All's quiet at the  NY Philharmonic

All's quiet at the NY Philharmonic


norman lebrecht

December 21, 2008

Since last week’s sordid events, there have been three developments:

– The Philharmonic’s chief executive is apparently unwell.

– The critic who praised Gilbert Kaplan’s performance of Mahler’s second symphony has admitted he did not acknowledge the conductor’s full authority in his review.

– And two more players have reiterated the trombonist’s attack on the guest conductor in language so similar to one another as to suggest a football huddle.

On the first matter, there is nothing to add except to wish Zarin Mehta a speedy recovery.

Steve Smith, the critic (who is also music editor for Time Out New York), deserves much credit for disclosing on his blog that he regrets having omitted a phrase in which he described Kaplan as co-editor of the critical edition of the score – in other words, as the man who helped produce the text that is truest to the composer’s final intentions.

The two new grumblers deserve no credit at all, not even name credit.

They were playing for the first time an authentic version of the symphony and all they could do was whinge about aspects of the conductor’s technique. Have these people lost all interest in music? Don’t they want to know more about the stuff they play? Can’t they see beyond a physical rehearsal-room limitation to the possibility of actual enlightenment?

The New York Philharmonic has come out of this seedy episode looking like a rabble without a cause. When its music director invites a man to conduct a concert for the benefit of the orchestra’s pension fund, it is worse than just bad manners for the players to insult him to their heart’s content. It is a symptom of exceedingly bad management, of an organisation that has run out of control. Somebody needs to get a grip, to state a position, to invoke a principle of collective responsibility. 

It is no surprise that Riccardo Muti turned down the offer to become music director in favour of Chicago, that Simon Rattle won’t go near the band with a bargepole and that the only person with enough insurance to succeed Lorin Maazel is the son of two members of the orchestra who think they can keep the hyenas from his door. What a shambles.



  • anon says:

    Sadly these and similar attitudes are symptomatic of orchestras throughout the Western world. I’d argue that they come from excessive unionisation, and the “job-for-life-no-re-auditions” culture, but that’s a separate discussion. What is illustrated clearly here is a wider problem of musicians being too keen to bite the hand that feeds them – whether we’re talking about management or sponsors who are propping up the pension fund, those paying for cliched easy-listening recordings which subsidise other more ‘high-art’ activities, or… These players do no credit to their profession.
    On a different note, is it not players themselves who become vociferously upset should a conductor criticise them for their mistakes (thinking particularly of the Halle under Nagano)? Such grievances as those of this trombonist are best aired in a suitable internal forum where they may make a difference, not in a public forum where they will do more harm than good.

  • The players are CORRECT, despite all the columnms Mr. Lebrecht chooses to write. It is simply impossible to be an expert on only one piece of music. Mahler’s 2nd does not (and cannot) exist in a vaccum. There is a whole history of music (and knowledge thereof) that existed when Mahler composed the piece, and must be present to as large an extent as possible when conducting the work. There is SO much more to a musical performance than simply doing what is on the page. Afterall, the “black dots on a page”is just the skeleton of a work. Life blood must be pumped into it.
    Mr. Kaplan should indeed be praised for his efforts of bringing the latest scholarship to Mahler’s work. But again, one doesn’t conduct ONLY the black dots on a page. One conducts everything else behind the notes as well. Mr. Kaplan is not a conductor. Plain and simple. He has no training. He has no schooling. He has no experience, at least life-long experience in conducting.
    What would Mahler, THE CONDUCTOR, think of Mr. Kaplan making his claims as a Mahler 2nd expert? An educated musician wouldnt have to make much of a stretch to assume that Mahler would be rolling in his grave.

  • Fred says:

    My first thought about all of this was: what about the audience? The NYP is well known for refusing to play for certain conductors, either literally, as in, I will take off that week, or figuratively, as in I will play the notes but what a waste of time.
    Who is it all about, making the players happy or making the audience happy. One would like to think that these are not mutually exclusive, but unfortunately more often than not, they are mutually exclusive, and the players happiness is most important.
    Perhaps if they had to rely solely on ticket sales, rather than donations from people who are for all intents and purposes invisible, they would respect the audience and themselves a bit more
    NL to Fred; In recent years, leading orchestras in Europe have shown increased respect, no longer chatting or packing away their belongings while a conductor or soloist takes applause and often standing to face the audience at the end of a concert, instead of slouching any which way. These courtesies have not caught on yet at the New York Philharmonic. The physical conduct of some players at the Kaplan concert verged on showing contempt for the paying public.

  • It was George Szell, no pushover himself, who famously referred to the NY Phil as “murderer’s row”. It would appear little has changed.
    One of my teachers, the late Andor Toth, told me of an incident where that lovely orchestra, in aid of its own pension fund, had auctioned off the ‘privilege’ of playing with them.
    A wealthy woman, and mediocre pianist, bid the highest and won the opportunity of a lifetime. Her family and friends sat proudly in the front row at Carnegie. Come the performance, the orchestra, “correctly” discerning this woman’s actual playing level, decided to have fun at her expense.
    In the third movement, I was told, they simply sped away, showing off their virtuosity and leaving her in the dust. The woman, who had given their pension fund a great deal of money in order to be publicly humiliated by these gentlemen, fled the stage, sobbing.
    Respect, decency, discrete silence — these are terms that should not be quite so unfamiliar to certain virtuosos. One gathers some of them long for the days when they could gay-bait Mitropoulos, and get away with that too.
    NL to Dr Barber: Quite so.

  • Nardo Poy says:

    NL to Nardo Poy: Read Fred (below) and most of your issues will be resolved.
    Reading Mr. Lebrecht’s comments leaves me with a mixture of bemusement and frustration. A number of things come to mind: I immediately wonder how can Mr. Lebrecht can claim to be objective when he admits he knows Mr. Kaplan very well. I also feel he and some of the others who have posted comments on this board have missed completely the point of Mr. Findlayson’s blog. For one thing, how can one even comment without experiencing first-hand what goes on behind the scenes? Mr. Kaplan has been “conducting” and recording the Mahler 2nd Symphony all over the world. The only thing this proves is that such an opportunity can be bought by the highest bidder, regardless of talent or ability. I think it’s fairly presumptuous for anyone to get up in front of an orchestra the caliber of the NY Philharmonic and conduct solely because one is passionate about the work in question. Conducting is a learned skill as well as an art. Mr. Kaplan, in spite of the fact that he owns the manuscript, is not a conductor. I know many players who did his first performance of this work with the American Symphony Orchestra. At the performance, there was another conductor, hidden from view to the audience, who conducted just below Mr. Kaplan so that the orchestra could get through the performance without disaster.
    One of the more disturbing aspects of Mr. Lebrecht’s posts is how he is so dismissive of these musicians who showed their displeasure, just because one happens to be a “second or third trombonist”. Has it ever occurred to Mr. Lebrecht that to win an audition at the NY Philharmonic, as with any other great orchestra, one has to be a terrific player and excellent musician? Notable also is the fact that he ignores the main point of the blog by Mr. Findlayson, and that is that the musicians love this music and take performing it well extraordinarily seriously. The fact that Mr. Kaplan was allowed to conduct the concert, not being a conductor (and not, contrary to what Mr. Lebrecht opines, an “expert” on the score’s intricacies) and therefore not really bringing out the subtleties of the score is what brought the musicians to the point of frustration. I came away impressed with the seriousness with which Mr. Findlayson takes his job and found his blog to be very thoughtfully written.
    By the way, Mr. Lebrecht, when you talk about the NY Philharmonic with the disrespect that you do, keep in mind that 1) bacause of their professionalism and high caliber, they saved the concert from disaster (how many times we musicians need to do that would amaze you) and 2) the NY Philharmonic is not the hard-nosed orchestra that you claim it to be. That reputation may have been true decades ago, but they are very professional now. I know, as I used to be a substitute player there for many years.
    As for the anonymous poster, let me set the record straight. First of all, most orchestral players will gladly accept a conductor’s comments if they are made respectfully. I don’t know what happened with the Halle Orchestra, but I do know that the more respectful the conductors are to the players, the more respectful they will be in return, especially if that conductor is worthy of that respect. I think it’s dishonest also to blame the unions for musician’s so-called bad attitudes. It’s thanks to the unions that musicians have the protection from arbitrary firings having to do with the tyrrany and whims of conductors and managements. Sure, there are some players who may use their tenure to do a less-than-professional job, but as someone very active in the orchestral world, I can tell you that the vast majority of musicians take their job very seriously and do it with pride and therefore expect the same level of care and professionalism from those on the podium. Anything less is not acceptable and flies in the face of why we went into this profession in the first place: our passion for the music. The hiring of Mr. Kaplan, whether for the pension concert or not, was a slap in the face of those of us who work hard and with passion to get where we are in the profession. It’s also, in the end, insulting to the intelligence of those who paid good money for the tickets to the concert. It’s a good thing these “spoiled brat” musicians rose to the occasion and didn’t play at the level that Mr. Kaplan apparently conducted. If more orchestras did this, the public would spot the frauds immediately – oh, wait! Maybe not: after all, the orchestras almost always get blamed for poor performances by less-than-competent conductors, just as less-than-competent conductors get undue credit when an orchestra like the NY Phil saves their collective derrieres.
    In conclusion, it’s not the musicians’ bad attitude that prompted the comments that are so controversial. It’s the exact opposite.

  • db says:

    Mr. Finlayson is an ungrateful jerk. The concert was given to benefit the orchestra members. Of course, he as every right to express his opinion, and do so in public. He should expect to be criticized however since he has aired his opinion in public. As NL points out it is doubtful we will see this type of criticism of conductors other than someone like Mr. Kaplan.
    Any musician’s career is full of instances where they must compromise to put food on the table, it has been that way since the beginning. Big deal. There are many musicians who would love to play in a top tier orchestra for the pay and benefits Mr. Finlayson receives.
    Mr. Finlayson seems to think he is an “A”rtist while he is really just an “a”rtist. At best an orchestral musician is a re-creative artist who plays, for the most part, the same repetoire over and over. It takes years of dedicated practice to achieve the chops to play this repetoire, but it is not creating art from the ground up. How many times does an orchestral musician play these symphonies in their career? Are we to believe that each time there is some wholly new art being created that was never heard before. Hardly. Some performances are better than others, due to various overall factors such as tempo, dynamics, the ability of the conductor to get the musicians to play better together, etc. The only “A”rtist in this whole sad story is Gustav Mahler who created the music from nothing but is own talent and hard work.
    Mr. Eckerling appears to be another “A”rtist who is too full of himself. From all accounts Mr. Kaplan IS an expert regarding this particular work. Because he is not an expert on other works does not invalidate his knowledge. I am also sure that Mr. Kaplan is aware of many other historical aspects related to this work as well. What would Mahler the CONDUCTOR think of anyone conducting this symphony? Who knows, certainly not Mr. Eckerling who is after all just a dude telling some dudes how to play some other dude’s music. Based on his knowledge, are we to believe that all the lifeblood Mr. Eckerling pumps into a work via his conducting was created out of the nothing? Please, 90% of what the so-called semi-conductors bring to a work is listening to recordings of how everyone else has done it before.
    When Mr.Finlayson or Mr. Eckerling can get up in front of a first class rhythm section and solo over “All the Things You Are” at 144 BPM while creating some interesting melodic ideas and do it again with different results then they can call themselves “A”rtists. Otherwise, Mr. Finlayson and Mr. Eckerling need to get over themselves.

  • Nardo Poy says:

    NL to Nardo Poy: Read Fred (below) and most of your issues will be resolved.
    Sorry, but nothing was resolved by Fred’s post. It doesn’t come to the heart of the issue: would you, Mr. Lebrecht, allow me, someone who may enjoy immensely reading many publications, to write an article on a subject in a major publication without having the benefit of ever having studied writing as a profession? Methinks you would be quite offended at my chutzpah. I won’t excuse bad behavior in public by any professional (IF Fred’s stories are true, and I know so many such stories to be apocryphal), as even under the worst of circumstances, one has to at least ACT professional. However, when one works hard to attain a certain level of proficiency and has a great deal of respect for the art, it’s quite demoralizing to have someone without any qualifications do what was done at the Philharmonic a couple of weeks ago. Yes, Fred – what about the audience? They paid good money to hear a great orchestra show how well they can play even under someone who should never have been allowed to get up there in the first place. They should have been respected more by those who allowed him to conduct (speaking of contempt for the audience, Mr. Lebrecht). As for George Szell’s comment, remember how long ago that was made.
    By the way, the NY Phil cannot refuse to play for anyone. The management hires the conductors and the players are obligated to play for them. That’s what they get paid for.
    NL to Nardo Poy: On the contrary, untrained amateurs write in major publications every day of the year – sportsmen, politicians, celebs, you name it. Some of them don’t write a word that is published under their name.

  • Marko says:

    Some of the posters are recycling tales of bad behavior at the New York Philharmonic from 30-40 years ago in order to discredit the opinions of David Finlayson in 2008. That’s rhetorically dishonest.
    Too many people are overlooking the central point of Mr. Finlayson’s post: The selling point with Gilbert Kaplan is that he has made a life’s project of knowing everything there is to know about Mahler 2, and that even if he’s not a professional conductor, bringing him in to conduct can impart some new understanding of the work to both orchestra and audience. His argument is that Mr. Kaplan in fact lacks the conducting skill or innate musicality to deliver on the very thing that is being sold with his appearance, and that what the Philharmonic audience heard was not Mr. Kaplan’s learned rendition of his critical edition of the score, but rather the orchestra doing its professional best to hold things together in the face of inept direction. Mr. Lebrecht asks whether the Philharmonic players are too jaded to be interested in actual enlightenment. I would submit they are very interested in some enlightenment; they just didn’t get any with Mr. Kaplan.
    Some have criticized the Philharmonic players for ingratitude, inasmuch as Mr. Kaplan conducted a pension-fund benefit performance and it sold out. True, the appearance isn’t great. But I would argue that Mr. Kaplan stood to benefit more than the Philharmonic players did from the engagement; this performance surely enhanced his attractiveness to other orchestras – at least until Mr. Finlayson’s post hit the internet.
    For all the criticism Mr. Finlayson and the Philharmonic musicians have received, a cursory examination of postings on various blogs indicates that these are views long known to and shared by musicians who have played under Mr. Kaplan. Mr. Finlayson is merely the first to give very public voice to those criticisms. I have not read a single post on any site from a musician who has played with Mr. Kaplan and disagrees strongly with Mr. Finlayson.
    Mr. Lebrecht makes a minor factual error: Alan Gilbert is the son of two Philharmonic violinists, but one of them – his father – retired several years before he was appointed Music Director. And surely he does not believe that two orchestral violinists have the clout to get their son appointed music director – or to protect him from critics.
    Finally, it’s a pity that this issue has received so much attention. If only Mr. Lebrecht had been in Montreal instead of New York around December 8. There he could have heard and reported on Kent Nagano leading the Montreal Symphony in only the second-ever North American performance of Messaien’s St. Francis of Assisi, in honor of Messaien’s 100th birthday. And unlike in New York, the Montreal players were apparently confident that their conductor knew every note of the (four-hour) score.

  • Huw Belling says:

    I must disagree with db’s position on the artistry of orchestral musicians. (Regardless of this issue). Surely orchestral music is of such complexity that the act of re-creation is in fact an act of creation. I doubt many composers (indeed Mahler himself) would be happy to regard his works as being reproduced by non ‘Artists’. Mahler’s virtuosic writing in particular sets a high standard for the musicianship of orchestral musicians which implicitly demands a level of engagement beyond mere ‘re-creation’. Of course in what instances this engagement is actually achieved is a matter for criticism.
    Surely any claim to the legitimacy of Art music (also called ‘classical music’) presupposes circumventing the fetishism of ‘cover’ artists and encourages alternative interpretive authorities?

  • Robert Howe says:

    I have trouble with the original premise of this thread. What’s all the fuss about? A man came and conducted a piece of music at a benefit concert for the Orchestra. The hall was full of paying patrons who enjoyed the evening. A group of singers had the opportunity to work with one of the world’s finest ensembles. Who’s been hurt?
    I work as hard as any orchestra musician (and in fact trained to be one, before getting my professional degree). I am in a line of work that many would consider to be as valuable to society as that of a trombonist or oboist in the NY Phil. No one helps my pension fund.
    I would be very grateful if Mr Kaplan could come to my office for a day, play-pretend at being a doctor *to a group of paying people whoknow that he isn’t* and thus enrich the coffers of my staff retirement fund by 40 or 50 thousand dollars. If my staff (analogous to the NY Phil musicians) has to work with an amateur for a day, well, they’ll live.
    Mr Kaplan, if you will call my office we will be happy to work something out.
    Robert Howe

  • Nardo Poy says:

    “Mr. Finlayson is an ungrateful jerk.”
    Quite the contrary. He’s apparently a musician with integrity who doesn’t suffer fools gladly (I say let’s have more of the likes of him). Of course, it’s easy for those of you who do not have to experience such fraud to comment thusly.

  • TL says:

    NL to TL: In your comment below you write: ‘I think it is possible that Kaplan’s conducting is so inept’. From which I assume that you have neither seen nor heard the act described and are offering an uninformed opinion based on secondary and tertiary sources. That strikes me as a futile contribution to the discussion. Correct me, anyone, if I’m wrong.
    Am I to understand, according to Lebrecht, that an orchestral musician posting his opinion in a blog is a sign of institutional collapse? I hope not. What’s delicious about Lebrectht’s whole thesis is that he once decried blogs as “having the nutritional value of a bag of crisps”. Now he seems to be taking Mr. Finlayson’s blog very, very seriously.
    The fact is Kaplan is and always was, nothing more than a very rich charlatan, propped up in part by enablers like Lebrecht. I think it is possible that Kaplan’s conducting is so inept, he rendered any discussion of the edition as moot. Certainly more a of crime than forgetting to mention the edition in a blog.
    The times they are a-changin’ and in the internet age, the Emperor’s lack of clothes can be broadcast by anyone.

  • Nardo Poy says:

    I would like to add another comment regarding what has been said of Mr. Kaplan’s “expertise” on the Mahler Symphony in question: perhaps, as some here claim, he has intimate knowledge of many of the fine details of the score. I’d like to point out that knowledge is not necessarily the equivalent of understanding.

  • N8Ma says:

    I concur with Mr. Poy. I know his work well with many top NY orchestras (I won’t out him by saying which, but he’s well known with both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall audiences). He is a consummate professional, and simply expects conductors to demonstrate a basic competence (keeping a steady beat, for instance, which Kaplan freely admits he needs help with) in order to expect to stand in front of a professional orchestra.
    Mr. Kaplan’s efforts to preserve Mahler’s legacy are laudable. But to state that since he’s edited the Resurrection he’s entitled to conduct it with orchestras Mahler himself led (Vienna, NY) is an insult to REAL scholar-musicians like Norrington, Koopman, et al. Musicians cannot be expected to appreciate the “enlightenment” of alterations in the notation if at the same time there is a fraud and a cipher standing in front of them, waving arms “eins-zwei eins-zwei” like the worst caricature of the wrinkled kapellmeister.
    Harold Farberman did well when he ripped Mr. Kaplan a new one (without mentioning him by name) in his chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Conducting…
    NL to unnamed at Bard College: I’m sure you don’t have to look very far at Bard for conductors with stiff gestures who work with professional orchestras.

  • LynneHR says:

    >>NL to unnamed at Bard College: I’m sure you don’t have to look very far at Bard for conductors with stiff gestures who work with professional orchestras.
    LHR to NL: You don’t have to look very far anywhere to find incompetent conductors who work with professional orchestras. It’s disgusting what one can accomplish with money and/or influential friends in management.
    NL to LHR: You are so right. However, the ones who buy their way in through money and influence don’t, on the whole, last long in front of a good orchestra.