On Friday night the great elucidator Rob Kapilow deconstructs one of Felix Mendelssohn’s most beloved chamberworks with the help of the Gryphon Trio. At the end of the Celebrity Series-sponsored event at Jordan Hall, listeners will know what’s to like about Mendelssohn’s D-minor Piano Trio. Kapilow has a lot to say to BMInt readers about what he does, and why.
BMInt: Tell me what can we expect at a ‘What Makes It Great?®’ event?
R.K.: Friday night, for instance, I’m working with the Gryphon Trio, a group I’ve known for years. The first hour is spent taking apart Mendelssohn’s D-minor Trio. We play examples, we ask questions of the audience, they clap things, they tap things, they hear things. It’s quite an interactive program.
Will you be talking with your hands at the piano while they’re playing?
Both. There’s a keyboard for me, and of course there’s the keyboard in the piano trio. They’re playing examples and I take some things apart. I sort of conduct and point things out that are happening while they’re playing, in a a whole hour of musical examples. “Here’s the first idea, that’s an idea for Mendelssohn.” “Leap up!” [plays] “Three-note scale!” [plays] “Arpeggio!” [plays] I will teach it to the group; they learn it, and have to repeat it back.
Do you see yourself in the mold of Michael Tilson Thomas, Leonard Bernstein and Karl Haas as performer-elucidator?
First of all, each of them was his own person, unique, and certainly Bernstein, no one can be Bernstein. But he was a huge inspiration when I was young. He was my mother’s hero, the one whose picture was on the wall in every room, and my mother went to every New York Philharmonic concert he ever conducted. She took me to the Young People’s Concerts and so he was certainly an inspiration. But I think at the heart of it fantastic music is happening, and there’s this feeling that somehow all the best stuff is being missed. Or maybe there’s just a distance between all the greatness of the music onstage and what’s actually getting out there.
There’s a quote I often use to sum up what I want to accomplish. Walt Whitman said, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences.” Or, my version, “To have great music, there must be great listeners.” That’s what this is all about—trying to create the audience of your dreams.
You have all this music you work so hard on and there’s this fantastic detail here in the oboe and wonderful stuff that’s flying by at the speed of light, and through no fault of anyone’s, it’s all being missed. I wanted to make sure that how great this music really was was getting across to all the people out there.
I was very fortunate to get a job the day I got out of graduate school. I was hired at Yale, I was a professor and conductor of the orchestra, and I felt that every time I was conducting, all I wanted to do was turn around and say, “But listen to this! Listen to this! You missed this fantastic thing over here; listen to this!” And whenever I was teaching, all I wished I was doing was conducting. But there was no obvious way to put them together. “What Makes It Great?” was just my way of trying to create a country of great listeners—to create an audience that gets how fantastic this music is.
But that would have made you a great conductor too, or a great performer, because you would make sure to highlight in some artistic way those things you thought people might miss.
Not just that, but you actually get to do it! I mean, when we do these “What Makes Music Great” programs, the entire first hour is taking the piece apart with the musicians, so you’re literally showing them all those things that fly by. Plus you’re able to slow them down, so you’re able to actually show them.
I dropped out of college (although I eventually finished) to go study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. One of the things that she said was, “If you really want to understand a piece of music, what you should do is write your own version of what could have happened at any moment. Look at all the possible choices, and then that will get you to really appreciate what the composer chose instead.” So we got very good at writing the “boring” versions: after measure five, what could measure six and seven have been? And in these programs, I often have the performers and the orchestra play my bad versions, so that we can actually compare a bad choice with a good choice, something that could never happen at a normal concert. When you hear the bad versions, it suddenly becomes … for example, in this Mendelssohn program, there’s this beautiful slow movement, and I’ve written a bad version. [plays on the piano]. Mine goes [demonstrates] where his goes [plays]; but even a simple thing, here’s my boring version, whereas his has this beautiful note.
We know how great this music is, and you want people to have the same depth and richness of experience with these pieces that you do.
There’s a wonderful poem. I was just at the Toronto Symphony this weekend and gave a lecture at the University of Toronto for students, called “Instructions for Living a Musical Life,” which is really just a take on a seven-word poem by Mary Oliver. The poem is “Instructions for Living a Life”; its seven words are “Pay attention”, “be astonished”, “tell about it?”
That’s what animates me. Like Leonard Bernstein or Karl Haas, I pay attention to this fantastic music and then want to tell people about it.
Does this mean one has to understand sonata form to be considered an adequate listener?
Well, when you say “understand,” it’s complicated. There’s an “understand intellectually.” There’re a lot of things that we could understand but not necessarily articulate. In other words, you don’t have to be able to diagram sonata form to know, “Here’s an idea that’s being developed, now we’re going somewhere else, now we’re arriving here.” You can follow that kind of thought without necessarily knowing the terminology of what’s going on. It’s a question of what you can hear more than what you can say about it.
What I do a lot of is articulate things. There’s a big question and answer part, which I consider integral to the experience. In fact, when I do it with orchestras, the entire orchestra is onstage for the Q&A, because people really love to do it.
One of the questions I’m often asked (and I’m sure someone will ask the Gryphon Trio at this program) is, “Do you know all the things that Rob’s pointing out?” Even from the musician’s perspective, it’s stuff that they know but don’t always articulate clearly for themselves. There’s a way that you can know something’s going on without saying sonata form terminology or dominant or tonic. Musicians themselves frequently respond, “We didn’t really know that we knew it until Rob actually pointed it out. You could feel that something was happening when you played this [demonstrates] without realizing that you were [for example] shortening the musical values.”
And you can know that that’s a beautiful note without knowing it’s a ninth above the bass. You could still know what’s happening [plays], you could still notice this rhythm without actually being able to call it something. Or when it goes here [plays], and it goes to minor, you can know that something’s going on (as an audience member) without knowing that it has shifted to minor. But once it’s pointed out, you can’t miss it.
I think it makes audiences feel smarter to recognize it when they hear something again.
If they’ve heard you talk about it, and then hear something in the piece…
What makes it great is that we never use more than 30 minutes of music for the entire night, so by the time we’ve taken it apart for an hour, and then they get to hear the whole performance, they’re so much more inside this piece.
Even in familiar music? Does this work even better with new music, or do you apply this to new music?
I do it with everything, but in fact some of the most successful ones — in fact, one of the ones I’m known for, ‘cause I did it on the Today Show with Katie Couric, is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” And because it’s so familiar, and people think they know it, when you start to point out what’s behind music they’ve sung all their lives by heart, they’re even more shocked.
One of my most successful programs is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. When you take apart something that people know … it’s like telling you something about a person you’ve lived with all your life that you’ve never noticed about him, it’s in some ways even more impressive than telling something about someone you’ve just met. It works very well with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. It starts with a single note, then you get a lower note [demonstrates]. If you put those together with three of them, you get [demonstrates], and he could have written [demonstrates a different pattern], but he writes [plays the actual music]. For most people, those notes have never struck them at all; they’re just part of an opening. Very few people realize that this [demonstrates] is the exact same rhythm as the opening.
How do you rehearse when you’re dealing with a group? Do you annotate their parts?
What makes it work, and take forever, is that for each program, I put in Finale [notation software] all the musical examples. In fact, this upcoming program has 75 pages of musical examples, which I input note by note. They don’t have a script, but they have all the examples exactly that they have to play. If there’s an orchestra, it can take me 200 hours of preparation.
So you make parts for the orchestra?
I made parts for every single player in the Toronto Symphony for this weekend, yes. We do the Beethoven Violin Concerto, taking it apart. I make a part for every player in the orchestra.
Starting with existing parts, so it’s a subtractive process?
No, because I input it on Finale. I’m not copying or pasting.
Some parts and scores are already in digital form?
That doesn’t work, because I have to alter them.
The key is that you’re always starting and stopping in a place that an orchestra doesn’t start and stop. If you wanted to have [sings an example], there’s no way to notate that.
Plus it’s not very theatrical to say, “Okay, pick up at measure something or other.”
I never call out a single number. I say, “A piece opens like this,” and they play. And sometimes it’s as much as “here’s a fragment here, here’s a motive in the violin, here it is copied in the cello” and I’ve written out just the motif, and there’s a slash mark, “Just the cello.” This allows it to happen as if by magic. People wonder how it could possibly happen, but all it is is the hundreds of hours in Finale. It’s incredibly not easy, especially an orchestra program.
Does the repertoire of your performances connect with the repertoire that a particular group or orchestra is going to be doing soon after?
Every presenter and orchestra are different. It’s my 16th or 17th year with the Celebrity Series. Some of them are based on things that we’ve done in the past or what they might be interested in. This is my 17th year at Lincoln Center; sometimes they have a theme for the year. There was a year in which they were interested in words and theatrical things being adapted to music, or the relationship of music and other art forms, and I did the Kreutzer Sonata— both Janáček’s string quartet and Beethoven’s Sonata which was referenced in Tolstoy’s novella.
Sometimes it’s related to a theme of the group. Next year, I’m doing the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto with Emanuel Ax and the Toronto Symphony as part of their Beethoven concerto project. Sometimes it links up with an anniversary. I did the Britten Ceremony of Carols this year at Lincoln Center as part of that. Or it might be a Shostakovich piece as part of that.
Some places just ask, “What would you like to do?” Sometimes it’s a particular performer who has a particular desire, for example, the Saint Lawrence Quartet. I’ve done a lot with them; they were playing the Grosse Fugue and requested that I help clarify it for them.
Sometimes there’s an artist in residence. Lincoln Center was interested one year in a John Adams festival, so I did an Adams piece; then there was a Steve Reich year, so I did that. Once, I did the most out-there one: this “White Light Festival at Lincoln Center,” and so they wanted me to do a world music program. So I spent a year learning Javanese gamelan music, and did a “What Makes It Great?” program on that.
I also do a lot of “American Songbook” programs: Gershwin, Porter, like that. I do a series at the Smithsonian or with Washington Performing Arts. The choir that I was doing the Mozart Requiem with, they decided they wanted to do this as the first half, rather than pair it with another piece.
A lot of people are interested in trying to get bigger audiences for lieder. I often do that because it’s a dying art form.
Have you done any melodrama?
Like [Schoenberg’s] Erwartung, you mean?
More like Liszt’s Lenore.
I have not done that, but there’s a thought.
That’s certainly a dead art.
Yeah. In general, you do not want it so dead that people won’t come. [laughs]
Or the Tennyson-Strauss Enoch Arden.
Yes, I actually listened to that this summer. I’m also artist-in-residence at Ottawa Chamberfest, and they did it this summer.
I also do a series, for example, in conjunction with the National Gallery of Canada, where I do “The Music of Art,” where each concert pairs pieces of music with representative art from the gallery.
How are you selling the Gryphon performance of the Mendelssohn trio?
This is a perfect example because it’s a sequel. Two years ago, I did the Mendelssohn octet there, which he wrote when he was 16. I talked about Mendelssohn being the greatest compositional prodigy in history. In my [and many others’] opinion, this is the greatest piece any 16-year-old ever wrote. And this presentation is the sequel, paired with the concert of two years ago.
So these will end up in your archives?
Yes, I’ve done over 200 different programs, so most of the room I’m standing in now contains files and folders of “What Makes It Great?” materials. But as I said, I’ve done everything from solo piano sonatas to the Mozart Requiem to Duke Ellington big band pieces to gamelan pieces to American Songbook.
What makes your show great?
The audience. I’ve always said and I really believe that everyone in the world loves classical music, only most people have never really heard it. I don’t mean “been at a concert,” I mean get inside the difference between [plays snippets from the introduction of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik] and this [plays another two examples]. So what I think really makes it great is that you get to watch people’s lightbulbs go off. For so many people, classical music is this thing that’s a little bit foreign. A little bit they sort of get it, but don’t really think they could actually get it. And the thing that really makes these shows exciting is that suddenly everyone gets it.
What’s the age group?
Last weekend, I did it with the Toronto Symphony with four-year-olds. Mostly “What Makes It Great?” is for adults, but recently a lot of teenagers and younger kids who are interested in music have started to come. Eight- and nine-year-olds can feel like they’re going to a grownup event. I mean, it is really an adult event, but if you can get teenagers interested in music….
There’s a nine-year-old in Toronto, one of the biggest “What Makes It Great?” fans ever, who writes a blog and said that my first event with the Toronto Symphony last year was a life-changing experience for him at the age of eight! People of all ages.
It’s really anyone who’s curious. One of the great things that you realize at these concerts is that anyone can get this music. You don’t have to use any terminology to get it across.
So you can convince 20-somethings that it’s cool?
Once you get inside it, it’s unbelievably cool and no one can resist it. But you have to get inside first, so it’s one of those inside-out experiences, as opposed to an outside-in experience, which is often what classical music can be for people. Everyone can feel on the same wavelength as the composer, and once we’re inside his world, it’s just the most fantastic stuff. People are hearing the music with new sets of ears. Everyone can feel like they’re on the brain and wavelength of the composer, and once you’re inside, it’s just the most fantastic stuff. Then it’s like people are hearing it with a new set of ears.
So even people who’re already converted can benefit. As you say, some performers themselves hear things that they hadn’t heard before.
Yes. One of the really nice things when I started the series with the Toronto Symphony was that I tried to do smaller repertoire, that didn’t have to use the whole orchestra to save players, and now they’re all clamoring to be in it. In fact, I did a program last year on the Jupiter Symphony, in which I was explaining in the last movement that the coda has quintuply-inverted counterpoint, and all these players came up to me and said, “We had no idea this was going on! Thanks for doing this for us.”
One of the things that I try to do is make it as available and interesting for someone who’s never been to a concert before as for someone who’s actually performing the piece.
That’s a great art if you can do it.
That’s the goal.
Yes, I spent too long with lawyers getting that trademark symbol for it to be ignored.
I guess now Porgy and Bess now also has a trademark: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess®.
That is another one, among my favorite things. I love taking apart the Gershwin songs. [plays an example] I mean, very few people realize it’s the same thing forward and backwards. [plays] Punchline!
Anyway, it’s all fun. That’s the other thing, to see people inside, laughing in the concert hall. That’s something they rarely do. They’re talking back to the piece.
Nabokov taught at Cornell for a long time and his lectures were compiled into Essays on Literature, and in its preface he wrote, “On Being a Good Reader.” In it he says it is someone who talks back to a book, who underlines, who folds down pages, writes questions in the margins. That’s what we do with “What Makes It Great?” A piece of music isn’t just an object — you talk back to it, you ask it questions, you underline in the margin. When people feel like they’ve gone from outsider to insider, that’s what I think makes it great.