Main | Misery loves company »

December 15, 2008


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Some Guy

Let us know how this "biting the hand that feeds you" plan of yours works out. If it weren't for wealthy music lovers like Kaplan, you'd be hitting the unemployment line about now after getting canned from teaching a high school band class.

Pat Savage

Your post is almost a parody of everything that is wrong with today's classical music culture. I am a composer, and although it is important for the musicians preparing my works to connect with each other, that is not foremost in my mind when I think of the "intent of the composer". My intent is for the audience to either have fun, or to communicate something meaningful to them, or both. Performers are obviously an important part in the process, but they are not the beginning and the end, alpha and omega. And I bet you that Mahler felt the same, before he was deified by the elitist classical establishment.
It's not always just about you.

Morgan, Houston

My, my David, what brought this on? Is this the first time you have comprimised yourself? I am envious of the life you have lived.

Reading the other posts suggest that those of us in the underclass have been hoodwinked once again by the 'experts'. All I have read about Mr. Kaplin and his conducting has been positive. He, by the bye, has been more critical of his talents than those that have reviewed him.

As we say down here in Texas, "I don't have a dog in this fight." but I do grow weary of those who criticise the 'fight' yet split the 'purse'.


I love you. You love me. Incredible opinions offered musically.


Nurhan Arman

Thank you Mr. Finlayson for your excellent analysis. I was astonished to read the favourable NYT review of the NY Phil performance under Mr. Kaplan.

Although I know nothing of Mr. Kaplan's actual conducting technique given the facts it would have been impossible for him to get the results that NYT critic claimed he did. It was like saying he hasn't studied medicine, he is not a doctor but performed a very successful open heart surgery (even this is more possible).

It is good that they are giving the proper coverage today.

Nurhan Arman


This is a very interesting issue. In general, I think a sense of humor and some kindness would go a long way. After all, Kaplan loves the music, has given money to the orchestra, and brought some paying patrons to a special concert. Any intelligent observor would come away with even a greater recognition of the gap between a professional and an amateur conductor. The NYT review prefaced remarks with a clear indication that Kaplan was clearly no professional conductor. Is there no room for an amateur to dream and do something unusual?

On the other hand, if this activity is so repulsive to the musicians, maybe mixing amateurs with professionals should be taboo.

Another option is to have an "amateur night" where for an exorbitant fee (say $5000 each) CEO's and businessmen can conduct their favorite piece. This should be limited to 3 to 5 minute excerpts. It should be done under the category of "comedy." Those musicians who couldn't stand doing it should be excused. After a dozen of these excerpts, there could be an intermission, and the orchestra would return with a real conductor and show their true colors.

Tom Mesevage

I attended the December 8 performance. Mr. Finlayson's comments express my own sentiments completely. No doubt the standing ovation at the end reflected the greatness of the work rather than the ordinariness of the performance. One could not have a better example of how important the conductor is in realizing such a work. The NY Phil's performance the following week of Strauss' Electra was simply fabulous under the direction of Maestro Maazel.

Edward Rosen

Classical Music has been living on handouts in this country for decades. Despite all the training and study and competition, classical music has been in a constant state of decline, both financially and artistically. Mozart and Beethoven (to name just two) composed garbage (does Wellington Victory ring a bell?) to survive. Stop crying and don't bite the baton that feeds you.

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 ( 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

Daniel Krueger

I think you have made a wonderful point. It scares me that I am coming out of a school of music in 3 days with my undergrad and that people like this are ruining our credibility as musicians to further our abilities.

David Vanderpool

A couple of months ago I attended a performance of Mr. Kaplan's with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Although the music itself held up, and generated the predictable audience response, it was an altogether inept reading of an extraordinary piece.

There was simply no sublety and little passion. Tempos were VERY quick throughout (about 67 minutes total, including a substantial pause after the 1st movement). It was impossible to appreciate the density of construction that is the marvel of the piece, even with a full score in my lap.

As a chorister, I have participated in a number of Mahler 2's, including Bernstein and Mehta with the NYP, and Mr. Kaplan's inaugural performance in 1982 at Carnegie Hall. In 1982, we all believed that this would be Mr. Kaplan's only "hurrah" and struggled to give him a memorable experience, as well as a creditable reading of the piece. His credibility as a conductor has not been improved by the intervening 26 years and dozens of performances. Though I am certainly not by any standard an orchestra conductor, I am equally certain that my meager skills would probably have produced better results.

I have participated in performances where the judicious "improvements" of professional players and singers have mitigated inadequacies on the podium, even from gifted conductors. (Everyone, after all, does have days when nothing quite works out.) At the performance in Cincinnati, there wasn't enough for the best of intentions to improve.

It is great piece, arguably Mahler's best work (together with Kindertotenlieder.) It requires daunting forces, extra preparation and is exhausting for everyone involved, and so taxes the financial and professional resources of any performing group. The effort, expense and commitment required should not be invested when there is no real opportunity for outstanding results.

Dave Kamminga

Way to go Dave. Orchestra musicians need to attempt to educate the public as well as our own managements. This is very well written and I will pass it along to my colleagues. Dave Kamminga


The Rabbis tell us: To humiliate another person in public is tantamount to having "killed" him.

The concert is over. Nobody died.

Why kill someone now?

What moral justification could there possibly be for this?

To attack another person in this way is not just bitchy, but evil.

Matthew Lepold

My question to any conductor suspected of fraud is "Can you play it?" It would seem reasonable for the Concertmaster to say- "Excuse me Maestro, I am a little confused about what you want here at bar x, can you play it for us?" What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall at that point. Personally speaking, I would never dream of standing in front of the NY Phil without being able to play what I'd presume to conduct. From memory! Surely, if he has this great love for the piece, he can at least play a piano reduction? Just ignore that fake and follow the Concertmaster. I am sure it wouldn't be the first time...The tragic part is that he took a slot away from all the talented pianists and violinists who are paying the dues, aren't there at least a half-dozen, two dozen youngsters coming up? Aren't there a dozen or two excellent working conductors that would give their eyeteeth to guest their favorite with you guys? John Niles, Sylvia Alimena, Joel Lazar, Alan Nathan? All these four can play what they conduct and can keep the beat. In the words of Bill Cosby: Come On, People! Maybe NY Phil needs some new management. And, where is the board in all of this? Don't they have a say? Who is driving this bus?

Matthew Lepold

One last word: Auditions! I think it would be a great cable TV show, better than AGT and would make money. Here's how it works: Candidates submit their cover letter & resume, a large fee, ($1,000?) repertoire list and a CD. After a screening process by a jury of NY Phil orchestra members, chosen musicians audition live in a two-part process: 1) Play a movement of a chosen orchestra piece as piano reduction live from memory. 2) Conduct a movement with an NY Phil small ensemble. Roll cameras, America votes. New York Philharmonic Idol. We could get through at least 3 seasons without exhausting Juilliard Alumni alone, problem solved.

Jeremy Shatan

I have long suspected everything you wrote about Gilbert Kaplan. The fact that he has never "learned" how to conduct any other piece of music was always a huge red flag to me. If I were to immerse myself in Mahler, I would not be able to stop at just one symphony. He probably sticks with the second because, while long, it is less complex than some of Mahler's later works.

Orchestras are worried about their audience shrinking. As long as they keep pulling the wool over people's eyes with stunts like Kaplan instead of truly opening minds and ears to great music, they will find themselves confronted with the law of diminishing returns.

anne spurzem


I am a veteran concert-goer who loves Mahler but has no musical training. I appreciate your comments because I think the players know more than the critics. The only reason that I went to the concert was to hear the piece. I feel that the standing ovation only happened because he had a cheering section in the audience. As you know, a standing ovation doesn't really mean anything anymore because most people in the audience don't know anything about music and stand up so they can give the appearance of knowing something. My rule of thumb is: if all the old ladies and men and the poorly dressed music students stand up, then it was a magnificent performance.

I thought that this was a boring attempt at the piece. I didn't walk away feeling inspired like I had witnessed something great. It would have been far more exciting to hear a young conducter's interpretation. If only I had been present at Lenny's debut!

Julian Tepper

That I commend the tenor of the article, there are a couple of items that need emendation.

First, inclusion of David and Goliath is inapt. To be sure, not many understand the story or the context. David, always described as a shephard, was, in fact, an accomplished warrior. More important, the slingshot was one of the most lethal weapons of the time. Goliath stood no chance from the get-go.

Second, the comment regarding the recent presidential election was distracting. The nation preferred Obama over McCain. Collective wisdom had nothing to do with it. And even among those of us who wish great success for Obama's presidency, or who hope that he has far better luck with events not yet anticipated, let alone dreamed of, the wisdom of the vote is yet unknown.

All of that said, I'd love to see an at-length article about what Leonard B. had to go through to get the musicians in the Vienna Philharmonic to accept just playing anything Mahler. Mahler, a Jew, had to become a Catholic in order, so he believed, for his career to survive. Even then, he suffered from Jew-hatred treatment and left his post as conductor of the Vienna Court Opera after but three years. The Vienna Philharmonic, which plays in the same orchestra pit used by the Vienna Court Opera, maintained Nazis in their ranks. Mahler was a hard sell to them, even with Bernstein (no Kaplan, he) conducting. (Or, of course, was the fact that it was a Bernstein conducting and exhoriting them to accept Mahler part of the Vienna Phil musician's obstinate disdain?)

In a sordid way, musical career-building and productions are like sausages. Becoming aware of what goes into them is invariably an exercise in experiencing disgust.


It's too bad that the musicians of the NY Phil had to perform this amazing piece with a conductor they didn't like or respect. I read some positive reviews of the concert, but as you said, musicians of a high caliber, and with a long Mahler tradition, can still impress audiences and critics despite the guy on the podium. However, the fact that it was pleasing to the listener doesn't excuse the fact that the musicians were robbed of the opportunity to explore the work with a superb conductor who could bring about a truly cohesive and enlightening musical interpretation.

In Chicago, we were very fortunate to hear the CSO perform Mahler 2 under Bernard Haitink three weeks prior to your concert. It was a transcendent experience, not just because of the outstanding performance of the orchestra, chorus, and soloists, but also because of the sort of musical insight and integrity that Mr. Haitink exudes in his exploration of the work.


This whole situation is so symptomatic of the flaccid and misguided management of so many orchestras today. So many good musicians and so many inept managers and bad conductors.

Hiring Kaplan to conduct was a clear based on intellectual dishonesty. He's a hack, and everyone knows it, yet someone, probably some self-important bureaucratic 'artistic administrator' (isn't that an oxymoron?) thought it was a good idea. Orchestra staffs (not all) are full of managers who make terrible artistic decisions on a daily basis, year after year, and get away with it.

The real problem is that (most) orchestras in the US are morally bankrupt enterprises whoes sole purpose is to provide a paycheck for overpaid managers, guest artists, conductors and (at the higher levels) musicians. They suck a disproportionate amount of philanthropy out of a community and return almost nothing of lasting value other than a couple of decent concerts a year. Imagine how cool it would be if an orchestra spent just 5 percent of its budget each year on commissioning exciting composers to create new work for them? Imagine if the orchestra 'bizness' got toghether and created a manhattan project to create exciting new work? Imagine what would happen is someone actually cared about investing resources in orchestral R&D instead of frittering them away on the likes of Kaplan?

In Hans Christian Anderson's version of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' the crowds were told ahead of time that the emperor's new costume was so radical and different that stupid people that wouldn't even be able to see it, and no one wanted to be thought of as stupid.

Your post illustrated, through this one incident, that the biggest problem facing orchestras isn't money---its integrity. Come on, NY Phil, you can do better than this!

Rick Harper

I'd like to address all those whose message is, "Get over it, find something worthwhile to complain about."

Are you really saying that you never complain about your work? That your boss never tells you to do something stupid? That you've never disregarded those ridiculous instructions in order to save the project only to see your incompetent supervisor take the credit for a job well done? Please. Is it the end of the world? Of course not. Does that mean it's not worth complaining about? Again, the answer is "no." The author is simply saying that, after going to college for 4-6 years and spending even more years after that perfecting his craft, he (understandably) feels like he and his colleagues deserve to be led by competent (or, dare I say, great?) directors.

Warren Cohen

Conducting is a strange business, because the worst conductors may not lead the worst performances. Like most orchestras, every year we auction off a "conduct the orchestra" offer, where someone gets to do a short piece in return for a donation. Most orchestras do "Stars and Stripes" but because of the unique mission of the MusicaNova Orchestra, ( we do easy to conduct but less familiar music; this season it was Joachim Raff's Festmarche. The orchestra played beautifully for our donor, and I noted that there were very interesting unexpected details in the performance. Why? Because the musicians, getting no guidance from the conductor, listened to each other closely, played well, but without a guiding hand random things emerged. It was unplanned but attractive. When critics talk about the "detail" in a Kaplan performance, this is what they are hearing. And I would bet anything that the "detail" is different in each performance-because it is a symptom not of the the control Kaplan has over the orchestra but of his lack of control. (disclaimer: I have never seen Kaplan conduct. I listened to a bit of the first recording he did, but could not sit through it. I thought the performance was awful.)

Good musicians cannot bring themselves to play badly-and really, they owe it to Mahler not to play what Kaplan conducts, (or,when he succeeds in beating time correctly, to play only what he conducts) instructive as it would be for both the conductor and audience. And I sympathize with David and all the other players who go home grousing; you are bound to feel a bit dirty about it, because you are perpetuating a fraud. Kaplan goes home thinking he is a conductor, and the audience thinks he had something to do with the performance.

People mentioned Kaplan's lack of charisma. I think this saves him. The worst conductor I know is a fellow with no talent for conducting, no knowledge of music, and not a musical bone in his body. But he has charisma. Players try to ignore him but they can't, and the results are unspeakable. I was reminded of Simon Rattle's description of his unhappy time at Bournemouth at the start of his career. He said of himself "I was not good enough to help, but I wasn't bad enough to ignore".

An unfortunate side effect of Kaplan's wealth is that he has never had to learn how to conduct. I don't think you can really learn your craft without working with lower level orchestras, groups that really need a conductor, and will rely on you to get through the piece. Then, if you have any self-awareness, you will notice where you are inadequate, because the musicians won't save you. Sadly, Kaplan is not alone in this-as many celebrity musicians who turn to "conducting" prove. If great musicians can't develop as conductors because they only conduct great orchestras, what hope is there for a person like Kaplan?

Lennert Dorman

Years ago, as a member of a choir, I performed Mahler's Second Symphony with G. Kaplan conducting. He paid a lot of attention to details. E.g. for the opening of the choir's Auferstehen he wanted us to remain seated half of us singing and the other half humming, trying to create a mysterious sound. Always have felt since that the opening notes of the choir coming out of nothing to be preferred over being pre-announced by having the choir stand at i.e. Number (I believe) 22 (a fortissimo by the orchestra).

But I completely agree with the article. My performance with Mr. Kaplan was one of the very few experiences where the conductor was following what the orchestra was doing and not the other way around. It was an amazing experience but it told more about the professionalism of the orchestra then the conducting talents of Mr. Kaplan.

Our audience went wild. Partly I think because it took an enormous amount of concentration and energy by the orchestra (and the choir) to perform the piece successfully. Partly because it was the loudest performance of this Symphony I ever have been part of.

mahendra singh

I'm an illustrator with 25 years experience.
The visual world is enduring the same tidal wave of earnest incompetents. Many visual artists today simply cannot draw on any coherent level. Nor do they have a clue as to what the past has to offer them, they are blissfully unaware that there is anything before them!

The Hack is King, especially the wealthy & connected Hack!

Stick to your guns, make things hot for them!

Dominic I

Bravo, David.

I had the opportunity to sing the Resurrection Chorale under Kaplan with a small organization in Long Island last summer. Without going into performance details, he is, to say the least, far less than qualified to stand in front of an orchestra. His motivation is less a love for Mahler and more an ongoing experiment in self-aggrandizement; it's as if he's testing the boundaries of how far the legitimate classical music world will let him go.

We (professional musicians) can and should not let this stand. It's not as if this symphony would be lost into obscurity without Gilbert Kaplan. If his love for Mahler were truly genuine, he would be content to contribute financially to orchestras in order that they may give the work due diligence by qualified musicians who have devoted their life and soul to making music.

The administration of the NY Phil should be ashamed, and I don't think it will be difficult for them to realize the public relations disaster they have created. The musicians of the NY Phil should be proud of the courageous step they have taken in standing against such a circus display that follows Gilbert Kaplan around the world, and for working to keep the high standard in musicianship that most of the audience can appreciate, even if it's only in their collective unconsciousness.

I predict that it will be more and more difficult for artists, musicians, and arts organizations to maintain artistic integrity in the face of reduced funding as our economy continues to destroy itself from within. It will be necessary for us to redouble our efforts to resist resorting to cheap public relations stunts to get asses in seats at the expense of giving audiences performances they deserve. I can empathize with the inner conflict of the musicians who are forced to render a performance that such a musical masterpiece deserves knowing that the credit will be going toward someone who bought his way onto the podium.

The comments to this entry are closed.