You what!?" said conductor Matthias Bamert, appalled that I interview artists over the telephone, rather than in person. "I would never agree to an interview with somebody who wouldn’t take the trouble to meet with me personally."
Matthias is the artistic director of the London Mozart Players and the director of the Lucerne Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland. My husband, Ulli, and I were visiting him and his wife, Susan, in their London apartment. The four of us met in 1980 when Matthias conducted the Basle Radio Symphony Orchestra and Ulli spent a sabbatical at Basle’s Biozentrum.
In Basle, Matthias was a fount of ideas to promote classical music. He arranged for morning concerts to attract new audiences. He appeared on stage using roller skates, or conducted with his arm in a cast in order to make one point or another about conducting. While Matthias was busy on the podium, and Ulli was pursuing the physical behavior of large molecules, Susan and I were primarily occupied with Swiss housewifely matters — Susan learned to make realistic rose shapes from the skin of a carefully pared tomato and I was scrupulously
watching the schedule for using the laundry room in our apartment house. After moving to London some years later, Susan became an editor for the English music publisher, Boosey and Hawkes. After returning to the United States, I began to write articles about music. By the time of our recent visit, I had come to think of myself as a confirmed journalist.
Matthias nourished an exemplary attitude toward the press. He was convinced that artists would happily meet with a journalist willing to see them face-to-face. To him, it was unnecessary that the journalist have a commitment for publication in order to request an interview. "If it’s a good interview," he serenely said, "sooner or later, it will get published." I tucked the idea in the back of my mind in anticipation of some moment when I might want to talk to an artist without being on assignment.
As I went about my business of interviewing performing musicians, I changed my approach slightly to take into account Matthias’ strong reaction against the telephone interview. While, in the past, I was neutral about whether to meet in person I began unfailingly to pursue the possibility of face-to-face encounters. Soon I was acutely sensitive to the extra insights that came from direct contact.
No telephone conversation, I realized, could have conveyed the disciplined achievements of the American Boychoir as vividly as a visit to their quarters at the American Boychoir school did. Similarly, dropping in on a rehearsal of the Princeton High School Choir made visceral the verve with which they prepare a program. Playing Mari Molenaar’s 1879 Steinway piano gave me the chance to have the same experience as the performers who use it for their Steinway Society concerts. Meeting Steve Mackey’s mother and dog as he stood by in his red warm-up suit gave me an idea of the dimensions of his non-professional
life. Soaking up the 18th-century-style surroundings of Joseph Flummerfelt’s
Westminster Choir College office helped me understand the horizons of his work. During phone interviews, I became more conscious of not knowing whether artists were thin or fat, short or tall, or how their taste in clothing ran.
Yet time is sometimes a factor. A busy artist may be willing to give 20 minutes of time for an interview. But the 20-minute in-person interview doesn’t exist. It always takes longer. In addition, for the host, it’s easier to terminate an encounter on the phone than in person. Surely an artist’s heart sinks at the prospect of being closeted indefinitely with some person who may not know how to spell "Mozart," and may not know the difference between a chorale and a chanson. Sometimes the telephone is the most expedient meeting place.
Both time and space constraints led baritone Thomas Hampson to agree to a telephone interview at 4:15 one afternoon shortly before his appearance at McCarter almost a year ago. He was at a hotel in New York. I was at a tennis club, where I would soon be playing singles. I stood at the pay phone, resting my clip board on the adjacent drinking fountain. The telephone cord was so short that I had to lean left with my head to reach the receiver and right with my arm to take notes using the clipboard. As agreed on, Hampson was available. "This
is not a very good connection," he said. "Where are you calling from?"
I felt my face grow red as I replied truthfully, "The pay phone at my tennis club. Would you like me to call back?" He decided that we could manage, and I started asking the questions that I thought would shed light on his upcoming performance of Schubert’s "Winterreise." What was his approach to the piece, I wanted to know. He didn’t like my question. He didn’t like the idea of imposing an "approach" on a piece of music. I became more rattled as I bungled into
additional questions where I brought up matters that Hampson led me to believe
were not worth considering. I was having trouble keeping my ear on the receiver and my hand on the clipboard.
Suddenly a stream of water shot up gracefully from the drinking fountain and drenched my notes. My pen would not write on the wet paper. In addition, a knot of chattering children had gathered nearby to wait for their tennis lessons; I was sure Hampson could hear them. I continued, not daring to describe my situation. Hampson could tell that I was uncomfortable. I think he thought that I was the cub reporter on the paper, undertaking a task beyond my depth. He started to encourage me. "You’re doing fine," he started telling me intermittently, as he intermittently gave off reactions that seemed designed to
demonstrate the shallowness of my questions. I was relieved when the ordeal was
over. And when I looked over my soggy notes, I was surprised at the large number of quotable comments I had harvested.
Matthias, notwithstanding, even a brief telephone interview yields a lot of information, as Herbert Greenberg of Caliper, the management consulting firm that spearheads analyses for personnel searches, knows. Greenberg recommends the 30-second telephone interview as a potent device for the first-round screening of job applicants (U.S. 1, November
From the very outset of these calls, the person is present, weaving an atmosphere by their expansiveness or their reticence. "Hello, Elaine," Cleo Laine said, as we met on the telephone. It was as if she were welcoming me to her living room. Her low-key warmth, and her high-level sprightliness stayed with me for two days afterward. At once, she unleashed her sense and began taking conversational risks. When I asked if she received her honorary degree from Berklee College the same year as her husband, John Dankworth did, she shot back, "We were indicted at the same time." She’s a jazz singer, and I was prepared to encounter intensity and humanity. The jokes were a bonus.
Folk singer Christine Lavin was spontaneously entertaining as we spoke, as was Diana Crane. Monologist Eric Bogosian’s humor was more forced. He was cultivating his reputation for shock and stridency. Peter Schickele, the witty creator of P.D.Q. Bach, was beginning to tire of the comic character that he had created, and spoke of wanting to kill him off. At a pre-interview telephone contact, he proposed that he phone me collect for the interview in order to keep me from learning his unlisted phone number. My sense of thrift reared up. I persuaded him that if he gave me the number so I could phone at the normal tariff, I would promise to destroy it.
There is a range of secrets that interviewees like to keep. Some are understandable — an out-of-wedlock family, an impending divorce, a strong opinion opposing a leading figure or tenet in their field, an unpopular political opinion. However, many artists are reticent about their age. "You’re not going to print that!" exclaimed recorder player John Burkhalter after revealing how old he was. Singers, Cleo Laine excepted, are particularly sensitive about telling their age. "Everybody knows that singers lie about their age," said soprano Paula Delligatti, who sang Madame Butterfly for Boheme Opera
this year. "Even if you printed my age, everybody would think I was 10 years older than that."
Some interviewees have a monumental fear of being misrepresented in the press. In their desire to avoid being misquoted, they refuse to admit even the date when their organization started, or what it is about playing their instrument gives them satisfaction. They have to be coaxed into talking. Most of the time they loosen up after I say, "We want to know if you do roller-blading or climb small mountains at night. It makes you a more three-dimensional person."
I try to avoid asking interviewees questions that they have already answered elsewhere. Having read Yehudi Menuhin’s autobiography before talking to him, I decided not to ask him about anything he had discussed in the book, where his incredibly rich life was amply documented. Instead, I asked him if there ever was anything he wanted to do that he hadn’t done. "I always wanted to have a tree house," he told me wistfully.
Some interviewees overtly show their distaste for answering a question more than once. Dave Brubeck, who was close to 75 when I interviewed him, gave that impression. Instead of responding directly, he repeatedly referred me to the liner notes on the relevant album.
Other interviewees clearly delight in talking to the press. Superstar James Galway always has something to say. He knows that whatever he did in the last 10 minutes is news. Eager to talk, he is impatient of the gaps in the conversation that result when an interviewer is taking notes, so he stipulates that his phone interviews be recorded. The first time I interviewed him I didn’t know about this requirement. When he noticed that I was taking notes on my computer, he pointed out his recording-only requirement and said firmly, "Nobody knows I’m here. You figure out how to record our conversation, and call me back when you’ve worked it out." Once it came to me that I could use my telephone answering machine as a recording device, we proceeded at full throttle.
The members of the Tokyo Quartet and the Emerson Quartet use a press interview as an opportunity to indulge in the same sort of communication they enjoy when they play chamber music, responding to whatever conversational curves arise. Unprepared for what’s coming, they instantly fabricate telling metaphors. "What’s it like playing second violin in the quartet?" I asked Kikuei Ikeda of the Tokyo Quartet. "It’s like swimming in the water," he said. "Playing first violin is like being on a boat looking down."
For the most part, artists are remarkably open, even on the telephone. I was surprised when violinist Robert McDuffie owned up to preferring chamber music to performances with orchestra, and added, "But it’s the concertos that pay the rent." Although there is merit to Matthias Bamert’s push for face-to-face interviews, nevertheless, engaging accounts can emerge from telephone conversations. Indeed, a reader is not necessarily conscious of precisely how the material for an article was collected. Matthias’ intensity in objecting to the phone interview was equaled the other day by the surprise of a reader who faithfully follows the Preview section of U.S. 1. "You what!?" she said when I told her that I conduct most of my interviews on the phone. "I had no idea that you didn’t interview all those people in person."