Perhaps it was Mahler 2 doo?

Gilbert Kaplan’s night with Mahler’s Resurrection symphony and the New York Philharmonic, which was imminent when I wrote a little about it here, didn’t make him any fans amongst the musicians, according to an article in the New York Times (as well as industry scuttlebut):

On Monday a trombonist in the orchestra, David Finlayson, laid out a sprawling indictment against Mr. Kaplan on his blog. It was an unusually public airing of complaints in a profession notorious for excoriating conductors in private.

“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 very wonderful piece of music,” he wrote. Mr. Kaplan acknowledged in rehearsal that he was incapable of keeping a steady beat, Mr. Finlayson added. Despite being a self-professed expert on the piece, Mr. Kaplan ignored Mahler’s “blizzard” of directions, Mr. Finlayson wrote.

He called Mr. Kaplan’s music career a “woefully sad farce” built on the complicity of orchestra managements and a willingness to donate money. “We can rely only on ourselves to stand firm against any attempts to promote this imposter,” Mr. Finlayson added…

Mr. Kaplan’s performances present a particularly extreme example of the gap that can exist between the way performers perceive a concert and the way listeners do: a gulf as old as music criticism itself.

In the case of Mr. Kaplan’s “Resurrection” concerts, musicians say that a top professional orchestra, especially a great Mahler orchestra like the Philharmonic, can bypass the conductor and produce a superlative performance on its own.

This musician wouldn’t say anything that dumb. There’s a reason that orchestras like the New York Phil, as well as orchestras like the Milwaukee Symphony and even orchestras like the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, have conductors – it’s because they need them. I doubt whether the New York Phil, or any other orchestra on the planet for that matter, could actually get from the beginning of the Mahler to the end without multiple train wrecks in the absence of a conductor.

Admittedly Mahler’s an extreme example (not surprisingly so, given that Mahler was a conductor and believed in their indispensability), but could the New York Phil produce a “superlative performance” of any significant piece in the repertoire without a competent conductor in front of it? I doubt it.

That’s not to say that, if the conductor is bad, the orchestra will sound terrible (although it sure won’t sound or feel great to the musicians). Good orchestras don’t need a lot of help to fly at least loosely in formation in a piece they know. But, at least in my experience, superlative performances by orchestras only happen in the presence of both really good conductors and really good orchestras.

I’m not saying I like that fact that we need conductors. I daresay there are conductors who don’t much like the fact that they need orchestras. And it’s a lot easier for orchestras to pretend that conductors aren’t necessary than it is for conductors to pretend that orchestras aren’t necessary.

But it’s just as dumb.


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