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.

lebrecht on kaplan flap

Norman Lebrecht has weighed in with his opinion of the blog post by the New York Philharmonic’s bass second trombonist David Finlayson which expressed in no uncertain terms Finlayson’s low regard for the conducting prowess and musical fitness of amateur conductor Gilbert Kaplan.

Read the Lebrecht posting and digest your initial reaction for a bit – it’s ok, the rest of this post will be here when you return… Continue reading “lebrecht on kaplan flap”