Open Studio with Jared Bowen


Walter Isaacson, Todd Purdum, Anthony Tommasini, Alex Beam

A special edition of Open Studio with a look back at interviews with authors and writers, Walter Isaacson, Todd Purdum, Anthony Tommasini, and Alex Beam.

AIRED: December 25, 2020 | 0:26:46

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio:

Leonardo da Vinci-- the man, the artist, the genius.

Walter Isaacson weighs in.

>> He was a bit of a misfit.

You know, he was gay, left-handed, illegitimate,

a vegetarian, somewhat heretical,

and yet he was totally beloved.

>> BOWEN: Then,Something Wonderful,

a book detailing the very rich,

but very complicated relationship

between Rodgers and Hammerstein.

>> I think they were really reluctant to rock the boat,

because they knew what a success they had,

not only in creative terms,

but they were hugely successful businessmen.

>> BOWEN: Plus, who are the indispensable composers?

TheNew York Times chief classical music critic,

Anthony Tommasini, tells us.

>> It's almost like architecture, you know?

It's architecture and sound,

and that to me is a very important element of greatness--

you know, trying to establish that.

>> BOWEN: And the building of architectural masterpiece

the Farnsworth House.

>> I find it striking.

And I think most people, um, find it kind of ethereal.

It's really a beautiful work of art.

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

Welcome to this special books edition of the show,

as we look back at some of our interviews with writers.

First up, because of the wealth of material

Leonardo da Vinci left behind,

writer Walter Isaacson was able to craft

a detailed biography of the artist.

In 2017, we spoke with Isaacson,

fittingly, at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Walter Isaacson, thank you so much for joining us.

>> Jared, great to be on your show.

>> BOWEN: We're here at the Museum of Fine Arts.

A lot of people might think that you wouldn't be able

to do what you've done in this book,

which is to go back and really recount the life of somebody

who lived more than 500 years ago.

But what wealth of material did he leave?

>> Well he left us more than 7,000 pages of notebooks.

And paper's a really great technology

for storing information--

you can still use it 500 years later,

unlike our twit-- tweets and Facebook posts.

And we can see him doing his sketches

for his paintings like theLast Supper,

but also doing the mathematics

and maybe the curls of hair and swirls of a river.

And so we watch a mind that's curious about everything

just dancing across each page.

>> BOWEN: And he considered himself,

you say in the book, an artist last.

>> Well, there were times like when he's turning 30,

he says, "Okay, I don't want to be a painter my whole life."

And he writes a job application letter to the duke of Milan

and says, you know, "I can build bridges, I can...

"I can make weapons of war,

I can divert the course of rivers."

And only at the end does he say,

"I can also paint as well as any man."

And so there were times when he wanted to be an engineer,

at times he wanted to be a scientist,

but by the end of his life,

he doesn't make that much of a distinction.

Art and science and design and everything is just, to him,

the beauty of nature.

>> BOWEN: Well, that's what is so interesting.

I mean, he took prolonged periods

where he would work on something and then return to it.

Is that because he was waiting for developments,

waiting for understanding about science or anatomy?

>> I think he always knew

there was another brushstroke you could put,

or another piece of knowledge you could get.

Take for example St. Jerome in the Wilderness,

a painting he doesn't finish when he's a young kid,

in Florence in his early years,

but he gets the neck muscles slightly wrong.

25 years later, he does anatomy,

he does dissections of a human corpse,

and he gets the neck muscles right

in his anatomical drawing,

and he goes back to his friend,

a member of Amerigo Vespucci's family--

the person who sailed to America--

and gets St. Jerome in the Wilderness

and corrects the neck muscles.

Even theMona Lisa.

He keeps it for 16 years,

putting hundreds of little brushstrokes.

>> BOWEN: Is theMona Lisa a finished piece?

>> Oh, yeah, theMona Lisa is finished.

However, it was by his death bed 16 years after he began it

when he is in France,

and he's still occasionally

putting the tiniest of brush-ups.

So we'll have 200, 300 layers of this glaze,

meaning oil with very little pigment,

getting the skin tone right,

and especially getting that smile right.

He had dissected a human face,

knew every muscle that touches the lips,

gets it anatomically pure.

But even knows how we see detail in the center of our eye.

And so he has the tiny black and white details

going straight,

but the shadows and colors turning up.

So the smile interacts with us.

It changes every time we look at it.

>> BOWEN: Tell me a little bit

about just the layers that he created

so that you get this luminescence.

>> Yes, I mean, he understood

both the science and the geology,

but also the spirituality of how we connect to nature.

And that's all in theMona Lisa,

and some of it is just scientific technique

to know he should use a white lead primer coat

on the piece of wood,

and then with layer and layer of very light oil paint,

the light goes through the layers of paint,

hits the primer coat, bounces back,

but some of the light reflects back from the surface,

or from halfway down the layers of glaze.

These are among the dozens

of absolutely brilliant techniques and science

that he applies to his art.

>> BOWEN: So it's no accident

that that is the most famous painting in the world.

>> Yeah, sometimes people say,

"Well, isn't it kind of hyped is it whatever..."


Throughout the centuries, from the very first visit

by one of the cardinals who visits Leonardo

in his later years in France,

all the way to Walter Pater at the end of the 19th century,

writing about how she's part of the ages.

>> BOWEN: There are only 16 known Leonardo paintings.

Do you think there are more?

>> I think it's possible.

We certainly know he did Leda and the Swan.

And we know from copies

that Melzi and others in the studio did.

We know from the drawings Leonardo did.

That one's been lost.

And, you know, there's certainly,

notebooks turn up every now and then,

a wonderful drawing called La Bella Principessa,

which is a colored chalk drawing on paper,

that's turned up in the past 20 years.

And even last year,

a sketch of St. Sebastian has turned up.

So the good thing about Leonardo is,

there's always something new to discover.

>> BOWEN: And, finally, what was the biggest revelation to you?

Again, we all have a pretty good sense of who he was,

but as you did this excavation, what struck you most?

>> What struck me most is the wide-ranging nature

of his curiosity.

Whether it was how the heart valve works,

or why the sky is blue,

or what the tongue of the woodpecker looks like,

or how you would do a smile that shows different emotions,

the range of his curiosity

and his ability to observe things

in every field from geology,

and question the biblical tale of the flood

because he's looking at sediment layers,

to the heart valve,

where he's discovering that the swirl of the blood

is what causes the membrane to open,

to his art.

The fact that he cared about so much

is not only interesting, but it's inspiring,

'cause nowadays we tend to silo ourselves.

We tend to tell our kids, "Specialize."

And certainly there are people who say,

"He should have specialized more.

He would have painted more paintings."


He would have painted more paintings

if he had specialized more,

but he wouldn't have been Leonardo,

and he wouldn't have painted theMona Lisa.

>> BOWEN: Walter Isaacson, it is a fascinating read.

Always a pleasure to speak with you.

Thank you.

>> Jared, thanks for having me.

>> ♪ Some enchanted evening

♪ You may see a stranger

♪ You may see a stranger across a crowded room... ♪

>> BOWEN: That was from South Pacific,

an early Rodgers and Hammerstein success.

Once the pair partnered up professionally

in the early 1940s, they created both a brand

and a string of shows that revolutionized the musical.

But theirs was a complicated relationship.

It's all ground covered in Todd Purdum's 2018 book,

Something Wonderful.

Todd Purdum, the book is Something Wonderful,

thank you so much for joining us.

>> It's my pleasure to be here, Jared, thank you.

>> BOWEN: So this is fascinating; here you have

these two men who are synonymous with musical theater,

but they didn't come together

until they were essentially mid-career.

What was it about this partnership that worked?

>> Well, their partnership was really a result

of a mid-life crisis for both of them.

Richard Rodgers' partner Larry Hart was falling apart

from alcoholism.

Oscar Hammerstein had had 12 straight years of flops.

And each was itching to do something new,

and with their first collaboration,Oklahoma,

that's just what they did.

>> BOWEN: Well, what was their working relationship like?

Because-- this is also so fascinating to me--

to have such success, it's not the relationship

I think most people would anticipate.

>> No, they were very close professionally,

they were in sync,

but they hardly ever worked in the same room.

They would have story conferences

to plot out their shows.

But when it came down to the brass tacks,

Oscar Hammerstein would write the lyrics in his house,

Richard Rodgers the music, later, in his.

Um, and at the end of their lives,

they each confessed to friends

that they weren't sure the other had really liked him.

They, they were very professional.

They signed their letters, "Love,"

which in the mid-20th century for men,

was a kind of unusual thing to do.

But they were careful and a little bit prickly.

Hammerstein's feelings were hurt.

He was the senior partner in terms of age and experience,

but he came second in the name,

and not in alphabetical order.

Rodgers was, uh, flush with all those years of success,

and Hammerstein, I think, just viewed that

as the price he had to pay for the collaboration.

So it's interesting they, they...

it's not like they let themselves have overt friction,

but bubbling under the surface

there was a, a good deal of tension at times.

>> ♪ Oh, what a beautiful morning ♪

♪ Oh, what a beautiful day

>> BOWEN: To think aboutCarousel

andOklahoma andSouth Pacific,

and how they were tied to this country coming out

of World War II.

How did those two coalesce,

those elements? >> No, they, they really were.

I mean,Oklahoma was... opened in 1943,

it was set in 1906, 1907, Indian territory.

It was nominally about the birth pangs of statehood.

But how audiences received it was as a testament

to what it took to settle the frontier,

to tame the country.

And by extension what it would take to win the war.

Carousel appeared just as the war was ending.

And as we know, halfway through the second act,

the hero kills himself rather than face arrest.

And, and then he comes back from the dead

to try to fix his life on Earth.

And returning servicemen and their families

who were very experienced with death

were shocked at those scenes,

and sometimes they would cry out in the audience,

"Oh, this is too much."

South Pacific was sort of ripped from the headlines.

Four years after the war had ended,

it was a, a very journalistic story,

a gritty depiction of what life was like

in the, in the Navy and the Marines during the war.

So they really were perfectly of their times,

and in some ways they took the culture of their moment

and reflected it back to the country in song.

>> BOWEN: What place did Boston and the Colonial have

in the shaping of these shows? >> Well, I think

a lot of their shoes were... shows were at the Shubert,

but some probably were at the Colonial as well.

Boston was very important in the shaping of their shows.

For example,The King and I

underwent a number of changes in Boston.

Boston is where "Getting To Know You"

was added toThe King and I,

because it was felt Mrs. Anna, the governess,

needed a scene with the children

that could warm up the first act.

Boston and the Ritz Carlton, specifically,

is where the last song they worked on,

"Edelweiss," was written.

Oscar Hammerstein was even then dying of cancer,

and he had missed the New Haven tryout.

And Rodgers thought Captain von Trapp needed another song,

so he wrote a melody.

And when Hammerstein arrived in Boston,

they got together at a piano in the Ritz,

and that's where they wrote "Edelweiss."

>> ♪ Edelweiss >> ♪ Edelweiss

>> ♪ Edelweiss >> ♪ Edelweiss

>> BOWEN: How remarkable is it

to their writing that people still think

that that is the Austrian national anthem?

>> No, I mean when President Reagan was in the White House,

and the Austrian president paid a state visit,

somebody ordered the Marine band to play it,

because they thought it was the Austrian national anthem.

The original Captain von Trapp, Theodore Bikel,

said that people would stop him all the time at the stage door

and say, "Oh, I know that song,

but only in the original German."

So I think it's a testament to the authenticity,

or the faux-authenticity of this, of their effort

that it was seen as...

it... that it could have been an Austrian folk song

or the Austrian national anthem,

just the way that "You'll Never Walk Alone" fromCarousel

sounds like an old New England hymn.

Um, so I think

that was a particular aspect of their genius

and part of the reason why their work has been so enduring.

>> BOWEN: How did they feel the pressure

of trying to meet each of their successes.

They weren't all successes... >> No, they had some...

>> BOWEN: You talk about a couple of their flops.

But what was it like to, to keep up that pressure?

>> I think the hardest thing for them,

by the time the mid-1950s rolled around--

when they'd been working together

for more than a decade--

they were so busy being Rodgers and Hammerstein

and managing their properties and managing their business,

that they didn't have time

for the creative work that really moved them.

>> BOWEN: Well, Todd Purdum, again the book

isSomething Wonderful; thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thanks so much for having me, my pleasure.

>> BOWEN: Next, in his 2019 book,

The Indispensible Composers,

New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini

considers who are the greatest composers of all time?

It's a project that proved both challenging

and controversial

for the composers who didn't make the list.

Anthony Tommasini, thank you so much for joining us.

The book is The Indispensable Composers.

Now, this started a number of years ago now as a project

of you looking at the greatest composers, which...

It, it sounds easy at the outset just to list,

but it was anything but.

What did this become?

>> It was just an intellectual game

that's played in all fields.

And it was 2011, and I did a series of articles

at theTimes over two weeks,

some big articles, and a bunch of videos--

for several years now,

I've, I've made videos, music videos.

The crew comes over to my apartment

and I sit down at the piano just like Uncle Lenny Bernstein

and play things and explain them.

We had maybe 2,000 readers who wrote in--

I mean, lots and lots of readers--

to come up with the top ten list

of composers of all time in order.

Now, my editor said, "If you're gonna play the game,

you have to really play it."

>> BOWEN: Let's step back for a moment

and talk about greatness, which is also how you begin the book.

>> It is, yeah.

>> BOWEN: How, how do you define greatness?

>> It's subjective, but in... there's something in,

they're in... there are definite things and elements

and skill sets and stuff that are... there's scope,

what you're aiming for, how ambitious the piece is.

There's a personal level you know, that, uh,

is very subjective in how people react to it,

but then at some... once...

And then, to me, in classical music especially,

there's finally this element of structure

because classical music...

the structure of it happens over time.

And even a 20-minute Haydn string quartet,

which is not too long,

only makes sense when you hear the whole thing.

Each part of it explains the other part,

and classical music, these composers take...

It's almost like architecture, you know?

It's architecture and sound,

and that to me is a very important element.

>> BOWEN: Who were the obvious ones?

>> The obvious ones are Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms.

You know, uh, then...

so... but my task in the book was to come up with something

to... for general readers to say,

"Okay, what's the big deal about Mozart?

What's the big deal about Beethoven?"

And let me see if I can really come to terms with that

and explain it.

The subtitle is "A Personal Guide."

And that is really important.

The only way I felt comfortable doing it

was to combine history, which I know a lot of,

and criticism, which by now, this point,

I'm, you know, a very practiced critic.

>> BOWEN: How far do you take your composers?

You don't take us into the present day.

>> Yeah, well, I'm constantly making sideswipes.

One of the things I love about contemporary music--

contemporary music, all, all the arts--

is that the specific issue of posterity and lasting greatness,

we're relieved of it.

You know, like, because we can't know.

You come out of a new movie, and you say,

"Oh, this is the greatest movie, the great..."

But you're not saying

where it's going to fit in the pantheon yet.

We're too close to that.

We argue about it, you know, we're involved with it,

and in a way, I love that about new music,

that it relieves you, in a sense, from...

>> BOWEN: Do you think we ever know in our lifetimes?

>> I think we're not so sure.

But in a way, I don't care.

What I love about, uh, a critic, being a critic,

is that I'm the first to describe this piece,

if it's a brand-new piece.

They... I'm needed.

Even a great performance of theEroica Symphony,

there's not much to say.

You... I... but you say, "Well, we all know it,

we all love it-- it happened again!"

You know, like...

But if it's a new piece that nobody's heard,

I'm tasked with saying, "Well, what was this piece about?"

As just my inclination is to try to be

as fair-minded and open as possible

the first time hearing something.

>> BOWEN: Well, I cannot let you leave without asking.

I feel like we're a Mahler town with the BSO here.

>> Right, yeah.

>> BOWEN: And you were a Boston guy for a very long time...

>> Yes, I was, yeah.

>> BOWEN: ...before going to that other city.

>> Yeah.

>> BOWEN: Will Mahler ever make it

into the subsequent paperback editions of your book?

>> I just don't quite have the Mahler bug.

I mean, I, I love those symphonies.

I think they're amazing,

but I do think they get a little...

They run on, they get a little, um, too, you know...

They're just a little long-winded for me,

but I love the Mahler songs.

You know, he's a giant, and, and a tremendous composer,

but I don't know, I had to go with my gut

on, on some level.

>> BOWEN: Well, Anthony Tommasini,

The Indispensable Composers,

it's a wonderful tour through classical music.

Thank you so much for being here.

>> Thanks for having me.

>> BOWEN: One of the most significant architectural icons

in this country is the glass Farnsworth House

outside Chicago.

Designed by Mies van der Rohe in the 1940s,

it was a marvel from the day its owner,

Edith Farnsworth, moved in.

But asBoston Globe columnist Alex Beam

writes in his latest book Broken Glass,

the modernist masterpiece became a monster.

Alex Beam, author ofBroken Glass,

thank you so much for joining us.

>> Jared, it's nice to see you.

Thank you very much.

>> BOWEN: So for people who aren't familiar

with the Farnsworth House, how do you describe

where it stands in the-- literally stands, I guess too--

in the canon of American architecture?

>> Ah, it's probably the...

best regarded, the most highly regarded example

of modernist residential architecture

of the 20th century.

It's easiest to understand in the context

of the better known Glasshouse,

which is a copy of the Farnsworth House

in New Canaan, Connecticut.

>> BOWEN: Here in your book, you tell this story

of these two figures who come together--

very maverick, very independent.

Tell us who Mies Van der Rohe and Edith--

Dr. Edith Farnsworth-- were when they met.

>> Right.

They met, um, during the last uh... last year of the war

in Chicago on the Gold Coast.

Mies Van der Rohe, it's hard to...

it's not hard, but it's complicated,

who he was in 1945.

He was probably with, say, Le Corbusier,

the most highly regarded European architect of that time.

He fled Nazism because basically Hitler didn't like

his architecture and Mies just wanted to build.

And chance threw him together with this sort of

41-year old, I guess, you know, doctor,

Dr. Edith Farnsworth.

Edith was a handsome, intelligent lady.

Anyway, they're having this ridiculous dinner party

and she says, "I got this nice riverside property.

Would you build me a house there?"

And Mies, again this comes out in the book,

Mies is very sort of chivalrous, very old school,

very attracted to women.

And so for some reason, he says yes, you know,

whether he's hoping to get a nice dinner out of it

or whatever; in any case, he says yes.

>> BOWEN: Well, that becomes the question.

Here she wanted a weekend house in this nine-acre, bucolic space

that you just described.

But he is one of the world's preeminent architects.

So did they really have the same mission at the outset?

>> She, she was interested in Mies

in every sense of the word.

And an academic has said that she was really

more of a patron in this relationship of Mies

than a client.

Now that becomes very blurred as the story progresses.

But it's become clear to me that Mies buoyed...

buoyed by her intelligence and her interest

in very arcane philosophical subjects, says,

"I'm going to build... I'm going to build

the platonic idea of a perfect summer house."

You know, a perfect villa,

a perfect modernist mid-20th century villa.

He constructs a residence exclusively made of pane glass

and beautiful white steel girders.

I think, in a way, he, he created a beautiful work,

a transcendent work of, of residential sculpture,

and felt that because of his warm, excellent relations

with the client, that he could do that,

and that she was enough of an art aficionado

to be comfortable with that.

>> BOWEN: You paint these great descriptions

of how hot it was in the summertime,

how cold it was in the wintertime,

what it was like to squeegee all those windows.

The fact that it was so close to being flooded

virtually all of the time, being right there on the river,

um, let alone the fact that

there were leaks and other things.

And you start to wonder, yes, he had wonderful concepts,

but did he know what he was doing necessarily there?

>> Well... it's hard to say.

He... you know, he was not a noted designer of residences,

he designed only one other in the United States.

His associate,

who was responsible for its construction, you know,

rather sheepishly admitted like 30 years later,

"You know, I wish I had known

about roof flashing," or something.

I mean, it's, it's nuts, of course, that,

that a top-level architect wouldn't know

the, the correct materials to use at the edge of a roof.

I mean, you know, in this case,

the worst case scenario comes to pass and that

eventually there's litigation about the house

and its many shortcomings are broadcast to the world.

>> BOWEN: Well, that becomes a... the great drama

as you have access to these, these trial transcripts

and what happened.

But how... they had such a good relationship at the outset.

As you mentioned, she probably wanted to be a patron.

It seems that there is a romantic relationship.

And then how epically did it explode as it went to trial?

>> Yeah, I mean, it's a... it's, it's... the trial is

like a divorce trial.

This crazy, crazy lawsuit that Mies actually filed to get,

I guess $6,000 or $7,000,

um, you know, created this 4,000-page transcript

of utter vitriol from both sides.

As you can see in the book, you know,

Edith's lawyers deliberately humiliate Mies.

They make fun of his inability to speak very coherent English.

And they're very depreciative, shall we say, of his, you know,

the fact that he didn't put air conditioning in there,

the fact he didn't use thermal pane glass.

And they kind of put him... they kind of put him on trial

as a European aesthete who basically doesn't know

anything about plumbing.

>> BOWEN: We all know on the East Coast,

the Glass House that Philip Johnson did that is now iconic,

that people can visit just as they can the Farnsworth House.

But was there just out and out plagiarism there

by Philip Johnson when he created his house?

>> That's a complicated question.

Johnson and Mies had a, you know,

a mentor-mentee relationship, very, very weird relationship

that lasted all of Philip Johnson's life.

Um... the short answer is, in fact, it is a copy.

On the other hand, Mies was never angry

that Johnson had copied it.

Having said that, I mean, Johnson did literally take

the plans off of Mies' desk and built it before

the Farnsworth House was built, about three years before.

>> BOWEN: Take us through what it's like to be at the house.

>> (laughing): Well, it is, you know they...

they do yoga there, I mean,

it's a pretty meditative space, right?

And it's funny, uh...

my book wasn't particularly heavily edited,

but I think I included somewhere

the fact that I would live in that house.

Um, you know, the, the operative phrase for Mies is,

you know, "We will let the outside in."

He wanted to celebrate nature, really--

the river in front, the meadow behind, trees all around.

I find it striking.

And I think most people, um, find it kind of ethereal.

It's really a beautiful work of art.

>> BOWEN: Well, Alex Beam, thank you so much for being with us.

It was such a great work of art about a work of art.

Thank you.

>> Hey, Jared, thank you for taking the interest.

I very much appreciate it.

>> BOWEN: I am so happy to be back in the studio, by the way.

That is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week, a host of seasonal holiday offerings,

including Handel'sMessiah for our time.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

And on behalf of all of us atOpen Studio,

I'd like to wish you the happiest of holidays,

and best wishes for a healthy new year.

As always, you can visit us online at

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,



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