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
Published in February 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.