Catch Me (Him) If You Can
I enjoy collecting movies on DVD. One of my favorites is the feature movie “Catch Me If You Can.” It is a true story from the 1960’s, of a young man, Frank Abagnale played by Leonardo Dicaprio, who manages to impersonate a doctor, a lawyer, an airline pilot and in the process also becomes a masterful counterfeiter. His expertise in the latter allows him to cash bad checks in excess of four million dollars. FBI agent, Carl Hanratty, portrayed by no less than Tom Hanks, chases him throughout the world. Of course, the Feds get their man and our protagonist turns his talents to helping law enforcement to catch similar crooks and thieves. In the end, the villain is repentant and the public and law officials are left somewhat less naive. A happy ending of sorts.
Impersonators, alas, still seem to rise to the surface. I contend that the story of another impersonator is continuing to be written. It is the story of Gilbert Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan is a self-professed scholar and conductor of Mahler’s great second symphony, The Resurrection. While admittedly, I may be stretching the comparison beyond the breaking point, Mr. Kaplan and Frank Abagnale are and were, in my opinion, both impostors.
I have come to this conclusion from first hand experience. On December 8, 2008, Mr. Kaplan took the podium in front of the New York Philharmonic. 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.
There can be no other conclusion. To say that it was something more is to be ignorant of the many truly inspired performances under the batons of some of the world’s great conductors. This masterpiece has had a century of interpretations that have delved into all aspects of Mr. Mahler’s brilliant score. The list of quality performances led by professional conductors is long. From Arturo T. to Zubin M., the admirers of this work can find solace in many recordings that contain true passion and an understanding of the symphony.
Having not previously heard either of Mr. Kaplan’s two recordings of the symphony, nor having seen him conduct, I came to our rehearsals with an open mind. My initial impression was that Mr. Kaplan displays an arrogance and self-delusion that is off-putting. As a conductor, he can best be described as a very poor beater of time who far too often is unable to keep the ensemble together and allows most tempo transitions to fall where they may. His direction lacks few indications of dynamic control or balance and there is absolutely no attempt to give phrases any requisite shape. In rehearsal, he admitted to our orchestra that he is not capable of keeping a steady tempo and that he would have to depend on us for any stability in that department. Considering his Everest-sized ego, this admission must have caused him great consternation upon reflection. Mahler’s wonderful use of the off stage brass in the fifth movement gave Kaplan much tribulation. One would think that after more than fifty performances of the work, even the most plebeian of conductors would have some understanding of how to bring together musicians that are separated by great distance. In the performance, these haunting moments of the symphony slipped away like some wayward musical slinky.
I have to take extreme exception to the many reviews I have read of his performances. Some critics have written that he brings the finest details of the work to the surface. If his past performances were anything like ours, Mr. Kaplan excels in ignoring the blizzard of Mahler's performance direction.
Yet, he sold out the house. “Or should I say, Mahler sold out the house?” It seems that this work, regardless of whoever takes the podium, never fails to attract a large audience, an obvious testimony to the strength of the composition. Mr. Kaplan’s attempts seem to embody the proof that a mediocre performance is still worth the price of admission. But do most audience members, and seemingly most critics for that matter, really understand that he comes to the podium unable to bring to the surface any of Mahler's darkness, pensiveness, and schizophrenia?
Members of symphony orchestras truly have an unfair advantage over their audience. The musicians sit through countless rehearsals of a composition and are able to witness the culmination of careful, skillful study of a score combined with the conductor’s ability to communicate his or her ideas clearly. At its best, the preparation of any great composition for concert should always be a profound, intimate and introspective journey shared between the interpreter and the instrumentalist. This is the intent of the composer and should never be compromised. When musicians are denied that journey, they feel cheated, marginalized and estranged from what they hold so dear.
Mr. Kaplan and his assault on conducting leave many musicians angry, bewildered and befuddled. I submit that Mr. Kaplan has succeeded in drawing an audience because of the wide popularity of Mahler’s great symphony and our culture’s intrinsic want to see someone break down barriers that have remained seemingly impenetrable. The Cinderella story is one of our favorites; Arnold Schwarzenegger is just one such case. This Hollywood movie idol pushed aside many "professional" politicians to become governor of one of the largest states of our country. The actor Ronald Reagan, the golfer Bobby Jones, the starlet discovered in a coffee shop, the prizefighter who sends the reigning champ to the mat, the American hockey team beating the Russians in the Olympics in 1980 and, of course, David and Goliath - the list could go on and on with underdogs or amateurs who have "beat the odds". More recently, John McCain and Sarah Palin would have liked to join the ranks of famous long shots but, alas, the collective wisdom deemed them unqualified. All professions have their way of culling the crowd.
But the Kaplan/Mahler Symphony No. 2 myth has a different twist. There is no giant to push aside. No champion to dethrone. Mr. Kaplan did not have to beat, win or even draw any gold medalist. With careful marketing, money and influence, this no-talent, self-proclaimed Mahler expert has made his way to the front of many of the world's leading orchestras relying totally on their collective talents and experience to pad his conducting résumé. Orchestra management after orchestra management has been complicit in perpetuating his woefully sad farce. At the end of the day, his worth to classical music has been totally overstated.
A word to all musicians: I maintain that we must take some of the responsibility in the blame for this predicament.
All artists must educate their audiences and their managements. We have failed to convince the powers that be how important it is always to put the most qualified conductors on the rostrum. If this had been clear to the managements of symphony orchestras, this man, regardless of how much money he is willing to throw at our feet, would never have taken a step on what should be hallowed ground. We owe it to ourselves, our public, and in this case, Mr. Mahler.
Much has been written about Mr. Kaplan’s passion for Mahler’s great symphony as if this emotion is unique to him. This assertion is an insult to all professional musicians who have dedicated their entire lives and have sacrificed much toward the preservation of all the great works of history’s finest composers. His continued appearances are also an affront to all “real” conductors who have toiled relentlessly for the recognition they duly deserve.
In conclusion, there is no Carl Hanratty who will scour the planet to save us and the public from another fraudulent performance of this masterpiece and it is unlikely that we will ever witness a repentant Mr. Kaplan. We can rely only on ourselves to stand firm against any attempts to promote this imposter. In the end, we will need help to catch him if we can.