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?


5 thoughts on “Are We Bailing Out Gilbert Kaplan?

  1. A friend’s mother teaches piano. She had a new student come to her and ask to be taught Hungarian Rhapsody #2. Piano teacher had to disappoint the student. It’s not that you CAN’T learn the Liszt from scratch, it’s just that when you finally have it down you still won’t be able to play anything else. If Kaplan was actually interested in learning to conduct, he would have used his fortune to improve his juice, instead of just paying for the best seat in the house. THAT’S what makes him a fraud. Studying Mahler 2 is not the same as studying conducting. In the battle of the rich amateur conductors, Beecham kicks Kaplan apart. Oooh!

  2. Pingback: more kaplan responses | daily observations

  3. But who says that Kaplan has to be interested in conducting itself? Who says that would-be-player of Hungarian Rhapsody #2 has to want to learn the piano? I think that oftentimes instrumentalists have it backwards: we love to play OUR INTSTRUMENTS and totally miss the boat on loving to play THE MUSIC. Loving one piece enough to invest that much time/energy/cash into learning it (and learning it as well you can) is not bad, or misguided, or fradulent. It’s perhaps even a better road than just loving to play an instrument skillfully…

  4. Mahler’s 2nd doesnt exist in a vacuum. It exists with a whole history of music before it. And the “black dots on the page” is where you START…not where it ends. It’s just a skeleton where life-blood must be pumped into it. Blood filled with experience, training, understanding, feeling, and equipped with ear training,harmonic understanding, and plain old instinct.

    Claiming to be an expert on ONE PIECE is indeed fraudulent, because it doesnt exist.

    What would Gustav Mahler (the same Mahler who conducted the New York Philharmonic (different name)and Metropolitan Opera) think of Kaplan attempting to fake a lifelong’s worth of knowledge to “conduct” (as opposed to arm wave) his piece? Mahler the Conductor would turn in his grave!

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