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December 6, 2008

Gilbert Kaplan's One-Trick Pony: Mahler's Second Symphony


Like Isaiah Berlin's hedgehog, Gilbert Kaplan (above) knows one thing.

In Kaplan's case, it's Mahler's second symphony.

And, like the proverbial hedgehog, he knows it very, very well.

How well?

Long story short: an economist by training, Kaplan has over four decades become, in the eyes of many music professionals, the world's foremost conductor and interpreter of Mahler's overwhelmingly complex and difficult piece.

Details of his rise are contained in the Economist's November 27, 2008 article, which follows.

    Desperately seeking Mahler

    He conducts just one symphony, Mahler’s second. But Gilbert Kaplan has radically changed the way Mahler is perceived, both by audiences and other musicians

    One April Saturday in 1965, an economist at the American Stock Exchange was taken by a friend to an orchestral rehearsal at Carnegie Hall. He watched impassively as Leopold Stokowski, the aged Hollywood maestro who conducted “Fantasia”, stop-started Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.2 in C minor all afternoon. The economist thought little of it until later that night, when, sleeplessly, he tossed and turned, haunted by the music he had heard. Next morning he bought a ticket and at the concert “just found myself sobbing, absolutely hysterical”.

    The young man was about to launch a publishing business and, with it, to define an occupation. With $100,000 borrowed from Gerald Bronfman, a whisky magnate, and $50,000 from banks, friends and his own savings, Gilbert Kaplan, 24 years old, founded Institutional Investor, a monthly magazine that brought together bankers, analysts and money managers. It quickly became an essential means of communication for financiers, attracting 150,000 subscribers in 140 countries. Before the 1960s were over Mr Kaplan was a millionaire and on first-name terms with finance ministers and international bankers.

    But Mahler’s symphony would not let him rest. Over the next few years he attended every performance within reach, met his future wife in the adjacent seat at London’s Royal Festival Hall and, as the obsession intensified, took 18 months off work to study the score and discuss it with such leading interpreters as Leonard Bernstein, Sir Georg Solti and Leonard Slatkin. In September 1982, after an International Monetary Fund summit, he put his reputation on the line by conducting the American Symphony Orchestra in a private performance for financiers and politicians at the Lincoln Centre. A former British prime minister, Sir Edward Heath, himself a spare-time conductor, called it “a very remarkable feat”, but that was, if anything, an understatement.

    Mahler’s second symphony, known as the “Resurrection” for its rousing choral climax and theological theme, is one of the trickiest works in the repertory, a 90- minute epic involving a huge orchestra, chorus, two vocal soloists and an invisible offstage group of brass and percussion that seldom come in on cue. Discussing the purpose of life on earth, its unwieldiness regularly defeats the best efforts of famous maestros. For a rank amateur to accomplish a performance without breaking down in the vast finale was tantamount to a musical revolution. Privately Mr Kaplan now admits that if the musicians had failed to respond to his beat or the music fell apart (as it sometimes does in the best of hands), his fallback plan was to turn around to the audience and announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served.”

    His feat, discreet though it was, reverberated throughout the music world. Over the following years Mr Kaplan was invited to conduct flagship ensembles at La Scala in Milan, in Munich and Vienna, to open the prestigious Salzburg festival and to give the work its Chinese premiere in Beijing. His recording, made in Cardiff in 1985, has outsold Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado and all other contenders. On December 8th his odyssey reaches an emotional apotheosis when he conducts the work with the New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Centre’s Avery Fisher Hall 100 years to the night after the composer, with the same orchestra, gave the piece its American premiere.

    Pleasing as this symmetry will be to the now-retired publisher, the results of his presumption are far-reaching. Mr Kaplan is acknowledged as the leading technical authority on Mahler’s second symphony, consulted by many professional maestros on matters of detail. He was the first to import television screens and cameras to communicate with the offstage band, a device now in common use.

    He owns the composer’s manuscript, acquiring it in 1984 from a Dutch foundation, publishing it in facsimile and obliging Vienna’s Universal Edition to print a corrected new score which is faithful to Mahler’s final amendments. The Vienna Philharmonic gave its first note-perfect performance under Mr Kaplan’s baton and he experienced his deepest satisfaction when the horn section, struggling in a recording session to accommodate the changes, played one passage 11 times in their earnestness to get it right.

    Mr Kaplan’s involvement with the second symphony has made it probably the most talked-about of Mahler’s works, diverting public attention away from the morbidity of his last great pieces. The long-standing image of Mahler as a composer of doom has been set aside, in part through Mr Kaplan’s advocacy.

    That an unskilled dreamer could teach professionals how to bring off a masterpiece is a fantasy that many share but few presume to achieve. Mr Kaplan, after his first performance, said: “I had a feeling that people in the audience were urging me to fulfil my dream. They were up with me on the podium that night, playing baseball for the Yankees, writing the book they never wrote or getting the girl they never got.”

    His has been a triumph of ambition over intractable matter, a fulfilment of Mahler’s faith in Arthur Schopenhauer’s idea that the human will can overcome any force on earth. Or, in more contemporary Obamist rhetoric, Yes We Can.




December 6, 2008 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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Anybody who can listen to the finale without crying or fainting or pissing themselves or something, can't be human. And if you do anything before you kick off, hear/see this live in person. That said, my favorite movements are the second and third. If you want to get all music-geeky and read a lengthy musical breakdown of the piece, check this out from andante's website:


I love how it says the end of the third movement ends in a "vast B-flat minor climactic tutti" -- I think everybody should have a vast climactic tutti at least a couple times a week, fer shure!

I just listened to the whole Simon Rattle/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra version on YouTube; it's excellent. But then I'm partial to old Rattle. I love watching him conduct (if that's what you can call it) this bit from the second movement:


For sheer joy of the Bernstein kind, watching him conduct the end of the piece is fun:


Posted by: Flautist | Dec 6, 2008 1:58:43 PM

What a beautifully written piece. I loved this. Thank you for posting it. Off to buy the CD.

Posted by: Milena | Dec 6, 2008 10:57:00 AM

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