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Rob Kapilow Still Focused On What Makes Classical Music Great

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Some years ago Rob Kapilow finished graduate school, walked into a teaching gig at Yale, and started conducting the university’s symphony orchestra. At 23 he considered himself rich beyond his imagination--until a few years later when he traveled to Broadway to conduct in musical theatre. As a click bait headline might read, he couldn’t believe what happened next.

“The audience got it,” he says. “Any time you try to present something to a group you can tell if the audience is getting it. It was very clear on Broadway that the audience was getting it. They knew when to clap, whenever there was a cool lick in the orchestra. You can just feel it as a conductor that this is a language that everybody spoke and they got it. Then I would take the train home and do these fantastic Beethoven symphonies and all this other great music and the feeling in the concert hall was just completely different.”

Symphony audiences weren’t Broadway audiences – they were not “with” the performance. Kapilow began to wonder how he could continue to conduct for audiences that weren’t connected to the classical music he loved. Then, like many before him, he stumbled upon the words of a poet and found the spark of inspiration that would light the way for the rest of his career.

“I found this quote from Walt Whitman: ‘To have great poets there must be great audiences.’ Or, in my version, in order to have great music there must be great listeners,” he says. “That really changed the focus of everything I did.”

Kapilow had found the motivation and strategy he needed to move forward and he began a career that finds him acting as a kind of evangelical voice for classical music.

“We find ourselves in the classical music world thinking of what happens on our side of the footlights: What music do we want to play? How do we want to play it?’ he says. “But what really matters is what’s happening on the other side of the footlights.”

From there, Kapilow developed the nationally syndicated NPR program What Makes It Great, which enjoyed a decade-long run. This stemmed from a simple belief:

“Everyone in the world loves classical music, only most people have never really heard it,” he says. “When I say really heard it I don’t mean had a piece go by. But engage with the piece.”

Today, the former radio host travels extensively, taking his message directly to the people he wants most to reach. Overcome with enthusiasm, here he demonstrates how he might approach a speaking engagement directed at young people:

“There’s a big difference between listening and hearing," Kapilow says. "Take the simplest thing: We’re going to work with the opening of ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ which everybody’s heard a million times. We’re going to build it up for these kids from the simplest thing. Start with a single note. The audience sings, ‘Bum!’ What do you do with a single note? You add a lower note and make a pair. The audience sings a pair. Then I say, ‘What if you put three of them together? They go ‘Bum.’ Then I say, ‘Let’s make a musical sentence. With a note a pair and three pairs.’ The audience then the audience sings that, which is almost Mozart. Then I ask the kids, ‘Raise your hand when you hear the surprise.’ So not this [plays notes] but Mozart writes [finishes final phrase]. And those notes—the two high notes—for the first time they actually surprise those kids.”

Kapilow takes inspiration from another great composer and pedagogue, Aaron Copland, who suggested that we need to experience music in cumulative rather than momentary way.

“We tend to listen to music just as the moment we’re on. It’s sort of like if you had amnesia and you were watching a movie and all you saw was the frame you were on but you didn’t remember what happened before. What Copland talks a lot about is that it’s not just enough to hear a moment in music, for that that particular moment. But what’s important is how that moment relates to the moment before and the moment after,” he says. “When you watch a television show everything depends on what happened before in the plot. Very often if you watch an episode of Law and Order what happens at the end might turn on a witness statement that they said at the beginning. And there’s an assumption that you will remember all of it and that the plot is connected.”

In the end, Kapilow is a thrill seeker, although the thrill he seeks is the one created for the audience.

“People often talk about my desire to create a-ha moments," Kapilow says. "Moments where something really becomes clear. Even that little Mozart example. It might be the very first time that people actually get it. So often people feel disempowered in the face of classical music as if it’s hard or they don’t get it but there’s that moment where the light bulb goes off and all of a sudden it speaks to them. What’s really wonderful about it is that this music can be hundreds of years old, but there’s that moment when, all of a sudden, that moment speaks to you and time vanishes, centuries vanish, difference between peoples vanish, and all of a sudden you’re connected to somebody else or somebody else’s musical expression that might have been 300 hundred years ago but it’s as if it’s here today and you’re talking to the past and there is no time and there is no difference between us.”

Rob Kapilow will perform concerts at Chamber Music At The Barn Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening and be on hand for the Bows at the Barn music camp at Prairie Pines and a Friday performance at the Northeast String Academy of Wichita as well as a Saturday performance at the downtown branch of the Wichita Public Library.

For more info, visit http://www.cmatb.org/.