Gilbert Kaplan is a Wall Street billionaire who has devoted much of his idle rich time over the past 30 years to studying and conducting Mahler’s great Second Symphony.  It has become his passion, one might even say his “Rosebud” if one were unkind (as we most certainly are not).  He has led some of the world’s best symphony orchestras through its rigorous paces more than 100 times at last count and while the Resurrection itself seems to have suffered no permanent damage, the reaction to Mr. Kaplan’s conducting has been decidedly mixed.  Not bad enough to be really awful in an interesting way (like, say, William Friedkin’s remake of Wages of Fear) or good enough to rise above mediocre.  Kaplan’s money usually assures a polite acceptance.

But, no mas — not in this age of the tell-all blogger.  David Finlayson of the New York Philharmonic had the courage to say what others have merely thought.   And, today’s Center of the Universe Times picks up the thread in this piece by Daniel J. Wakin.

As a topic of further discussion, can anyone think of other “amateurs” who have made a difference — good or bad — to serious music.  

31 Responses to “Another Day, Another Wall Street Fraud”
  1. Rusty Banks says:

    Are you kidding? Amateurs-with-money are what funds the arts in this country. Don’t forget it. Who underwrote your last 5 gigs? Maybe someone in there was a non-musician who loved the arts, but I bet most of them had some connection with music. And many of the amateurs are quite skilled. Some are also F. F. Jenkins, but many arts organizers are gig-worthy musicians who don’t care to gig.

    Also, wasn’t Ives an amateur? :-)

  2. Evan Johnson says:

    ” Amateurs-with-money are what funds the arts in this country.”

    … and other countries, in other times… Esterházy princes, anyone? Lobkowitz? etc. etc.

    Not that I think this has much to do with any of that…

  3. Russ Grazier says:

    A friend once told me that one of the most amazing performance experiences he had ever had with a conductor was under the baton of Danny Kaye, the actor/comedian who claimed he couldn’t read music. From Wikipedia: “Kaye was often invited to conduct symphonies as charity fundraisers. Over the course of his career he raised over US$5,000,000 in support of musicians pension funds.” I would take that as making a positive difference in the lives of musicians.

  4. paul bailey says:

    i hadn’t heard of this “mahler expert” until i read this cloying profile on him in the economist. http://tinyurl.com/4rxcrp

    after reading the piece i wondered what type of “conductor” would only conduct mahler? its like me saying i’m a theatre director that only does shakespeare. oh wait… i guess those chaps are con artists also.

    let him conduct all of the youth orchestras that will have him, but thank goodness the nytimes and david finlayson finally called bullshit to this charlatan.

  5. david toub says:

    Ives was indeed an “amateur.” Just ask Pierre Boulez ;-)

    In all honesty, aren’t many of us technically “amateurs” by virtue of the fact that we hold day jobs and don’t devote our careers to music per se? The term has nothing to do with quality or skill but if you’re not a “professional,” I guess you’re defined as an amateur.

    That said, there’s a big difference between a lot of us and Mr. Kaplan. While I’ve known of him for years and give him credit for realizing his passion, I’m not too keen on the idea of his paying or “donating“ to get before an orchestra and conduct. The argument, though, that there are so many other conductors deserving of an opportunity to conduct a major symphony orchestra seems to be to be a straw man. He saw an opportunity and was able to leverage his influence, which is probably no different than how many folks get before an orchestra. The only problem I have is that it gives the appearance of having involved donations in some cases, despite the denials of Mr. Kaplan.

    Full disclosure: I’ve never paid anyone to perform my music, although my wife tells me I should consider compensating people to listen to my music ;-)

  6. Steve Layton says:

    Speaking of Danny Kaye and the NY Phil, somone was nice enough put video up on YouTube, of Kaye doing a full evening performance of just that, & with just those:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTqMi965iB4

    (Of course it takes until about the 5 min. mark to really get going… and there’s 16 more parts to watch as well.)

  7. zeno says:

    As of September 2008, American composer and music and arts patron Gordon Getty’s net worth was reportedly $2.5 billion, making him number 163 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans. Roughly speaking, if the Yale University endowment is down 25% since the onset of the most severe part of the current world financial crisis, Mr Getty’s net wealth – and philanthropic activities — could conceivably be down by a comparable amount. [Some of the top U.S. hedge funds and other private wealth vehicles attempt to shadow and match the portfolio investment positions of Harvard and Yale Universities.]

    [Mr. Getty remains perhaps the most important patron of the Russian National Orchestra.]

    [Also, while I knew that Gilbert Kaplan was a multi-millionaire, I never realized that he was a billionaire. One lives and learns and works as best one can.]

  8. Seth Gordon says:

    There are certainly a number of amateurs who have contributed artistically, which is a far more interesting subject than who’s giving money. If by amateur we mean not formally (or minimally) educated in (ahem) ‘serious’ music – there’s certainly more than a few.

    For good or for bad. Depends what you think ‘serious’ means, I guess. Some self- or minimally-taught names off the top of my head:

    Telemann
    Elgar
    Louis “Moondog” Hardin
    Tod Dockstader
    Brian Eno
    Laurie Anderson
    Throbbing Gristle
    Tōru Takemitsu
    Frank Zappa
    David Bowie
    Arto Lindsay

    and, um… Paul McCartney?

    And for the record, I kinda liked Friedkin’s Sorcerer. Not as good as the original, no, but good for what it was.

    And speaking of Sorcerer… Edgar Froese? For good or bad, you said…

  9. Paul H. Muller says:

    Being an amateur isn’t the problem David Finlayson has with Mr. Kaplan – it is the latter’s lack of competent musical direction and inability to communicate a meaningful interpretation of the work to the orchestra.

    But apart from that, Kaplan’s bigger shortcoming – in my amateur opinion – is that he has ignored the freedom he has to study and perform any kind of music he wishes. Why fasten yourself to one piece – however grand – when there is so much more out there? A “real musician” with Kaplan’s resources should be trying everything from the 14th century on. His singular pursuit of Mahler’s 2nd while it represents a high degree of focus, seems to betray a lack of interest in music. But if it puts people in the concert hall…

    Famous amateurs? Frederich the Great comes to mind.

  10. J.C. Combs says:

    Thank God Ives isn’t alive to see the amateurs get raked over the coals repeatedly by the snobs who profess to know everything about classical.

  11. Sparky P. says:

    >>>>”…Full disclosure: I’ve never paid anyone to perform my music, although my wife tells me I should consider compensating people to listen to my music…” (D. Toub)

    Maybe I can retire early then (or at least pay for this year’s Christmas presents)…

  12. Jerry Bowles says:

    Well, let’s see. Kaplan sold Institutional Investor in 1984 for $70 million so with simple interest and passbook savings that should be a nice chunk by now. But, you’re right, Zeno, Gil’s probably not in the Bernie Madoff league. Per Seth: Throbbing Gristle?

  13. Rusty Banks says:

    HAHA! I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Kaplan conduct, but boy, that’s a scathing blog/NYTimes article. It’s an interesting question: is it harmful for this to go on?

    On one hand, I feel this was one performance out of a jillion, and was probably kinda “meh.” While, for many of us, there might be a world of difference between Kaplan and Mazeel, I doubt most of the audience could tell a difference between Kaplan’s rendition and Maazel’s. Sad but true. Not the NYPhil’s best moment, but the sky didn’t fall, and maybe he’ll write a bigger check next year.

    On the other hand, I find it heartening that so many people give a crap. It is excruciating to play under someone who is arrogant and incompetent, but people to seem to care even beyond that. It be great to have so much of the populace be well-trained amateurs that symphony audiences are large, and full of people who listen critically enough to distinguish one conductor from another.

    First, let’s see if we can get them to tell the difference between an orchestra and a synthesizer…

  14. Rusty Banks says:

    I mean “it *would* be great to have” rather than “it be great to have.”
    :-/

  15. Trevor says:

    Kaplan has made two recordings, last I checked, of the Mahler 2nd, which have sold incredibly well, and no one here casting these aspersions is going to mention anything about how it actually sounds? It’s been a while since I heard either one of them, but I recall quite liking the first recording, and being a little bit cold on the second. I’m a pretty big mahler nut, having about 50-something recordings of his, so I don’t say this without due consideration. I liked it better than Bernstein, Abbado, or Walter’s CBS recording of the same piece, for instance.

    Seems quite odd that he would be called a ‘charlatan’ without even judging the actual results. Its not like orchestral musicians are known for being the most open-minded individuals in the world.

  16. Lisa Hirsch says:

    It’s funny how the word “snob” gets directed at people who have skill and expertise when they talk like people who have skill and expertise, and are able to make informed judgments about musical issues. I’ve had it directed at me for saying “Andrea Boccelli isn’t an opera singer” by people who don’t know much about opera or opera singing. Not surprised to see it used here about this case.

    As for Gordon Getty – I heard part or all of one of his works a couple of years ago, performed at a benefit at his house, er, mansion in San Francisco. I assume it was on the program as a courtesy to him. It was not nearly as good as the other works on the program, and sounded…well…amateurish. Written by someone with some skill and good intentions but also seriously lacking.

    He also recently had a piece of his performed on a program by San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows, at the opera house. That I have a lot more problems with than the private performance. The performers were young professionals who shouldn’t be asked or required to sing second-rate music by a big donor, especially when they could have been singing first-rate music by a great opera composer.

  17. J.C. Combs says:

    “It’s funny how the word “snob” gets directed at people who have skill and expertise when they talk like people who have skill and expertise, and are able to make informed judgments about musical issues. I’ve had it directed at me for saying “Andrea Boccelli isn’t an opera singer” by people who don’t know much about opera or opera singing.” – Quote

    Lisa, it is quite possible from your description that you are, in fact, a snob. But that doesn’t mean I think you don’t know anything about music and can’t make musical judgments! And really, leave Andrea Boccelli alone already :)

  18. Boccelli stinks … nothing more than a pop-star for consumers who think they’re getting a magnificently trained voice.

    And as for the ‘snob’ word, the only people who use the word to insult someone are those who don’t know that it means the following:
    snob: a word used to signal to the recipient that the deliverer is unaware of their own ignorance of the topic at hand. (unless of course, the recipient is the ignorant one, in which case it probably means both parties are ignorant! :) otherwise it wouldn’t have been said in the first place )

  19. J.C. Combs says:

    That’s an interesting definition. This is what I found on Webster’s. Note the 1st definition, cobbler…. Could be on to something here.

    Webster’s: 1British : cobbler2: one who blatantly imitates, fawningly admires, or vulgarly seeks association with those regarded as social superiors3 a: one who tends to rebuff, avoid, or ignore those regarded as inferior b: one who has an offensive air of superiority in matters of knowledge or taste

  20. Eric Lin says:

    Trevor, like most people, I haven’t listened to either Kaplan recording either. Therefore, I’ll withhold my judgment. I think it’s easy for some people to quickly dismiss what Kaplan’s doing. Indeed, his musical abilities may be amateurish and lacking for all I know. Nonetheless, classical music thrives on patronage, like it or not, and why alienate amateurs who are genuinely passionate about the art form? Does classical music only have to be the game of professionals?

    I don’t think Kaplan ever called himself a professional musician. (Or has he?) Jerry and Mr. Finlayson: If he hasn’t, why is he then a ‘fraud?’ If someone likes playing the piano but isn’t up to par with professionals but wants to give a public performance/recital, why is that fraudulent?

  21. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Giving a public performance is one thing; having the NYPO at your beck and call is another. If Gil Kaplan were renting Carnegie for a piano recital, I would certainly not think it was fraudulent. It would be obvious that it was quixotic or a vanity production or whatever, because he’d be paying for it himself. The fact that he winds up “guesting” for major orchestras…

    Let’s put it another way. I used to play the flute reasonably well and through h.s. and college had plans to become a professional. My senior year of college, I realized I didn’t like playing the flute well enough to put in the time necessary to be competitive at the orchestral level; I didn’t have any idea how to become a freelancer or put together performing groups or whatever. (I’d have a better idea of how to do that now, but it’s way too late, and I’m still not interested enough). If I were to pull out my flute and practice hard for a couple of years, take lessons again, etc., it still wouldn’t entitle me to take my place next to Tim Day, SF Symphony’s principal flutist, on an annual basis. If “play with the symphony once” were auctioned off and it was an obvious one-time purchase, sure.

  22. david toub says:

    I’m still not clear how he’s a fraud. You could perhaps subjectively claim he’s not a major talent, and that’s fair. But a fraud? Was he intending to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? That’s ridiculous, and even idiotic. Rather, he had an opportunity, and used his means to get it. Obviously there was some demand for him, otherwise he would have been a one-time wonder, and that would have been that. I’m not a fan of his, and like you, probably resent his being able to use his means to obtain conducting and recording opportunities. But BFD—that’s how many things in life work. You tell me—why is it that with so many talented American conductors, most major orchestras are still led by Europeans? Obviously it is not just a matter of talent, but marketability. Kaplan is marketable. He probably can hold his own, and that’s perhaps all he needs to do. Sure, it would be great if everyone who led an orchestra, played an instrument or wrote music were appropriately skilled. But some aren’t, and I do find it a bit snobby to think that only the high and mighty can conduct a major orchestra.

    That’s the same cloistered attitude that kept a lot of women out of music circles. And that’s the same attitude that keeps nonprofessional composers, like many of us, out of the mainstream. Personally, I’m fine with not being in the mainstream. Kaplan wants to be in the mainstream with regard to his Mahler performance, and none of that would have been possible were it not for the orchestra managers who engage him. He doesn’t have the NYP at his “beck and call.” Rather, someone at the NYP engaged him (and whether or not his donations played a role is purely speculative. It has the appearance of a conflict of interest, however), and for whatever reason, he did his thing.

    The Philharmonic has a notorious reputation for being horrible to conductors, all the way back to Boulez and earlier. I don’t dispute Finlayson’s frustration with Kaplan, and he has his right. But I think he painted him with pretty strong colors, and suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle.

    I say this as someone who finds what Kaplan does to be undesirable, and don’t think much of his conducting talent. But I think folks need to give him some credit for having a passion for Mahler’s second. If he had a similar passion for new music, even the Ives’ Fourth, would we have the same level of moral outrage at what he does? Personally, if someone wants to use his or her financial or marketability leverage to increase the number of performances of Feldman’s music, I’d be the first to applaud.

  23. Bill says:

    Anyone else catch this by Finlayson: “The Cinderella story is one of our favorites; Arnold Schwarzenegger is just one such case…The actor Ronald Reagan…More recently, John McCain and Sarah Palin would have liked to join the ranks of famous long shots but, alas, the collective wisdom deemed them unqualified.”

    Calls into question the rest of his comments!

  24. Lisa Hirsch says:

    It does? How?

    David, good comments. I don’t know what I would think if his passion were, say, for L’amour de loin or The Rite of Spring. The monomania is weird in any case.

    I think there is something wrong with your analogy to women getting traction in classical music, mainly, that the women being excluded were generally highly trained and professionally qualified.

  25. david toub says:

    Thanks Lisa. The analogy with women is this: I’ve heard idiotic folks over the years with a misogynistic attitude that women aren’t good at _______ (fill in the blank with whatever career you want) because being women, they couldn’t possibly be serious at what they do. Now substitute the term “nonprofessional composer” for “women.”

    My point is just that it’s horribly wrong to assume someone is a fraud because they’re not professionally trained just at it’s horribly wrong to assume a woman can’t be serious in a pursuit because she lacks a y chromosome. If Kaplan is lousy at what he does and it’s all crap, then fine. But I’d hate for those of us who did not take the standard path to becoming composers to be tarnished with this guy because we are also not “professionals.”

  26. Rob Deemer says:

    Gilbert Kaplan doesn’t bother me in the least – if you want to get somewhere and find the wherewithal to achieve that goal, life is good. The fact that his rise pre-dates our culture’s current fascination with the amateur breaking through the talent ceiling (American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, etc.) explains why his tale hasn’t morphed into a reality show (though it did spawn a documentary if memory serves).

    What’s bugged me is Norman LeBrecht’s pompous reaction to the whole mix-up (http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2008/12/the_player_who_forgot_his_plac.html). The idea of telling someone who has been playing professionally for over 20 years in the NY Phil that they should know their place, keep their mouth shut and let the “real” critics do the critiquing of the conductor is pathetic, considering it’s coming from someone who has been talking about the death of classical music for some time AND on friendly personal terms with the conductor. Finlayson took a huge gamble by airing his opinions online, but from reading the comments, it seems that most of the positive reaction has been from musicians and most of the negative has been from the sidelines (i.e. media, critics, etc. – see the Time’s article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/18/arts/music/18kapl.html).

    It would have been one thing if Finalyson’s rant had been emotionally-driven spew; instead, his comments were well-thought out and seemed to be generally driven by a desire to perform the music to the best of the ensemble’s ability. The more composers, conductors and critics understand that the performers are not simply empty vessels but hard-working, creative professionals, the better.

  27. J.C. Combs says:

    Great posts here.

    To be able to blog and share your opinion literally with the world is great, but perhaps one should draw the line concerning one’s employer. I wouldn’t dare complain about my job at my blog unless I were looking to get fired.

    And I also agree that the player should act according to his role, which is to play his instrument and maintain a standard of loyalty to whoever is conducting.

    If Finalyson wants to conduct, and from reading his blog it sounds like he feels more suited in that role than Kaplan, than more power to him. But if this sort of behavior is allowed to continue, before you know it the trombone and tuba players will start improvising in the middle of a symphony because they felt they could add something to the work.

  28. Rob Deemer says:

    Good point, J.C.,

    I probably sounded more ornery than I intended in my last post. Of course it’s never a very good idea to denigrate your employer on a public blog (especially one that seems to have been made specifically for that). I’m not sure if I completely agree with the “act according to his/her role”…obviously playing the instrument is important, but I would think it had more to do with maintaining a standard of loyalty to the ensemble, not the particular conductor. It would go hand-in-hand for the most part, since if you’re not working with the conductor, you’re not making your ensemble look very good, but in this particular case I get the sense that the musicians felt that Kaplan was making their ensemble look bad, which caused them to speak out.

    It has been interesting to follow how quickly this story has blossomed into a “thing”, with mentions on several blogs as well as the Orchestralist listserv I belong to. It seems to one of those issues that is everything to everyone – whether or not you’re bothered by amateur conductors, rebellious musicians, fetishism of long-dead composers, or the image-driven mindset of orchestra management, it’s all there in a simple package.

  29. “if this sort of behavior is allowed to continue, before you know it the trombone and tuba players will start improvising in the middle of a symphony because they felt they could add something to the work.”

    I’m not sure what you are talking about allowing or not allowing to continue: people expressing their opinions? That should be a personal choice, not something we allow. And one could easily extrapolate the following: “if Kaplan’s behavior is allowed to continue, before you know it, corporate CEOs will be seizing the batons from every trained conductor in the country.” It may be a logical sequence, but it’s not particularly likely.

  30. zeno says:

    Lawrence, your post reminds me that the Boston-based, British Mahler and youth orchestra champion Benjamin Zander has appeared four times as a keynote speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he was presented with the Crystal award for “outstanding contributions in the Arts and international relations”. Besides conducting, he has an extensive, world-wide corporate speaking career.
    His earliest training, however, was in music (under Britten’s tutelage and encouragement).

    High Fidelity named his recording of Mahler 6th as the best classical recording of 2002; his recording of Mahler’s 9th Symphony was nominated for a Grammy Award; and his recording of The Rite of Spring was named as one of the ten most important Musical Events of 1992 by the New York Times.

    *

    Lisa, I love your comment regarding the Gordon Getty music on the SF opera Adler Fellows fundraising concert at his Pacific Height’s ‘urban palace’ (near MTT’s):

    “I assume it was on the program as a courtesy to him.”

    I might have thought so too, until I realized years back when doing some research work on a (Getty-funded) documentary film project about the Russian National Orchestra, that Mr. Getty has works performed on a large share of RNO performances whether they are in the Russian Federation or the United States (and probably Monaco and Europe, as well, I can’t now remember).

    [Gordon Getty has admitted to mentally composing/daydreaming during Corporate Board of Directors meetings.]

    *

    [I spoke with Mr Getty briefly at a Levine School of Music fundraiser (featuring some of his songs) in Washington years ago, and we didn’t connect. I recall him mentioning Massenet as one of his models (and heroes) -- an interesting and not necessarily unfavorable comment, in my view.]

  31. J.C. Combs says:

    “I’m not sure what you are talking about allowing or not allowing to continue: people expressing their opinions? That should be a personal choice, not something we allow” -quote

    Lawrence, regarding the blogging, that’s a tough call since professional musicians blog about their work, so where do you draw the line regarding complaining. This situation is an example of how fast things blow up in our internet age (of course the NY Times might flared things up a bit).

    But the example of the players performing their job, I would restate that there should be a nice system in place where they respect the conductor and play with a smile, or at least not a frown.

    This sort of reminds me of something I saw (I would bet its on Youtube), where symphony players were filmed exiting to the backstage after supporting Guns @ Roses (might have been another band) and as each player walked by the camera they gave either a sick look to the camera or laughed. I’m not exactly an elitist and there are great examples of symphonies backing bands, but this really was awful. At least IMO.

    In that scenario I agree 100%, but when someone dedicates a huge portion of their time, amateur or pro, to conducting a Mahler symphony, we shouldn’t sneer or laugh.

  32.