The player who forgot his place
December 18, 2008 by Norman Lebrecht
– Hold the front page, hot story coming in.
– What is it?
– There’s a player in the orchestra who didn’t like last week’s conductor.
– Come again? Yeah, that’s right. There’s a trombone in the New York Phil beefing on his blog about the guy who did Mahler 2. Get some pictures in.
Is this some kind of mistimed joke, or the end of journalism on the New York Times? For reasons better left uninvestigated, the Times has made a C1 splash today of comments made by a trombonist – the third trombone, I believe – about the amateur conductor Gilbert E Kaplan who led Mahler Second last week.
According to the player, Kaplan ignored ‘a blizzard’ of Mahler’s instructions and had a beat the band could not follow. Any good that came out of the performance was entirely to the credit of the players, working against impossible odds.
Well, let’s get a couple of things straight. There isn’t an orchestra in the world that does not represent a diversity of views. Every time Simon Rattle steps onto the podium in Berlin, a dozen players grunt and grumble. When Abbado rehearsed the LSO, they complained of boredom. When Dudamel does his hightail tricks, they accuse him of showmanship. Musicians complaining about conductors is not news. It’s part of their job description.
The difference here is that a player decided to blog his dissent and the local fish-rag picked it up. Before we consider the facts of the matter – and I attended the performance, as the Times reporter evidently did not – let’s just consider whose failure that is. Is it Kaplan’s, or is it the New York Philharmonic’s for failing to impose appropriate corporate discretion on its musicians?
Every self-respecting orchestra in the world maintains certain public courtesies in the interest of self-preservation and maintaining audience mystique. What we have just seen at the NY Phil is a failure of management procedures. If I were chairman, I’d have the chief executive and the PR on my carpet before the morning’s coffee break.
And while we’re in the blame game, let’s just ask ourselves if the trombonist would have slagged off a professional conductor, whom he might have to face again next season? I think we know the answer to that.
Now to the performance. I make no secret of being a long-standing friend and admirer of Gilbert Kaplan’s. I have published that disclaimer several times and have no reason whatsoever to be ashamed of it. Having watched him master the work over almost 25 years, I am convinced – and so are many musicians – that no-one alive has such detailed knowledge of the score. My own credentials on the subject are as the author of one published book on Mahler and another in progress.
But don’t take my word for it. Players in the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Stockholm Phil will testify to his grasp of minutiae – not just the annotations that Maher made on 14 different scores but the reasons for those annotations. If the trombonist is feeling frisky, perhaps we should put him on a platform with Kaplan to see which of them knows more of the notes.
There is certainly criticism to be made of Kaplan’s technique – he is an amateur, after all – and he does not bring to the rostrum the encyclopaedic knowledge of repertoire and orchestral psychology that one can expect from a Jansons or a Maazel. But he can deliver a memorable performance and he seldom fails, in my experience, to illuminate something new in the score.
I have heard him do the Mahler 2 several times, on occasion with greater impact than he made at Avery Fisher last week. The original NY Times review was very positive and there were rhythms in the second and third movements that he delivered more idiomatically and true to score than I have heard from most professionals. The performance as a whole achieved its intended catharsis – and if the New York Philharmonic think they can do that without a conductor, as the trombonist suggests, well, let’s see them try. Go on, book a date.
I had the impression, watching the orchestra’s body language, that they were not comfortable on the night. They are a bunch of very fine players. They also have a reputation for very bad attitude. There is a reason why many of the world’s best will not conduct the NY Phil. And that may be the same reason why the next music director barely ranks in the top league.
If there was a story to cover here, it was about the New York Philharmonic behaving badly. But are we going to read that in the New York Times? When pigs can fly, perhaps.
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