With humor and animated enthusiasm, Robert Kapilow creates a unique platform, inviting music lovers to deepen their journey of musical discovery. In each of his ‘What Makes It Great’ concert experiences, he divides a classical masterwork into its individual components, analyzing its stylistic intent, rhythm and harmonic structure to reveal underlying key elements that the composer applied.
On this quest for a musical blueprint, Kapilow and his performers dismantle the piece’s expressive effects without vilifying its magic. The process is sensitive: it’s something qualified performers perhaps bring out intuitively in their performance, but it is a valid method for popularizing a basic level of familiarity with classical music’s language, which many might argue has lost its former reach and impact.
“I noticed this estrangement from the classical canon early on in my days when I was conducting classical symphonies with the Yale Orchestra and simultaneously working with popular music on Broadway. It was a pivotal moment when I realized how different the experience was. Broadway audiences were familiar and enthusiastic with where the music was taking them, they knew when to applaud and shows were sold out every night,” said Kaplan in an interview at Merkin Hall before his recent concert series’ installment of Beethoven’s last String Quartet, No 16, Op. 135. The Harlem Quartet, currently serving a three-year residency at London’s Royal College of Music, made for a perfect, joyful collaborator in Kapilow’s dissection of the piece’s singular phrases; the ensemble alternated rhythmic patterns and harmonic turns before performing it in its entirety for an informed audience, and achieving the desired outcome.
To follow Kapilow’s instructions, audiences don’t need to know anything about music; he does not use intimidating musicological terms that may get novices confused, all one must do is to keep an open mind. Challenging his audiences’ active engagement is key to both Kapilow’s motivation and his success. He claps out rhythmic patterns zealously: “Bagedi-Baa-Jadam.” He splits the audience into sections, relating to them the different instruments’ entry points. Audiences, who have clapped together, are sure to recall the peculiar melodic shifts and rhythmic samples demonstrated which makes for a more familiarized experience of the piece in its performance. Kapilow explains how the experience turns dynamic: “Not just with music,” he explains, “but also in the corporate world, for example, the important thing is to help people understand what to listen for. Communication is only possible when we share the same language. You have to get it on the tiniest level to get the nuances right and understand the big picture,” he says. “People want an in. All you have to do is bring the meaning back, where it’s lost or hidden, and bring people into the conversation. It’s not a mystery.”
His public radio broadcasts of ‘What Makes It Great’ initially started out with ten-second snippets, followed by Kapilow hosting interpretations of singular phrases, and eventually kick-started his broadcast at Live From Lincoln Center and a series of presentations in New York and Boston that have by now spanned more than 20 years. Kapilow’s audiences vary vastly addressing all ages, bringing his fundamentally inquisitive approach to a multitude of subjects that range from corporate programs and addressing orchestras to making connections between music, monuments and art. His original compositions, including several for children, are published by Schirmer and often featured live at his ‘FamilyMusik’ programs. This body of work includes the famed Green Eggs and Ham and other Dr. Seuss texts set to music.
He lives by the same high standard he extracts from his audiences, as he explains: “When I was [19 and] studying with the legendary Nadja Boulanger, I had a critical moment when I came to her apartment, [and I was] playing the Mozart A-minor Sonata for her. She interrupted me, almost hitting me, and yelled: ‘This is grotesque!’ I did not bring out the inner voices enough… I did not listen.”
Returning to Yale, and later the Eastman School of Music, he learned his lesson. Now, all can learn from it, as his presentational method makes ‘listening’ and ‘how to listen’ major subjects, even for audiences. Benefitting from his training as a pianist, conductor and composer, Kapilow’s educational interactive programs now span all ages and regions.
Currently Kapilow is working on his third book. Titled Listening for America, it is based on the American Songbook. His previous book, All You Have To Do Is Listen, has been awarded PSP Prose Award for Best Book in Music and the Performing Arts, and was followed by his 2011 publication What Makes It Great (Both were published by Wiley/Lincoln Center). The latter was especially designed to take advantage of new tablet technology, and its possibility to embed music scores without interrupting the continuance of the text.
“It was not easy to find the right way to address audiences. The concept is not that different from teaching a graduate class at Yale, and yet it took me a while to taper down expressions I was used to in exchange for simple terms. We are all in our [own] little bubble and we talk a certain way. Whether you explain to kids that not all composers are dead, or tell professional performers to hum to different beats to make your point, accessibility must be the focus.”
In his upcoming January 29th. 2018 installment of What makes it great at Merkin Hall, Kapilow will feature the Manhattan School of Music Chamber Sinfonia, tackling Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D Major.