A Couple of Givers: Bruce & Suzie Kovner, Part IV

Detail of Ludwig van Beethoven portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820 (Wikimedia)
Music and more music, with a dose of theater

Editor’s Note: Bruce and Suzie Kovner have won the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership. It is given by the Philanthropy Roundtable. The Kovners are celebrated in the current issue of Philanthropy magazine. The article about them is based on reporting by our Jay Nordlinger. In a series this week, he is writing about the Kovners himself, in a kind of amplification. Previous parts are at the following links: I, II, and III.

We have gone a long while, getting to know the Kovners, without mentioning music. This is a little like talking about Texas without talking about oil, or cattle, or Dallas. Growing up, Suzie loved music. “But I was a little more Donna Summer than Dvorak, if you know what I mean.” (Some poor, misguided anti-Romantics regard Donna and Dvorak as roughly equal.) Suzie took piano lessons, and also violin lessons. “I loved my violin case, with the red velvet inside, and I loved the bow and everything else. But I was not a good player. I probably liked the instrument more than I liked to play it. I was not disciplined.” Now, however, she is steeped in music, and a leader on the musical scene. She is a trustee of Carnegie Hall, for one thing.

Music is of utmost importance to Bruce Kovner. At 15, he was in the car with his mother, and something came on the radio. “What in the world is that?” he wondered. It was not exactly of this world: It was a movement of Holst’s Planets, “Mars.” It set him on a new course.

The first record he ever bought was of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — how can you do better? — and he bought it from the Exodus Book and Record Shop in Sherman Oaks, Calif. The shop was owned by Leon Uris, who had written a novel of the same name: one of the best-selling books of the time. Bruce’s parents did not listen to classical music. But they did their son a great favor: They signed him up for the Columbia Record Club. In came a starter set of (other) canonical symphonies. The first record that Bruce chose for himself was of the Brahms Piano Concerto in B flat, with Sviatoslav Richter as soloist and Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (That was another really good choice.)

In college, Bruce learned to play the piano. He also became very interested in Baroque music, reading Paul Henry Lang’s book on Handel, and poking around a storage room that contained clavichords and harpsichords. “I was the only one interested in playing them,” he says.

When he went to New York from Harvard in the early 1970s, he took classes at the Juilliard School — in harmony, for example. He also wrote some articles about music for Commentary magazine, edited by Norman Podhoretz (another total devotee of music). Those were not the only articles he wrote for Commentary. He also penned, in his words, “a couple of rants attacking the limits-of-growth arguments, the neo-Malthusianism.” I’m sure those rants were right.

Kovner came to an appreciation of opera rather later — after he was absorbed in piano music, symphonic music, chamber music, etc. (I can sing a verse or two of that song myself.) Following his sophomore year in college, he went to Paris, where he took in Gounod’s Faust at the Garnier. It was an interesting spectacle. But it did not exactly chime with Bruce. The first opera that really grabbed him was Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. (That’ll do it.) There was another significant experience, too.

“When I came to New York, I didn’t have any money, but I would try to go every night to music or theater. Beverly Sills was singing the Three Queens [of Donizetti] at City Opera. I got seats up in the gods, as they say, and I remember sitting there listening to her with tears in my eyes and thinking, ‘It just doesn’t get any better than this.’”

After her singing career was over, Sills remained a big man on campus: the Lincoln Center campus. She had leading administrative roles. Bruce got to know her well. They worked closely together. “Good friend. Loved her.” Bruce is vice chairman of Lincoln Center. Suzie, too, bubbles over about Beverly Sills: “She was so full of life, so much fun.” Before coming to the Kovners’ for dinner, Sills would insist that she wanted nothing rich: no butter, no cream. Then, when Suzie would serve her a lovely plate of berries for dessert, Sills would exclaim, in her trademark style, “Why can’t I have the chocolate cake like everyone else?”

Bruce joined the board of the New York Philharmonic. Also of the Metropolitan Opera. He is no longer on the former board, but he is still on the second. In any case, it is the Juilliard School — an alma mater of sorts for him — that has received the lion’s share of his attention and philanthropy. He joined the Juilliard board in 1995 and became its chairman in 2001. He still occupies this role.

He has contributed many ideas and much money. And many precious documents. (More on this in a moment.) In 2009, expressing his devotion to the Baroque, Kovner endowed a new program in historical performance. This is a graduate program, and all of its students are on full-tuition scholarship. In establishing this program, Kovner had the help of his old classmate at Harvard, Bill Christie, best known for his French Baroque ensemble, Les Arts Florissants.

In 2013, Bruce and Suzie set up a program with their name on it — very rare, in Kovner philanthropy. With a gift of $60 million, they established the Kovner Fellowship Program. Its students, the Kovner Fellows, have won the lottery, in effect. The entirety of their education at Juilliard is paid for, and they also have money to travel to auditions and the like. They are able to start their careers free of debt, which is no ordinary thing.

Why is the Kovners’ name on the program, uncharacteristically? Mainly because they wanted personal relationships with the students. This is a personal gift, a personal program, a personal experience.

The Kovners get a kick out of being around young people, and the feeling is mutual, no doubt. Bruce and Suzie take the fellows out to lunch and dinner. They have them to their country home, for apple-picking. (This is something that the city kids wonder at.) They take them to concerts, operas, plays, lectures, and so forth. Suzie describes one student after a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: He was speechless, staggered, red-eyed. He had to be alone for a bit.

And though the Kovners may not be in philanthropy to be thanked, they are thanked, now and then. “We just got a note from a mom,” says Suzie, “who said, ‘Since our son has been hanging out with you, we’ve noticed how mature he has become. He has even changed his manner of dress. So, we thank you very much for helping with that.’”

Suzie is a leader of a program called Ensemble Connect, which is a partnership between Carnegie Hall and the Juilliard School. Its aim is to support young professionals as they begin their careers. In turn, public schools and their students are helped — for these young professionals go into schools and teach.

One afternoon at Juilliard, I attend an Ensemble Connect concert with the Kovners. Many schools take part, and one of them is PS 16, an elementary school in Queens. Its orchestra is to play a couple of movements from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Up steps a boy in Renaissance garb, with a red scarf on his head. “Buon giorno!” he says. “My name is Antonio Vivaldi.” The red scarf, it becomes clear, stands for the composer’s flaming-red hair. (The boy himself is Asian-American.) This same child then conducts the orchestra, competently.

Earlier, I mentioned documents. Bruce Kovner is a collector of rare books, as you know. He also collects rare musical documents: manuscripts, sketchbooks, printer’s proofs, and so on. He did this intensively for about ten years. And, in 2006, he donated his collection to Juilliard. It comprises some 140 documents. It includes treasures from Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, just to name a big three. And the collection is called — you will not be surprised — the “Juilliard Manuscript Collection.”

I was there for the press conference ten years ago, when the collection was announced and unveiled. I remember rubbing my eyes at pages of The Marriage of Figaro, in the composer’s own hand. And at similarly awe-inspiring documents. Kovner is a reader of scores, a student of scores, and he especially likes to collect documents that reveal something about the working process. How did a composer get to where he finished?

Once again, I am rubbing my eyes at these treasures — this time in a room specially created for the collection in 2009. Jane Gottlieb, who is Juilliard’s chief librarian, says that the collection “had an enormous impact on the school and on the musicological community.” Bruce’s gift encouraged other such giving. And scholars have come from far and wide to look at his collection. Plus, anyone can see it for himself, online, for Bruce strongly encouraged Juilliard to digitize the collection, which they did in 2007.

Among the documents is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in a printer’s proof — with Beethoven’s own markings on it. His corrections and changes, in his own hand. This is the score that he used at the symphony’s premiere, one of the most famous and moving events in all musical history. According to the lore, the deaf Beethoven kept conducting even after the musicians had stopped playing. A singer turned him around, to see the applauding, standing, weeping crowd.

Kovner bought this score at Sotheby’s in 2004. He did so anonymously (which is how he buys). But word got out that the score had been snapped up by an American businessman, and there was some gnashing of teeth, including in the press. The sentiment was, “This precious document in the hands of a vulgar moneyman! American, no less! What a blow to civilization!” The score could not have been in better hands, of course. And this brings up a question I would like to ask Bruce.

He does some of his hanging out in arts circles, and I’m sure he hears his views insulted. The level of political ignorance in this community is high, matched only by the level of political certainty. When he hears his views insulted, how does he handle it? Do people think that money grows on trees, to fall into their deserving and entitled laps?

Kovner is, of course, circumspect and low-key. I don’t know him well, but I know him a little, and it’s hard for me to imagine him rattled. “I never fight back,” he says, “but I do sometimes find an opportunity to explain why certain principles are effective. If I have the opportunity to explain how markets work, I do so. If I have the opportunity to explain the nature of innovation, competition, creative destruction, trade — all of the principles not only of markets but of the entire great liberal enlightenment — I do so. But I don’t do it in the context of battle. I do it when someone is interested in why something happens that he doesn’t understand.”

Returning to music, I ask Kovner whether he is a commissioner of pieces — a composer’s patron. “I established at Juilliard a fund for commissions,” he says. “We do a lot of commissioning at Juilliard.” He and Suzie have done some direct and personal commissioning, however. For example, they commissioned a piece on the occasion of Bruce’s 65th birthday in 2010. It was from Ben Moore, an American, who wrote a song-cycle on “Ode to a Nightingale,” the Keats poem.

Suzie is a devotee of the theater, as we have learned, but her husband can’t be far behind her. He is a governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “So, here’s my quaint belief,” he says. “I actually think that great literature takes us on a moral journey that is useful for us to go on, and I want to go on this journey regularly because it makes me feel like a better human being.” Movies are well and good, but there is nothing like a live performance, he says. “The emotional transmission, the sense of identification with the human beings onstage, is so strong, it is sometimes as strong as I can bear. And, to me, it’s irreplaceable.”

Thank you for joining me — joining the Kovners and me — ladies and gentlemen. We’ll wrap up tomorrow.


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