Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Gilbert Kaplan, the New York Philharmonic, and Mahler's Symphony No. 2

As a frequent Philharmonic attendee, I've had the chance to see the orchestra work with a few different conductors. Most of the time I've seen Lorin Maazel at the podium. I like Maazel. He's experienced, he knows the music inside and out, and the orchestra is accustomed to his conducting style. There's a certain energy in the room when he conducts. I don't think there's a significant chance of a mistake. But when there's a different conductor at the podium, I think it's more exciting. The orchestra is not as familiar with the new conductor's style or gestures, so they pay closer attention. And when they're playing music that isn't as familiar to them, with a new conductor, it just adds to the degree of difficulty. The orchestra doesn't play Mahler's 2nd Symphony that often, given that it's a long, enormous piece involving a choir, soloists, and an expansive orchestra. And last night was Kaplan's Philharmonic debut, so they'd never worked with him before. On top of that, it was the 100th anniversary of Mahler conducting the New York Symphony (which merged with the New York Philharmonic in 1928 to form the current orchestra) in the US premiere of the symphony. So I was looking forward to an exciting concert.

When we walked into Avery Fisher Hall we saw that they'd extended the stage into the first few rows of audience seats so they could fit the massive orchestra and full choir onstage. There were two sets of timpani and a battery of drums and bells on one side of the stage. The cellos had been moved to the edge of the stage (when Maazel conducts, the violas sit at the edge). A few minutes after 8, Gilbert Kaplan came to the podium. He looked the part of the conductor with his tails and bearing, but I was skeptical. This man was not a professionally trained conductor. He ran a magazine and got coached in how to conduct this particular piece. Granted, he's been doing it for over twenty years, and he's the world expert on the work, but how would he conduct? What kind of style does a conductor have if he's learned only one piece? (Incidentally, he conducted without a score. I remember reading that Kaplan originally conducted without a score because he didn't know how to read one. I assume he knows now, but he didn't need it.) His gestures were precise and deliberate. Each cue was exact without a wasted gesture. His beats were about as textbook as I've ever seen from a conductor. He only made a few gestures for one group or another to play loud or soft. Nearly every time he indicated a tempo change or dynamic, the orchestra gave him exactly what he wanted. At one point in the third movement, with nearly 45 minutes left in the entire work, he accidentally broke his baton on the bar mounted on the back of the podium and most of it went flying off the stage. I don't remember, but I might have gasped. I had no idea what he would do. He didn't have a music stand in front of him with a spare baton ready. Unless he had one in his pocket he was stuck. But he wasn't stuck; he just kept conducting like nothing had happened. He conducted the rest of the symphony, including the offstage bands (via video), the soloists and the choir with what was left of the baton, a nub about an inch or two long. He might have made his gestures a little more precise but otherwise he acted as if he had a full size baton in his hand.

Of course, the Philharmonic didn't disappoint me. They were focused on Kaplan's every movement and aware of the magnitude of the music. The strings sang with emotion, the E-flat clarinet squawked away, and the horns and trombones lifted their bells and threatened to shake the chandeliers. Then there was the percussion. Kate said afterward that the way the percussionists moved around from drums to bells and back was the same way that puppeteers help each other out when two or three people are performing with one puppet. One percussionist had to move to play a set of upright bells (that Kaplan had provided for the concert), then back to a drum, then he assisted one of the timpanists during a particularly loud moment. He moved in and out without disrupting the other players' performances. Watching all of the percussionists playing at once in a massive drum crescendo was thrilling. During the parts of the last movement with offstage brass and drums, the music sounded otherworldly. The choir entered and the music built to a majestic, ethereal climax that moved me almost to tears. When the orchestra reached the last few bars of the piece and the choir sang "Auferstehn!" at full volume, with an organ(!) backing the mighty forces assembled on stage, I was grinning and shuddering and barely holding myself together. It was unforgettable.

UPDATE: Here are two stories from the New York Times about Gilbert Kaplan and his career as an interpreter of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, one from last week and one from a few years ago when he re-recorded the work with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Regarding the latter link, I hope it wasn't Mahler's baton that Kaplan broke last night. If I were in Kaplan's shoes and owned Mahler's baton, of course I would have used it in last night's performance.

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