Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A fun dust-up in the classical world

Well, it might not have the intensity of feuds in the rap world. But my experience associating with mostly but not exclusively classically-oriented musicians over the years is that musicians can be a temperamental lot -- they didn't coin the term divas for opera singers for nothing. Here's a fascinating little flap that is ruffling feathers at the New York Philharmonic.

Seems there's this wealthy businessman, one Gilbert Kaplan, who's a music-lover "with an obsession for Mahler's Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection") -- which I can understand; I've had a similar obsession since seeing it performed at the Hollywood Bowl eons ago -- probably late '50s; there's a place where the horns perform offstage to get an effect Mahler wanted, and it was especially striking outdoors. I have several recordings. I'm partial to Bruno Walter's old recording and Klemperer's is fine too, but I can commend a recent set by David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich.

Anyway, Kaplan, likely in part through making generous donations, has conducted the symphony all over the world, and did so in December at the New York Phil. But some of the musicians rebelled afterwards, suggesting he has little to no ability as a conductor and brings nothing of artistic interest to his conducting. As one of the trombone players put it on his blog: "My colleagues and I gave what we could to this rudderless performance but the evening proved to be nothing more than a simplistic reading of a wonderful piece of music." It became a public stink and Kaplan is not likely to be invited back.

Marvelous! I've played in amatuer bands and orchestras of varying degrees of skill since high school, and I can guarantee the players have opinions about the abilities (or lack thereof) of their conductors, sometimes griping quietly that the dude can't even keep a steady beat, let alone inspire anybody. At the professional level, especially in orchestras that get a lot of guest conductors, I'm sure the opinions are more pungent. Such opinions are usually the stuff of insider scuttlebutt, with a negative opinion occasionally creeping its way into a music magazine article. But in the era of the blogosphere, it becomes something like public record. I like it!

Now, I don't know. Maybe Kaplan is quite adequate. Still, it's a fun flap.

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