I come not to praise Gilbert Kaplan, nor to bury him. Instead, what follows is my attempt to make peace with an unusual situation in which I found myself embroiled during the past week -- in large part within the confines of my own skull.
Not quite two weeks ago, I had the unique experience of being sent by The New York Times to review the New York Philharmonic conducted by Gilbert Kaplan in Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection." I'd heard Kaplan's two recordings of the work, and was neither overwhelmed nor especially turned off.
The concert, a benefit for the musicians' pension fund, was sold out; lonely souls prowled the plaza with a digit extended as if trying to crash a Dead show. It also marked the 100th anniversary of the night Mahler himself conducted a prenatal New York Philharmonic in his symphony's U.S. premiere. Unburdened by predisposition, I wrote about what I saw and heard, in a review that was on the whole very positive.
Not long after, I found my words swept into an acrimonious furore over the orchestra's ill feelings toward Kaplan.
If anyone is coming late to the story, the controversy largely arose when David Finlayson, a trombonist in the orchestra, wrote a blog post blasting Kaplan's lack of skill, in the process taking to task orchestra managements (his own included) in enabling Kaplan's fraudulent fantasy.
Dan Wakin reported the story in The New York Times, in the process breaking the news that the entire orchestra had demanded a meeting with orchestra president Zarin Mehta to vent their anger regarding Kaplan's engagement. Understandably, the blogosphere erupted with condemnations of this latest Wall Street swindle, pointing to yet another example of how the super-wealthy get whatever they want at the expense of the impoverished, the qualified and the soulful. Blogger Charles Noble pointed out that two members of the orchestra had posted negative comments on the Charlie Rose web site, attached to the page with Rose's Kaplan interview.
There were also opposing opinions. Norman Lebrecht, a friend of Kaplan's, blasted Finlayson and his colleagues for their bad behavior, and the orchestra's lack of corporate discretion. Pliable, ever a wise observer, connected the event to an ever-growing confluence of interests -- complicity, one might say -- between arts organizations and big business-cum-philanthropy (and the press, he adds), and scolds the players involved for being disingenuous.
What concerned me personally, of course, was that my review was among those cited by Kaplan in Dan Wakin's article as evidence that his work is meaningful. And in looking back at my review, and discussing it with Dan, I discovered something that made my blood freeze: I'd made an error, and it was a serious one. It just wasn't the one everyone likely thought I'd made.
As far as I'm concerned, I reported on this concert accurately. Even now, everything I wrote reflects my memory of that evening:
That Mr. Kaplan is no professional conductor was immediately apparent. Square-shouldered and stiff, he indulged in no flamboyant gymnastics. He conducted from memory, beating time proficiently and providing cues as needed....
But his efforts were evident throughout a performance of sharp definition and shattering power. From the acute punch of the opening notes, every detail of this huge, complex score came through with unusual clarity and impeccable balance. Every gesture had purpose and impact, and the performance as a whole had an inexorable sweep.
The orchestra played with astonishing control and beauty.
All of that still holds true for me. But during the process of writing and self-editing my review, I tend to write things, move on, go back, tweak and reshape until I'm basically satisfied with my work. And in this particular case, I would discover when rereading the review with a more critical eye, that I'd cut a phrase -- one very small phrase -- that had disrupted my entire position.
Here's a sentence I used in succinctly describing Kaplan's background:
...after a crash course in conducting, he went on to lead high-profile performances of the symphony and made the all-time best-selling Mahler recording.
Originally, there were three credentials in that list. The last was "...and co-edited the critical edition of the score." But during the process of polishing the review before turning it in, I'd looked for places to trim, shape and streamline my work. Referring to Kaplan in the next line as "the world's leading 'Resurrection' authority," I reckoned, would make the point better to the lay reader, so I cut the bit about the score.
What I didn't realize at the time was that my whole argument was based on that single fact. I established in the review that he had no real conducting technique; that he "beat time proficiently" denoted competence, but not mastery. Then I went on to say that "his efforts were evident throughout a performance of sharp definition and shattering power."
How could these opposing points be reconciled? Only through making a strong connection to Kaplan's knowledge of, and extensive work with, Mahler's score. My assertion -- some would call it a supposition, I guess -- was that the striking clarity and balance I perceived was an effect of Kaplan's preparation during rehearsal, in combination with a copiously skilled ensemble's own deep knowledge and familiarity with the piece.
I'm not in any way unconfident about my ability to process what I heard in the hall that night. I have heard more than a few Mahler Seconds, including Bernstein's great last recording of the work with the Philharmonic, and I knew what was different about Kaplan's account. This was a high-definition representation of precisely what was on the pages of the score -- nothing more, but just as importantly nothing less. Mahler knew exactly what he was doing, and that was all that Kaplan ventured to convey. (He admitted as much in a preview article by Matthew Gurewitsch that appeared in the Times the day before the concert.) But by dropping the mention of the score, I sabotaged my argument.
I hasten to add that I cut this phrase myself; no one at The New York Times, not an editor or a proof reader, bears the slightest responsibility. And as my error was one of omission rather than commission, there was also no official channel by which I could go back and retroactively amend my review -- no chance of stating in print, "What the reviewer meant to say was...."
I'm still quite satisfied with the lines that closed my review:
To think there is nothing else to know of Mahler’s Second beyond what Mr. Kaplan has to show would be a mistake. But it seems likely that no one is better equipped to reveal the impact of precisely what Mahler put on the page.
Still, I do dearly wish that what I wrote on the page more precisely conveyed just what it was that I meant. And for that I apologize to the readers, and promise to be more diligent next time.