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December 21, 2008



I read this post several times, but I really don't get it. Why are you beating yourself up about the omission of his editing history?

First, editing a score doesn't make you a good conductor -- otherwise any musicologist would be capable of leading an orchestra. Second, the kinds of questions that critical editors ask (is this metronome mark the intended one, which dynamic is meant here?) aren't necessarily going to translate into a better performance. For example, sometimes the correct marking, even though it's the one the composer intended, might be aesthetically less preferable to a later ("inauthentic") addition. (Think about the pizzicato notes that appear in the introduction to Zinman's recording of Beethoven 4th, but are typically played arco elsewhere: does this make or break a performance?) Third, I suspect that Kaplan's musicology is no better and no worse than his conducting.

Finally, the sort of major flaws of musicianship discussed by Finlayson would seem to overwhelm any minor benefit that might come from having a scholar on the podium.

The bottom line, I think, is that you disagree with Finlayson -- and at such a basic level as to raise some difficult questions. Finlayson suggested that the conducting did not meet minimal standards of professionalism; you had very positive things to say about the performance. Either Finlayson doesn't know what he's talking about, or you don't, or -- perhaps most disturbingly of all -- professional orchestras can get along fine even without minimally competent conductors. I see why this is something to worry about, but I can't see that an extra phrase would make a difference.

Steve Smith

the kinds of questions that critical editors ask... aren't necessarily going to translate into a better performance.

Thank you for the thoughtful response, Bettina. What I still seem to be struggling to get across is that I never meant to suggest Kaplan's intensive Mahler studies and his work with the score would translate into a better performance; I tried to say that I think they resulted in this performance, with the qualities I detailed -- all of which could be ascribed to Mahler's score, not an interpretation.

What I attempted to do, and apparently am still attempting to do, is A) show that the performance heard in the hall that night was effective in just the ways I described, and B) reach some sort of conclusion as to how and why that could be so. But by leaving out Kaplan's demonstrable connection to the score, I weakened my argument that he accurately delivered what was there, with Mahler and the musicians handling the rest.


From my perspective, the focus on editing and "the score" is a bit of a red herring. What's really going on here, I suspect, is that we're having the latest iteration of a very longstanding argument between professional musicians and laypersons.

The fundamental issue, as I see it, is that musicians are typically very highly trained specialists who pay an enormous amount of attention to subtle details. We like to think that these details make a big difference for lay listeners -- and here I include journalists and critics -- but the reality is that they often don't.

Not having heard the performance, what I suspect happened is this. Kaplan did a mediocre job conducting. It was the sort of performance that an insider -- say, a professional conductor with experience conducting major orchestras -- would've recognized as mediocre. At the same time, the NYPhil is staffed with great musicians, and they made a good sound. Having played the piece a million times before, they compensated, to some extent, for Kaplan's inadequacies. But also, the subtleties that distinguish a great conductor conducting the NYPhil from a mediocre conductor conducting the NYPhil, are simply not very apparent to the lay listener. Most of them, including you, enjoyed what they heard.

As I see it, what's really going on here is that the internet has allowed professionals (like the trombonists in orchestra) to speak directly to the public. This has caused some friction with journalists, who used to play a vital role mediating between specialists and laypersons. You see the same thing happening in science journalism and in economics journalism -- read Mark Liberman at "Language Log" or some of Tanta's old posts at "Calculated Risk" for more. Across a wide range of fields we're seeing journalists struggling to keep up with the specialists and their blogs.


It is not unusual for performing artists to be unaware of how their performance is being received. One might think that one is playing quite poorly only to be greeted with considerable approbation, which is almost as disconcerting as the opposite.

In the case in question, it is quite possible that the mediocrity of the conducting forced the orchestra to be especially on the mark and that the antipathy they felt to the conductor manifested as emotional comittment. And volume.

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