NPR’s ‘What Makes It Great?’ coming to NMM Nov. 21

By Travis Gulbrandson

On Thursday, Nov. 21, area music-lovers will have the opportunity to go below the surface of a piece by Beethoven to find out “what makes it great.”

That’s because public radio host Rob Kapilow will bring his show “What Makes It Great?” to the National Music Museum (NMM) to tape a performance with the University of South Dakota’s Rawlins Trio.

“(Kapilow) does everything from A to Z,” said Cleveland Johnson, Ph.D., executive director of the NMM. “He’ll do everything from a Beatles tune all the way up to Beethoven.

“It’s all about helping listeners get beneath the surface, because whether you’re talking about a pop tune or whether you’re talking about a great classical treasure, all of us can benefit by listening more carefully,” Johnson said. “He helps everybody understand that by asking a few simple questions, you can get beyond the outer trappings of any song and discover a great deal of interest in music that we consume every day. Rob makes it very fun.”

The piece Kapilow will discuss and the Rawlins Trio will perform Thursday is Beethoven’s Archduke Trio.

“What he does is explain music,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t necessarily perform it. He will demonstrate some things on the piano, but the shows that he does revolve around a particular composition that he takes apart and very entertainingly deconstructs, explains and reassembles for the audience to hear.”

Kapilow and the Trio also will perform an abbreviated version of Thursday’s show for free the following day at 12:05 p.m. at one of the NMM’s Brown Bag Lunches.

Thursday’s event came about through a contact Johnson has with IMG Artists, a management group.

“When I first came to the museum last year I was in touch with him to let him know that I was here and that there was this really cool institution out here in South Dakota, and that I was interested in finding connections and opportunities to help get our name out more on the national horizon,” Johnson said.

One of the suggestions he came away with was a taping of “From the Top,” which did take place earlier this year.

The other was “What Makes It Great?”

Johnson said Kapilow’s trip to Vermillion “started out as him just coming to see the collection, because he just wanted to see the museum and get to know it.”

Then the opportunity for a performance arose, and Johnson suggested the Rawlins Trio.

“That collaboration was kind of the keystone to bringing it all together,” he said.

Kapilow will arrive in Vermillion on Monday night and leave Saturday morning. During that time, he will be meeting with Johnson and the NMM’s curators to learn more about the collection.

Johnson said he thinks he and Kapilow share a vision for communicating about music and using it to connect with the broader public.

“Being located here in South Dakota, it really is incumbent on us to figure out how to reach a much wider public, because the collection demands it,” Johnson said. “Rob is interested in our collection from over 1,000 miles away. He knows about us, he’s curious about what’s here, and I know he and I are going to have a fun time brainstorming about what could be done using modern media to share it with the broader public.”

In addition to seeing the collection, Johnson said he hopes Kapilow will come away with a sense of the stories the collection can tell.

“So many instruments are more than just objects,” Johnson said. “They represent a culture, they represent a tradition, they represent a performer, they represent a performance style, they represent a story that encapsulates all of that.

“The question is, is there a way to package those stories, to make them informative, educational and interesting for a broad audience? That’s probably the main reason that he and I are getting together here, just to explore what the potential of the collection is.”

Thursday’s performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the NMM. General admission is $12, $9 for seniors and $6 for children and students with ID.

Tickets are available at the museum or online via EventBrite at


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