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December 21, 2008

Gilbert Kaplan — Episode 2: 'An unclothed emperor, a talent-free conductor who brings little to the work'


According to Daniel J. Wakin, writing in a December 18, 2008 New York Times Arts section front page story, that's how Kaplan (above) — "a wealthy businessman with an obsession for Mahler's Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)" — is viewed by some of the musicians who perform for him.

Kaplan's ascendancy to the rarified heights of conducting was noted here in Episode 1 on December 6, 2008.

The less than laudatory views surfaced following Kaplan's December 8, 2008 performance leading the New York Philharmonic in his signature (and only) piece.

Wakin's article follows.

    Mahler Fan With Baton Cues Unrest in the Ranks

    Gilbert E. Kaplan, a wealthy businessman with an obsession for Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”), has made a name conducting the piece around the world, earning the hearty approval of orchestra managers, audiences and many critics.

    But to some of the musicians who perform for Mr. Kaplan, he remains an unclothed emperor, a talent-free conductor who brings little to the work. Such a view bubbled into rebellion at the New York Philharmonic when Mr. Kaplan led the work on Dec. 8. The day of the concert, the players demanded a meeting with Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s president, and complained about Mr. Kaplan’s conducting for an hour.

    On Monday a trombonist in the orchestra, David Finlayson, laid out a sprawling indictment against Mr. Kaplan on his blog (davidfinlayson.typepad.com/fin_notes). It was an unusually public airing of complaints in a profession notorious for excoriating conductors in private.

    “My colleagues and I gave what we could to this rudderless performance but the evening proved to be nothing more than a simplistic reading of a very wonderful piece of music,” he wrote. Mr. Kaplan acknowledged in rehearsal that he was incapable of keeping a steady beat, Mr. Finlayson added. Despite being a self-professed expert on the piece, Mr. Kaplan ignored Mahler’s “blizzard” of directions, Mr. Finlayson wrote.

    He called Mr. Kaplan’s music career a “woefully sad farce” built on the complicity of orchestra managements and a willingness to donate money. “We can rely only on ourselves to stand firm against any attempts to promote this imposter,” Mr. Finlayson added.

    On Tuesday the Philharmonic said that Mr. Kaplan had been engaged at the suggestion of Lorin Maazel, its music director, but that Mr. Kaplan would not be asked back. “I believe the orchestra feels there are more appropriate conductors to conduct the Mahler Second,” said Eric Latzky, the orchestra’s spokesman. Mr. Maazel, who was conducting in Italy, did not immediately respond to a message left with his office on Wednesday.

    In a telephone interview Mr. Kaplan said that it was “perfectly fine for musicians to draw their own conclusions,” and that strong opinions among orchestra players were common.

    “I don’t think anyone will confuse me with Lorin Maazel when it comes to technique, and I may need to speak more than somebody who is more skillful, like Lorin, but I do get the results I want, and I did get the results I wanted that night. If some people are displeased, I can’t help it.”

    He said that his reference to keeping a steady beat had been to one section where other conductors have difficulty, and he had been simply asking the orchestra’s help in keeping it.

    Mr. Kaplan said he never expected to be invited back to the Philharmonic, because the concert, a benefit for the players’ pension fund, was a special event. He denied ever having received a conducting invitation in exchange for making donations.

    Mr. Latzky said that Mr. Kaplan had given $10,000 to $12,500 a year for the last seven or eight years to the orchestra’s annual fund but that those contributions were unrelated to his appearance.

    Mr. Kaplan went on to point out that a critic for The New York Times had praised his Dec. 8 performance in a review like those he has received widely over the years. The reviewer, Steve Smith, wrote that it was clear that Mr. Kaplan was no professional conductor, but that he beat time proficiently and gave the necessary cues. “His efforts were evident throughout a performance of sharp definition and shattering power,” Mr. Smith added. The audience gave a standing ovation, although Mr. Mehta and Mr. Maazel remained seated, others in attendance said.

    Mr. Kaplan’s performances present a particularly extreme example of the gap that can exist between the way performers perceive a concert and the way listeners do: a gulf as old as music criticism itself.

    In the case of Mr. Kaplan’s “Resurrection” concerts, musicians say that a top professional orchestra, especially a great Mahler orchestra like the Philharmonic, can bypass the conductor and produce a superlative performance on its own. And the “Resurrection” is so powerful a piece — and relatively infrequently done, because of the large forces required — that any performance is deeply affecting.

    What’s more, as Mr. Finlayson suggested, Mr. Kaplan’s story is appealing: he is an amateur who broke into the professional ranks through sheer passion. The founder of the magazine Institutional Investor, Mr. Kaplan, now 67, fell in love with the “Resurrection” as a young economist in 1965 and has spent his life studying it.

    After his debut in 1982 he has conducted the piece with more than 50 orchestras and has been called in news articles one of the world’s leading authorities on Mahler’s Second. He owns the original manuscript and is co-editor of a new edition considered the official score by the International Gustav Mahler Society in Vienna. He has recorded the work twice, with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. The London Symphony recording has been described as the best-selling Mahler issue ever.

    But none of that convinces some members of the Philharmonic, who express views similar to those in Mr. Finlayson’s blog post.

    “I think he’s a charlatan,” said Peter Kenote, a violist. “At best his conducting is incompetent. At worst it’s laughable. I don’t feel the New York Philharmonic should be the platform for his obsession.”

    Orchestra members said it was particularly egregious for Mr. Kaplan to obtain the concert date when so many other hard-working conductors did not have such opportunities. His presence, they said, was an insult, given the musical legends who had led the Philharmonic in the work in the past: Leonard Bernstein, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, even Mahler himself. The Dec. 8 performance was on the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s presentation of the work’s American debut, with the New York Symphony, which later merged with the Philharmonic.

    Musicians in other orchestras had faint praise for Mr. Kaplan’s conducting. “Everything was sort of in the right place, but it didn’t tear your heart out,” Christopher Wu, a violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, said of a performance there in 2002.

    Matthew Guilford, a bass trombonist in the National Symphony Orchestra, said of a 2004 performance in Washington: “He wasn’t able to really show much, other than being the traffic cop. This is a piece that requires a great deal of passion, and it was nonexistent.” But he said the performance had been well received by the audience and reviewers.

    “This piece always sells well,” he said. “It’s got a great ending. It inspires people to get on their feet and clap.”

December 21, 2008 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I've never heard any of Gilbert Kaplan's recordings of the second, nor have I seen him conduct it, but I must admit the idea of it being the only thing he conducts worried me. I like to keep an open mind about that kind of thing, but I thought the piece on David Finlayson's blog (including the comments) was very interesting. I would ALWAYS listen carefully to what the musicians have to say in such a case. And still, you know what, if I had the opportunity, I'd probably go watch Kaplan conduct it anyway, just out of curiosity. Poor Mahler.

Posted by: Flautist | Dec 22, 2008 5:01:56 PM

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