What Makes It Great? Rob Kapilow on Bernstein, Beethoven, and Broadway

Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

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Last Wednesday, WHRB Classical Producer Allison Pao spoke on the phone with musician Robert Kapilow. Mr. Kapilow is a composer, conductor, educator, speaker, writer, pianist – and the list goes on. He is well-known for his creative, informative, and insightful “What Makes It Great?” series, which began as short podcasts on NPR and eventually became full-length concert programs featured in concert halls around the world. We spoke to him about his innovative format of “What Makes It Great?,” the problems facing classical music today, his musical muse Leonard Bernstein, his upcoming concert in Boston, and more. Read ahead for a preview or listen to the entire interview above. We recommend you listen along: Mr. Kapilow demonstrates many of his points by playing on the piano!


(after discussing the structure and goal of a typical “What Makes It Great?” concert)

Pao: When did you first develop this concept of an interactive concert format?

Kapilow: That’s funny, actually. The idea for this didn’t really even come from music. When I was an undergraduate at Yale – I hate to say this at your radio station, I apologize, I apologize – I had a girlfriend who was a painter. And I didn’t really know that much about art. In a way, I was a lot about art the way many people are about classical music. You know, I knew what I liked, I knew a few painters, I knew a little bit but I didn’t really know that much about it. So I took this art appreciation course at Yale…We would go to the Yale art gallery, and he [the professor] would pick one painting, and he would talk about it for an entire hour. And to me it was like a revelation. It was really about the difference between looking and seeing. I realized I had never really looked at a painting at all. I had no idea what to do after the first 15 seconds. And so, in a way, if that course was about the difference between looking and seeing, hopefully, “What Makes It Great?” is about the difference between hearing and listening.

P: The Boston Globe in the past has compared you to Leonard Bernstein in the way that you are a “missionary” of classical music. How true is this comparison? Have any of your various musical activities, whether conducting, composing, or speaking, been inspired by Leonard Bernstein?

K: … Absolutely I was inspired by Bernstein!... One of the things that inspired me the most, and really is actually the heart of the program on Friday [March 9th with the Boston Celebrity Series], is this idea that for Bernstein, the barriers that we put between different kinds of music are largely irrelevant and unnecessary. You know, there’s a great quote from Duke Ellington: “There’s only two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” I really think that’s how Bernstein was. What was so unique is that he was able to effortlessly move between the classical world – conduct a Mahler symphony one night – and the Broadway world – he could sit down at a party and play stride piano and jazz. For him, he spoke all musical languages equally fluently.

(on teaching classical music and conducting on Broadway at the same time, like Bernstein)… And then I got an offer to conduct on Broadway. For three foolish months, I actually tried to do both jobs at the same time. I would teach and conduct Beethoven during the day, take the train to New York, conduct the show, and then take the 11:20 train back. And that was really an inspirational time for me to create this series because people so loved that music on Broadway. They spoke that language so naturally. And then I would go back to conducting a Beethoven symphony, and there just wasn’t that same feeling in the hall. It wasn’t like this was their first language; they weren’t native speakers the same way. So one of my original goals was to try to get people to hear classical music as effortlessly as they heard that music I was conducting on Broadway.

P: You mentioned that you were inspired by Bernstein’s Norton lectures, but your analyses are presented as concerts rather than lectures. How do you draw the line between a concert and a lecture?

K: Whenever I was in the classroom, I always wished I had the orchestra there to demonstrate what I was talking about, and whenever I was conducting rehearsal of the orchestra, I always wished that I could stop and actually tell them all the stuff that I wanted to tell them. “What Makes It Great? is a natural evolution of that. Whenever I hear something that I think is terrific, I just really want to stop, turn around, and make sure you actually hear what’s terrific! (begins demonstrating examples on the piano)

P: You talked briefly about in terms of musical fluency, many modern-day audiences connect more easily to Broadway music but less easily to Beethoven. What do you think that says about classical music itself?

K: … What makes classical music so much harder is that it requires memory. I often say that classical music is about becoming, not being. In other words, what matters is not what a musical idea is when you first hear it (begins playing examples from Beethoven and Bach on the piano). What really matters is what it becomes. But in order to follow out the process of an idea becoming something, you have to remember what it first was… Now, every television and film script assumes that an audience is capable of remembering and following plot developments over the course of an entire hour movie. Classical music is the same thing, but for nearly everybody, remembering what happens and appreciating the difference is a lot more difficult than remembering plot. So I think the challenge of memory is at the heart of what makes classical music so difficult (plays example of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony on the piano).


Allison Pao '21 is a Producer for WHRB Classical. You can hear Rob Kapilow’s “What Makes It Great?” concert with Jessica Rivera, soprano at 8 pm on March 9th in Sanders Theatre. They will be celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s centennial with a selection of his songs alongside Broadway tunes of his contemporaries. This concert will be presented by the Boston Celebrity Series.

Tickets can be purchased here: http://celebrityseries.org/wmigbernstein/.