In today’s NY Times, there is an interesting article about Gilbert Kaplan, a devotee of Mahler’s Second Symphony who managed to snag a lot of conducting opportunities before major orchestras where he conducts, naturally, Mahler’s Second. He’s even recorded it twice. The article notes dissent among musicians in the NY Philharmonic after a recent performance of the Second, as the view among musicians is that Kaplan is ”talentless“ and might be engaged on the basis of his donations to orchestras rather than an innate talent.
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.