Don't look at the Trombones...
By Chris Van Hof ~ Posted Fri, 12/19/2008 - 1:21pm
A wealthy amateur conductor took the reigns of the New York Philharmonic last week, and after a trombonist in the NYP section lambasted the "maestro" on his blog, boy did the sparks fly.
The conductor's name is Gilbert Kaplan, and over the last thirty years, he's sought to craft himself into an expert scholar and conductor of one piece of music: Mahler's Second Symphony. His only previous musical experience was a few years of boyhood piano lessons, and some study with a Juilliard student for conducting. He owns the original manuscript of the piece, and is the co-author of a new "definitive edition" of the score and parts. He also has millions of dollars from selling the magazine he built in the 1970s, and gives quite a bit of it to various orchestras, including the NYP. Recently, he led the NYP in the work to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the symphony's premiere in the United States.
He's been generally well-reviewed, and has even recorded the best-selling version ever of Mahler 2. For the most part, people seem to acknowledge his relative lack of technique, but few question his enthusiasm for the Resurrection Symphony, and the reviews tend to be positive. That all changed with this blog posting from NYP Second Trombonist David Finlayson. Finlayson is an immensely talented player, and a well-respected teacher. You can read it for yourself, but suffice to say, Mr. Finlayson has very little nice to say about Mr. Kaplan, and in fact is quite harsh on him and his performance with the NYP. It all really blew up when the New York Times picked it up and ran this article.
This whole situation got me thinking. First off, in reading and re-reading Finlayson's post, I increasingly bristle at the callous, abrasive, and unfriendly tone and syntax he uses. I'm reminded of the axiom instructing us what to say if we've nothing nice to say (that is, nothing at all). Such harsh and public derision seems below a professional of his caliber, irregardless of how bad a given conductor is. The language also smacks of musical elitism and snobbery, something many classical musicians fight daily in order to promote our art to a larger audience. Must we really worship Mahler 2 quite to that level?
But as I let things simmer a little, I began to read between Finlayson's anger and consider how I might feel in his situation. Certainly, playing a masterwork under an inept conductor can be very frustrating (as I know from first-hand experience). And Finlayson's comments about other conductors being more deserving to conduct that historic concert ring well with me, especially considering the time and lifelong commitment a student of conducting (or any performing art) gives.
Upon further consideration, I thought about fitting this situation into other areas of life. Would the NYP allow a very wealthy but marginally talented pianist to sit down and play a Rachmaninov Concerto? Would the management let a famous banker who used to play trumpet sit in the section and play the Promenade in Pictures at an Exhibition? Or put it into non-musical terms: Would the New York Giants allow a billionaire sponsor to play a quarter at running back because he's always loved the game? Would a person who's never been a doctor, but has read a whole lot about brain surgery be given chance to try it out?
I feel uncomfortable either completely writing off Kaplan or completely backing him. Let's be honest, he's done his homework and knows the piece. But he's nonetheless an amateur, and cannot give a performance equal in caliber to a more studied musician. I also feel uncomfortable about either shrugging off Finlayson's tirade as pretentious and self-serving or trumpeting it as heroic and well-executed. I think--like most situations like this--that there's guilt to be had on both sides.
Is Kaplan serving his beloved piece best by giving it sub-par conducting? Why not celebrate it by finding the best and brightest to give more performances of it as Kaplan gives intelligent pre-concert chats? And what good does Finlayson's rant do for either the piece or the situation? His insight into a musician's perspective is at once an exciting window into how we performers actually think, and a rather heinous overstepping of boundaries.
Peruse the blog and the article linked above and share your thoughts. Will this be the first of many "reviews from the back row?" Part of me worries, but part of me thinks it might be cool--as long as we can play a little nicer together.