Thoughts on Bob Capanna’s Remembrance

What really matters in the arts? Bob Capanna remembrance served as a reminder


Arts leaders at a memorial concert for Settlement Music School’s Bob Capanna (above) celebrated his life and achievements.

It’s not every day that the arts community gets together to talk about a set of principles. But if you listened between the lines last Sunday at the Perelman Theater, that’s what was happening at the memorial for Robert Capanna.

The event shouldn’t have been happening at all, said one speaker. But happening it was: a remembrance of Capanna, the composer who stepped down as head of the Settlement Music School at the end of 2009 after 27 years. Capanna died in January at age 65 – too soon by any clock, but tragically early considering he had consolidated a lifetime of knowledge and experience in music, administration, and investment management into a singular set of strengths.

Given all this, plus the trust and credibility he engendered from donors, he should be running the Philadelphia Orchestra right about now. Maybe his spirit will animate that search for a new president with some imagination.

It seems an apt time to weave together a few of the threads that made Capanna who he was — the Bobness of Bob, if you will. Capanna embodied a set of high ideals that arts institutions might aim for as the sector struggles with questions of identity versus survival, art versus entertainment, flavor-of-the-month programming ideas to please funders versus core mission, and the endless strain of working harder for an ever-smaller slice of the attention pie.

Clarifying Sunday’s comments down to a core philosophy, you might conclude that the arts community doesn’t need more foundations developing position papers on cultural policy or consultants lording that policy over arts groups. What it needs is a little more time connecting with the soul of art.

A composer himself — Capanna once called his music “wildly unpopular and difficult” — the South Philadelphian had a way of cutting right to the heart of the matter. Several speakers Sunday referenced it, sometimes humorously.

When he came across something with which he disagreed, he called it “cute,” said Matthew Levy, executive and co-artistic director of the Prism Quartet. That decoding surely had many of us shifting in our seats uncomfortably, trying to recall whether Capanna ever applied the word to any idea we floated in his presence.

Big truths in small morsels

He rendered strong opinions generously, but what was remarkable was how much truth he could pack into one concise, carefully aimed volley.

Capanna would often host pre-concert talks for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and Philip Maneval, PCMS’s executive director, recalled one memorable audience back-and-forth that went like this:

“Why can’t living composers write music like Brahms?” one listener asked, to which Bob replied, “They don’t need to, Brahms already did!”

In that one sentence, without condescension or pretentiousness, Capanna managed an entire explanation of why we need contemporary composers.

Audience member: “How have recordings changed the way that people perform today?”

Capanna: “Well, they’ve made musicians far too careful.”

What truth. Through natural selection, many of the instrumentalists and conductors we hear today are technically superior and musically cold — or at least, putting too much emphasis on the former and not enough on the latter.

“He answered each question intelligently, patiently, and with a smile. Invariably, he would educate and win over everyone,” said Maneval.

Music for the prodigies and the rest of us

Sunday’s memorial, which included performances of Capanna’s own compositions, was a chance for colleagues to thank him. Among them was Katharine Sokoloff, retired fund-raiser for Settlement Music School, who said that Capanna showed her that “music doesn’t only belong to prodigies and that Settlement faculty is the school’s heart and soul.”

Again, so much truth, so few words.

The arts world remains terribly taken with prodigies. Their unlikely nature makes for admittedly compelling stories. But the idea that prodigies are more deserving of opportunity and attention is a pernicious notion. Every artist develops and matures at a different point and rate. There are early bloomers who fade, and latecomers who, mysteriously one day, arrive fully formed.

Let’s also not forget that students not destined to become professional should get training, too. They are tomorrow’s ticket buyers, donors, and board members. Capanna never forgot that music was for everyone.

And, as Capanna intimated, for all of the larding of the upper administration at many an arts organization (admittedly necessary in the modern age), the core strength of a school is at the point of contact between student and teacher, just as the of an orchestra or theater troupe begins and ends with who’s on stage.

What ‘real art’ requires

I don’t think anyone specifically referenced Capanna’s thoughts on today’s confusion over what qualifies as art and what as entertainment, but he once explained it to me this way: Experiencing art takes work, he said. “That’s what separates real art from entertainment. Real art requires an effort on the part of the listener and viewer. That doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining; it’s richer.”

And in entertainment, his taste was superb. Not long ago we told him we were binge-watching the Supergirl series on Netflix with our daughter. “Oh, that’s a good show,” he shot back.

If you’re wondering how Capanna’s words found action in his lifetime, just look at his deeds at Settlement Music School. Philadelphia’s arts groups as a whole finally seem serious about social mission and the democratization of the arts. But Capanna long ago greatly expanded the school’s reach to younger, older, and more diverse students, and set about finding them in more parts of the region.

Surely, Capanna cannot have been uniquely wise or capable. There happens to be a lot of talent in town today, and many arts leaders are coming up with creative ideas for a changing world. David Devan at Opera Philadelphia and Catherine Cahill at the Mann often impress with their ability to create new art from scant resources.

Capanna himself saw evolution as being healthy. When he retired from Settlement, he said: “I think inevitably the institution needs to change and develop, and after 30 years you can’t continue to do that. It’s the way life is. Nothing is forever. ”

True enough. But Capanna often functioned as a kind of conscience for the city, a one-man reality check against fad masquerading as innovation, and with an abiding belief in the common good and achieving it through an institution.

Sunday’s recollections got to the core of what matters most in art, and Capanna always knew how to get there without selling out. We are not likely to see all that again in one package anytime soon.

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