additional thoughts on kaplan

I’ve been (in between watching marathon stretches of House MD on dvd) thinking a bit more about the flap over Gilbert Kaplan conducting the New York Philharmonic.  It seems that there are two diverging views of the situation, both of which are misguided, or at least misappropriated.

Kaplan #1 is an earnest amateur, passionate about one piece, and serves as an inspiration for other musical enthusiasts in the audience.

Kaplan #2 is a charlatan, a fat cat who has a huge ego and thinks that he can conduct on a professional level with the best orchestras in the world.

On the first count, there’s nothing that leads me to believe that it’s a false assumption.  Kaplan is passionate, some would even say obsessed, with Mahler’s 2nd Symphony.  He loves the piece and has done everything short of (well, actually, he might have done this, who’s to say?) having seances with Mahler to get into the inner workings of what exactly Mahler meant by what he wrote on the page.  There are similar aficionados who are into rare stringed instruments – they collect Strads, Amatis, Del Jesus, etc. and build elaborate vaults for them at home and invite soloists and chamber music Illuminati to play on the instruments (and if the collector is a player) play them alongside with the collector.  Is there anything wrong with this?  Absolutely not – if all the cards are on the table, that is.

If you walked in to a hospital and told the receptionist that you knew everything possible about viral meningitis, that you’d read every journal article, apprenticed with all of the leading experts around the world, and that you’d observed many actual cases in person under many different circumstances.  You ask if you can begin treating patients for this disease.  You would be laughed out the door.  Why?  Well, first of all, you’re not licensed to practice medicine anywhere under any circumstances.  As part of licensing, you’d have completed your eight years of medical school, internship, and residency.  And you’d pass a comprehensive set of board certification exams to prove your competency.  Why is all of this required?  Because to be a doctor, even a specialist in a very specific illness, you need to have a vast body of knowledge about all of the systems of the body and how they interrelate.  You cannot understand a single disease unless you also understand the entire body.

The same can be said of conducting.

Most conductors (if not all) played an instrument before they began conducting.  They learned about what it is to perform music from the most basic level to an advanced level of proficiency.  As part of their education on their instrument(s) they learned music theory, how their parts fit with other parts in the orchestra, and how to be an effective chamber musician.  They would also learn about the entire range of music history, from ancient Greece to the present day.  They would receive ear training and sight-singing instruction that would enable them to visualize the sound of a piece just by looking at the score, and to hear what wasn’t in the score when rehearsing a piece.

This takes years to accomplish.  Most musicians study their instruments for 10 years before they even start college, and the audition process for the best music schools is brutally selective.

Good or great conductors have to understand a complex piece that an orchestra has never performed before, and teach it to close to a hundred highly paid, egocentric musicians (who have probably played a lot more music than the conductor has conducted), and not only convince them of his or her competency and infallibility, but also convince them that his or her opinion is artistically and theoretically valid, all without giving a major policy speech before or during the rehearsal process.  They have to have to know what led up to the new work in order to understand it and lead it.  They have a way of conveying vital information on the fly through gestures which not only show basic elements such as tempo, pulse, and volume, but also are able to give, through facial expressions and body language, the emotional subtext of section of a piece as well.  The mystery is that some conductors have little or no education but are naturals at leading an orchestra.  They burn out pretty quickly, however, when the honeymoon period wears off and the lack of substance becomes evident.  Others have enormous brainpower and laser-precise stick technique, but convey no emotional connection to the pieces that they conduct.  The great conductors have a miraculous mixture of both – brains, technique, emotion, charisma.  It’s extremely rare.

Now, if Kaplan presented himself as Kaplan #1 – an enthusiast with a lot of theoretical knowledge about one piece who acknowledged that he wasn’t really a conductor, but someone who was basically an amateur scholar who would give some notes about the way things were written in the score during rehearsals, and then get out of the way for the performance, and basically admitted all of that to the orchestra and the public beforehand, then I think there isn’t an orchestra in the world that wouldn’t just let the guy have his week on the podium and grit their teeth and look on it as a goodwill gesture.

But that’s not the way Kaplan presented himself (either through his PR firm or the NYPhil management).  Kaplan was booked by the NYPhil to conduct the Mahler 2nd on the 100th anniversary of its US premiere with the same orchestra under the direction of the composer.  It’s likely that no-one could live up to that example (except for the dead conductors that get trotted out in all Mahlerian arguments – Bernstein, Sinopoli, Klemperer, Walter, etc.) but to put Kaplan up on the podium as a world authority on the work (and with nothing said about his conducting ability, you will note), that’s left for the reader to infer, and since Kaplan’s a world authority on the work, most people would assume that he’s a great conductor of the work as well.  So when he shows up and can’t produce the goods, and with the history that the NYPhil has with this piece, the reaction is not at all surprising, nor basically incorrect, either.  So, through the triumph of modern marketing and public relations acumen, we get Kaplan #1 who ends up coming off as Kaplan #2.  The general public always sees him as 80% #1 and 20% #2, while objective, trained musicians end up seeing him as exactly the opposite.

The problem is, they’re both wrong.  If I’m hiring someone to paint my house, and you come along and say “I suck at painting, but I’m cheap and I’ll give you a free flat screen hdtv if you let me paint your house,” and you hire them, get your tv and then get all pissed off that your house looks like crap – then it’s as much your fault as theirs.  On the other hand, if they come in and say “I know everything there is to know about house painting, I’ve painted at least a hundred houses before yours, and I’m up on the latest techniques for house painting,” and your house looks like crap after they’re done, then they are at fault because they lied to you.

In this case, however, it looks like a combination of both scenarios.  The housepainter shows up and says that he has a lot of experience and costs less, and he will give you a television if he gets the job.  You call his previous clients, and they say that he didn’t do a great job, but it was ok, and they got a great tv out of it.  You decide to hire him, are underwhelmed by his job, and you get all pissed off.  Only in this situation, you’re mad both because the painter sucked and because you got suckered.

So, in the end, it comes down to intellectual honesty.

Did Kaplan claim to be a great conductor?  I’m not sure he did, but those who report on him never seem to ask musicians what they think – no one ever seems to ask him what business he has stepping in front of an orchestra.  Why? And why was Kaplan played up as a great musical authority figure with great fanfare in the New York Times before the performances?  Arguably, he would have sold as many tickets with a more honest portrayal of his amateur enthusiast status, while also making major contributions in scholarship.  The concert was a benefit for the musicians’ pension fund, not as a make-or-break profit/loss generator towards the annual budget, so there wasn’t a lot at risk here, except that perhaps a major conductor might cost a lot more and possibly wipe out funds that would go into the fund.   Did the Philharmonic musicians only suddenly realize Kaplan wasn’t a great or even basically competent conductor when he showed up for rehearsals?  You can find out about the relative merits of any conductor working today by calling maybe five or ten musician friends around the country, it’s not difficult to do.  Why didn’t the orchestra committee march into the administration offices as soon as they learned of the booking – they should have known at least a year in advance?

I don’t know the answers to those questions – but they should have been asked.

As a final note, I’d like to say that Lebrecht should have talked about these aspects in his “rebuttal”, but he chose the low road.  He used the classic fascist response to criticism by attempting to dehumanize the person with whom he disagreed.  He called the orchestra names and spread idle gossip about what other conductors supposedly thought of the Philharmonic.  Lebrecht is supposedly a journalist.  He could have taken an in-depth look at the issues that this whole episode has raised, but he chose to take the argument to the schoolyard rather than to the library.  It’s a shame that he showed himself to be a bully rather than an inquisitive and passionate observer (and advocate) for the classical music industry.  But then again, he has made his name (and his money) by shouting disaster from the rooftops rather than looking for the causes., but then again, the truth is often complex and shaded as well as simply inconvenient.

nytimes reviewer blogs about kaplan concert, review

Steve Smith, music editor for Time Out New York and a freelance reviewer who often writes classical music reviews for the New York Times, writes about his review of the Gilbert Kaplan led performance of Mahler 2 with the New York Philharmonic here.  Interesting reading, and it shows how critical a missing sentence can be in the course of composing a piece of criticism.  Plus it has the best ever blog post title: Todtenfubar.  Ausgezeichnet!

And, on a side note – our own OSO bass trombonist Charley Reneau posted a comment to Norman Lebrecht’s blog entry on his use of “trombone” rather than “trombonist” to refer to David Finlayson.  Major point scored, Charley!  And Lebrecht, to his credit, responded graciously.

more kaplan responses

More responses are coming in to the original blog post that started the online bickering over whether or not Gilbert Kaplan is a charlatan or a conductor – sometimes I ask myself, what’s the difference? 😉 – here’s a sampling:

At A Musical Rampage we get the opinion that Kaplan might not be a real conductor, but he’s not a fraud since he doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a passionate advocate for one score.

I own something in the neighborhood of 40 recording of Mahler 2, including both Kaplan releases.  I would not rate either of Kaplan’s recordings as among my favorites, but I would rate them closer to the top then the bottom.  I suspect that he has a deep knowledge of the score and some idea of how to put the piece together in a rehearsal (and by extension piece together a recording), but lacks the true understanding of what it takes to make it a valuable performance …

The biggest part of being a conductor is making the performance great, in all that entails. Which is why you have yet to see me refer to him as “Maestro” Kaplan anywhere in this painfully long bloviation. But that in no way defines Kaplan as a fraud. He is a man with a passion, a dedication to supporting artistic endeavors, and the resources to realize those passions and endeavors.

What’s fraudulent about that?

Opera Chic finds major sarcasm and points out the non-irony of a musician disliking a conductor and is generally not happy with the public spanking of Kaplan on the trombonist’s blog:

… Gilbert Kaplan — whom we never met — is neither the greatest conductor ever of Mahler’s Second (that’s Klemperer), nor the greatest conductor of Mahler’s Second of this day and age (that’s either Abbado or Haitink, with Chailly in third place). But “amateur with a baton”? Seriously? Given his monster knowledge of that work? How many “amateurs with a computer” are there at the New York Times, using the same standard?

… It’s obvious that Kaplan is no conductor in the sense that he has no repertoire and has no specific training and his gesture is a mess. But except for point 1, 2 and 3 are common currency for so many HIP conductors (and if you want to discuss point 1, let OC mention Harnoncourt’s appalling Aida).

Having said this — if you don’t like Kaplan, don’t take his cash. And if you let him conduct your orchestra, make sure the players who get paid to play for (with, whatever) the guy are professional enough not to slam him on their blogs …

Kaplan was on Charlie Rose a couple weeks ago, and there are two comments from NYPhil musicians (both violists, natch) that show that Finlayson was not a “lone gunman” in regards to his opinion of Kaplan:

Judith Nelson writes: I played in Monday night’s concert and in the three rehearsals that preceded it, and I can say that in my 25 years in the Philharmonic I have never played under a worse conductor. He is certainly an enthusiast, and has clearly built his life in recent years around this symphony and around studying Mahler’s life and work. This is fine preparation to be a scholar, but it emphatically does NOT prepare him to lead an orchestra. He’s really no more than an extremely ambitious and well-coached amateur with deep pockets and a lot of chutzpah. Philharmonic members are furious that this memorable occasion, the centenary of Mahler conducting the American premiere of the piece, should be observed by this shabby performance. We made it through the piece, even with some style, because we’ve performed it many times with great conductors and we know it inside out. When I compare this to the unforgettable experience of playing it with Lenny, with Jessye Norman, I weep with frustration. If you want to check out a really passionate recording, listen to ours with Lenny and Christa Ludwig. Now THERE was a true Mahlerite.

Kenneth Mirkin writes: I am also a member of the NY Philharmonic, and played the concert Monday night with Mr Gilbert. I can safely say in my 27 years in the orchestra, he is the worst conductor I have ever played under. Mr Kaplan is completely incompetent, and is just on a huge ego trip. If he wants to do justice to Mahler, he should use his philanthropic funds to pay real musicians to do the conducting. That concert was a low point in the careers of all the musicians of the Philharmonic. The concert sounded quite good, but that is because this great orchestra was able to ignore Mr Kaplan and play on our own. It is time for the press to stop lauding Mr Kaplan and call him for what he is: a charlatan. This emperor has no clothes, and it is not a pretty sight.

Rock Town Hall writes from the non-classical music viewpoint, and shows how appealing Kaplan is to the non-cognoscenti:

Kaplan made millions as a young man by publishing some financial magazine I’d never heard of and would surely find baffling. In 1965, a friend took him to watch a rehearsal of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor at Carnegie Hall. The next night he attended the concert and had a life-changing reaction. This particular symphony would become his obsession. He took an 18-month break from his business to study the score and learn from famous conductors. In 1982, he actually conducted the symphony, which is supposedly a challenging piece to conduct even for the masters.

As the linked article can better tell you (you may have to register to read The Economist online, but you’ll be happy you do, if only for the obituaries), this dream and driving artistic force has led to Kaplan becoming the world’s expert on this symphony and the honor of conducting the piece tonight (December 8, 2008), at the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, where Mahler himself premiered the piece for US audiences exactly 100 years ago!

This is one cool story, if you ask me.