No, no, I’m never off track. The surprises, and also their kindness. There’s a great deal of kindness in their music. Handel’s kinder than Bach. That’s another story. . . . One of my favorite pieces of music in the world is Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross in the two quartet forms — the string quartet and the vocal quartet. It’s my favorite, favorite thing. You can’t make a dance to that. It’s so soporific and gloomy and you want to kill yourself and there’s an earthquake at the end. So it’s thrilling, surprising, just exactly right; it’s ‘Of course, here’s what’s supposed to happen.’
I used to talk about myself in relation to Haydn, how I realize that I work in the way that I read in Classical Style, [Charles] Rosen’s book, many years ago. I read a passage that reminded me of how I choreograph. And it wasn’t ‘See? I’m just like Haydn,’ it was ‘That’s interesting. That’s how I think.’ It had to do with Haydn not inventing a new language to finish a piece, but rather just dropping the keystone in the arch to hold itself up — and it doesn’t have to have a video monitor or a column or a mirror: it doesn’t need anything, that’s it. And you can’t just, like [Alfred] Schnittke, throw in something you just thought of in the name of postmodernism and kill mosquitoes with a bazooka. It’s the exact right touch of completing a piece in its own language that all of those people, including me, do.
Harrison, I sent a piece back that he wrote for me once, the piece that would become Rhymes with Silver. He wrote this waltz — refitted from a waltz he’d written in the forties or something — and it was kind of gorgeous. We were friends — he was writing it for me — and I sent this piece back and said, ‘Lou, it seems not quite somehow to cohere. It doesn’t sound done.’ And within two weeks he’d sent it back to me, slightly adjusted a few bars, and that made it perfect. It was actually, like, five or six bars shorter, but it completed itself. He took my advice, which was ‘Something’s weird, it doesn’t sound finished.’ And then he finished it by tightening it up, just making a tiny little click, and it was like, ‘Of course — that!’ So that’s what I’m talking about. [Laughs.]
Did you make discoveries working with Baryshnikov in the White Oak Project?
Not really. I can say this generality: It’s a lot more fun and more interesting to work with people who are really, really good at what they do and are really serious and fun and smart and talented. It’s way more fun than people who are slightly not-as-good and who are usually defensive and irritating. Like when I was conducting — this is really good — some band, I won’t tell who it was. They were sight-reading the Vivaldi Gloria, and some violist, some string player, says, ‘Excuse me, on this page on this bar, do we have an F-sharp or an F natural?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I can’t read alto clef. How am I supposed to know?’ [Laughs.] And everybody else was like (snort), because
he’s an asshole. And I said, ‘Well, play it,’ and obviously it was an F-sharp. I could figure it out, but I’m not teaching a music lesson. I’m just doing this [waves his arms].
And that’s the same with Mischa Maisky or Mr. Yo-Yo Ma or Zakir Hussain or Stephanie Blythe or Lorraine Hunt Lieberson or Peter Sellars or Nicholas McGegan or the whole bunch of really fabulous people that I get to work with. And they want to work with me because I’m also fabulous. So it’s like, ‘Yay! We get to do this.’ Manny Ax: ‘Hey, Manny, can you bring out that Five in the left hand a little more?’ He says, ‘I can’t. I can’t even play it; it’s too hard.’ Then it’s like, ‘Okay, well, use more pedal.’ ‘Hey, Yo-Yo, you’re flat.’ ‘Oh, thanks.’ Instead of ‘What’s that supposed to mean? My teacher told me that I’m supposed to sing under.’ Your teacher’s lying to you. Who’s your teacher, Beethoven? Are you deaf? You know? It’s like come on.
That’s why they like me at Tanglewood — because I go in as a coach. I give music lessons to everybody. I do master classes with the singers and their accompanists. ‘What is that, that face you’re making?’ They’re like, ‘Oh, gee, nobody told me that.’ It’s like, ‘You’re producing sound and you look great now, so why don’t you just look like that when you sing? Now try it.’
I was in a chamber singing group doing ‘Shenandoah.’ For a previous conductor we had sung ‘across the wide Meee-zooo-reee.’ And then the next conductor came in and was baffled. ‘What are you doing?’ he said. ‘It’s Mis-sou-ri. You’re from this country!’ It’s easy to get caught up in that.
Of course, are you kidding? Why do you think Jessye Norman talks that way, whatever country she made up that she’s from? It’s like, come on, everybody. It’s funny, but also, nobody blows the whistle on that kind of shit.