Las Vegas–Cultural Wasteland

Vegas, Baby

Vegas, Baby

I’ve been having some mixed emotions lately, sitting around the house.  On the one hand, I finally tracked down a copy of “White Men Can’t Jump” on DVD (“No, no, no, that’s Ghana.  You, my friend, are shooting for the Sudan.”).  On the other hand, the most prominent classical music news story of the past week has been the looming demise of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, an orchestra that I have no affiliation with, but an orchestra in which I have more than a dozen friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

The Las Vegas Sun has some stories here and here about the issues facing the orchestra right now.  Issues that surprise me exactly 0%.  Having grown up in the Neon Jungle, I saw first hand how utterly devoid of musical culture the city is.

I’ve got stories, myself.  Like how my mother and countless other professionals played with prominent entertainers and jazz musicians (knowing what I know now, I’d have killed to be there when mom played with and met Sammy Davis Jr.) before they started using canned music.  Or how a friend of a friend said he was moving to Vegas to be a jazzer (he was a saxophonist), was struggling to make ends meet, and had plumbing issues.  He called the plumber, and he actually recognized him.  He asked him what he was doing being a plumber, and was told, “I have a family to support.”  That plumber, as it turns out, was Carl Fontana, arguably the greatest jazz trombonist of all fucking time.  Jesus, Vegas.

My favorite depressing story, though, comes from high school.  I had just discovered Mahler within the year, and as luck would have it, Danielle Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic were performing the 5th Symphony on tour on the UNLV campus.  My friend and I both excitedly purchased tickets for over $50.  Fast forward two weeks, and we hear news that the hall is only sold to about 30% capacity.  They decided to give tickets away to everyone in the music program at my school (I went to a performing arts magnet school).  And, as you can imagine, the exact same thing happened the next year when Vladimir Ashkenazy and the DSO Berlin came, bringing Shostakovich 10 with them.  But I’ll be damned if my younger sister’s ballet studio’s recital didn’t pack the shit out of that hall.  Really, Vegas?

They’ll tell to if you listen that they have priceless works of art.  And they do…buried in the Wynn, the Bellagio, the Venetian, and probably some more, they have some stellar art collections.  Great.  Meanwhile, an orchestra with some absolutely first-rate musicians can’t even make it through a 6-concert season?  That orchestra has folded and restarted more times than I have fingers, even if I were the six-fingered man from The Princess Bride.  Thank God Phantom of the Fucking Opera sells out all the time.  What the fuck, Vegas?

The truth is, Vegas is an anomaly.  They have 2 million people in the metro, but they don’t have a professional sports team.  Green Bay, Wisconsin has a professional sports team.  You know what else they have?  A Symphony Orchestra that can do 6 concerts a year.  But what they don’t have is an endless army of casinos, restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and pawn shops.

I still visit Las Vegas when I can.  My father still lives there.  I like it when I’m there.  The town has a palpable energy, and even though I’m not much of a gambler, drinker, or high-end call girl seeker, I dig that energy.  I just know that while I’m there I can forget about any of the culture that enriches my life, because it’s nowhere to be found.

Politics In The Concert Hall

I read this brief complaint from columnist Jay Nordlinger of the National Review regarding politics on the podium.  Here is an excerpt:

So, on Friday night, I go to Carnegie Hall for a Christmas concert. The King’s Singers are performing with the New York Pops Orchestra; Marilyn Horne is a special guest. This should be an evening away from politics — just a little fodder for my next New Criterion music piece, you know?

Shortly into the concert, the conductor turns to the audience and speaks about “the holidays.” This year, he says, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are overlapping with Christmas. (According to what I can find, Kwanzaa begins on December 26, but never mind.) Then we have New Year’s Day. And “on January 20, there will be a new beginning for our country.” The crowd, of course, erupts into cheers. Then he says, “I see I’m not the only one who’s ready.”

This type of behavior seems to be commonplace among artists of all disciplines.  The Sean Penns, George Clooneys, Green Days, and Dixie Chicks of the universe seem to have an incessant need to keep us informed of their political slant.  We listen, at least enough to keep them talking.  They makes films with veiled political messages (The Day The Earth Stood Still is about global warming now?), not-so-veiled political messages (you can’t fight terrorism with guns, right Munich, Syriana, The Kingdom, Body of Lies?), and satires about sitting presidents.  Music and art are also filled with such examples, like “American Idiot,” one of the most popular albums of the year.

Choosing to express your political views in your chosen medium is something I have no problem with…I can choose not to go see Tim Robbins’ stupid war journalist flick, I can not buy the Dixie Chicks album (of course, I wouldn’t buy it if it was about Mahler, the 49ers, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and The Big Lebowski), I can skip a politically charged art exhibition if I don’t want to see it.  As the saying goes, “there’s a time and a place.”

A concert is not one of those places.

I don’t know who the conductor in question at the performance is, but I agree with Mr. Nordlinger’s call for some degree of condemnation for this breach of at best intelligence, at worst etiquette.  The types of comments being made absolutely do detract from what you’re doing, and what you should be doing is providing the best concert you can.  Taking stupid cheap shots in the political realm should be off-limits, mostly because it can ruin an otherwise noteworthy performance for the patrons.  Your service must be to art, not your opinions.

I consider myself one of the most annoying loud-mouthed, opinionated people out there, and I have extremely strong opinions about many things (like the fact that Joe Montana IS the greatest quarterback of all-time…I DARE you to argue with me on this!).  I’m not Captain Couth either…I’m almost happy to embarass myself with foul language, off-color humor, and a hearty, boisterous, obnoxious laugh.  But I’ve continued to improve my decorum, and I’m happy to pass judgment in this case.

There is never an appropriate time to bring politics into the concert hall.  Even if you are performing a piece like El-Khoury’s “Lebanon In Flames,” it is important to try to give the audience an understanding of where the composer is coming from without injecting your own opinions into the situation.  Feel free to talk about it in private circles, or on your blog.

Which reminds me…hunting bears and wolves from a helicopter is wrong.

Are We Bailing Out Gilbert Kaplan?

Gilbert Kaplan

Gilbert Kaplan

With the performance in New York of yet another Mahler 2 under the direction of Gilbert Kaplan, a lively discussion has begun about just what Kaplan is, and perhaps more so what he isn’t.  Just yesterday I read a rather scathing view from a member of the New York Philharmonic which drew responses on all sides of the issue.  As I think about this more and more, I keep coming back to something my mother told me when I was 14 years old and just getting started with being a serious music student:  “It’s not what you know…it’s who you know.”

The entire music profession is rooted this concept; in fact, the entire world is rooted in it.  You can have advanced degrees, loads of experience, drive, work ethic, the whole enchilada, but if you don’t have friends in the right places, you can eat your enchilada all by your-no-job-having-self.  Is this fair?  I guess not.  But then again, my mom also told me “life’s not fair” so that jives just about right.

I have a Master’s Degree in Instrumental Conducting.  I was able to pursue that degree because the orchestra conductor at my undergraduate university left to take another job and had a Graduate Assistantship opening.  I have been fortunate to have some opportunities as a cover conductor with a terribly fun orchestra, in large part because I consider the conductor a friend…who I met through another good friend.  The world of music is filled with stories just like this, although usually on a much grander scale than insignificant me.  Even in the same New York, arguably the top of the Orchestra Food Chain in America, the incoming Music Director’s parents were both Philharmonic members and a cousin is on the executive side of the group.  Friends help friends get the gig.  And one friend in particular helps get them better than any other.


Having friends named Franklin, Grant, Jackson, et al is the best and easiest way to get almost anything done.  Want to get with some hot chicks?  Get that wallet out.  Want to get a better job?  Go to Harvard.  Want to make money?  Spend money.  It’s no different if you want to conduct an orchestra.

I can go, right now, to a website where I can purchase the opportunity to conduct an orchestra in the Ukraine for four rehearsals and a concert.  I have to pay my way there, pay for accomadations, meals, etc., but I can also do that Tschaikovsky 2 that seems so right in “Little Russia.”  Now add some zeros.  Several zeros.  And make the orchestras some of the elite orchestras on the planet.  Isn’t the concept the same?

I don’t have details on Kaplan’s donations to the arts, or if he draws fees for his Mahler 2 performances, but I do know that his contributions to the arts, orchestras, and Mahler are significant and not to be discounted.  Does that entitle him to conduct the piece he loves with these elite orchestras?  As long as someone gets on the phone and asks him to, yes, it does.

The cries of “FRAUD!” ring lound with Kaplan.  Why?  Because he only conducts one piece?  Because he didn’t play an instrument?  Because he was just a fan?  They’re certainly not going to let me play QB for the 49ers anytime soon.  But I don’t see in any way how this makes Kaplan any more of a fraud than countless other “maestros” out there.

I remember listening to a broadcast of one of my favorite orchestras, the Pittsburgh Symphony, in a program featuring Dvorak’s Symphony no. 7.  The conductor was a prominent concertmaster with no significant conducting experience.  He was interviewed during the broadcast and made more than one reference to how “nice” it was to conduct an orchestra of that caliber because you “don’t have to work out the kinks.”  Is it OK because he is a great violinist?  The musical world is filled with star performers turned conductors whose conducting work is as eminently forgettable as their performing careers are stellar.

I think there is certainly a tinge of jealousy to be found in this whole thing, myself included.  I’ve studied Mahler 2.  I feel like I know the music well (which isn’t to suggest I know it well enough to conduct a powerhouse orchestra).  I’m certainly a fan.  I’d love the opportunity to be on the podium for that piece with that orchestra in that town.  I’m too many Benjamins shorts right now.  I’m not alone.  That’s life, and life…say it with me…isn’t fair.

I own something in the neighborhood of 40 recording of Mahler 2, including both Kaplan releases.  I would not rate either of Kaplan’s recordings as among my favorites, but I would rate them closer to the top then the bottom.  I suspect that he has a deep knowledge of the score and some idea of how to put the piece together in a rehearsal (and by extension piece together a recording), but lacks the true understanding of what it takes to make it a valuable performance.  I gave my own theory a little more credence when a friend of mine, whose opinion I value, recently heard Kaplan in Cincinnati, both in rehearsal and performance.  These are his comments:

I have a friend who studied with the new principal trumpet in the Cincinnati Symphony and we got hooked up today!  We were able to sit in on a Mahler 2 rehearsal.  Gilbert Kaplan was conducting.  I wish you could have been there.  It was really, really interesting to watch him work with the group.  He isn’t a great conductor but everything he does is super clear and comes right out of the orchestra.  He did  a ton of stuff with balance that instantly changed the group.  Also really cool to see how he worked through the offstage stuff.

We were the only two in the hall and he asked us about balance from the offstage stuff.  I was like, uh…what, um… I could use just a little more.  So that is what he asked for from them.  Turned out to be a little too much but he closed the doors another six inches and the balance was fantastic.

And here the thoughts after the performance:

Turns out the Kaplan Mahler 2 concert was not good!!!!
The playing coming off the stage was first class but his interpretation was really uninspired.  I talked to a lot of people after who thought the same thing.  Musicians and audience folk.  Too bad.  I was really pumped about it.

The biggest part of being a conductor is making the performance great, in all that entails. Which is why you have yet to see me refer to him as “Maestro” Kaplan anywhere in this painfully long bloviation. But that in no way defines Kaplan as a fraud. He is a man with a passion, a dedication to supporting artistic endeavors, and the resources to realize those passions and endeavors.

What’s fraudulent about that?