Interviewing the talent
By TIMOTHY MANGAN
The stories behind the stories: I won’t assert that they are more interesting than the stories themselves, but they’re not without interest. I’ve learned a lot about classical musicians, both individually and as a group, interviewing them through the years. Composers, to my mind, are the best interviewees. They’re smart, they work alone and they seem to enjoy the opportunity to talk about their craft. Singers tend to live up to their reputation for shallowness and flightiness, I’m not sure why.
You never know what you’re going to get, phoning up or sitting down with a classical musician for the first time. It can be nerve-wracking. I didn’t know what to expect when I phoned the great pianist, intellect, essayist and poet Alfred Brendel. He was one of the all-time best scowlers on stage, glaring at coughers, barely breaking a smile in response to thunderous applause. I was intimidated. It turned out he was an absolute delight, funny, easy to laugh, spilling his tea (and laughing at that), willing and interested to talk and reflect about everything, even his inner self. “Well, I don’t think I’m really driven,” he said. “I’m not a fanatic, I dread fanatics. Fanaticism is something that frightens me. So I have given myself the appearance, or the idea, that I do what I do out of my own free will.” And then he laughed.
Pianist Ivo Pogorelich didn’t laugh at all. He was difficult. I sat down with him for a radio interview once and he didn’t like the microphone the engineer gave him. It fit on his head; he apparently didn’t want to muss his hair. Pogorelich told us that unless he got another microphone, one that sat on the table, he was going to walk, quite the diva. We found a table microphone for him and I proceeded with the interview, delicately.
Oh, I’m sure, dear reader, you want to know what they’re all like. Cecilia Bartoli? Adorable. Riccardo Muti? Exceedingly charming, humble, a gentleman. Philip Glass? Friendly, bright, a real talker, the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind having a beer with. Pierre Boulez? Gracious, and so intelligent in response to my questions I felt brilliant for asking them. Daniel Barenboim? Gritty, philosophical, committed.
I tape the interviews I do for print media. There are disadvantages to this approach (the subsequent transcription of the tape, by me, is time consuming), but there are advantages, too. I don’t have to take notes during the interview, for one thing, so I can concentrate on having a genuine conversation with my subjects. You get better stuff when both sides are relaxed, just talking. The tape also becomes a complete record of an interview, not just what was said, but how it was said. A tone of voice can be a revelation of personality. I remember asking the beautiful violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, with some trepidation, about the photos her recording company used to promote her. Did she mind that they were so sexy? “I hope not only the photographs, Tim,” she memorably replied, her tone playful and almost flirtatious. No, let’s just leave out the “almost.” Anne-Sophie Mutter flirted with me and I have it on tape. Somewhere.
Readers don’t realize that some musicians are doing the interviews under contractual obligation. They may not really want to talk with me (or anyone), but part of the deal of performing here is that they have to talk to a certain number of us in the media. I could tell right away that the famed conductor Bernard Haitink wasn’t too thrilled to be talking to a journalist in Orange County he knew nothing about. It never hurts in such a situation to let the interviewee know that he or she is speaking with a fellow musician, so early on I made a point of comparing two Haitink recordings, one from the 1960s and another one from nearly 40 years later, and saying that I thought I could hear the same musical personality at work in both. Was I right? You could have heard a pin drop over the line. Haitink was amazed, maybe even touched by my observation. After that, I couldn’t shut him up. Eventually, I was the one who ended the call.
One subcategory of interviews is “The Hostile Interview.” I’ve had a few. A conductor I interviewed had read a negative review of him, by yours truly, shortly before our phone call. He took every question I asked as an affront to his manhood, or so it seemed. (His quotes were good, though; they had anger in them.) Another gentleman who shall be nameless had a thing against the press, told me I had real nerve asking some of the questions I asked and chewed me out. I ended up chewing him out right back and hanging up on him. The conversation wasn’t going anywhere anyway.
Interviewees go on and off record. Sometimes the off-record stuff is fairly decent; at others I wonder why they bothered to go off-record. A famous musician I once interviewed went on and off record a couple of times during our interview, and I could see why. He was a real pistol, to put it mildly. He was on record enough, though, to get into some real trouble with the orchestra he served as music director at the time, a controversy that wound up in The New York Times, with quotes direct from my cassette recorder.
One of the most odd, and moving, interviews I ever did was with the Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, a few days before his 90th birthday. He wasn’t conducting anymore, and didn’t have an agent, so it took me quite a bit of time just to set up a time to talk. (I went through his family in Milan.) I offered to have a translator on hand, but his son told me Giulini didn’t need one.
Well, he did. When I finally got him on the phone, his English was poor and he sounded depressed. He had left music behind, he said; he didn’t even listen to it anymore. No journalists were calling this great man on his special day; no public commemorations were planned. Giulini had been forgotten and he seemed to know it. He sounded genuinely surprised and pleased that many of his recordings remained in print and were still considered among the best ever made.
It was sad. He just didn’t have much to say, or want to. I had finished with my questions in about five minutes and knew I didn’t have enough. So I started circling around again, talking a bit about myself, about how I had seen him perform many times and re-asking my questions in a different form – anything to get him to talk.
I told him that his former orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, spoke of him with great admiration. “They remember me, yes?” Giulini said. I could hardly believe his modesty. We spun around some more for a while and I still didn’t think I had enough, but as we were signing off I wished him a happy birthday and he said: “Thank you very, very much and thank you for calling and for thinking and tell them (the L.A. Phil) I remember their great love for their sense of the music but now I am (in old) age and staying quiet.”
That said it all.