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.

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Book review: ‘Famous Father Girl’ by Jamie Bernstein

Being the child of Leonard Bernstein was like having a nuclear blast for a dad. You practically had to stand back and wear protective goggles when he came into a room, and even then the gale wind and blinding light were hard to withstand. The aftereffects of Lenny radiation included a sense of worthlessness (or at least that one had little talent), sexual confusion and a certain rudderless direction in life. Still, all three of his children apparently adored him, and he adored them back, sometimes to excess. It wasn’t the worst childhood if you were Leonard Bernstein’s kid, but it certainly could be odd and overwhelming.

Just in time for the centenary comes “Famous Father Girl” by Jamie Bernstein, the oldest of the Bernstein children. It’s a “Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” and well done too. There’s a certain built-in page-turning quality to the story if you know anything about Leonard Bernstein at all. You know that, as you read, you’re moving ever closer to the lurid and tragic last decade of his life. Jamie Bernstein heightens that feeling by telling her story chronologically and revealing details about her father, and mother (the actress Felicia Montealegre), as they became known to her. So the early chapters of “Famous Father Girl” are fairly idyllic, told from the standpoint of a young girl basking in the glow of her parents’ love and success and fame.

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A visit to Pacific Symphony’s music library

You go in the artists’ entrance at Segerstrom Concert Hall, walk past the security guard behind the window (once you get the OK), enter the first door on the right and head down two flights of stairs. You’re in the basement now, walking down a long concrete hallway in low light when, on the right, you come upon this plaque.

It’s the library of Pacific Symphony. Step inside and it’s a cozy and quiet little place.

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Bernstein at the Skirball

I went to the “Leonard Bernstein at 100” exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon, an entertaining way to beat the excessive heat. The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 2, is organized by the GRAMMY Museum and curated by its founding executive director Robert Santelli, a music historian. I doubt that any exhibit could capture the plentitude and variety of Bernstein’s life, but this one — with genuine artifacts, as well as replicas and facsimiles — does a good job at showing just how central Bernstein once was in American life. Here are a few of the items that were on display. (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

Entrance to the exhibit.

A photo of a young Bernstein with conductor Serge Koussevitzky, 1940s.

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Neglected symphony: Walter Piston: Symphony No. 2

Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 2 was given its premiere by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Kindler in March of 1944. Leonard Bernstein chose the remarkable Adagio of this work to perform with the New York Philharmonic as a memorial to the composer after he died in 1976.

To hear more music in this series, click on the “neglected symphonies” tag below this post.

Kleiber 88

The brilliant conductor Carlos Kleiber would have been 88 years old today. One never needs an excuse to watch or listen to this great musician, but here’s one anyway. He leads the Bavarian State Orchestra in the “Thunder and Lightning” Polka by Johann Strauss, Jr.

Strauss conducts Strauss

Richard Strauss conducts his own “Till Eulenspiegel.” This is a clip from the documentary “The Art of Conducting: Great Conductors of the Past.” The first voice you hear speaking is Yehudi Menuhin’s.

Carl St.Clair conducts Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben” this week, doubtless with more enthusiasm.