Rank amateurs

For the past week and a half or so, many in the online classical music community have been writing about New York Philharmonic trombonist David Finlayson’s blistering critique of Gilbert Kaplan, the wealthy businessman and Mahler aficianado who has made a two-decade long career out of conducting the composer’s massive Second Symphony, and who earlier this month led the Philharmonic in a performance of the work.  In his no-holds-barred blog posting, Finlayson calls Kaplan an arrogant and self-deluded “impostor,” a “very poor beater of time” with an “Everest-sized ego” who “far too often is unable to keep the ensemble together and allows most tempo transitions to fall where they may.” “His direction,” Finlayson continues, “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 stability in that department.” Kaplan’s lack of adequate stick technique resulted in plenty of missed opportunities, particularly in the fifth movement, where coordinating the off-stage brass and percussion caused him “much tribulation.”

Finlayson believes that Kaplan “has succeeded in drawing an audience because of the wide popularity of Mahler’s great symphony and our culture’s intrinsic want to see someone break down barriers that have remained seemingly impenetrable.” He cites actors-turned-California governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan, golfer Bobby Jones, the 1980 American Olympic hockey team, even John McCain and Sarah Palin as examples of “underdogs or amateurs who have ‘beat the odds’.” (I’m not sure why Finlayson failed to include himself and his fellow bloggers on this list. It wasn’t all that long ago when someone without the proper journalistic credentials–say, a trombone player in an American symphony orchestra–would have been denied access to a forum through which opinions like his could be voiced and widely disseminated.) But Kaplan’s isn’t your ordinary, run-of-the- mill Cinderella story. As far as Finlayson is concerned, “careful marketing, money, and influence” have enabled this “no-talent, self-proclaimed Mahler expert [to make] his way to the front of many of the world’s leading orchestras [,] relying on their collective talents and experience to pad his conducting résumé.” (The last time I checked, Kaplan wasn’t angling for a permanent position, so it’s not clear to me what résumé he might be trying to pad.)

Although it may not have been his original intention, Finlayson raised some very intriguing issues about what passes as the dividing line between “professional” and “amateur” and about the role background and training play in determining an individual’s qualifications to perform certain highly specialized tasks, and I’m glad that so many in the classical music blogosphere have been addressing his points from several different angles. Personally, I’d like to see someone give this topic the kind of historical perspective it deserves, if for no other reason than as a reminder of just how recent our conception of “professionalism” really is.

From time to time, the world of opera has been home to those who seemingly challenge conventional notions of talent, ability, and, yes, even good taste. There are probably lots of reasons for this, but I suspect a not insignificant reason is that opera thrives on artifice, exaggeration, and excess. One only has to think of such colorful (or delusional) characters as Florence Foster Jenkins, the so-called “diva of din,” who used the money she inherited upon her father’s death in 1909 to subsidize her unsuccessful singing career and who, in 1944, at the age of 76 rented Carnegie Hall for a one-night-only recital that sold out weeks in advance to an audience that howled with laughter throughout the entire event; Olive Middleton, the diminutive English soprano who sang Musetta, Marguerite, and Pamina at Covent Garden during the 1920s and whose past their prime performances of Aida, Norma, Adriana Lecouvreur, and Sieglinde at New York’s La Puma Opera Workshop in the 1960s and 1970s attracted crowds of screaming and cheering fans; or Vassilka Petrova, who flourished–if that’s the right word for it–in the early years of the LP and who paid to have her various recordings produced, including a 1951 effort that has been called–not without justification–the “Tosca from Hell.” (Donald Collup has compiled an amazing audio archive of Jenkins, Middleton, Petrova, and others, and CDs are available for sale on his website at a very reasonable price.)

I certainly appreciate the basis for David Finlayson’s concerns, but as someone who has been around opera for as long as I have, I just can’t get as worked up as he is about someone like Gilbert Kaplan. I’m not convinced that the situation he described is really all that much different than listening to an over the hill Aida or a “Tosca from Hell.”

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