Conductor or charlatan?
December 18, 2008 5:06 AM   Subscribe

Gilbert Kaplan: businessman, investor, occasional journalist, and conductor of Mahler's vast Second Symphony. Or is he, really?

Yes, Gilbert Kaplan only conducts one piece of music. And it's not some simple little string symphony. It's Mahler's sprawling Symphony No. 2, requiring him to negotiate a vast orchestra, choir, soloists, and offstage brass, and he conducts it from memory. He has twice recorded the work; his 1985 Cardiff recording has become the best-selling recording of Mahler 2, outselling interpretations by such luminary conductors as Bernstein, Abbado, and Boulez. But is he any good at conducting this piece?

"That Mr. Kaplan is no professional conductor was immediately apparent." -Review in the New York Times

A "rank amateur" but one now "acknowledged as the leading technical authority on Mahler’s second symphony, consulted by many professional maestros on matters of detail." -The Economist

"Each cue was exact without a wasted gesture. His beats were about as textbook as I've ever seen from a conductor." -Phil Catelinet


Now David Finlay, a musician in the New York Philharmonic - where Kaplan recently conducted the one piece he knows for the 100th anniversary of the work's premiere in New York - has spoken out against Kaplan.

"I have to take extreme exception to the many reviews I have read of his performances.... Mr. Kaplan excels in ignoring the blizzard of Mahler's performance direction."

And: "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." On the day of the performance, after hours of rehearsals, members of the orchestra demanded a meeting with orchestra president Zarin Mehta and complained for an hour about Kaplan.

So has Kaplan been fooling the music world? Has he been riding on the coattails of Mahler and the American dream? Or is he truly that rare amateur who has learned a new skill at a professional level?
posted by bassjump (29 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Maybe he should go back to conducting the Sweathogs. Oh, wrong Kaplan.
posted by chillmost at 5:33 AM on December 18, 2008


What exactly is the difference between a "professional" and an "amateur" (other than the receiving of money for services, in some cases)?

I hear this in other fields too. "Faraday was a great scientist despite having no formal training." Formal training is what, exactly? You are trained by other people, usually older. They were trained by other people, older than them. Educating and training is just accumulated experience. There's no Higher Power we are Receiving Wisdom from.

We are all amateurs with no formal training. If you read widely, practice hard, try stuff out, think about what others have done and so forth you aren't "just as good as" a "professional" in my view. You are a professional.

That said, I don't know jack about conducting and have no way of knowing if this guy is any good. Being a professional and being good are orthogonal concepts.
posted by DU at 5:35 AM on December 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Also: Metafilter: We are all amateurs with no formal training.
posted by DU at 5:40 AM on December 18, 2008


Gosh, those paint spatters, are they ... art?
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:46 AM on December 18, 2008


Or is he truly that rare amateur who has learned a new skill at a professional level?

No.

If he builds a large repertoire at a consistently good level then we can talk again later.
posted by mandal at 6:07 AM on December 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Gets lawn chair, settles in, because a discussion of amateur vs. professional right here on MetaFilter promises to be richly rewarding.
posted by fixedgear at 6:25 AM on December 18, 2008


Gets lawn chair, settles in, because a discussion of amateur vs. professional right here on MetaFilter promises to be richly rewarding.
Where's your popcorn?
Amateur.
posted by Floydd at 6:31 AM on December 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


Gets lawn chair, settles in, because a discussion of amateur vs. professional right here on MetaFilter promises to be richly rewarding.

Professional means a variety of different things in different situations. In some contexts it means being paid to do something rather than doing it as a hobby. In others it means having some formal training. In others it means being licensed by a regulatory group for a certain occupation.

In the end, it's just a label, and it's possible to have discussions about various amateurs and professionals without everyone agreeing on exact definitions for those terms.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:37 AM on December 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


He owns the manuscript and is, with Renate Stark-Voit, co-editor of the new critical edition (published by Universal Edition), which the International Gustav Mahler Society in Vienna has designated the official score. He has recorded the work twice, in 1987 with the London Symphony Orchestra and in 2002 with the Vienna Philharmonic. The London Symphony version is the best-selling Mahler recording in history, having sold more than 180,000 copies; the Vienna Philharmonic version, the premiere recording of the new critical edition, is a best seller in its own right, with sales approaching 40,000.

For a classical music enthusiast and armchair scholar who decided to dabble with performing, that's one hell of a resume. I think this emperor's got clothes on after all.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:44 AM on December 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think this emperor's got clothes on after all.

I owned Kaplan's recording of the piece - which was well-reviewed at the time by Fanfare magazine, which is no slouch of a classical music publication. No one could credibly argue that it didn't meet every professional standard. And his liner notes made it clear that, if anything, he was too concerned with following every flick of nuance noted by the composer.

This reminds me of when John McPhee, in his piece "Brigade de Cusine" [collected in Giving Good Weight], quoted the chef he was profiling - who had asked to remain anonymous - as saying that Andre Soltner used frozen shrimp in one of his dishes. The outraged Soltner demanded a retraction and McPhee - for perhaps the first time in his career - grudgingly provided one. The New York Times then dispatched a reporter to discover the chef's identity. And having done so, printed a scathing review of his restaurant - one that would be difficult to reconcile with McPhee's rapturous descriptions of his food.

These highbrow types can get very protective of their clubhouse.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:59 AM on December 18, 2008


We are all amateurs with no formal training. If you read widely, practice hard, try stuff out, think about what others have done and so forth you aren't "just as good as" a "professional" in my view. You are a professional.

To me, "professional" and "formal training" mean different things. And neither, to me, means exactly the above. I thought a "professional" was someone who does something as a profession, i.e. they make their living doing it. This is not related to how they learned the skill. It contrasts with "amateur" and "hobbyist", which are people who do something purely for amusement, and don't rely on it as a (major) source of their income.

"Formal training," on the other hand, is training (usually combined with regular evaluation) by some duly authorized educational institution. For example, an accredited university in the case of an engineer. And I think there is a "higher power" in some fields. There's a big difference between getting your tips from some random person you think has expertise and getting it from someone that a large majority of experts think has expertise. In one case you are "plugged in" to a large, long-term, and guaranteed body of experience, whereas in the other you might only think you are.
posted by Xezlec at 7:17 AM on December 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I haven't heard Kaplan's recording of Mahler's 2nd but I have played the piece a good few times.

It's a strange enterprise to set out to learn a large symphony like that in enormous detail, but I see no reason in principle why it can't be done, and why he couldn't gain a good enough grounding in conducting, without necessarily getting the years' worth of training that professional conductors have, to produce a good recording. A top-flight orchestra will help enormously, of course.

The difference between what he has done and what a professional conductor does is that the professional conductor has the skill to go through this process with a potentially infinite number of new pieces, often at short notice. They generally don't have the leisure available to take the time Kaplan took.
posted by altolinguistic at 7:20 AM on December 18, 2008


There's a big difference between getting your tips from some random person you think has expertise and getting it from someone that a large majority of experts think has expertise. In one case you are "plugged in" to a large, long-term, and guaranteed body of experience, whereas in the other you might only think you are.

That's why I said "read widely, practice hard, try stuff out, think about what others have done and so forth".
posted by DU at 7:22 AM on December 18, 2008


... and on reading the links, I see it is not at all clear that he has achieved all that much with this piece.

The thing about Mahler is that he was also a conductor. After every performance of one of his symphonies, he would revise the score, putting in a direction not to rush if his orchestra had rushed, altering dynamic directions, etc. So if you do take the time to collate all these subtle directions, and if you follow them all in performance, you're likely to get a good result from a good orchestra (as general orchestral tendencies to rush in the easy bits, play too loudly etc. haven't changed over the years).

What I imagine Kaplan lacks is the imagination to apply his own judgement to a blanker score - Bach, for example, typically provides very few performance directions, and it's up to the performer to decide what to do.
posted by altolinguistic at 7:38 AM on December 18, 2008


There is a piece of advice that connoisseurs of music, art, wine, books, fashion (well...really anything) should heed which will help them to prevent looking like presumptuous jackasses to the rest of society. Of course despite its origin at MeFi it is generally ignored here as well:

If you don't like it, just flag it and move on.

And regarding the professional vs. amateur debate, there is no definable divide between the two. To me it would be like separating Red and Orange on the color spectrum; there isn't a discernable wall, just a more/less designation. I thought the whole blogger/journalist argument cleared this up a couple years ago?
posted by wabashbdw at 8:19 AM on December 18, 2008


Smears of charlatan and hoax, the usage of "amateur" as inferior, are diversions of trained players who want you to think that without the years of training and experience a full proper, nuanced job can not be done.

They try to taint the validity of Kaplan's version with irrelevant and exaggerated points. It doesn't matter that Kaplan never studied conducting the way the establishment wants him to be accredited. It doesn't matter that Kaplan probably could not conduct "Mary had a Little Lamb". Kaplan knows one piece. Not knowing anything else does not taint the validity of his version.

The "Resurrection" (Mahler's 2nd) is incredibly complex and dense and heavily notated with the author's accent instructions. Most versions I've heard are somewhat muddled, rushed and ultimately imprinted with the conductor's style.

In '87 I couldn't get a ticket to Bernstein's NY Philharmonic performance of the Resurrection so I went to sit in on the free rehearsals. Bernstein, of course, was The Expert on Malher. It was facinating to listen to him stop and spend ten minutes instructing the strings how he wanted X to sound at which measure number. And his performances of the piece are, of course, excellent. And they are imprinted with Bernstein's style to me. A lyrical low and dark beginning and a crisp exuberant climax.

Kaplan's version is note and accent Perfect to the manuscript. Perhaps one could say it has a little less "soul" than the Bernstein but that is my overall point: regardless of what some snobs might say to attempt to elevate the status of "professional," the version is valid, after that it is just a matter of taste.
posted by Kensational at 9:07 AM on December 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think I can see some of the points that the musicians are making here, though. One of the best performances of the Pittsburgh Symphony I ever saw was one where the regularly-scheduled and famous guest conductor was replaced by a young up-and-comer. (Sadly, both names escape me at the moment.)

This young man obviously knew that this was a rare opportunity to conduct one of the top 20 (10?) orchestras in the country and he poured his heart and soul into the performance. The players and the audience all gave him a standing ovation. Obviously he was dealing with a group of very talented musicians, but he put his mark on the performance. He was a vital part of the musical experience in a way that some conductors are not.

I think that's part of the point here with Kaplan. Is his work technically correct? Apparently. But I think it's valid to complain if he's not putting his own mark on the work. That's the purpose of a conductor. Most orchestras could play adequately without one at all. Also worth noting: the musicians know there are talented young people out there like the guy I saw in Pittsburgh, just waiting for their chance. Then Kaplan comes along, and gets to conduct all over the world, despite his lack of real talent.

To me and to the musicians (I'm guessing), this comes off as a stunt. And the fact that Kaplan donates lots of money to the orchestras as well probably leaves a bad taste in some mouths.

Although I thought it was ironic that they were complaining about him when the concert was a benefit for their pension funds.
posted by dellsolace at 10:11 AM on December 18, 2008


We can all pretend not to understand the meaning of a word, even make a career out of it in the legal field.

But can anybody here honestly say that if, for instance, some teenager fixes the dent in his car, and the guy at the service station says, "wow, very professional!", that they don't know what is being communicated?
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:29 AM on December 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Kaplan paid to play, he's not taking some "worthy" one's place. The only relevant issue to the musicians and composers and snob critics should be whether Kaplan's musicality and technique and stewardship is adequate to deliver the piece.

This is not some rich yahoo paying to spend a week in an orbiting tuna can and calling himself an astronaut. This is not Bill Gates taking a shot at Beethoven's Fifth because he always liked it, standing up there like a monkey counting off time. Kaplan is versed and adequate in delivering this piece.

After that, it is a matter of opinion whether one likes it or not.
posted by Kensational at 10:29 AM on December 18, 2008


This is not Bill Gates taking a shot at Beethoven's Fifth

But it might be just a bit like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet hiring the #1 and #2 bridge players in the world to be their partners in tournament play.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:35 AM on December 18, 2008


As a professional, classical (I hate that term, but it's shorthand) musician, here's my 2 cents: It isn't that difficult to conduct one piece of music. I've conducted a fair amount in the past although I wouldn't call myself a conductor and I can say that even a piece as dense as Mahler 2 isn't that difficult to learn comprehensively. You just need to listen to it a lot so that you memorize it and of course know the score by heart. It doesn't take that much. Then you need to wave your hands around in fairly coherent gestures, and voila! It's not as if this is the first time that an orchestra has played the piece, and most good orchestras can play a piece like this an auto-pilot for the most part.

Frankly that isn't what conducting is about. All of the conductors that I know have a massively long repertoire list. You need them to conduct Debussy Jeux (for an example of a tricky piece to conduct) tonight? No big deal, they'll need to brush up and study the score, but they won't have to learn it. Then comes the way that gesture is conveyed and interpretation given and that's the really ephemeral part of conducting, there's a whole load of technique, but there needs to be more than that.

So do I think this is a stunt? Yeah, pretty much. I also think it's a bit weird only to conduct one piece. I mean Mahler 2 is great, but frankly there are other Mahler symphonies that I prefer and that, perhaps, might be a little harder to conduct (I'm thinking the last movement of the 9th might be a tricky little beggar, but there are plenty of other examples). Of course I'm not saying that he chose the 2nd because it's easy, I've no doubt that he believes and lives in the world of the piece, but still I find it a little odd just to conduct this one piece.

When I've worked with conductors (when they conduct my music) I'm always stunned by how well they know the piece before the first rehearsal. They know the piece better than me (the person that wrote it!) and so they have the authority to deliver my and their intentions to the orchestra and through the orchestra to the audience. That is their job but it's also one that takes a lot of work and practice, and they have to do this for hundreds if not thousands of pieces. Of course Kaplan conducts Mahler 2 well (he should do, seeing as it's the only piece he conducts) but to be able to conduct Mahler 2 and all the Mahler symphonies and hundreds of other pieces in the repertoire and to be able to learn brand new pieces and conduct them equally well, that is the sign of a great conductor.
posted by ob at 10:38 AM on December 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


I saw Kaplan on the Charlie Rose show and my reaction was that he was quite intelligent and modest-- far from the "arrogant and self delusion" described by Finlayson.

Kaplan certainly impressed the New York Times reviewer and it is disingenuous to quote that one line from the review.

"But his efforts were evident throughout a performance of sharp definition and shattering power. From the acute punch of the opening notes, every detail of this huge, complex score came through with unusual clarity and impeccable balance. Every gesture had purpose and impact, and the performance as a whole had an inexorable sweep.

The orchestra played with astonishing control and beauty. Janina Baechle, a mezzo-soprano, sang with rich tone and an understated intensity; Esther Heideman, a soprano who replaced the ill Christiane Oelze, was sweet and shimmering in the finale. The Westminster Symphonic Choir sounded glorious.

To think there is nothing else to know of Mahler’s Second beyond what Mr. Kaplan has to show would be a mistake. But it seems likely that no one is better equipped to reveal the impact of precisely what Mahler put on the page."


I wonder if Finlayson has lost his job? The New York Philharmonic is now setting up auditions for a new Associate Principal Trombone. Perhaps that explains his rancor better than anything else.
posted by notmtwain at 11:15 AM on December 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I saw broadcast of Kaplan talking with Charlie Rose on the day before the show. Nice interview. But during the interview Rose showed videotape segements of a rehearsal only hours previously at the hall. I knew there was trouble, because I noticed that the orchestra members had telling expressions on their faces. I knew those expressions (from my ltd. experience playing in both prof. and am. orchestras). Kaplan was moving his hands but his mind was in his own world, and theirs was in theirs. It revealed the truth in a quote given in the NYTimes article, which said "...a gap that can exist between the way performers perceive a concert and the way listeners do".

Talented conductors work with an orchestra to debate, cajole and demonstrate keen insights into the way instrumental sound should be articulated so as to build moments of concerted revelation!! The players, if they are open and adventurous, want to help build those moments. Seems Kaplan is not at that level, but is in his own world of technical aspects of score-reading. I don't imagine (although this is a guess, since I saw only those fragments of the rehearsal on the tape) that he ever stopped and did that cajoling and demonstrating about articulation of sound. I don't think he would know about stringplayers' bow arms, about embouchure, about delivery of sound from trombone and trumpet, about the touch of a wood stick on a drum head. Etc.

That said, it was a valid experiment in public performance and I do not rue the fact that it was attempted. And it does, as mentioned above, seem mean that the players let their rightfully high-minded passion go public (and against their own Pension Fund event). They should have not let it leak to the press!! But stayed reserved and dispassionate, knowing that they could make it happen that he would not be with them again in future.
posted by yazi at 11:31 AM on December 18, 2008


I agree Kaplan is not a "great" conductor with any depth or breadth. Whoopty-doo. I personally wouldn't dishonor my conductor acquaintances by even calling Kaplan a conductor - to your point.

My point is his depth, breadth, and label is irrelevant. I feel it is cheap and unwarranted for people not give Kaplan his due. He knows the piece. He has the musicality to deliver it. He does it WELL. He HAS put his imprint/style on it by default, you cant conduct a piece and NOT.

He knows every button, gauge, light, indicator and rivet in this ONE cockpit and he can fly this one plane, well. He'd crash and burn any other plane? Irrelevant. I think it's unfair to discount the effort it took to do it as a stunt or snipe that he paid his way to the podium as a tourist.

And geesh, the guy is a patron. With the state of symphony's and halls around the world and his help to musicians, the guy should be encouraged.
posted by Kensational at 12:05 PM on December 18, 2008


I guess I swing back towards Kensational on this one after all. My point was less about taking places from other people and more about how a talented conductor can really get more out of an orchestra than even the musicians would expect. However, I can't really judge, having not seen or heard Kaplan's performance.

And I definitely agree that airing this whole thing publicly makes the musicians seem bitter and a bit rude.
posted by dellsolace at 12:16 PM on December 18, 2008


Well the point of my post was to address the question 'Conductor or charlatan?' I don't think he's a conductor, that's for sure, but neither do I think he's a charlatan. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. As I said I think it's a stunt, but it's a well meaning one. The fact that he has done his homework counts for a lot but the fact that he only conducts this one piece (and I see from the wikipedia article the Adagietto from Mahler 5th -if there was another Mahler movement he was going to tackle it would be this one) says stunt to me.
posted by ob at 1:30 PM on December 18, 2008


I saw Kaplan on the Charlie Rose show and my reaction was that he was quite intelligent and modest-- far from the "arrogant and self delusion" described by Finlayson

I saw that show as well and had a similar reaction. it made me quite curious and got me to wonder if I could see the show in a cinema the way the met often screens their performances across the world. sadly that doesn't seem to be an option, so there it all ended. but especially since he spoke at length about the instructions mahler had given I was surprised to read here tonight that he supposedly ignored them. that doesn't really correspond with what I had expected and I am confused as to what I should think of him. since I have been unable to hear the performance (and to me hearing is all that matters) I suppose I have no choice but to sit this one out. too bad, really.

My point is his depth, breadth, and label is irrelevant. I feel it is cheap and unwarranted for people not give Kaplan his due. He knows the piece. He has the musicality to deliver it. He does it WELL. He HAS put his imprint/style on it by default, you cant conduct a piece and NOT.

this sounds like the evening must have been a rather pleasant experience.
posted by krautland at 1:34 PM on December 18, 2008


The only two fields of activity where the distinction between professional and amateur makes much difference are prostitution and murder. For prostitution, the professional goes to jail but the amateur does not. For murder, the amateur goes to jail but the professional can get a medal.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:19 PM on December 18, 2008


Without making a judgment about this being a "good thing" or not, I will say calling him a professional conductor is like calling someone who memorized the first 200 digits of Pi a professional mathematician.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:38 PM on December 18, 2008


« Older Radio Lajee is one lone Aussie woman in the Aida r...  |  In protest to tuition increase... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments