Rob Kapilow

I’d never heard this guy, who entrances audiences at Lincoln Center with programs called “What Makes It Great?” in which he explains classical masterworks. He’s also got some CDs of his explanations.

And he pretty much entranced me, explaining Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony with the Mostly Mozart Orchestra. He really has a knack for getting under the hood of a piece, and getting everybody — even people new to classical music — hearing fabulous details of how the piece works. I learned a lot.

But at the same time, there’s something very retro about what Kapilow does. He concentrates on analytical details — how Mozart’s phrases don’t go where you expect them to, how they rarely repeat without spinning off delicious changes. And while these things really do tell you something about why Mozart is a great composer, they’re not the whole story. Imagine somebody lecturing on The Great Gatsby, and only talking about Fitzgerald’s sentence structure, with no reference to story, characters, or meaning.

That wouldn’t happen, outside of deepest academia. But in classical music, it happens right in the bright glare of day. People — smart, highly respected people — often talk as if structural details were all that mattered. Or, at least, as if they were what matters most. But what about Mozart’s soul? What happens to us when we hear his music? Doesn’t Kapilow have anything to say about these things?

To be fair, he may well go in these directions when he talks about other pieces. But he didn’t venture there at all the night I heard him. Brilliant as he is, irresistible as he is, even though he’s able to vividly articulate some of the trickiest, most technical things in music, he still seems mired in classical music’s impossible past, and becomes an example of what we need to get beyond before classical music can save itself.

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