning, now they go 24 hours. But we would sign the station off and then I would either go home or go to a jazz club or something, and I lived on the north side of Chicago, the television station was downtown and I used to go along the outer drive. I’d be virtually alone at night, along the beautiful outer drive next to Lake Michigan and I used to listen to jazz on the radio. And one evening I turned past the jazz station and there was something very strange emanating from the radio that I had never heard before. It sounded otherworldly. It sounded like it was coming from the planets or somewhere else. And it was a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. And it just completely captivated me. And I pulled over to the side, I stopped driving, I pulled over to the side and listened to this, and it was an absolutely life-changing experience.
KAPLAN: The riveting concluding moments of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the London Philharmonic led by Kent Nagano, music that launched the Hollywood director William Friedkin into a lifelong passion for classical music – he even directs opera now. An odd beginning, but for so many of our guests early encounters with music were in fact unique. The defining moment for actor Alan Alda also came when he was quite a young child.
ALAN 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. 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 and that glissando that comes out at the beginning.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the Philadelphia Orchestra with Oscar Levant at the piano – all under the baton of Eugene Ormandy. Music selected by award-winning actor Alan Alda recounting his first exposure to classical music. By contrast, what surely must be the strangest tale of a defining moment for discovering music comes from fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi who revealed that he actually had a past encounter with Mozart himself – well…at least that’s what he was told by a psychic he once consulted.
ISAAC MIZRAHI: Actually, I have this really funny story about a psychic, once, in L.A. I was having this psychic reading. And he said, “Oh you play the piano. Is that right?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Who taught you to play the piano?” I said, “Well, I had a teacher, Miss Rivlin, I had Mr. Small, then I had this other guy, blah, blah.” He said, “No, no, no, no, no - who taught you how to play the piano? You knew how to play the piano before you had lessons, right?” And I said, “Yeah, you know, I had an ear, and I could play the piano.” He said, “No, no, no, here’s who taught you how to play the piano: Mozart taught you how to play. If anyone asks you, you tell them that you were a lady in that time, that he taught her to play the piano. He was in love with you.” And it was this whole reading about how Mozart was in love with me. And I thought, well, that’s right. You know, and maybe I was Marie Antoinette, too, in my former life, you know. But, so I have this strange affinity with Mozart.
KAPLAN: Strange indeed but I must say that for so many of our listeners there was that affinity with Mozart. It was British thriller author Ken Follett though who perhaps best captured the reason why.
KEN FOLLETT: When I think about what I do as a creative artist, and what we creative artists do for people, in my more optimistic moments, I think what we do is, we create happiness. After all, when you listen to a piece of music and enjoy it, or look at a wonderful picture, or get deeply absorbed in a novel - its pure happiness, isn’t it? It’s pure delight, when it’s good. And if you had to pick the person who has brought the most happiness to the most people in the history of the human race, it would have to be Mozart. All those tunes, such good tunes, such a variety of tunes. Mozart is probably the greatest man ever, in my pantheon. And what I like about him – it’s like a fix, you know, there's a rush, it begins so happily, it makes you want to jump up and say, “Yes! Life is just terrific, isn’t it? Thank you, Mozart!”
KAPLAN: Author Ken Follett on the magic of Mozart. But for many of our guests it was not the composer as much as the performer that mattered most, especially if they had a chance to meet a star. This was the case with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a passionate opera lover for whom the legendary diva Maria Callas had no equal. They met in a chance encounter before Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court – an encounter she’ll never forget.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: To my great sadness, I never saw Callas perform, although I did meet that great diva. I met her in an elevator at the Hay-Adams Hotel. She was in town for a concert. I was in town to make an argument at the Court. I stepped into the elevator and there was Callas in white mink with her poodle with the same color as her coat. She looked every inch the diva that she was and I mumbled something about how much joy she had given me through her recordings and then I felt as if I had been touched by magic -- that there was no way that I was going to lose that argument -- and as things turned out a couple of months later, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court was unanimously in favor of my client.
KAPLAN: That’s a wonderful story and it’s of course a pity that you could never have experienced hearing or seeing Callas sing. I suppose you would have liked to have done that. Where would have been the moment? What would have been the work?
GINSBURG: The opening night of Tosca at La Scala. Tosca was one of Callas’ best roles and her recording of Tosca has been described as perhaps the best recording of opera any place.
KAPLAN: Maria Callas singing “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s Tosca with the Orchestra of La Scala led by Victor de Sabata, a selection of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg which brings us next to the White House with President Jimmy Carter and another legend, pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Of all our presidents, President Carter was perhaps the greatest classical music enthusiast. Classical music was constantly played in the background at the White House – sometimes causing perplexed congressmen to complain they couldn’t hear the President on the telephone. But there were also many live performances for special occasions. And for one of them, Jimmy Carter succeeded in luring Horowitz – it was the first time he returned to the White House since he had played for President Hoover in 1931. But Horowitz presented the President with a surprising challenge.
JIMMY CARTER: When Mr. Horowitz came to the White House on Saturday afternoon to get ready, we had the East Room prepared with a platform there, he brought his own Steinway piano, but he thought the room was too harsh sounding. So I went upstairs myself, with my blue jeans on, as President of the United States, and brought down a oriental carpet and Horowitz and I placed that carpet in different places against the platform until he was satisfied that the resonance in the room suited him. But this is one of the high points of my life to sit there and hear Rachmaninoff's music played by Mr. Horowitz, who had in the past always refused to come to the White House.
KAPLAN: The remarkable first meeting between President Carter and pianist Vladimir Horowitz. During this segment of the show, we are hearing some remarkable stories of how our guests came to know some great artists and we come next to the late Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post. In her case, it was a visit to her parent’s home in the country that produced an unexpected opportunity to hear what would become one of opera’s most famous arias and to meet the composer who was still working on it.
KATHERINE 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 2 or 3 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: The late Katharine Graham recalling her surprise meeting with George Gershwin. When we come back we’ll turn to the curious role of music in politics.
This is Gilbert Kaplan and on this first show as “Mad About Music” moves to WQXR, we are providing a sampler for our new listeners and some memories for our regulars, reliving some of the great moments provided by our fascinating guests over the years. Now we turn to the role of music in politics. As I mentioned earlier, in the Carter White House classical music was on nonstop in the background. So, I asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, herself an outstanding pianist, whether this was also true with President Bush.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: No, we don't have music constantly on at the White House and it’s a good thing. I actually have never been one of those people who could work with music in the background. I get very caught up in what's going on with the music, so only when I'm exercising can I have music as background music.
KAPLAN: Have you ever discussed music with the President?
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: I put the same question about playing music nonstop as in the Carter White House to Australia’s former Prime Minister, Paul Keating.
PAUL KEATING: No, never music in the office -- only at home. But I did most mornings, most mornings. After I do the newspapers, I start about half past six. By about eight I’d have done the major papers. So I rang the office, gave them a few instructions, and then from about eight until nine, I’d fill up my soul for the day. So I’d go to something that suited me at the time, that I had a feeling for at the time. You know, it could be anything but I’d start, and then I’d move up on a couple of things. I could never do more than about 40 or 50 minutes, but it was enough.
KAPLAN: I thought you might have said Wagner, because I read that as Prime Minister, if you faced a fight with Parliament, you’d start out early in the day at home playing Wagner very loud, you said imagining the gods hurling bolts of lighting. Is that true?
KEATING: That’s it, that’s it. [Sings] Throwing the thunderbolts like Zeus! Throwing them around at the opponents!
KAPLAN: So it’s true. You did do that?
KEATING: Oh, yeah, yeah, sure.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the “Ride of the Valkyries” from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the Oslo Philharmonic led by Mariss Jansons. Music used by the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating to prepare for political battles. Now if Wagner could do this for Paul Keating, it was Elgar’s Second Symphony that provided a soundtrack for a shocking political event for British actor Patrick Stewart. Stewart had already listened to the first three movements.
PATRICK STEWART: The next day, I had lunch in a pub, and then I had a photo call in the theater, got into my car, and started this beautiful drive, and then I remembered: Ha! The fourth movement of the Elgar – of course, I’ll put it in! I played it, and yet again was simply overwhelmed by it. I mean, as I speak now, the memory comes back to me. But I was also in this glorious landscape, and the road that I drove was generally deserted, it was a narrow, narrow winding road, going over these high moorlands. It finished, and I turned it off. I didn’t want to hear anything else. I just wanted to stay with the feelings of that extraordinary last movement had induced. And after a time, 15 minutes or so, I flipped on the radio to hear the very end of a news broadcast that something had happened in New York City. And I was quickly to learn what it was. What it was was the tragedy and disaster at the World Trade Center. It is become now for me, those things have become so interconnected, the Elgar and the feelings that I experienced that day, and in some way, the emotion, the compassion, and the intensity of the disturbance, that is so redolent in Elgar’s great work, will live with me for all time, associated with that terrible day.
KAPLAN: Actor Patrick Stewart and the power of music. We continue our exploration of the curious way music often intersects with politics and for one of my guests music provided a warm-up for a politically charged moment. It was the first meeting between former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, himself an accomplished pianist, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
EHUD BARAK: I met Arafat for the first time in my life when I was a foreign minister in the government of Shimon Peres after the assignation of Rabin. We met at Barcelona in a Euro-Mediterranean gathering of leaders. Out of security considerations, they sent myself and Arafat in different convoys, ahead of all the other leaders, into a royal palace when the reception by the King had to take place. So I came, I had to wait some half an hour for, I looked around and I saw a very lovely brown grand piano. So I sat down, I ordered my security guy to be close enough to the door to avoid surprises and I played the “Military Polonaise” of Chopin. In the middle of it he, the security man, noted to me, "Arafat is coming." I didn't know that they are preparing it and I found myself stopping it immediately, closing the piano and running to the entrance and this was my first meeting with Arafat.
KAPLAN: A bit of Chopin’s “Military Polonaise,” the music also played by Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak as he awaited the arrival of Yasser Arafat for what would be their first meeting. Another Prime Minister who appeared on “Mad About Music,” Britain’s Sir Edward Heath also happened to be a conductor. So I asked him who wielded more power: a Prime Minister or a conductor.
EDWARD HEATH: That is a very interesting question. And I think the answer is quite clear – the power of the podium is far greater than that of a Prime Minister. A Prime Minister in this country, of course, is Prime Minister in the Cabinet and all are equal. He has to get agreement for what he wants and has to handle the discussion of all the members of the Cabinet on the things that they want. And this has to be very realistic, very realistic or else the Cabinet begins to break up. Now when you're conducting an orchestra, that's quite different. You are absolutely in charge and if you show signs of not being in charge then the orchestra ignores you.
KAPLAN: Former British Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath on the power of the podium. Now let’s turn from politics to the romantic power of music – a topic explored by many of our guests. But curiously it was a politician, Jimmy Carter, who provided the most remarkable tale of the potent effect of music.
JIMMY CARTER: Well, when Rosalynn and I were in the Navy in my earliest days of married life, we made a total of $300 a month and we spent over $150 on food and lodging which only left us a little bit. But I was assigned to go to Philadelphia to learn about pending new radar equipment and one night we decided to splurge and went out to an actual restaurant and afterwards we went to Sigmund Romberg's performance of The Student Prince. It was so overwhelming to us to hear this music live that we I guess became a little more romantic than usual and that night we decided to have our first child, so our oldest son Jack was conceived that night after we heard The Student Prince.
KAPLAN: The “Drinking Song” from Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince, music so romantic, as President Jimmy Carter told it – he was our first guest on “Mad About Music” in 2001 – so romantic that it led to the conception of his first child – perhaps the most personal and revealing story about the power of music told by any of our guests. Well romance was certainly the theme when award-winning Hollywood director Mike Nichols was on the show. His love of Richard Strauss was in a way a family matter. It turns out that his grandmother translated Oscar Wilde’s original French libretto for Salome into German, the German we hear in performances of the opera. In fact, so many of his musical selections, including another Strauss opera, Rosenkavalier, were so romantic that I asked if he regarded himself as a true romantic.
MIKE NICHOLS: I would say in the end, probably and ineradicably. I’ve tried to do things about it, but I end up romantic, no matter what. And the Trio from the Rosenkavalier was just out and out, a way of getting girls, you know, it was simply saying, have I got something to play for you, and sitting them down and playing them the Trio, which it has to be said, almost always worked. It just breaks your heart. It is sort of a definition of bittersweet, which means that you feel for all of the characters and that sort of sense of one of them giving something up, and two of them finding love is just touching and it’s sexy, and - Strauss had this thing that he did, that gets me every time, which is, he just makes you work quite hard for a long time, and then, finally, finally, at the end of the opera, comes through with this sea of music that transports you and puts girls in the right mood, and just makes you love life.
KAPLAN: The final and extraordinary trio from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, the Philharmonia Orchestra with Christa Ludwig, Teresa Stich-Randall and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf conducted by Herbert van Karajan. This was music selected by Mike Nichols, as he put it – “it just makes you love life” – and it sure does. And loving life was also the theme when former President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso appeared on “Mad About Music.” I asked him if the difference in temperament of the Brazilians versus the Argentineans could possibly be explained by the differences in music - that is the differences between the samba and the tango.
FERNANDO CARDOSO: Well, you know, the tango is dramatic. The tango is waiting for disaster. Brazil is the opposite. We are waiting for a good life. You see? And the samba is always much more – basically love is the subject matter. You see? Maybe even sometimes you are not very happy with your lover, but then you believe that it could be improved, even when she decides to leave you for another man, you say, “Wow, you see that God will take care of that.” So we are much more optimistic than the Argentineans. The Argentineans have the Hispanic sense of tragedy. You see?
KAPLAN: It’s interesting you characterize the tango that way. I’ve always imagined the tango as a great love dance between two people.
CARDOSO: But tragic. Love – but it is a tragedy, not just love. It’s a passion capable to kill. And Brazilians prefer not to kill.
KAPLAN: “Por una Cabeza,” a tango by Carlos Gardel, which many of us will always associate with the movie Scent of a Woman and Al Pacino dancing to it. The tango, a topic explored by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former President of Brazil when he appeared on “Mad About Music.” When we return, we’ll talk to award-winning actor Alec Baldwin and former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice on whether the music they love mirrors their own personalities.
This is Gilbert Kaplan and on this inaugural show as “Mad About Music” moves to WQXR, we are providing a sampler for our new listeners and some memories for our regulars, reliving some of the great moments provided by some of our fascinating guests over the years. Their musical choices are so personal that I have often wondered if the character of the music they selected is really a mirror of their own personality. A comment by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made about Brahms certainly seemed to suggest this.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Brahms someone once described to me as passionate without being sentimental and that’s how I think of Brahms and I just love – Brahms is probably my favorite composer at this stage in my life.
KAPLAN: Passionate without being sentimental. Could that be a description of you?
RICE: Oh, now that's a good question. I suppose I’d like to think of myself as passionate about life. I'm certainly passionate about music and I'm passionate about my work, passionate about family and about my faith. I can be sentimental as well, but I prefer my composers pretty straight.
KAPLAN: You know, I wonder if you have two personalities, the music personality and your regular personality, if I can call it that. Media accounts always mention that you're impeccably dressed, which I can testify to today, tidy, and disciplined. And my question is what happens when you sit down at the keyboard? Is there a different Condi Rice lurking beneath the surface?
RICE: When I sit down at the keyboard, I think it’s the same Condi Rice, but it’s a Condi Rice that has to be really disciplined.
KAPLAN: Well what about just playing with abandon and disregarding all that tidiness, organization, discipline and just going for it?
RICE: Well, one reason that I love Brahms and Mozart is one can't play with abandon. You have to be pretty disciplined. I'm one of those people now if you put it in front of me, I can read it. But if you ask me to play it by ear or with improvisation, I have a much harder time, so I guess I'm tidy and disciplined even when I'm playing the piano.
KAPLAN: Tidy and disciplined. If Condoleezza Rice was willing to play the game of matching music and personality, actor Alec Baldwin certainly wasn’t. He had selected Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Wondering whether Mahler’s music matched Baldwin’s personality, I posed this question. It is very profound music and continuing with my attempt to connect your musical selections with your personality, this symphony combines in an almost surreal way, two opposing personalities. The third movement, which Mahler called the Rondo-Burlesque, is really a demonic whirlwind charging ahead, almost out of control. Then, it turns into perhaps the most reflective, probing, sensuous music Mahler ever composed. Do you see anything of yourself in that description?
ALEC BALDWIN: You missed your calling! You should be a forensic psychiatrist with the police department. Well, I'm going to cop out here and say, these analyses of yours might apply maybe more to the characters I play than to me myself. I mean, I might have an appreciation of....
KAPLAN: You're a mild-mannered reporter of The Daily Planet.
BALDWIN: ... of a quaint metropolitan newspaper, who fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.
KAPLAN: Well, tell me about your feelings about this Ninth.
BALDWIN: Well, the Ninth was probably, I would say, like many people, when you first hear this piece, it's just so searing, and so powerful. This was the first Mahler piece I think I heard when I was in Los Angeles during that time I was listening to classical music on the radio incessantly and it just had this incredible effect on me.
KAPLAN: Alec Baldwin wasn’t the only one smitten by Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, it was also the choice of British author and journalist, Norman Lebrecht, which he portrayed as nothing less than a soundtrack for a terrifying moment in history.
NORMAN LEBRECHT: We’re back to Mahler, and we’re back to Bruno Walter, and its January, 1938, and it’s Vienna. And the reason I have chosen this is to show the way that a musical performance can capture the spirit of a time, of how, when it is captured on record, it can freeze that moment in time for all time to come. It’s 1938; the Nazi menace is creeping over Europe, and it is now menacing the Austrian Republic. Evil is at the gates; and Bruno Walter, who was Mahler’s protégé, has returned to Vienna to conduct his last symphony, a work that he had himself given the premiere of, after Mahler’s death, twenty-five seasons before. For that performance in the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna, the whole of the Austrian cabinet, led by Chancellor Dollfuss, turned out. The composer’s widow, Alma, was in the audience. So was his daughter, Anna. The whole of the Austrian intelligentsia were there. It was one of those occasions where everybody claims to have been there. And when you listen to this performance, you hear fate and history knocking at the door. The people who are sitting there know that this may be the last performance of Mahler that they are ever going to hear, because it it’s already been banned in Germany, and if Nazism arrives in Austria, it’s going to be banned and apparently forever. This was, remember, the Thousand-Year Reich. No more Mahler for the next millennium! And Walter, with the Vienna Philharmonic, with Mahler’s brother-in-law, Arnold Rosé, still sitting in the concertmaster’s chair, he’s in his sixtieth year in that chair, conducts a performance of phenomenal intensity, much faster than people here in America will remember him doing it, and much wilder in the Rondo-Burlesque. Here, one hears the Devil, as Mahler encountered him; one hears the Devil, about to take hold of our lives, to take hold of civilization, to take hold of the whole world. This is admonitory music, its music that issues a great warning to history, “Don’t let this happen!” And its music that captures a moment in time and that exists on record. This is what recording has done for us: it has captured human history.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the Rondo-Burlesque movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a live 1938 performance by the Vienna Philharmonic led by Bruno Walter. A work selected by both Alec Baldwin and Norman Lebrecht when they appeared on “Mad About Music” – and this takes us to the final section of our show where a few of our guests recount their experiences as performers. We start with Philippe de Montebello who was Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when he appeared on the show. He studied the piano for many years but at some point found it just too daunting to continue. Still, he found a way to play at least a certain kind of music and it always provides an extraordinary experience for him.
PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO: I can read music and I follow music, I follow scores. I love to follow scores, especially with complicated music, let’s say chamber music where there are many voices, and I can play the right hand of a lot of let's say slow pieces of music. And one of the great moments of solace for me at the end of a long day, I sit at the piano and I have a number of slow movements, Mozart, specifically Schubert, and I just play for myself the slow movements of Schubert. So this to me is music in which I have a direct participation and really goes deep into the soul. That Andantino – achingly nostalgic and sad – is just such a dream.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the Andantino from Schubert’s Sonata for Piano in A major performed by Alfred Brendel on this recording, but also played – only the right hand part that is – in quiet personal moments by the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello. “Deep into the soul” was Philippe de Montebello’s description of the impact of the Andantino. It could also describe the impact Beethoven had on the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but for a different reason. He has played the piano since childhood, but as Prime Minister, the only time he found to play was around two o’clock in the morning, often prompting his neighbors to call the police to complain. For a long time he was afraid to attempt Beethoven’s challenging “Appassionata” Sonata. But one day he did finally manage to learn it and his first performance is one I’m sure he will never forget.
EHUD BARAK: My father was clearly the real engine behind my awareness of the beauty and sensation of listening or performing in music. He was the one that always escorted me to every, almost every training session on the piano and more than any other individual, was encouraging me to try to never to be deterred by either technical or other obstacles in playing the piano. He passed away several months ago at the age of 92. But I believe that one of the most moving moments for him was when he was already lying in his dying bed. I remember that all along my life he tried to encourage me to play the “Appassionata.” And I thought that I will never be able to perform the “Appassionata” just by listening to it and he insisted that I will try. And in fact it happened that I tried in the last year and found it possible after all. I played it to him through the telephone. He could hardly talk, and when I ended he told me, “I told you all along your life, never be deterred from experiencing more in music.”
KAPLAN: If Prime Minister Barak needed encouragement to pursue Beethoven, the chief executive of Sony, Sir Howard Stringer, certainly didn’t to play Handel. He was a natural musician as a child, an outstanding boy soprano who earned pocket money by singing at weddings and funerals. Early on he distinguished himself on the trumpet. Then came a performance of The Messiah.
HOWARD STRINGER: By the time I was seventeen, I was first trumpet in the school orchestra and we were going to be recorded playing the Messiah and obviously the trumpet part in the Messiah is quite tricky. I played the solo, “The trumpet shall sound,” and I had played it in rehearsal that morning and I got it perfectly; I had done it perfectly. I was complimented by the conductor. I played it with the soloist. Then when the time came, at the end of a long period of sustained trumpet playing that is part of the Messiah, before the Messiah comes the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which has a wonderful high trumpet part with cascading trumpets and so forth, and I attacked that with ferocity. And then came the moment when I stood up to play the solo for “The trumpet shall sound” and I got half way through it and I blew up. My lip went. I just sagged. And it was heartbreaking – the organ stepped in and played the trumpet part.
KAPLAN: Oh my.
STRINGER: And I sank to my seat in despair. It is and still remains the most traumatic experience of my life. Nothing at Sony is going to match that feeling in front of friends and colleagues failing to finish off that solo and it was cut out of the record. So, that was the final ignominy.
KAPLAN: Sony Chief Executive Sir Howard Stringer facing every performer’s worst fear. Still, for some of our guests, the chance to perform on the stage would be a dream come true. But when I asked Alan Alda if he might like to direct an opera, he said it would be more of a nightmare.
ALAN ALDA: I think Traviata was my first opera – and some of it delighted me, but the older I got, the more difficult it was for me to watch some of the acting and the staging. People would come out and wander around until their cue comes. I know what this sounds like to somebody who really knows it and loves it. I'm just giving you an outsider's view of it, which I hope is amusing to you.
KAPLAN: Do you think you would be capable of directing an opera that would come off with the staging and the drama and the acting that you think it really needs?
ALDA: I would find it very hard to find an opera that I would be interested in being involved, but first of all I should only do things that I love. I mean, I'm not trying to conquer new worlds. I saw Norma the other night and the libretto goes: “The Romans have defiled our altars (these are Druids singing) and we have to get rid of them and we have to stab them and kill them and make their blood flow like rivers.” This is pretty strong stuff and the music goes “Yep ba ba da bump da bump da bump….” What is this? I wouldn't know how to direct that.
KAPLAN: And so it went with Alan Alda. I’m sure you’ll agree that our guests have eloquently testified to the enduring power of music in our lives. But in case anyone has lingering doubts about this, consider these final thoughts. First, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello. Someone had told me he preferred music to art that he actually said that he could easily live without art in his life but couldn’t survive without music. I asked if this was true.
PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO: I obviously didn't have job security in mind when I came out with these unfortunate words, but it’s true. Still if I had to think myself on a desert island I would far rather had a discothèque with me than all of the Skira editions of books. That's just the way it is in terms of reaching deep into the psyche. To me music is fulfilling in a very different way.
KAPLAN: Then this even more remarkable confession from an actor at the top of his game, Alec Baldwin.
ALEC BALDWIN: Well, sometimes I do think that people in my profession, you know, acting, is something that they do because a greater artistic yearning they had, eluded them. If I could sing – what I wouldn’t give to have that ability! I would just do that for a living, and sing all the time, if I could sing.
KAPLAN: And then this comment from the late Sir Edward Heath, former British Prime Minister, just a few years before he died.
EDWARD HEATH: And I find now today that if I’m deprived of music for some reason or other for three or four days, then I feel starved. Got to find it somehow or other.
KAPLAN: And finally, Hollywood director William Friedkin, who I suspect probably, speaks not only for all the distinguished guests that have appeared on “Mad About Music” these past years, but for most of us as well.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: I turn to music when I’m feeling high or low. It completely engulfs my life – the sound track of my life is classical music.
KAPLAN: Remarkable comments on the power of music in our lives, under which is a soundtrack, the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra with George Szell on the podium. And that concludes our inaugural show on WQXR. You’ll want to mark your calendar now for our next show on Sunday, December 6th at 9:00 pm. We’re always on the first Sunday of each month. Until then, this is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music”.
Listen to the WQXR broadcast of Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, featuring violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann as soloist, live from Carnegie Hall, May 4, 8 pm. May 4, 2018