by James Hogan
Soon this January we’ll be inaugurating a new president, which got me thinking about democracy and classical music. Whacky, I know.
The New York Times ran an article in December about Gilbert E. Kaplan, a very well-to-do businessman and patron of the arts who has developed an acute passion for Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”). He has had the fortune of conducting the piece with over 50 orchestras around the world, but his most recent performance, a December 8 concert with the New York Philharmonic, was subjected to harsh criticism by some of the Philharmonic’s very own members.
“At best [Mr. Kaplan’s] conducting is incompetent. At worst it’s laughable,” one musician is quoted as saying. And there are others disgruntled too, some by the suspicion that the only reason Mr. Kaplan was invited as a guest conductor was his significant monetary contribution to the Philharmonic.
I sheepishly admit that ever since my high school band director made me a drum major, it’s been a far away dream of mine to conduct a symphony in concert. You know–gilded concert hall, tuxedo tails, the whole thing. This article, and the criticism of Mr. Kaplan, make that dream a little more distant. Does a common man belong on the podium? Is it silly to think that if anyone can be the President of the United States, anyone can conduct Mahler?
6 thoughts on “By the People, For the People?”
Hm. I smell a rat. Unless Kaplan’s ability and passion have deteriorated in some way over the past decade, I have a hunch we’re getting a glimpse at classical music’s worst enemy: The “E” word–elitism. There’s likely some validity to these musicians’ complaints, but this strikes me as venomous; over the top. The real disappointment in it for me? New York Philharmonic players are on classical music’s front lines. C’mon, guys, lend a hand. Was this really necessary?
What also stinks for me is that, even if Kaplan’s donations have given him access, classical music has been doing things like this for centuries. This surely isn’t the first patron whose generosity was rewarded with opportunities like these.
Many years back, the Community School of the Arts in Charlotte used to do a fundraiser called March of the Maestros, where community luminaries were invited to “conduct” the CSO, and tickets where sold to the event to raise funds for the school. Charlotte art patrons and donors would pay a premium to see some of their own, as well as the occasional newspaper columnist and tv news anchor, wave their arms around for a good cause.
As you say, there’s plenty of precedent for this sort of thing. I guess one factor might be how overt the consideration may or may not be.
Kaplan is a certifiable quack! He goes around hiring orchestras to let him conduct Mahler 2 all over the place. He’s always a wreck, and the players hate it. He’s been doing this for years. The answer to your final question in the blog is this… It is silly to think that anyone could conduct Mahler, just as it is silly to think that anyone could be President of the United States. The fact is that very few people could ever aspire to do either successfully. It is therefore no surprise that not a single person has ever done both.
This is off topic, but I’m intrigued by the idea Austin Greene raises: the musicality of US presidents.
I know Thomas Jefferson played the violin and had scores by Vivaldi and others in his library at Monticello.
Bill Clinton played the saxophone and claimed to be a fan of the Shostakovich symphonies (though that always seemed like a politically correct answer to me).
JFK’s “Camelot” was famous for having the likes of Pablo Casals to the White House, but that may have been more Jackie’s doing than Jack’s!
Anyway, the thought of a US president conducting anything muscial is pretty irresistible … and silly, definitely silly …
Great point, Frank–and don’t forget that Condi Rice is a classical pianist.