Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The man who would be an orchestra conductor

I became a recognized composer of piano music at age 13 but I always wanted to be the conductor of a symphony orchestra. The closest I ever got to conducting an orchestra was in 1974 when I was invited to very briefly conduct a small orchestra in Munich. Years ago in Toronto, Canada there was a draw for anyone who wanted to conduct the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with their choice of music. I entered my name but didn’t get the prize. In one of my published books of short stories, I included a short story titled “The Conductor” It is a story of a man who won the prize but didn’t know how to conduct an orchestra.

This article is a true account of a business man who wanted to conduct just one particular symphony and only that one symphony. I got this story from the Toronto Star newspaper. The author of that article is Margalit Fox of The New York Times. I am going to quote the entire article the way she wrote it so as to not do an injustice to the story she wrote. What follows is a true story.

Gilbert E. Kaplan, a financial publisher who had an accidental second career as an international symphony conductor despite the fact that he could scarcely read music and possessed a concert repertoire of exactly one piece — died on New Year’s Day in Manhattan. He was 74. The cause of death was cancer, his daughter Emily Kaplan said.

Originally trained as an economist, Mr. Kaplan was the founder and long time chief executive of Institutional Investor, a monthly magazine for pension fund and asset managers. After starting the publication in 1967, at 26, he built it into a multimedia concern comprising magazines, journals, conferences and other services. He sold the company in 1984 for a figure reported to exceed $70 million.

By then, Mr. Kaplan had embarked on his unlikely vocation as a globe-trotting conductor of Mahler’s Second Symphony and only Mahler’s Second Symphony. That work, which had held him in thrall for years, would propel him onto the podiums of some of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony and, in an outing that became the subject of a headline-making fracas, the New York Philharmonic.

For an untrained conductor to lead a symphony orchestra — much less to lead one in a fiendish piece like Mahler’s Second — is, as The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in a 1991 review of one of Mr. Kaplan’s concerts, “almost preposterous.”

But in that “almost” hung a tale of obsession, determination and midlife renewal that became, as The New York Times described it in 2003, “one of the strangest acts of wish fulfillment in musical history.”

Mahler’s Second, known as the “Resurrection” Symphony, is a work of titanic power. The piece, which had its world premiere in Berlin in 1895, entails an orchestra of more than 100, a vast choir, choral soloists, multiple harps, a pipe organ and additional offstage percussion and brass. Its five movements span some 90 minutes and have been said to evoke the most elemental aspects of human experience — joy and sorrow, birth and death — and, ultimately, resurrection.

By 1982, when Mr. Kaplan made his sweaty-palmed debut with the American Symphony Orchestra, he had undergone an immersion worthy of George Plimpton, devouring recordings, traveling the world to hear every live performance, grilling scholars and conductors and undergoing a month long nine-hour-a-day boot camp in the mechanics of conducting.

Mr. Kaplan would go on to conduct the “Resurrection” more than 100 times. He would become a recognized authority on the piece and the owner of its original score, which he published in facsimile; a lecturer on Mahler; and the owner of a bust of him by Rodin.

As a conductor, Mr. Kaplan divided reviewers. Some called his performances lackluster and superficial, if well intentioned.

But in the end, as unlikely as it seemed, he also wound up with a sheaf of rapturous notices and more unlikely still a top-selling, critically esteemed recording of the symphony that had possessed him since he was a young man.

The son of a shirt manufacturer, Gilbert Edmund Kaplan was born in Manhattan on March 3, 1941, and reared in Lawrence, on Long Island. His family, he said, was for the most part unmusical: As a boy, Gilbert endured three years of piano lessons and played the guitar a little. (His older brother, under the professional name Joseph Brooks, became a songwriter whose hits included You Light Up My Life.

After attending Duke University, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research in New York and studied at New York University Law School. In 1963, he took a $15,000-a-year job as an economist with the American Stock Exchange.

He soon became conscious of the importance of money managers in financial markets — and of a gap in the marketplace when it came to meeting their needs.

“They were professional investors,” Mr. Kaplan told The Sunday Times of London in 1984. “Here was a group of people who had no information about their field and an audience that advertisers wanted to reach in a major way.”

Scraping together $150,000 — two-thirds of it borrowed from Gerald Bronfman, whose family owned the Seagram distilling company — he put out the first issue of The Institutional Investor, as it was originally known, in March 1967.

Mr. Kaplan, who also held the title of editor in chief, appointed the financial journalist George J.-W. Goodman, better known by the pseudonym Adam Smith, as the magazine’s inaugural editor. After selling the company in 1984 to Capital Cities Communications, he stayed on until 1992 as Institutional Investor’s editor in chief.

The “Resurrection” had put its hold on Mr. Kaplan in 1965, when he attended a performance of the piece by the American Symphony, under Leopold Stokowski, at Carnegie Hall.

“I wanted to get inside the music,” he told The Age, a Melbourne, Australia, newspaper, in 1993. “There’s a real explanation of life and death in that music, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.”

But to get fully inside the music, he came to realize, he would have to learn to conduct it. That he had long since forgotten his scant musical instruction was no impediment.

“Someone once told me that a bumblebee, judged by aerodynamic principles, is incapable of flying,” Mr. Kaplan told The Associated Press in 1988. “But the bumblebee doesn’t know that. So I kept going forward.”

In 1981, he enlisted the services of Charles Zachary Bornstein, a young conductor fresh out of the Juilliard School, who oversaw his monthlong immersion. He snagged a two-hour lesson in London with Georg Solti. He studied German. He lifted weights.

“Your arms get tired from two minutes of changing a light bulb,” Mr. Kaplan told The Times of London. “Try keeping them up for an hour and a half.”

He seeded his copy of the score with a thicket of notations. “Start left,” the first one read, a reminder to aim his baton toward the violins at the outset.

He rented Avery Fisher Hall and engaged the American Symphony and the Westminster Symphonic Choir. The orchestra, collectively astonished, agreed on two conditions: that no tickets be sold and no reviews be published.
On Sept. 9, 1982, Mr. Kaplan mounted the podium for what he intended simultaneously to be his debut and his farewell performance, an invitation-only gala for 2,700 guests, staged at an estimated cost of $100,000.

He had solved the problem of his music literacy by conducting the entire score from memory. Should his memory fail, he said, he planned to turn to the audience and announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served.” But he did not need to, finishing the performance to a thunderous ovation.

At least one critic in the house, Leighton Kerner of The Village Voice, broke the embargo to publish a glowing review, declaring the performance to be “one of the five or six most profoundly realized Mahler Seconds I had heard in a quarter-century.”

Offers poured in, and Mr. Kaplan went on to lead the piece with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic of London, the Russian National Orchestra, the Philharmonic Orchestra of La Scala and dozens of other ensembles.

There was some jeering. “The Resurrectionist,” the headlines called him, “One-Hit Wonder” and, inevitably, “Walter Mitty.”

More seriously, some reviewers taxed Mr. Kaplan with being a check book maestro, paying orchestras to let him ascend the podium. He denied doing so, although he acknowledged that his refusal to accept a fee constituted a de facto savings for the ensembles he led.

Perhaps the worst moment in Mr. Kaplan’s new career came in December 2008, when he led the “Resurrection” with the New York Philharmonic. On the day of the concert, the musicians held an hour long meeting with the orchestra’s president, Zarin Mehta, to vent their frustration with Mr. Kaplan’s musicianship.

Mr. Kaplan was not invited to lead the Philharmonic again, but there were laurels elsewhere. He recorded the “Resurrection” with full orchestra twice, first with the London Symphony and later with the Vienna Philharmonic.

The London Symphony recording, featuring the London Symphony Chorus and the vocal soloists Benita Valente and Maureen Forrester, was named by The New York Times as one of the best classical records of 1988. By 2008, it had sold more than 180,000 copies, making it, The Times reported, the biggest-selling Mahler recording of any kind.

Mr. Kaplan’s other work includes “The Mahler Album,” a lavishly illustrated book he published in 1995. He was also a noted collector of Surrealist art.

Mr. Kaplan’s brother, Mr. Brooks, committed suicide in 2011, two years after he had been charged with drugging and sexually assaulting more than a dozen women.

Besides his daughter Emily, Gilbert Kaplan’s survivors include his wife, the former Lena Biƶrck, whom he married in 1970 and who wears the only ring that Mahler was known to have given his wife, Alma; two other daughters, Kristina Wallison and Claude Davies; a son, John; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Kaplan served over the years on the boards of the American Symphony and Carnegie Hall, and taught in the evening division of the Juilliard School.

If, in his unplanned second act, Mr. Kaplan was tilting at windmills, at least he was doing so with one of Mahler’s batons, which he also owned. And though some critics continued to snipe, his work, admirers said, unmistakably reflected his passion, his fealty to Mahler’s intentions and, quite possibly, the idea that a man’s grasp might sometimes equal his reach.

He was, in any case, far from the only conductor to incur critical barbs with the “Resurrection.”

Reviewing the United States premiere of the piece, The New York Times praised the performance generally, but described some aspects as “lacking in unity and proportion” and “fragmentary and bizarre.”

That concert took place in December 1908 and featured the New York Symphony Orchestra, a progenitor of the Philharmonic.

On the podium was Gustav Mahler.

If I had won the Toronto Symphony raffle, I would have chosen Ferde Gofe’s “The Grand Canyon Suite” I knew that piece by heart.     

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