Renowned composer, conductor, commentator, and author Rob Kapilow gives greater meaning to Walt Whitman’s remark, "To have great poets, there must be great audiences." As Kapilow puts it, “To have great music, there must be great listeners.” Through his radio show, ‘What Makes it Great’ featured on NPR and through his books, Rob assists audiences how to articulate the wonder and power of music.
Along with Rob Kapilow, Celebrity Series of Boston will pay tribute to composer Harold Arlen along with musician, songwriter, and producer Michael Winther and Rebecca Luker, celebrated Broadway star who has portrayed Winifred in the beloved musical, ‘Mary Poppins,’ Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, among many others. ‘What Makes it Great with Rob Kapilow Over the Rainbow: The Songs of Harold Arlen’ will take place on Sunday, November 3 at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. Visit www.celebrityseries.org for all the details!
I had the honor of interviewing Rob Kapilow about the upcoming Celebrity Series of Boston production, ‘What Makes it Great with Rob Kapilow Over the Rainbow: The Songs of Harold Arlen.’ For the full audio interview, click here and for part two of this interview, click here.
Tell me a little about 'What Makes It Great.' How did you come up with that concept?
I first started out right out of college when I got hired at Yale as a professor. I came back and did the symphony there for six years. Then I got this chance to conduct on Broadway and for two foolish months, I tried to do both jobs at the same time. So I’m teaching, conducting symphonies and Beethoven during the day, and then I would take the train down to New York and conduct ‘Nine,’ the Tony award-winning musical at the time on Broadway.
Going back and forth between those two worlds led me to think of some uncomfortable and unavoidable truths. The truth is every single night, millions of people were willing to pay absorbitant sums of money to see the show, but most importantly, they got it. You can really feel when the audience gets the musical language of the piece that you are playing or the music you are conducting. It was very clear that audiences got that music. They knew when to clap and responded to interesting riffs in the orchestra. They got that music.
Then we would go back and conduct this classical music. There just wasn’t this same sense that people actually got it. There were a few people that spoke the language of classical music as fluently as they spoke the language of Broadway, but it just wasn’t the same sense of getting it.
Going back and forth each day between those two worlds, one world where people got it and really responded in their native language and one world where there was kind of polite applause really was very thought provoking. It made me want to do something about it.
Interestingly enough, I ran across in Boston at the time a quotation on a message board outside of a church that summed up for me what ‘What Makes it Great’ is all about. It was a quote from Walt Whitman and it said, ‘To have great poets, there must be great audiences’ or in my version, ‘To have great music, there must be great listeners.’
I truly understand your point. I find that sometimes in a classical setting, the music is a little more abstract. You don’t know exactly how the piece works, but it is beautiful.
The idea is very simple, to get people to get it. It is very easy to do once you take a piece apart and break down a lot of that fourth wall. There’s so much ‘I should get it or I should understand and when am I supposed to clap?’ A lot of classical music has nothing to do with music itself. The idea is to take people inside the piece of music, look at it from the inside out, and then get them to hear it with new ears.
I’ve been doing ‘What Makes it Great’ Celebrity Series for 16 years. This is the 75th anniversary of the Celebrity Series. We will finish the concert with a piece that was written the exact same year the Celebrity Series was founded. It seemed like the perfect match that somehow Celebrity Series began its vision in 1938 and so did Harold Arlen with ‘Over the Rainbow.’
Now songwriter Michael Winther and Rebecca Luker will also be with you to perform some of these songs. How much Broadway do you think will be involved in this tribute?
The reason these singers will be doing this program is because they are suburb Broadway stars. Michael Winther was in ‘Mamma Mia’ and Rebecca is currently in ‘Cinderella.’ There have been all these Broadway shows. They are fantastic at getting inside of these songs. It takes some extraordinary musicians like Michael and Rebecca not only to just sing and perform the songs beautifully, but to do these short musical examples which are often just a little bit different than the actual music itself. They are the perfect Broadway singers for this beautiful Broadway music.
What do you think is the best reason people should see this particular tribute? What sets it apart from other productions?
This is a program about what you don’t know that you don’t know about music that you’ve known your whole life. It’s hard not to love ‘Get Happy,’ ‘Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Stormy Weather,’ ‘That Old Black Magic.’ These songs are so much greater than you’ve ever known and that’s what this whole evening is about.
They’ll be singing, they’ll be responding, they’ll be listening to parts of it as the fourth wall gets broken down and they get to come inside this great music and hear it from the inside out in a way they have never heard before.
Visit www.celebrityseries.org for more information and click here for tickets to ‘What Makes it Great with Rob Kapilow Over the Rainbow: The Songs of Harold Arlen’ at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Sunday, November 3!