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December 15, 2008


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The Phil are a bunch of brats. I certainly thought that Gil's conducting was terrible, but you all acted like children the entire time. It's pouring through in Messiah too. Get a grip and learn to be a professional. This is the reason why no one takes the Phil seriously anymore!

Ian G. Sadler

Why ?? does anyone like Elvis ?

Or Mahler ?

OK, I admit I like 4iv despite the insipid
diddle-iddle in the orchestration.

But, PLEEEZ !!, how can we put Mahler
in the same baseball league as, say, someone
like Prokofiev, who is "great" on every level.

Who "stands up" no matter at what angle the magnifying glass is applied.

Just checked out 2nd and 3rd mvts. of 2 as per Bernstein on DVD LSO.

Why is this good music?

Yes, I like warm blankets and human-hot chocolate and a hug.

Maybe that is all music has to be.

And Mahler gets a gold medal for pen and paper
elbow grease.

(Or a platinum medal).

But, my basic question is: Why is this
Mahler 2 "good music" ?? and I am asking this question to any highly qualified musician eg. this 'bone-blogger because your opinion carries weight
(unlike "critics" i.e. "throw-up" as per Miles Davis)


One thing that hasn't been mentioned so much in the blog posting or the comments is the historical importance of this particular performance. It was conceived as a 100th anniversary of Mahler's own first performance of the work with the New York Symphony, an organization that ultimately merged into the Philharmonic. This is a very special event -- essentially a celebration that reenacted a historic event a century before. The orchestra, the piece, and indeed the audience deserve the best for such a performance: including the best musicians on the orchestral roster playing and also the best conductor on the podium. A number of great conductors who have recorded complete cycles of Mahler's works and who have spent years perfecting their conducting of Mahler (among other composers) could have been chosen for such an event. They were not. Instead, someone who has conducted only a fraction of the number of performances that any professional conductor has, and someone whose experience is limited almost entirely to one piece was chosen.

To those who are responding that David should have just sucked it up and lived with it without complaining, I might agree -- if this were just any old concert, even with a major orchestra. But this was a historic event. David shouldn't have bowed out or refused to play; he had the responsibility as a member of this orchestra and subsequently as a representative of the tradition of the orchestra that originally performed this work a century ago to give his best in such a performance. And when some other person involved in the performance -- whether another player, a stage manager, or the conductor himself -- is chosen to suit some whim rather than to maintain the integrity of a centennial performance, I think people should speak up. This is a performer who has devoted his life and livelihood to not only this specific piece, but to music in general and the institutions (like this orchestra) that support it. He (and those institutions) deserves better than a hack who has become obsessed with only one piece and has no other qualifications.

I commend David for speaking up. To those who criticize him for doing so, I encourage you to consider a similar situation for something you care about. A 100th anniversary celebration is being organized to commemorate the founding of some institution or tradition that you care about -- whom should you choose as a keynote speaker? Probably not someone like Kaplan. I commend Kaplan as well for his devotion to the piece; I've heard him conduct a university choir and orchestra in a performance some years ago. I think he did a fine job, and various orchestras may gain something (publicity, money, etc.) for inviting him to perform occasionally.

But this was not just any performance. This was not just any orchestra. It was an anniversary concert performed with the orchestra that originally performed the piece. The orchestra -- and Mahler -- deserved better. The fact that he was even considered for such an event means that people like David need to start speaking up.

Mark T

I was very intrigued with your commentary. I have a brother who is a violinist, and I feel I am intrinsically linked with your story. My brother played under Maestro Maazel's baton at PSO, and there is a story of how he reduced a well known flutist to tears , on stage. He was so upset with her interpretation of the tempo, that he told her to simply follow his baton, and to abandon her interpretation of the piece, so little did he think of her technique, compared to his. And the truth is, he was right.No one has better baton technique than Maazel. Compare this to Kaplan. It was thus upsetting to see that the NY Phil would even allow a non- musician, with obviously no idea of sense of rhythm and tempo, and certainly, no baton technique, to conduct the Mahler.

Maris Jansons, Maazel's successor at the PSO, is also a non-musician. He was generally held in contempt by the orchestra, for a similar lack of true musical background. But, now he is the conductor of the London ! The masquerade continues ! How the emperor's new clothes do shimmer and shine!

There is such a gap between musicians, and the non-musically trained general public. Musicians can generally see through a pretender to the throne, and the public can't...but it is the public who chooses who attains success. The general public thinks that all it has to do to truly appreciate music is to just "listen". They ignore the fact that it takes great self sacrifice for a true musician to qualify as such...hours upon hours of theoretical study, ear training, sight singing, more theory, and of course flawless performance in front of a crowd...They basically think it's easy to play, just look, I can do it too, Ma ! It is a complete affront to a musician to see someone like that conduct greatness. Bugs Bunny for president ! That is america's theme... the success of the underdog..the right of everyman...and also its undoing. Imagine Palin as president.


Collectors with money to support their obsessions can have their uses, and Gilbert Kaplan deserves credit for publishing a facsimile of Mahler's 2nd and donating it to libraries around the world. But a collector is not the same thing as a scholar or a conductor. Reproducing (as he does in his facsimile and, as I recall, in the original release of his LSO recording) every single letter in which Mahler mentions the Second Symphony, no matter how fleetingly, is not the work of a discerning critical mind, but of a fan. In his notes for the LSO recording he claims the first movement recapitulation begins with "the loudest notes in music" and that the last movement includes "the softest entrance in choral music," etc. This is just sophomoric, emotional hyperbole, factually wrong, of course, and indicative of somebody who lacks the musical and critical apparatus necessary for true, penetrating communication about the piece. Which makes me tend to believe musicians who claim he doesn't have much to offer them, technically or expressively, on the podium.

David Toub

I've known about Kaplan for many years, and always was skeptical. Not so much because he's technically an amateur. But because he seems to be a one-hit wonder. Isn't there more than just the Mahler Second? I love the work, but I'd be just as passionate about Mahler's Sixth, or any of a number of works by Feldman, Shostakovich, etc. And why is his interpretation considered any more worthwhile than a lot of ours would be, if we had an opportunity to conduct a major symphony?

When I was a kid, I used to attend some free concerts of the NJ Symphony Orchestra that were conducted by a old female patron of the arts who also played cello. She paid for the concert and the opportunity to conduct. Was she talented? Not so much. But I benefitted from her largess just the same, as did everyone else in the audience. And it was our decision to attend or not. While I felt it was a bit weird for someone to essentially ”buy“ their way into being able to conduct an orchestra, at the same time, she had the opportunity and money and used it. As much as I'd like to think that only those who are deserving would be enabled to conduct an orchestra, the reality is that many conductors got there through connections and/or some other form of leverage. Some folks are on the podium because they have perceived star power and can draw an audience, even if their interpretation or skill might not be as good as some other candidates. That's life, and I get it.

What bugs me the most about the Kaplan situation is that it makes it harder for those of us who are not ”professional musicians“ or ”professional composers“ but who, nonetheless, are passionate and devoted to our musical pursuits. I work as a physician, but have been a composer since I was a kid and while I earn no income from it, make my music available for free on the web for anyone who cares to listen to it. I compose because I like to, and have been fortunate in encountering people who can see beyond the fact that I am not a ”professional“ (since I have a day job outside music) and listen to or perform my music because they want to. But I would also never have any desire to pay someone to perform my music (it was once offered to me and I declined emphatically) and know of no one else who would pay to get performed, either.

If Mr. Kaplan benefitted from his ability to make consistent donations to various orchestras, that's his business, but I would hate to think that those of us who are not professional composers or musicians but who would be considered as such if we drew income from it, are thought of in a poor light because of Kaplan's ability to leverage whatever it is that he leverages to get conducting opportunities. And yes, the musical directors and orchestra managers who enable him are just as guilty.

Vivian Lee

I enjoyed your essay about Gilbert Kaplan and I find it intriguing that you are apparently so struck, even surprised, by his lack of ability on the podium. I work for an orchestra that is a wonderful ensemble, but lacks the funds to always have top-notched (read, for the sake of this argument: expensive) conductors in front of it. As a result, the kind of conductor you describe in Gilbert Kaplan is all too common to be noteworthy. I agree that our managements are often to blame for under-estimating the importance of having fine conductors on the podium, but to be fair, they are always looking at the bottom line, and that is the main focus of their jobs. If a conductor can bring in a full house, they are pleased, whether the result is a great performance or just a perfunctory reading. In a case such as the NYPO's, perhaps a good long list of complaints from the musicians would result in G.K.'s never being hired again, but for most of us lesser orchestras (I think that would describe most of us!), our complaints may well fall on deaf ears, because, hey, the hall sold out, the conductor's popular, most of the crowd couldn't tell the difference since all the notes of Mahler's amazing score were played by terrific musicians, so what's the problem?

Believe me, I'm happy to hear you push for a ban on mediocrity- it would make my job much more pleasant if it didn't exist- and I wish our orchestra could afford the luxury of being so exacting. The concerts that I've been involved in that are memorable because everything has come together, i.e., the music was sublime, the conductor knowledgeable, passionate and technically competant, the musicians inspired, occur maybe a couple of times a year, but I remember them and are grateful for them.

Marre Scheuermann

Well, Florence Foster Jenkins gave a recital in Carnegie hall. I think the comparison is apt.

Nicholas Fox

Hello David,

This is the pianist who has played the trombone auditions at Mannes the last couple of years and a former conducting major at Mannes. I cannot applaud your essay enough--it is not only heartfelt and passionate, but well-reasoned and clearly argued. I felt a huge swell of pride, as a young conductor who cares so passionately both about music and the role of good conducting, when you talked about the injustice of frauds like Kaplan conducting orchestras like New York, Vienna, and London, whilst people who have been toiling at perfecting their craft still go without a shot. Bravo, Bravo, Bravo! Musicians of conscience salute you!

Shirley Kirsten

I think David blog's can be taken a step further.
Here in California's Central Valley, many conductor hiring decisions have been made by the Board of Directors who hold the keys to the bank. Why on earth were they dispatched to
deliberate on auditions? As a performing musician, and recording artist from the East Coast (grad of Performing Arts High, Oberlin Conservatory)I was appalled the year JoAnn Falleta was totally written of as a prospect. It was a combination of THEIR musical ignorance, and gender bias.
Before this particular jury convened, we had a paticularly gifted conductor whose tenure was short lived because he had contracts with other orchestras. They were so naive and closeminded at the time about what they considered musical incest, that they bolted forward to terminate him. Twenty or more years later, local
orchestra management were suddenly aroused from their long
Rip Van Winkle snooze and hired a director who shared talents at other distant locales. The bad news is that he also
left our city prematurely as a consequence of
Board of Directors inspired politics. Just like the Rabbis who have been purged regularly out of our local pulpits, seems the conductors are easy prey, especially if they want to separate the money from artistry, and their artistic decisions.
I think Daniel Barenboim said it well, when he left the Chicago Symphony. He was tired of the mandatory dinners, and the aural wallpaper.

John Bescherer

Hey David. How come they're advertising for a new Associate Principal Trombonist at the Philharmonic?


I believe David is still second trombone, not assistant principal. It's not his position that's vacant if that's what you mean.

James Smithson

The problem is, as pretty much everyone in the classical music world will tell you *over and over* again, the New York Philharmonic is a mediocre orchestra.

It's an overrated group, desperate for publicity - whether's it's hiring Kaplan, publicly slamming in this blog or trying to convince people that going to North Korea was to aid world harmony (Check out the latest Harpers for some home truths and ridiculously arrogant commentary from Eric Latzky:

Yes, Gilbert Kaplan is not a brilliant conductor; but he's not awful either (I've seen him perform twice). He's simply average. Like the New York Philharmonic

Couch Pundit

The musicians in the orchestra, the NYPhil in particular, are at the top of their game. This is the most renown orchestra in the country if not the world--I can't just show up with a bag of money and a trombone demanding that I play between you guys so why should some hack be allowed on the podium for the same reasons? *

He would do better to conduct in front of his stereo--the way he learned the piece and charge admission to those who want to watch his musical masturbation instead of subjecting professionals and listeners to the ignorant baton of this wannabe.

*If I came with beer or good scotch, they might let me spray water on their slides, though.

The Couch Pundit
Feral Bass Trombonist

Marc Shepherd

I was at the performance, and I thought it was excellent. And yes, I've heard other Mahler 2nds. I could certainly see that Kaplan's beat was pedestrian, but I could also see his ideas behind the piece, which the orchestra in fact realized. If the orchestra "rescued" the conductor, so be it.

It should be noted that Kaplan performed without fee, and the concert, which was a sell-out, was a benefit for the musicians' pension fund.

Russ Devuyst

In short; there are artists who are painters and there are those that are paint-by-numbers painters who think they are artists.

George Carr

I have read all these comments with interest, because I've been in all these positions at one time or another. I came up as a professional trombonist, performing with fantastic conductors and touring with student and professional ensembles. When I gave up my short musical career and entered graduate school, I became a patron, eagerly picking the concerts of great musical interest from the annual schedule of my local orchestra (which is very fine), and writing checks to the more progressive and creative musicians I could find. And when I finished graduate school and entered the world of business, I started writing bigger checks, and eagerly volunteered to sit on the boards of performing arts institutions, where standards of artistic success have to be balanced against the other factors (financial, educational, and political) that affect an arts organization. So I have a bit of sympathy for all of the viewpoints involved. Mahler 2 is, indeed, a composition strong enough to survive a bad conductor, and the Phil did the right thing by playing well despite Kaplan's failings. And David, you're absolutely right to speak out for the highest musical standards for your ensemble. And who can blame the orchestra management for putting together a benefit concert outside the subscription series that included some free publicity and came in under budget?

I agree that life would be more wonderful if there were no such compromises to be made. But they will always exist: to cite a few Philharmonic examples, Bernstein often premiered mediocre new compositions in the name of promoting American composers, and often planned the Philharmonic tours around political or ethnic agendas, rather than musical ones. Players were upset with him about the former, and management was upset with him about the latter. But these compromises are unavoidable, although they differ in degree: hiring a different conductor for Mahler 2 would have satisfied some musicians like David, but would have increased the costs of the event and might have been only slightly more musically satisfying.

People who care deeply about a particular industry, like David, are often bothered about how little others share their priorities. But nothing is pure about this world: every profession has its little stinging compromises. Playing in a very fine orchestra for one night with a substandard conductor is, I submit, a relatively minor tragedy.

Jernej Ule

I recently read the article about Kaplan in Economist, then the one in NYT, which got me here. I am in conflict. I found Kaplan's story inspiring, even though I expected he couldn't be a great conductor if mostly conducting one concert by one composer. I grew up with a love of classical music, which I couldn't share with my friends, brother, or anyone of my age. My teen friends found this was not something to love at our age. So I thought that Kaplan's story could serve as a bridge to people that in normal circumstance would not relate to classical music.

When presenting my scientific work for non-scientist, I often have to oversimplify things to get things across. I am aware, though, how easy it would be to overstate my claims in the name of popular science. It's an eternal issue that everyone faces, I guess, but it looks like the Kaplan story did go a bit too far...


Imagine if you will, Bill Gates playing Hamlet simply because he helped fund a performance...

Greg Pedersen

Every individual should stand up against worthless artists, or even worse, pretenders to the throne such as this "conductor".

One day, perhaps, in the world of the so-called avant garde music, someone will say that John Zorn, Phil Glass etc is all a bunch of crap to their face and not praise them.

Doug Halfen

As Ethan Prater said above, Toscanini and Mahler don't mix -- they clash! In fact, Arturo was surely responsible for getting Gustav (as well as Mengelberg) out of the post.

Jernej Ule

I'd like to follow-up on my previous comment. I totally agree with David's points, but I think that Kaplan's spot should still be filled, but instead of by wealthy ex-businessman, by young and inexperienced aspiring conductors. These should receive the kind of publicity as Kaplan does, and the kind of orchestral support. This would be a great way to bring the classical music to younger audiences.

Robert Edwards

Since I am now retired, I feel free to make this comment, because it cannot be viewed as self-serving. Perhaps the finest compliment ever paid to me by a member of an orchestra was from violinist Joan Williams who said, "You know, some conductors expect us to make them look good, but you make us look good. I have such confidence when you are on the podium - I have a sense that you know exactly what each of us is dealing with. And I'm never lost. And you always find the most interesting lines, the most wonderful moments." Mr. Kaplan is indeed a self-serving, arrogant charlatan and every musician needs to speak out and stop this type of thing happening. There are too many deserving conductors out there who don't have the opportunity to work.

G.G. Allin

I can understand your disgust at having a world class symphony in the hands of an amateur. However, from the NYTimes article it seems that Kaplan did pack the house and got a respectable review from the Times. Even if the full house was due to the 'novelty value' of his conducting, this shouldn't be overlooked.

My understanding is that this was a one time special performance and a benefit for the players’ pension fund. In the current economy (especially in New York) I'm sure that the fund raising situation is looking grim. I know it is for the arts institutions that I am familiar with.

Your reaction reminds me of a spoiled 16 year old girl who gets a new BMW for her birthday and pitches a fit because it wasn't a Range Rover.

If this were a regular performance than I would concede that you have a point; but it wasn't. This was a fundraiser for your pension fund. Sure, there may have been better candidates to conduct, but management went with this guy. He had a full house with a passable review.

The best thing to have done in this situation would have been to grit your teeth, fake a smile, and say 'Thank You'. Be a professional. Don't be a child. Be a man.

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