Rob Kapilow and Tony Yun ‘make Debussy great’ at Stanford Live

My dad has one of the strangest airplane routines I have ever encountered. On international flights, sometimes 10 or more hours long, he’ll listen to a single song on loop while doing work on his laptop. His recent favorites include Shakira’s “Try Everything” (from “Zootopia”) and Dan + Shay’s “Tequila.”

More than anything else, my dad’s unnerving habit demonstrates this simple truth: with music, familiarity does not breed contempt. In fact, the more we listen to and understand a piece of music, the more we can come to love it. 

This insight into musical taste underpinned composer Rob Kapilow’s Wednesday night program, “What Makes It Great: The Solo Piano Landscapes of Debussy.” Featuring performances by emerging pianist Tony Yun, the show dove deep into the musical nuances of four of Debussy’s slightly lesser-known works. Kapilow’s combination of lecture-style analysis and classical performance is the defining characteristic of the “What Makes It Great” series, which originated on NPR.

The show seemingly aims to promote attentive listening — experiencing a piece for its details and context rather than absorbing it generally. Kapilow and Yun unequivocally achieved this. Through an intense yet accessible analysis, the two enabled the audience to hear each piece in its greatness.

I’d be surprised if a single audience member left without learning something new. Kapilow not-so-subtly name-dropped when describing his education with Nadia Boulanger at the Paris Conservatory, but he has the intellect to back it up. Between demonstrations, Kapilow threw in anecdotes and trivia nuggets that seemed to tickle the audience’s curiosity, eliciting chuckles and “ah’s” of understanding.

Yun performed the works with remarkable artistry and sensitivity, playing after each of Kapilow’s explanations. It takes a special talent to perform random excerpts of a piece — muscle memory typically activates only at certain starting points — but Yun did so without trouble. Though he is yet to find a signature sound, he has the chops and the dedication of a world-class soloist, supposedly having learned the entire program in a week.

Even more impressive to me were the duo’s precision and showmanship. The two wasted no time on stage; every excerpt, transition and lighting cue was rhythmically rehearsed. We typically talk about “flow state” in regards to musical performances, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Kapilow and Yun achieved something similar during their back-and-forth.

The strongest criticism I can make of the show also falls to this point: Kapilow is extremely fast-paced. With overwhelmingly technical content (motivic and harmonic analysis), the program often felt like an overload of the “what” of Debussy’s greatness at the expense of the “why.” I get the impression that he’s simply too excited about this music to excise any part of his discussion, but a lot of information got lost between his mouth and my ears. 

Even so, there’s something so magical in his oration that I find myself doubting my own judgments. This show has been fine tuned over decades: surely Kapilow has found what works for his audience. “What Makes It Great” faces the impossible task of educating listeners of all different musical backgrounds, from the 10-year-old child next to me to the gentleman who told Kapilow a Debussy story even he hadn’t heard before. 

Indeed, Kapilow’s response to the story — told during the post-show Q&A — informed me the most about his character and the series.

At some point prior, I had convinced myself that Kapilow was reading or reciting from a script; I saw no other way for him to reconcile all those thoughts. But he lost no eloquence during the Q&A period, and each response showed a glimpse of his genuine musical interest. He proved to the audience beyond doubt that, just as in the solo piano music of Debussy, there is intentionality behind every moment of his performance.

All of this brings me back to the idea of attentive listening. Listeners like to know more about the music they’re hearing, whether it’s the lyrics to a J. Cole hit or the contrapuntal intricacies of a Bach fugue. Kapilow’s “What Makes It Great” has found a way to move listeners toward that place of knowledge in just a couple of hours. 

Kapilow will continue “What Makes It Great” at Bing on Saturday with the music of Carole King and Joni Mitchell.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.


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