The voice of the Phil
Alec Baldwin taps into his inner music geek.
Thu Sep 9 2010
Photograph: Chris Lee
Early on a weekday morning, Alec Baldwin is playing YouTube clips over the phone. With an almost obsessive focus, he's pulled up Enoch Arden played by pianist John Bell, the Tennyson text recited by Michael York. The composer's name escapes Baldwin for a moment. Then it hits him: "Strauss! Yeah, it's Strauss," he says with a glee usually reserved for boys a quarter of his age looking up less-wholesome videos on the same website. "Very melodramatic," he adds after a few seconds of the lengthy piece. Baldwin may be slick (if not occasionally psychotic) as Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, but as the New York Philharmonic's radio host, he's also started to become a bit of a classical-music geek.
Baldwin's transformation has been a few decades in the making, as the Emmy Award--winning actor later reveals while naming the musical influences in his childhood (more Sarah Vaughan than Ralph Vaughan Williams), pausing to recount his eighth-grade music-appreciation classes. "We had a guy, his name was Fred Stoller...this tall, very theatrical-looking guy, handlebar mustache," Baldwin says. "And he was playing Menotti for us; he was playing The Telephone. He's introducing us to the world of Menotti operas, and we're sitting there going, 'What the?!?' We were kids—we were 14 years old from Long Island!"
Something apparently stuck, however. And though Baldwin claims not to have known the meaning of the word sostenuto (a sustained note) when he began working with the Phil, he was omnipresent at their concerts long before they ever began their partnership (which started when former artistic administrator Matias Tarnopolsky asked him to narrate an "Inside the Music" concert). When the spot for a radio announcer came up last year—in music director Alan Gilbert's earth-shaking inaugural season—Alec was the obvious choice: an everyman in terms of musical pedigree, but an instantly recognizable celebrity whose voice forces people to stop and listen.
"When you work with people like this who—this is their world, that repertoire is their world—you have to kind of catch up with them," Baldwin explains. "The good side of that was the opportunity to learn about pieces I'd never heard of before, and to hear pieces played that I wound up liking."
A crash course in symphonic repertoire, running the gamut from Baroque to the present day, has given Baldwin a broadened musical palate as enviable as his job description for the Phil: namely, familiarizing himself with the music, then announcing it for the Phil's syndicated radio broadcasts, The New York Philharmonic This Week (which resume on September 27). It's a job Baldwin takes seriously, dissecting each word of his script prior to going on air. "There's a reverence," he says of the gig. "I'll be honest with you, even the way you say the name of the orchestra... Almost every time I read the copy, I'll take a break and say, 'And now we will hear the Mahler Ninth Symphony; Leonard Bernstein conducts'—and then you take a break—'the New York Philharmonic.' You lay it out like, 'Who else would you want to listen to?' "
Between his announcing duties and the occasional gig onstage—he narrated L'histoire du Soldat under Valery Gergiev's baton in last season's Russian Stravinsky festival—working in classical music may even be a significant career change for Baldwin, who now eschews making movies, or, as he calls it, "the potato chip business. People just sit back, you just go for it, reach for it, and you don't think. You're not supposed to think," he says. And while he still cherishes his work as Jack Donaghy—"I think he'd be on the board of the Philharmonic and he'd go to all the shows and he'd have some inappropriately aged woman on his arm...listening to the incredibly romantic military marches of John Philip Sousa"—the 21st century may have found its Werner Klemperer in this newly converted orchestra geek.
The New York Philharmonic opens its 2010--11 season at Avery Fisher Hall (at Lincoln Center) Wed 22.