Gilbert Kaplan is a businessman with little musical training who has learnt to conduct Mahler's 2nd symphony. Last year he was in St Petersburg, next month it's Moscowby Duncan Fallowell / February 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
The philharmonic hall in St Petersburg is, along with the gallery at the Royal Albert Hall, my favourite place in the world for listening to orchestral music. Built in the 1830s by the architect Jacquot to a design by Carlo Rossi, it has sheltered the premi?res of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (Path?tique) and Shostakovitch’s Seventh (Leningrad). The building has always oozed a cool grandeur and glamour, placed as it is between the Kazan cathedral and the Russian museum, and opposite the belle ?poque Grand Europe Hotel. Yet it somehow possesses that same Russian intimacy which makes St Petersburg a monumental village.
I am dithering about outside this hall on a sunny afternoon, trying to gain access to a most unusual rehearsal of the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Eventually I find my way into the giant hall, overhung by eight massive crystal chandeliers which look like inverted fountains. The music is so loud! Then it stops raggedly, mid-bar. A small voice says something in a dry, matter-of-fact tone. Another voice interprets what he has said into Russian, and the mass of shirt-sleeved musicians flick their music sheets. A baton is raised and complex drama wheezes into the air for another minute or two. The figure conducting is tall, slim, bald, bespectacled. His conducting style is wooden and uncharismatic; he never speaks to the musicians directly. Yet from this ramshackle state of affairs, gasps of gorgeous sound raise goose pimples on the arm as Mahler’s Second Symphony, like a fantastic beast, escapes from its cage. Abruptly, it’s all over. A variety of men and women are chatting, putting instruments into cases. The conductor is nowhere to be seen.
His name is Gilbert Kaplan; he is an American businessman; and how he came to be rehearsing this glorious orchestra in this mighty work is one of the most unusual stories in classical music. He was born in New York in 1941. In dress and appearance he looks like a Wasp, but both his parents were the children of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Austria and his father worked in the rag trade. After high school, Kaplan went to Duke University, followed by law school in New York, which he didn’t finish.
At 25 he launched a magazine. Institutional Investor doesn’t sound very shattering, but Kaplan had realised that “the insurance executive who managed a portfolio, the man who handled investments at a bank, and the man who ran a unit trust operation had more in common with each other than with anyone else in their own companies.” A new breed-but one with no organ of debate. Kaplan supplied it. Institutional Investor was a great success. It made him a millionaire by the age of 27 and a multimillionaire when he sold it in 1984.
Meanwhile, something else had happened. Back in 1965, Gilbert heard the London-born conductor Leopold Stokowski (star of Walt Disney’s Fantasia) conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony at Carnegie Hall. By 1981, this symphony, subtitled The Resurrection, had taken over most of his inner life. He realised that he had to conduct it somehow, somewhere. He set to work and, in the following year, in time for the 15th anniversary of his magazine, he was able to hire the American Symphony Orchestra and the Avery Fisher Hall and make his dream come true. The concert was for an invited audience but news of the event came out in the press. American ideals hold that anyone should be able to do anything at any time-here was living proof of that anti-elitist doctrine. Instead of being ridiculed, Gilbert was encouraged. Since then he has conducted the symphony with 35 orchestras round the world and founded the Kaplan Foundation to promote Mahler globally. But the Second Symphony is the only thing he conducts; and on a Friday and Saturday in May last year it was the turn of the St Petersburg Philharmonic in their own hall.
I enter the backstage labyrinth and see a small group huddled in conversation. Gilbert is there, as nervously excited as a schoolboy on his first date. His blonde, trousered wife is remote. Another woman, Gail Ross, is dealing with the office work and hands me a ticket for the Friday concert. She has a cold, school-marmy manner, and on the several occasions I met her, always gave the impression that she was annoyed with me for some unspecified reason.
On the way back to my hotel ship I cross Palace Square-the village green of St Petersburg (as Nevsky Prospect is its high street). Something is always going on there. This time it is hot-air balloons. A teenage boy on a bicycle, overexcited, stoves in a window of the General Staff building with his front wheel. There is no one to rebuke him. This city, as in the past, is up for grabs. Russian friends said I would find it very changed in the last couple of years, but I don’t. Apart from a few caf?s and more traffic, it’s still the same beaten-up wonder.
On the Friday afternoon, Gilbert is giving a Mahler lecture in the foyer of the Philharmonic. I thought I’d go, but found the seats filled with all the little old ladies who go to everything free in St Petersburg and I left. Later, just before the concert, I chanced upon Gilbert in the entrance of the Grand Europe Hotel, where he is staying. He was palpably terrified-which was very appealing-and supported on either side by his steely women.
The concert. The audience is well-dressed in a frumpy way, with a smattering of young people of the Prodigy meets Kafka sort (ponytails, mad eyes, weird shoes, in love). I swap my dead-centre seat with a woman sitting on a bench at the back. She is delighted; I have what I want, a more atmospheric, velvety view through pillars. Gilbert lopes on to the stage, tails flapping, to applause which is respectful but reserving its judgement. He composes the orchestra, raises his arms, the cellos growl and slur; we are off on that trip of macabre beauty which is a Mahler symphony.
Those of you who don’t know the Second Symphony should go and listen to it now. Those of you who do will understand how pointless it is to try to convey its glory in prose. It was first conducted in St Petersburg by Oskar Fried in 1906, the first performance of any Mahler symphony in Russia. Rimsky-Korsakov thought his work “talentless, tasteless, crude.” Curiously, this was the general opinion until after the second world war. Mahler’s opinion of the Russians was sharper: “The people have an almost Mediterranean vivacity, but are incredibly bigoted.”
Kaplan’s concert seemed nervous and unsteady. There was carefully crafted detail, and wonderful filigrees of sound blossomed around us, but it did not move all of a piece. There were several passages where it was becalmed-several more where it nearly came apart altogether. Yet uncanny echoes of Tchaikovsky in the strings and Mussorgsky in the brass were deliciously new for me in Mahler. In this hall, everyone is close to the music and at times it worked on the physical body with a sadistic, knife-turning intensity. There was something else too. St Petersburg is the world’s most northerly great city and as the symphony proceeded the late sun descended, the light grew deeper, the colours richer. Sunshine poured in through the Diocletian windows above the west gallery. Direct sunlight struck the eight giant chandeliers and splashed rainbows all over the cream interior. When the aggression of the music caused the building to vibrate, these rainbows trembled ecstatically. The choral ending was triumphant, although the final applause still held something back (the St Petersburg audience isn’t easily impressed).
The following afternoon (St Petersburg’s 295th birthday) I have an interview with Gilbert. The city is covered in bunting and balloons. The Duke of York has sailed into town on board the Royal Navy’s frigate HMS Somerset. The photographer wants to take a few last snaps and leads Gilbert to a window. “Oh dear,” cries Gilbert, “direct sunlight! I’m very light-sensitive.” I try to speak to Mrs Kaplan for a few minutes, about what it’s like being married to a symphony and so forth, but she refuses. Gilbert says to the photographer, “Be quick, I’ve got to have a nap before the next concert, I’m exhausted.” He seems a fragile, phobic character, but when we are settled in his suite he relaxes. He answers every question at enormous length over nearly two hours.
“Do people suspect your motives? I mean, do they think you’re a megalomaniac?”
“At the beginning they did. But only the first concert was paid for. All the rest, they’ve invited me.”
“Isn’t it difficult when you just fly in and do a concert? How do you get your sleep, for a start?”
“For the first few days I take sleeping pills. But after several hours of aerobics I sleep very well. Before I conduct I go into rigorous training for some weeks. There are muscles you use in conducting which you don’t use otherwise. Try changing a light bulb. You’ll see how difficult it is to stretch out your arms even for a minute. And I run a lot, to build up stamina-the symphony is nearly an hour and a half. If you get out of breath on the podium and your heart is racing, it can interfere with your tempo.”
“It must also be difficult to fly in and establish rapport with a new orchestra.”
“Yes. Er-no. I was told that the St Petersburg Philharmonic always plays behind the beat of the conductor, as do German orchestras, whereas American orchestras play on the beat. So we’re rehearsing that-getting them to play on my beat. George Solti told me: ‘Put a sign in your room saying beat, because in some of the lyrical passages you tend to swirl with your arms to show expression and the players can find this confusing. Karajan can get away with this, you can’t.’ The other conductor who was important to me was Leonard Bernstein, who was regarded as idiosyncratic, yet he taught me that the secret of Mahler is in the score. Mahler wrote more detailed instructions than any other composer did. He tells you what to do-and what not to do. No other composer ever said: ‘Don’t slow down here.'”
Gilbert shows me his working copy of the score, elaborately marked in coloured inks (the Kaplan Foundation has acquired the original score of the symphony). “This music can get inside you like no other music I know-but it’s difficult. Look here-29 bars and 15 different metre changes. But Mahler also said: ‘What is best in music cannot be found in the notes.’ There’s the other half you’ve gotta supply yourself.”
“How did you educate your children?”
“I have four. The elder two went to Harvard. I advised them to study nothing of practical value-literature, music, languages-because this will make them people whose interests can grow. They can do the practical stuff afterwards. They are all musical but, like me, did not stick with the training. I can read music but I hated to practice so my mother stopped my piano lessons when I was ten.”
Home is New York but the Kaplans also have a summer house in East Hampton, Long Island, and near Stockholm (his wife is Swedish).
“Do you think the US is a philistine country?”
“Mahler did; it got him into big trouble when he worked there. I don’t. More cities in the US have first-class orchestras than any other country. The opera is first-class. The museums are first-class. Modern painting is rooted in the US.”
Art and money have usually made excellent bedfellows. It is when art is produced by money people and not arty people that problems arise. Commercialism can choke the inner life. Culture can be reduced to marketing. These are abiding themes in the affluent west; Gilbert’s activity focuses them very neatly. Solti had an amusing take on it when he told him: “You cannot imagine how wonderful it is to meet a man from Wall Street with whom I can talk about music; whenever I meet my colleagues all we talk about is money.”
Kaplan’s financial intelligence has won him a governor’s seat at the South Bank in London. And it is hardly an accident that Kaplan’s recording of the Second Symphony (with the London Symphony Orchestra) is the bestselling of any Mahler record: over 150,000 copies to date. Kaplan knows how to sell. (Its latest edition is superbly packaged, with extra musical items, facsimile score and CD-rom.)
But there’s another way to look at all this: the name “Gilbert” is perfect for it. One is reminded not only of the artists Gilbert and George, in their suits, but also of the bowler-hatted figure in Magritte (a painter whom Kaplan collects). Gilbert conducting the Second Symphony is a high art event with a Chaplinesque tinge. How are we listening to this music? It is not quite real Mahler, or real conducting or real St Petersburg Philharmonic-yet something very real and very clever is taking place. We must call it real Gilbert Kaplan. Kaplan conducting the Second Symphony is a work of performance art. If he went on to conduct other things he would be just another mediocre conductor; because he doesn’t do that, the event becomes something strange. At such a concert the situation is always more striking than the specific result. To have 35 of the world’s orchestras inviting you to conduct one of the masterpieces of the repertoire (twice in Vienna, the citadel of Mahler’s music) is an extraordinary achievement for a man outside the profession. Whether or not the performance is particularly good on a given night becomes secondary. But for the experience to work at this level, it is vital that Gilbert is totally uncynical, even na?ve, doing it straight.
Still, one could ask: why is he stuck on this symphony? Why doesn’t he conduct something else?
“This is a big problem for me. I used to think, no one will ever invite me to conduct anything else, but I’ve now had many invitations to conduct other things. But I didn’t go through all that-the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life-nine hours a day for a month to begin with, then between three and five hours every day for nine months, travelling everywhere the symphony was being performed that year (there were ten performances and I went to all of them except Madrid, which was on the same day as Amsterdam)… I didn’t go through all that to become a conductor. The driving force was this piece of music itself. I don’t approve of amateurs meddling in a professional world. I’ve given master classes in conducting and they usually ask why I don’t conduct something else and I say, ‘Partly because I don’t think you’d approve of it. You’ve given your whole lives to music. I haven’t.'”
“But there’s such a thing as natural progression-is it lack of confidence?”
“Not at all. If you can conduct Mahler’s Second, the next thing you conduct is gonna be easy. I did conduct the Star-Spangled Banner once at the Hollywood Bowl-they left me no choice, but I loved it! And I have conducted the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth because over the years it’s become associated with sadness and death-on the Death in Venice soundtrack, or Bernstein conducting it at Robert Kennedy’s funeral-and it’s usually conducted at 12 to 15 minutes, but it turns out that Mahler wrote it as a love letter to Alma and he conducted it at around eight minutes; much quicker and happier. So I made a small recording of it in that manner. I don’t want to come across as bragging, but several critics said this record would change performance standards of the Adagietto and I think it has. I need a special reason to conduct anything else and in that case I had one.”
“Does conducting make you anxious?”
“Every performer has a degree of stage fright, but as a conductor you have the added anxiety that someone else might make a mistake. It happened last night.”
“I want to ask you about the shaky spots-it was very exciting but I felt there was hesitancy around.”
“One player didn’t come in-and then the others started looking at each other. It’s up to me to be as strong as possible to get through it. But I’d always prefer to listen to a risky live performance than a perfect record. There is another risk for me-I conduct from memory, which is rare for this symphony. There is something very compelling about the connection with musicians when your eyes are on them and not looking down at the score. Also I thought it would enable me to break through this idea of being a complete amateur and give me a degree of authority. But I never feel I conduct a safe performance. Mahler isn’t a safe composer. Which is not to make excuses.
“Let me tell you something else about conducting. The conductor must stand a bit outside the music. It’s cerebral, not emotional. Pianists can’t be good conductors because a conductor must separate his hands and his ears. I have seen conductors crying on the podium, abandoning themselves. I have no respect for that. Conducting is as close as you can come to externalising your feelings. As the orchestra comes to know you, even tightening your stomach produces an equivalent external response. It is an amazing experience.”
“How do you find the Russians?”
“The musicians are so kind and gentle with each other and yet there are still remnants of Soviet rigidity, the refusal to co-operate. I love the sound of the language. I’m told I speak Russian without an accent.”
“How much Russian do you speak?”
“Enough to give a short introductory speech and say please and thank you.”
“Oh, so you learnt the speech parrot fashion?”
“Yes. I memorised the sound of it.”
“Similar to memorising the score.”
“Yes. I’ve done that in maybe 18 languages.”
“But what languages can you converse in?”
“Oh. Er-Spanish, a little. That’s one of the disappointments of my life, that I didn’t learn languages. I had a lot of chemistry and physics at school.”
In the departure section of St Petersburg’s airport I saw the Kaplan party again. Gilbert, in blue blazer and grey flannels, was manoeuvring huge stacks of luggage through the throng on his way to Glyndebourne. The Russians still make it difficult for people to get in and out of their country, but it doesn’t carry the advantage of limiting tourism to the imperial city. Gilbert handed me an entr?e to the VIP lounge where he chatted to Ronald Grierson, a real smoothie, in his 70s, once head of the South Bank Board.
One hour later, mid-flight, I glanced up. Gilbert was coming down the aisle out of club class towards me, brandishing a new book just out in Russia called, Practical Paradoxes of Conducting. He opened it under my nose at page 85 and said: “Just read that paragraph at the bottom of the page and the top of the next. That’s what I was saying about…”
Confronted by this passionate, “can-do,” nervy man in his Rotary Club outfit, my mind went back to a report about “cannot do” people in the St Petersburg Times the previous day. A 12-year-old girl was killed in March by an icicle. It had been hanging above the entrance to her block of flats and finally fell on her. The parents said: “The local housing office knew about the icicle but failed to remove it.” Couldn’t the residents have knocked it off themselves?