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December 16, 2008


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Some Guy

So, you have fantasies of throwing shoes, do you? Do they include getting beaten and sentenced to seven years in prison, as that very brave Iraqi journalist was?

I've heard of musicians having colossal egos, but you really take the cake. What did Kaplan do to you, anyway? Did he steal your girlfriend when you were both in high school or something?

Ronald Vogel

Dear Mr. Finlayson,

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your klarion call. As a fellow musician I too have cringed at the ascent of these 'marketable commodities' who attempt to deceive us as well as themselves. Being a musician literally means being inspired by the muse; or as Beethoven put it, the mind of God. Musicians are charged with a sacred trust: to study, play and exist in the service of the great composers who like Prometheus brought down fire to mankind. The arts are a legacy of our civilazation, perhaps the greatest of all; it speaks to who we really are, who we can become. In the words of Herman Hesse, "oh, you musicians, dancers; although at times you may see the world through a veil of tears, the angels are not far from those who weep. For you are the bringers of light, the dancers of the cosmic verse!" It is in this spirit that we musicians work and are charged with the responsibility of weeding out the Gilbert Kaplans of this world.

with great admiration for your courage in writing this account for us,

Ronald Vogel

Allen "Kit" Howell

The point is that most people don't know the difference. They resent being told the truth because then their ignorance is revealed. Accusations of elitism almost always are uttered by those who feel inferior.

Roberta Piket describes the problem succinctly; "a lack of consistent and serious arts education in this country has left us with a culturally illiterate and apathetic public instead of a stable economic base for the arts." David, you are to be congratulated for your efforts to educate the rest of us while risking vilification by those who will never understand.

If anyone reading this has sympathy both for the artists who were subjected to the incompetent conductor and for those who have grown up unable to tell the difference, he or she should consider starting a non-profit organization such as Erie Arts Opportunity (http://erieartsopportunity.org) which seeks to solve this very problem by adding instruction in the Arts to existing public school curricula. In this era of No Child Left Behind high stakes testing, organizations such as this are crucial to ensure that future generations will not be in the dark.

Allen Howell, President
Erie Arts Opportunity

some girl

First of all, bravo to the world's greatest orchestra!
Comment by 'some guy' is a classic case of someone who is ignorant of what art is all about. This is one of the reasons why money is, again, more powerful than just about anything in the world. Prostitution is illegal in this country-after seeing the philharmonic perform that evening, I would he have to say, isn't this also prostitution?

Rick Jones

As a visual artist I've passed that Timothy Egan piece around town also, along with this NYT piece by Joseph Epstein from 2003:


Karl Miller

I find your posting horribly naive. You want your high salaries...of course you have to bring in the Kaplans and Helfgotts of the world. The press love such things, just like they loved Joyce Hatto...before and after.

For me, the great irony is that complaints of this nature would come from an orchestra that treated many of the great musicians, Mitropoulos being but one example, like trash.



Just curious, did you start this blog solely to rant about Kaplan? Or can we expect similarly candid assessments of other conductors?

My hunch is that your brutal assessment of Kaplan is considered 'safe', since he's an amateur, and that you won't be as forthcoming with the vitriol on the slew of other posers who wave a baton at you. I'd love to be proven wrong though. We all know that the gap between what orchestra members think of conductors and what the public thinks is enormous. It would be wonderful to have you blogging regularly about the Philharmonic's conductors with as much honesty as you did about Kaplan.

Patrick Gleeson

I have mixed feelings about all of the above--David Finlayson's beautifully written yet dissatisfying blog and the various responsive comments,which make some plausible points but treat the matter more like a high-jumping contest (clears the bar! misses the bar!) than an occasion for actual thought. If Mr. Finlayson's contention is true, that Mr. Kaplan is an arrogant conductor, that completes the set: I have little sympathy for either the disdainful trombonist or an arrogant conductor. On a more personal note (I'm a film composer--yes, one of those!), I would have to add that any conductor who stands for the first time before an eminent orchestra (and most orchestras consider the adjective merely just) with a a bad attitude is really asking for it: the players in their discontent (more about that below) will implement their various practiced,subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) revenge strategies in a number of inventive and humiliating ways.

But about that bad attitude, which I suspect underlies Mr. Finlayson's blog: the real problem for American orchestras, and it is a historical problem, really, is that they have almost all the responsibility, but little authority. It makes for a lot of job dissatisfaction and cynicism, which is truly awful because playing great music for a living in front of thousands of listeners ought to make one dizzyingly happy with life. The London Symphony players are essentially the executives of their orchestra and they seem relatively happy in their work; in the US various groups contend for control of the orchestra--large donors (that angry-making Mr. Kaplan!), executive boards (comprised almost entirely of large donors, some knowledgeable, some not, and infrequently musically trained in a serious way), variously titled orchestra managers (let's not even get into that) and, of course, in the front line and visibly controlling them, the conductor (whom they did not choose). All this needs to change, but I can't see how and no doubt Mr. Finlayson doubts there is an actual remedy either. Hence the....what shall I call your attitude Mr. Finlayson? Somewhat diminished generosity of spirit? That's probably strong enough, but even that's too bad. Are you playing in one or more of the player-organized chamber groups? I've noticed that symphony (or LA studio) players who do that seem happier with their musical lives. Of course, in LA the symphony players have also been blessed with two particularly interesting conductors for a number of years now. Whether that would make them more or less tolerant of the alleged deficiencies of Mr. Kaplan I don't know.

chicago listener

Iam am amateur listener, and not a very good one at that, and a subscriber to the Chicago Symphony. Mahler 2 is my favorite composition, and I own Kaplan's recording, mostly out of curioisty, and it is not my favorite. That being said, the guys is an amateur, and a curiosity, but an intriguing and competent one. But this was a benefit for the musicians' pension plan, correct? And you lash out at this guy?? I think you shoud decline your pension if you feel so strongly. Who's pompous and arrogant now?

Wayne Wells

This is a long overdue discussion. The uproar over the fact that Mr. Finlayson dared to point out the nudity of the "emperor for a day" is just one more indication of how wide the gulf has become between orchestral musicians and the listening audience. This gulf will continue to grow wider without a concerted effort to improve the dismal state of music education in American schools. At the heart of this problem lies the American disdain for "amateurism" , and confusion about its proper place in our musical life.

I have long thought that we need many, many more Gilbert Kaplans in the world; people who give money to orchestras, study scores, and listen to live performances by the world's greatest orchestras. However, the one place we do not need him is on the PODIUM, wasting the time and talents of the incredible musicians in the New York Phil. As a trombonist who reveres Mahler, I find it insulting that way too many of the infrequent performances of this soul-quenching work are pimped out to someone who happens to have a fat wallet.

To "chicago listener" , who suggests that giving money buys someone the right to enter the same arena as the likes of Bernstein and Mehta, my questions to you are: Is there anything that is not for sale anymore? In the age of instant gratification, doesnt it mean anything to you that there are some things that will happen only through hard work, talent, and paying your dues artistically? And last, but not least, isn't your implication of "elitism" by musicians who simply want good conductors on the podium the same b.s. that almost got elected to the second most powerful job on planet earth someone whose primary qualification was a reverence for mediocrity? It's not pompous, arrogant, or elitist to want excellence. But then again, that charge has become the last refuge of the mediocracy that our country is fast becoming.

Larry Bocaner

Dave, You have achieved the catharsis that so many of us orchestral musicians have longed for secretly historically. Having suffered through performances essentially sabotaged by the likes of Aaron Copland and Carlos Chavez, who should have known better, your insightful and literate tirade about Gilbert Kaplan is a liberating breath of fresh air. And coming from an old friend, it's even more gratifying!

Lisa Hirsch

Good work. I've wondered about Kaplan's competence for a long time - without having heard him - and the view from the orchestra is the most educated view there could be.

For people blasting Mr. Finlayson for exercising his critical ear because they think the Kaplans are necessary to sell tickets and pay high salaries, you're wrong. There are plenty of truly great musicians who sell out concerts. There is no need for an orchestra to resort to stunt performers like Kaplan, Andrea Bocelli, and so on to sell tickets. (The real Joyce Hatto hadn't performed in public in many years before the stream of forged recordings; her story is entirely unrelated to what is presently under discussion.) A high percentage of classical music funding comes from donations, as well. In opera, it's around 50% of costs. In symphonic music, I don't know off the top of my head, but very likely someone reading this posting does.

M. Powell

Thank you for finally bringing this to light Mr. Finlayson.

I can only refer those interested to:

as it touches on the same material, pertinent to all in this argument.


What a great debate.

The Kaplan issue illustrates several things going on in our industry.

The last decaded is being heralded as the Gilded Age. So what happened to arts organizations? Did we flourish in step, as private wealth grew exponentially? If that happened, I missed it. Though we are sure to fall apart as the economy does as well. History will take note at the philanthropic activities as of late, and judge our culture accordingly. Like why an orchestra finds itself at the mercy of a single donor, in the richest, most powerful city in the world. Puzzling. I have no acute personal sympathy for the musicians per se (they'll be fine), but doesn't it say something about our American culture?

Playing under amateur conductors makes musicians uncomfortable, because it makes them feel like prostitutes, whoring out their musical talent to a dollar amount. These amateur conductors may not be hiring the orchestra for a set fee, but their involvement nets an aggragate contribution to the organization, in combination of politics, dollar amounts, and cronyism. And that's a breach of the firewall that stands between development and programming. The keystone of any performing arts non profit. If the orchestras were truly believed that they could broaden their horizons by picking people off the street to have Cindarella moments on the podium -- we'd know by now.

See, playing in an orchestra requires an enormous amount of trust. One essentially puts the artistic desires of oneself aside, for the unity of the ensemble, which is stewarded by ONE person: the conductor. The musicians, by walking onto a stage where they know they will be conducted, are giving cart blanche to their conductor. The conductor answers to no-one, musically. The scope of the conductors power, musically speaking, would make it look like Henry Paulson was wearing a straight-jacket.

The audience also implicity grants this trust. It is completely reasonable to assume that a curious, well-meaning listener of music may not know Mahler's 2nd Symphony. It is completely reasonable that a culturally exposed, philanthropically inclined listener might not know it. But these listners go to a symphony not simply to VERIFY that a genius is conducting the work. They expect to be guided through the work. As a listeners to a work of art, they are accepting that not all of their expectations will be met (not in quality, but in *content*). The work, hopefully, will challenge them. And they will have to trust that working through those challenges are a worthy, noble endeavor, that is worth their time.

I'd rather reflect on the intentional dissonance of a Ligeti chord rather than the unintentional dissonance of a Mozart chord played out of tune.

The orchestra, a relic of musical organization, which bears ABOSLUTELY NO relevancy to the 21st Centry, except through the sheer value of the repertoire it presents and the nature of institutional strength, does not really have the leeway to fuck around with loser conductors. Does the NYPhil take chances with picking a random kid from the bronx to conduct? A famous scratch DJ to impart new rhythmic ideas onto a Phillip Glass piece? How about a Japanese robot to conduct a fully serialized Boulez piece? Those ideas might be on par with inviting an enthusiastic rich donor to get on up. Are they taking equally adventurous "populist" chances with their marketing? Programming?

If populism is the banner under which the emperor is clothed, then why don't they host "American Idle Condcutor", let kids with dreams compete to conduct via YouTube, let people vote, involve the Nintendo Wii in some way.

Show me how throwing a wild-card onto the podium is part of a larger process, and we can forgive the error in the spirit of experimentation.




About Egan on writers, unworthy writers, getting published while really good ones don't--pheh--big deal--publishers publish what they can sell. We already have plenty of "great" books no one wants to read.
As to the orchestra players--I know lots of people who are just as good as they are who play in the boonies or in orchestras outside the US. Why don't the guys who have cushy jobs here in the US just thank their lucky stars that they landed a job where all they have to do is play the music they love to play (and if they don't, please quit. I know someone who would love your job).

Edward G. Nilges, Hong Kong

Some Guy, with the vulgarity that always (and I mean always) gets a free pass on the Internet, you reduce everything to high school, because in America, Distinction flows to Distinction which flows to money.

Thus if you publish beach trash you can tell Mike Wallace you're "rilly" a Philosopher, like Ayn Rand did long ago in 1962, and if your Philosophy preaches greed, why you're In.

If you steal the "wiki" idea from your employee and then your content from people who you then drive away, you're a member of the digerati and your wisdom is sought.

And, you can buy your way into a conducting career.

Most Americans look like fat and spoiled children well into their fifties precisely because they never lose the high school herd instinct and are desparately afraid of being "nerds"...to the point where they never learn how to write a complex sentence, and heaven forfend they should struggle through Juilliard...when, until Sep 2008 they could make much more lovely money on Wall Street ruining workers' lives.

Edward G. Nilges, Hong Kong

It was the best of times it was the worst of times. On the one hand Lolly and Some Guy, venting their destructive instincts. On the other hand the courage of Mr Finlayson.

Sarah Palin, and then Nov 4 in Grant Park.

Gilbert Kaplan and the wonderful New York Times article of Dec 18 in which he was unmasked.

The crash and unemployment looming for most of us: but the rather pleasant spectacle of very wealthy people suddenly shopping at Costco, their money having been wiped out by Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

George Bush still running his yap after all these years, and a shoe.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.


Let me start by saying I share the authors distaste for someone buying their way into a position that's reserved for those who earned it with the gift of natural talent, passion, and years of sacrifice. As one commenter said, the arts are the legacy of our civilization. Music and the broader arts are an embodiment of man's existence and should be guarded.

With that said, we all should get off our high horses and realize we are spoiled babies. While the rest of the world struggles with feeding their population, investing in creating the world's next wave of great engineers, scientist, and mathematicians, we are complaining because we don't like the way our insular warm and cozy womb feels.

Realize how lucky we all are. Be thankful for what we have, and grow up. After all, Gilbert did not take food out of anyone's mouth. The powers that be could have easily said no. So, maybe some of these spoiled baby rants should be directed at those trying to fund deserved but lavish life styles.

David Wagner

It was the best of times it was the worst of times. On the one hand Lolly and Some Guy, venting their destructive instincts. On the other hand the courage of Mr Finlayson.

Sarah Palin, and then Nov 4 in Grant Park.

Oh dear. Is it all about politics after all?

I thought this thread was about conducting in particular, and the state of the arts in general, but Edward Nilges seems to see a straightforward right-left mapping here, where Gilbert Kaplan stands in for Sarah Palin, and Bernstein and Mehta stand in for Barack Obama.

So it's Kaplan/Palin/Joe the Plumber, or Bernstein/Obama/Unpublished Great Author, and one simply has to choose? That's not what I got from Mr. Finlayson's original post, but if it's the case, could we get some clarity on this? E.g. someone either making or denying the claim "Conservatives have no place in the arts"?

David Wagner

Just to be clear, the first two grafs in my post supra are quotes from an earlier post by Mr. Nilges. I tried to use italics, but that didn't work out; I should have used quote marks; my bad.


Looks like Dave blew the whistle on the whole caper.

Professional orchestras have become nothing more than playthings of the idle rich.

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