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December 15, 2008

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John Kitzman

Extemely well said! "Members of symphony orchestras truly have an unfair advantage over their audience. The musicians sit through countless rehearsals"... this is so true. We experience more completely the true lack of insight of a conductor. His or hers grasp of even the most basic tenents of their craft become agonizingly apparent during the week of preparation for concerts. Unfortunately, too often orchestras "save" a conductor from the performance they deserve - mediocre - by playing with more skill, musicianship, and committment than they are seeing on the podium.

Too often it seems PR and hype are the prerequisites managements use for the hiring of guest conductors. One only need experience a single performance with a great musician, conductor on the podium to hear and feel the difference "real" leadership brings to music making.

Keep up the good work David!

Andy Waddicor

The news of Kaplan conducting The Phil made the headlines on the BBC news over here in the UK. I must admit to being quite surprised by the news. Sadly, this excessive publicity partly explains why his attempts to "play at conducting" still continue, and with ever illustrious orchestras such as yours.

I went through the same soul-destroying experience more than 20 years ago when Kaplan came to the UK to conduct one of his Mahler 2's. You have covered many bases in your critique, so I won't add to it, I'm not sure he even deserves one. It is clear to all that have had the misfortune to play Mahler 2 in front of this "imposter" that he is no maestro, and that his technique (or lack of) was gained in front of a mirror conducting along to a record/cd.

One point you didn't elucidate on was his secondary role of self-titled Mahler scholar. He does appear to have read many books on Mahler, and seen some related documents first hand... I believe he actually owns Mahler's original score of The Resurrection Symph. Does this make him a scholar? NO. He may profess to know a lot of facts about Mahler, but that is not enough. A scholar becomes learned by re-examining the old and the new. If they have a talent for analysis, they will hopefully be able to contribute something new and insightful to the knowledge base. Sadly, with Kaplan, neither is the case. Reciting facts from a book is just not enough.

In the UK, the funding of orchestras is lamentably poor, and the orchestra managements have a very difficult task of maintaining artistic integrity, whilst trying to keep the books balanced. This does inevitably lead to an "orchestra for hire" position, if the calculation makes it viable. Another part of the calculation is the amount of publicity that Kaplan brings to an orchestra. As you will have seen during your recent engagement with Kaplan, he is followed wherever he goes by a media circus. As you say, this is where his talents do lie... marketing! After all, of all the concerts you have given this year, how many have made the headline news on the BBC. Actually, this is the second time because your trip to North Korea was given huge coverage, quite rightly. The point is though, that the publicity generated by Kaplan can be capitalized on by an orchestra, this amount of publicity would ordinarily cost an orchestra a small fortune. So that also comes into the viability calculation. Unfortunately, as long as Mr Kaplan is prepared to make an offer our orchestra managements can not refuse, he will continue to stand in front of illustrious orchestras, it appears yours included, the only other qualification being that he owns a baton. Which reminds me of a story... please feel free to add this to your repertoire!

A chap one day decided he'd like to play with an orchestra, but as he didn't read music or play a musical instrument, he didn't hold out too much hope. Despite this, he still approached his town orchestra for a chance to join in. After explaining his lack of ability, the orchestra secretary said "oh don't worry about that, we'll just give you a couple of sticks and you can stand at the back." Still worried, the chap said "but what if I'm no good?" The secretary said "no problem... if that's the case, we'll give you one stick and you can stand at the front!"

Please don't repeat this story to your percussionists, they may lose their sense of humour. I know this from experience!

Perhaps part of the answer to this problem is for orchestras to make the headline news for the right reasons, such as your memorable North Korea visit, which was extraordinary. But unfortunately, for the moment the need to balance the books seems to take priority over artistic considerations, but I agree with your sentiments entirely. The singular surprise in your Blog was that The Phil, who appear to be reasonably well-heeled, have allowed themselves to be the latest Kaplan prey, but perhaps there's more to it than meets the eye. Let's be thankful that Mr Kaplan has only one work in his repertoire, so with a bit of luck you will not be exposed to his "ego" again in the near future.

Well done with your Blog David. There's no end to your technological talents!

Kind regards and best wishes for Christmas,

Andy Waddicor

Jay Friedman

I often wondered about this character, and now I know. How do these idiots get to stand in front of great orchestra's? The answer is; money! Shame on the managers who engage these charlatans for a fast buck. One of these days the orchestras need to put down their instruments and say, "we don't play for frauds." Good for you David, for exposing the Emperor's new clothes.

Ralph Sauer

The bigger problem is that there are too many Alan Kaplans out there, and they deserve to be exposed by articulate musicians like yourself. Unfortunately, there are very few people in orchestra management today who have even the slightest idea of what we do as musicians. As a result, it is doubtful that the powers that be will understand your point of view. However, keep up the fight. After all, David did defeat Goliath.

Dick Strobel

A very fine piece David. The sad fact is that orchestral management globally is capable of about anything to increase revenue, and the Kaplan story has received so much promotion in the press, too many feel he is a draw worthy of exploring. That same is detrimental to Mahler's music and to the efforts of the performers on stage, be dammed. I had a conversation once with a player in a fine British ensemble who said the only way to expose such a charlatan would be to play badly. Maybe. Ultimately the musicians of a great orchestra have too much commitment to their own art to do such a thing and its questionable at best that such an effort would work. David's article is thoughtful, concise, and hopefully, educational to those who need to know. The more it makes the rounds, the more change someone with authority will actually read it.
Dick Strobel

Ralph Sauer

Apologies to my trombone playing friend "Alan" Kaplan. I, of course, meant "Gilbert" Kaplan.

M. Dee Stewart

Very interesting comments. Don't forget the composer for the movie "Catch Me If You Can". He is John Williams and you will notice the great score from the very beginning when the credits roll. In case there is interest in expanding this theme, I wrote some short articles on my blog (www.StewartSounds.com) about my experiences with Stokowski, Ormandy and Muti and how they created different orchestral sounds with their conducting techniques.
Best of Holidays to all. Dee Stewart

Stephen Dunkel

Well done. Every orchestral musician has had an experience with an unqualified conductor. I find myself wondering how so many get hired to perform.

Thanks for giving a well crafted voice to our frustrations.

Stephen Estep

Although I'm not able to comment on what it would be like playing under him, I can say this: I saw him conduct the Cincinnati Symphony in this piece a month or two ago, and my firm impression was that he was waaaay out of his element. He seemed to have a scared geniality on his face, as if praying nothing would go wrong. This much I know for sure: He sucked all the magic right out of the piece. Although I have no problem with raw talent carrying people farther than hard work has carried others, I prefer that Gilbert would have stayed a scholar of the piece at most. He proved he doesn't have the raw talent.

It was also a good reminder for me to keep off the podium, should the chance ever be presented to me.

The Exterminator

This is no defense of Kaplan, and don't read it as such. But there are ungifted amateurs who strut their stuff in all fields. Why, I've even seem some people who can't write very well authoring blogs.

So shall I complain about your "assault on the English language," or just say "Well, let the guy have his mediocre fun"?

DW

I've never heard one of Mr. Kaplan's concerts, but your post raises an interesting philosophical question.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that Kaplan was as inept in rehearsal as you say, but that the performance on the night was good (thanks to the efforts of the orchestra, let's suppose, rather than the conductor).

Does it matter that Kaplan can't lead a rehearsal or hold a beat if the audience members still have a good experience?

Furthermore, consider the possibility that some audience members even experienced the music more intensely because of their awareness of Kaplan's story, his "obsession" or his amateur status. Perhaps they would have had a less intense reaction to, say, a Maazel-led concert, for purely extramusical reasons.

Does this mean that Kaplan would actually have been a "better" conductor, for this particular concert, than Maazel?

Discuss.

B. Saxe

Perhaps the best, if not the quickest, way to put an end to this would be for players to teach audiences what conducting is. Audiences think they know, but, evidently, they do not -- as your posting powerfully demonstrates. I'm not sure how such a lesson could be imparted, and I don't doubt that it would require plenty of time and repetition. (By contrast, it will always be counterproductive for players to perpetrate a bad performance, no matter how much comeuppance a conductor might deserve.)

Blair Tindall

Dave, you are my hero.
--Your pal, "Ralph"

M. Smith

I heard Gilbert Kaplan conduct the Mahler years ago, in Colorado, and it was a beautiful performance. I love Mahler, and especially this piece, and I'm no professional musician ... perhaps the players were the stars who shone and not the conductor. I'm somewhat astonished that you, a celebrated musician with one of the finest orchestras in the world, did not check out his conducting prior to agreeing to play under him. Why, with as many reviews as there have been on the man's work, did you not simply put your instrument down and refuse to comply? Or call in sick? To wail and moan after the fact, and in such a mean-spirited way, seems not only unprofessional, it's just downright rude. The man may not be the pro you wished to play for, but he deserves some respect as a human being, nevertheless. Shame on you.

Rod Ruggiero

That must have been painful! Thankfully, trombone players are always willing to speak up. :)

William Osborne

Orchestral musicians, and especially those in top orchestras, are very sensitive about the status their institution conveys. They must surrender much of their own musical autonomy to the conductor, but in return they receive the status conveyed by the orchestra. They also bask in the light reflected by the conductor's celebrity. An amateur condcutor reflects poorly on their standards and accomplishment. It doesn't matter that this performance received a standing ovation (or that it *might* have actaully been good or inspiring,) because there is still resentment that status was lost by being led by an amateur.

William Osborne

(Sorry, I hit the post button before I made the point I was leading to.) There might be a silver lining in this cloud beyond the cash involved. Orchestras still suffer from an image of elitism. They supposedly cater to the wealthy and cognoscenti. Letting a relatively informed amateur take the helm on *rare* occasion can help give the general public a sense that it is their orchestra, and that it is an integral part of the community. Based on press reports, this atmosphere was clearly conveyed in NYC. The positive benefits are obvious. The economic downturn is strongly affecting the arts. Such gestures, as annoying as they may be, might be more necessary than ever. Given the way the music industry so often compromises artistic integrity, Kaplan might be one of the lesser evils. Take heart, David, you've been through worse.

Ethan Prater

What exactly is "Arturo T"'s connection with this particular work? He certainly didn't record it, and I don't think he even ever conducted it.

In his letters he said this about Mahler: "His music has neither personality nor genius. It is a mixture of Italianate style à la Petrella or Leoncavallo, coupled with Tchaikovsky's musical and instrumental bombast and a search for Straussian eccentricities ... without having the brilliance of the last two."

Certainly Bernstein, Walter, and even Mitropolous, like "Zubin M", have connections with the work and the NYPO both - not to mention recordings. But I'm not sure that invoking Toscanini in this context does the argument any favors.

Marko Velikonja

I heard Mr. Kaplan conduct the National Symphony back in 2004. I had known his story for years and even bought his first recording (I have a lot of recordings of this piece), which I may have listened to once. I was curious to see how he would do in a live show, and I rarely pass up a chance to hear Mahler 2.

My overall impression was that he seemed to know the score very well and I felt I heard a lot of details that I hadn't noticed before in those many recordings and about a half-dozen previous live performances.

That said, he was almost entirely lacking in charisma. And I don't care if Kaplan has read everything ever written about Mahler or this piece, and oversaw the publication of a definitive score; I'll take a real conductor, inauthentic tempos, dynamics, etc., any time over Kaplan's ur-text but charmless rendition. It was interesting to hear him do it once, but I wouldn't go again.

Speaking of amateurs or "orchestra for hire," I recall that about a dozen years ago the Philharmonic turned down an offer to be conducted by Sony CEO Norio Ogha (sp?), the management saying that the Philharmonic is not available for hire. Understand that this was not a for-hire gig, but perhaps the principle espoused in the Ogha case was slightly compromised?

In any case, David, I think you're doing a great service for classical music. If this is an art form that needs to be made more accessible and understandable to the public, sharing of observations by persons at the top of their profession are IMHO very helpful.

Issai Chizen

I always wondered about Kaplan's reviews. Before I became a priest, I trained as a conductor in Vienna and sang Mahler 2 in the chorus a half-dozen times with top orchestras and conductors. VERY few conductors are capable of communicating the work as a unified whole. Kaplan doesn't appear to be one of them. I think I've only ever heard one performance where the conductor really had an overall conception that he was also able to communicate to the orchestra. You might be surprised that it wasn't Bernstein. It was Otmar Suitner with the Staatskapelle Berlin. A fascinating performance (and I believe still available on CD).

Suitner is one of the very last links to the tradition of Wagner and his successors (he studied with Richard Strauß' protégé Clemens Krauß). He is a legendary Wagnerian. I elaborate a little on him as an example of a great conductor who was not well known in this country, and I know there are other conductors in that category whom the Philharmonic would have done well to try to snare for guest spots instead of giving them to somebody like Kaplan. An orchestra of your quality is completely wasted on someone with Kaplan's meager experience and abilities. Still, I can't fault him. I haven't picked up a baton in 25 years and would be even less capable than Kaplan at this point, but if the Phil offered me a gig, I'd be ecstatic!

Mort Dubois

You are so disgusted with your management for renting out the conductor's post that you refused payment for your performance, right? And got your colleagues to do the same? Tell me you did so and my respect for your high and mighty attitude will increase. If you didn't, don't complain that steps were taken to ensure a full house and pay your salary.

Mort Dubois

David

Get over it. Give the guy credit. It's not the end of the world (it's the resurrection!). Don't take yourself so seriously. Your acting like an ingrate.

Laurence de Looze

At the beginning of the 1990s I published an essay about Kaplan in The Antioch Review in which I saw him as the epitome of the "Just Do It" ideology of the Reagan years: namely, that you don't have to slave away slowly learning for years -- that if you just try hard enough, you will succeed. Even then, however, it was clear that Kaplan was a one-trick pony, which is why, even after hiring Ben Zander to work with him, the only other Mahler he could master was the Adagietto. I always suspected that the great orchestras were essentially playing on their own when Kaplan held the baton. David, you've confirmed it!

David Mathews

If this article demonstrates anything at all, it is that musicians are every bit as petty and terrible to each other as the plebeians who work in other professions.

I suppose that hating the conductor is justified ... but the musicians survived, didn't they? Having such a conductor might offend the musicians' pride, but the sun rose again on a new day and you aren't in danger of experiencing such a horrific event ever again ... right?

It is easy to say horrible things about other people, and naturally humans are unhappy all of the time. Those involved in an argument consider the argument the most important thing in the world, those outside (if they are wise) recognize that all arguments of this sort are silly even if they are based upon legitimate complaints.

There's real suffering in this world. Musicians are isolated from this real world and its real suffering. Billions of humans living on less than $2 a day, millions of Americans losing their jobs, the global economy is collapsing, civilization crumbling away under our feet, the ice caps melting, oceans rising, violence and warfare unending, and Mahler's got an incompetent conductor. Oh, the injustice!

Roberta Piket

Regarding the ad hominem attack above, I for one am glad you didn't refuse to perform. If you had, you would not have been able to write about this important issue.

It's not just in classical music that money trumps ability. It happens in every artistic discipline that has been starved for funding for the last thirty years, and even some that are not starved (such as film).

I think it misses the point to blame the orchestra managers. They are stuck in the middle. The real problems are 1) the complete lack of any meaningful public funding for the arts which forces managers to make these unsavory decisions 2) lack of consistent and serious arts education in this country which has left us with a culturally illiterate and apathetic public instead of a stable economic base for the arts.

In response to the silly lady who says you are being "rude": Mediocrity is rude. Surface politeness at the expense of standards is rude. Throwing gobs of money at a non-profit organiation in order to jump ahead of deeply committed artists is rude.

Foisting a talentless hack on an unknowing public is destructive - to the Phil's musicians, to the audience, and to civilization.

Thank you for speaking the truth.

Roberta Piket

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