Best of Doublethink Flashback: Music and Meritocracy

Editor’s Note: The following piece is the final installment of a two-week series recalling ten of the best contributions to Doublethink. This item originally ran on March 16, 2009.  Many thanks to the three former Doublethink editors — Cheryl Miller of the American Enterprise Institute, James Poulos of The Huffington Post, and Reason Magazine’s Peter Suderman — who assisted in compiling this list. — Joel Gehrke

At about the same time that news of the Rod Blagojevich scandal broke in Illinois, a similar scandal of sorts was playing out in the rarified world of classical music. The case concerned Gustav Mahler, the New York Philharmonic, and Gilbert Kaplan, a successful American businessman who translated an obsession with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) into an unlikely second career as a Mahler scholar and amateur conductor.

Kaplan’s story has been an improbable one in the music world. Having spent the bulk of his years after college founding the successful publication Institutional Investor (which he sold in 1984 for $72 million), Kaplan decided to go full-time with his obsession with Mahler’s 2nd, an obsession he had felt ever since hearing the piece performed live in concert as a young man in his 20s. Since his successful debut performance in New York’s Avery Fischer Hall in 1982, he has produced two best-selling recordings of Mahler’s 2nd; co-edited the definitive edition of the score (which restored Mahler’s own hand-written corrections); and conducted the piece nearly a hundred times before the world’s most prestigious orchestras. But even as he has packed concert halls and won plaudits from audiences, he has attracted harsh reviews from professional music critics, and especially from performers themselves.

The professional discord flared out into the open, appropriately enough, on the centennial anniversary of Mahler’s own 1908 premiere of the Second Symphony at the New York Philharmonic. The Second has an august lineage of conductors stretching from Mahler himself to Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, and Leonard Bernstein. To many, the businessman-turned-amateur conductor Kaplan seemed an ill-fit among that company, especially on such an important anniversary.

After New York Times critic Steve Smith described Kaplan’s December 8 performance as “square shouldered and stiff” but yielding “sharp definition and shattering power”, the voices of dissent began to crescendo. Several musicians of the New York Philharmonic confronted Philharmonic President Zarin Mehta to complain of Kaplan’s gross inadequacies as a conductor. Trombonist David Finlayson was especially outspoken, likening Kaplan to a con artist and skewering the administrators who had paved the impostor’s way to the podium in exchange for generous “donations”:

Mr. Kaplan displays an arrogance and self-delusion that is off-putting. As a conductor, he can best be described as a very poor beater of time who far too often is unable to keep the ensemble together and allows most tempo transitions to fall where they may. His direction lacks few indications of dynamic control or balance and there is absolutely no attempt to give phrases any requisite shape. In rehearsal, he admitted to our orchestra that he is not capable of keeping a steady tempo and that he would have to depend on us for any stability in that department. Considering his Everest-sized ego, this admission must have caused him great consternation upon reflection.

Finlayson’s cri de coeur rippled across the music blogosphere, prompting a half-apology, half-defense from Smith and a rather bemused account of the brimming controversy in the December 17 Times.

The New York Philharmonic has long been known for its testy and querulous musicians (though they usually stop short of outright mutiny). Even Mahler himself contended with their derision during his tenure. So it should hardly come as a surprise that the intrusion of a true amateur into the rigid hierarchy of classical music should meet with resentment. No matter that Kaplan, in addition to being a Mahler aficionado, has been a generous patron of the arts. For musicians like Finlayson, no measure of earnest determination or financial largesse justifies Kaplan’s violation of the boundary between artist and audience (or perhaps one should say artist and civilian). Had the music profession been more vigilant, he writes, “this man, regardless of how much money he is willing to throw at our feet, would never have taken a step on what should be hallowed ground. We owe it to ourselves, our public, and in this case, Mr. Mahler.”

But in these economically trying times, are the complaints of Finlayson and his colleagues warranted? Does a sub-par treatment of Mahler outweigh concerns about the survival of classical music itself? With orchestras and opera companies nationwide scaling back programming, offering fewer performances, cutting salaries and staff, even shutting their doors altogether, a music lover might take some solace in the Philharmonic’s ability to mount such an expensive and elaborate production as the “Resurrection.” Indeed, it is such a striking and seldom performed work that even a mediocre rendition is worth the steep price of admission to concertgoers. Finlayson acknowledges as much, admitting that the performers’ skill and Mahler’s raging heart are enough to prompt a standing ovation with even the clumsiest of conductors. But his protest, a characteristically principled defense of the high standards that define orchestras of the Philharmonic’s caliber, suggests something of a willful naivety about how the noble arts are funded and delivered to audiences.

Performers with symphonies and opera companies of Olympian reputations—like those in London, Vienna or New York, for example—haven’t traditionally needed to concern themselves with funding issues; those are tasked out to underpaid Development staffs quarantined in cubicles who, in happier times, kept the money freely flowing in from the wallets of charmed audience members, and especially elderly and wealthy patrons. This is part of the reason the allegations about Kaplan—that his conducting engagements have been the results of shadowy, back-room, quid pro quo donations—have clearly struck a nerve among musicians: The idea (wholly unsubstantiated so far) that their symphonies are so cash-strapped that an allegation like this is even plausible underscores the fragility and increasing irrelevance of their vocation in the eyes of the general public.

The threat of irrelevance points to why Kaplan’s rise chafes the professional musicians so. Career musicians, even when performing at the highest level, feel that they have suffered and sacrificed for their art. The job requires immobility, low pay, and cutthroat competition for top posts. As veteran Times critic Anthony Tommasini recently explained,

If a New York-based pianist in his 30s—someone who may have a part-time teaching job, who plays in various chamber ensembles and a contemporary music group and maybe accompanies a singer or two—if that young, highly trained artist makes an income of close to $40,000, this is a major success story in classical music.

Being able to ascend the hierarchy through merit confers meaning and pride upon the ordeal, providing an alternative to financial compensation.

So to those who have spent their lives scrambling up music’s equivalent of the greasy pole, Kaplan’s effortless climb to the top is a great insult. And his tendency to denigrate professionals and to downplay the importance of expertise and talent has only added further fuel to their ire. Take this quote from his December 2008 interview with Charlie Rose:

I never became a conductor because I wanted to conduct. This music was the driving force. I studied for nine months with a teacher, the way you might study a language at Berlitz.

And this, on opening the prestigious Salzburg festival with the London Philharmonic in 1996:

I was determined that the Austrians understand that music is about love, not about technical training, that performance had more to do with feelings than any other sort of measurement you might normally have for music.

The Julliard-bred first chair violinist or the ambitious young conductor who endured penury to gain a Ph.D. would beg to differ. Not only is raw talent, combined with the most rigorous technical training, the cornerstone of a musician’s value; they rely on their conductor to represent them to the public and maintain the prestige they cannot defend themselves as relatively anonymous members of an orchestral whole.

These notions of hierarchy and meritocracy in the musical world clash with what the public desires. People like to see previously impenetrable barriers crumble before underdog outsiders with a dream. (Think the character of David Helfgott in Shine.) So if Kaplan’s story can charm audiences and pack the house; if the majesty of Mahler’s Second is such that even a base-line competent performance can thrill, why should his technical shortcomings matter? The Kaplan controversy underscores the great difference between how musicians and audience members experience a performance, and it prompts us to ask, “Why are conductors so important, anyway?”

It can be difficult for a non-musician to understand what a conductor does; he has no direct analogue in the other art forms. He is part director, marshalling disparate talents to the service of a singular vision; part editor, taking the work of another and amplifying or tempering its elements according to discernment, taste and intuition; and part coach, shaping the technique of different performers to achieve a particular sound quality and creating a unified body of workmen from a collection of divas.

The gifted conductor excels in methods of nonverbal communication. He does more than beat time, set tempo changes and signal cues. He conveys with his hands and body and facial expression all the information the orchestra needs to make the music buoyant, or languid, or febrile, or whatever else it needs to be to really live. Brandishing the baton like a whisk calls for vibrancy; batting an invisible tennis racket back and forth asks for a sharp, light bounce; miming a schmear of cream cheese over bagels calls for a seductive legato. The most seasoned conductors communicate instantaneously, with the cock of a pinkie or the arch of an eyebrow. He will intuit the natural limits of each piece; for a particularly dense work, one might slow the tempo just to the point where it becomes expansive and majestic, beyond which it would feel like wading through molasses. The composer’s score, even when meticulously annotated, provides a mere blueprint to which the conductor’s baton brings vitality and character.

In the face of this tall bill of fare, Kaplan seems all the more ridiculous. As a conductor, he is at best a traffic cop; his laborious, behind-tempo gestures betray their likely origins: practice sessions standing in front of a mirror and waving his arms to a recording. He exudes a barely contained panic at the prospect of embarrassment. And this is a crucial flaw in his conducting. A conductor need not be liked, but he must be respected if he is to achieve that musical synergy by which a piece lives or dies. In some sense, the musicians are hired hands; in other roles in chamber music or recitals they may occupy center stage, but as members of a symphony orchestra they sublimate their individual wills toward the conductor’s vision. They agree to this subjugation only when they trust their leader’s instincts. This trust will keep them from falling back into cacophony. As Justin Davidson, writing for the New Yorker, describes it, “At that point, the conductor isn’t conducting at all; he is a helpless bystander.”

If Gilbert Kaplan is the charlatan his detractors claim, how did he get so far? His intense passion for Mahler’s 2nd might add color to his story, but it cannot compensate for lack of ability. Even the most accomplished scholar cannot simply stroll from library to conductor’s podium. But as we’ve seen, Kaplan hasn’t attempted to deceive anyone; he readily admits, with a shrug, to his novice status. Conducting, for him, was merely a means to an end, a platform to experience more deeply the symphony that had taken such hold of him. Describing the enthusiastic reception at his 1982 debut, he says,

I was living out my own private dream, to try to get inside this music, to express what I felt about it. I was living out all the frustrated, unfulfilled dreams of the people in that audience.

In contrast to professional musicians, for whom an athletic kind of perfection is the ultimate goal, Kaplan seems eerily parasitic. A Mahler afficionado with less money and influence might have contented himself with a surround sound stereo system; like that Loewe’s television commercial, Kaplan needs the real thing. And just as he methodically built up a multimillion-dollar publishing empire as an entrepreneur, he methodically built up a reputation as a Mahler authority, amassing an impressive collection of all the accoutrements of expertise.

What, finally, are we to make of Gilbert Kaplan’s tempest in the classical music teapot? While some decry the crass, transactional nature of his appointments and fret about lowered standards and the cultural illiteracy of the masses, the very presence of controversy is encouraging. It indicates that classical music does still matter and will continue to be staunchly defended. As Lawrence Kramer put it in Why Classical Music Still Matters (2007), “This music still matters for the same reason that Greek drama or Renaissance painting or modernist fiction matters: because it made discoveries we are far from done with and that are far from done with us.”

Indeed, classical music may assume a different kind of meaning and importance than it once did: As our world becomes increasingly hypertextual, connective, and communicative, classical music will remain uniquely ineffable, resistant to language and fixed messages or narrative—the most abstract of the performing arts. Just as the conductor communicates nearly wordlessly with his musicians, so too does the music itself “speak” to the audience with the thrilling immediacy of the nonverbal. Music can move us powerfully and even viscerally, but not specifically. It can quiet the part of the brain that incessantly seeks meaning in things. As Wittgenstein once put it, we understand expression in music the way we understand facial expressions in others—and especially those to whom we are bonded—without decoding it or puzzling it out in words.

That an otherwise conventional businessman like Kaplan could be so taken captive by the strange, numinous power of a symphony as to spend the rest of his life immersed in it testifies not to the obsolescence, but the enduring relevance, of classical music.

Noelle Daly is assistant editor of The American Interest. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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