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The Magnificent Obsession : Why does Gilbert Kaplan, a wealthy Wall Street financier, conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony around the world?

<i> Mark Swed lives in New York and is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Conductors, and especially the great ones, tend to have appalling singing voices, worse even than Bob Dylan on a bad night, Tom Waits on a good night or Julian Schnabel, the painter, on his new album. One need only to have heard the grunts that came from Bernstein, from Furtwangler or from Celibidache, in rehearsal. Toscanini, pathetically croaking along with his singers in opera performances, is infamously preserved on many of his recordings.

Yet there is also something mesmerizing about the unique way a real conductor’s singing reveals a phrase’s every nuance of expression, its shape, its mysterious essence.

Gilbert Kaplan has that kind of startling conductor’s voice. When he picks up the score of Mahler’s Second Symphony and starts singing individual parts to illustrate a point, one immediately hears it: This is the way the instrument is supposed to sound.

Of course, Kaplan should have that ability, given that he will be conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the score and the 135th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

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But Kaplan is not a conductor. At least, he’s not supposed to be one. Kaplan is, you may recall, the wealthy Wall Street financier and publisher who, in his preoccupation with this particular Mahler symphony, felt he simply had to conduct it. It didn’t matter that he barely knew music (three years of piano as a kid), that he barely knew the works of Mahler, that he knew nothing at all of the technique of conducting. He hired a teacher and worked through, the score--bar by bar, note by note--for six months. Then, in 1983, he hired the American Symphony, and gave a benefit concert as a onetime fantasy fulfillment. Critics were asked not to review the concert.

But the best-laid plans of mice and Walter Mitty. . . . A couple of critics broke the rules, and reviews appeared in the Village Voice and Newsweek. The performance was thought credible, which, under the circumstances, made it incredible.

And even more unimaginable has been Kaplan’s success since then. He has been invited to conduct the symphony with orchestras, great and minor, around the world. He has conducted it in China, in Siberia and throughout Latin America. Among his invitations for next season are those from the Kirov in St. Petersburg and the Salzburg Festival.

Kaplan’s appearances are welcomed for many reasons. He is an arts patron, and now something of a celebrity; he always conducts for free, so he is always good for a benefit. But the dollar signs in orchestra managers’ eyes don’t exactly explain his popularity with audiences or critics. Not only did his 1988 recording of the Mahler Second with the London Symphony Orchestra, on MCA Classics, garner many favorable reviews, it has become, over the years, a surprising blockbuster. In a market where selling 10,000 copies of a Mahler symphony is thought respectable, Kaplan’s set has sold an unprecedented 145,000.

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“The biggest satisfaction,” Kaplan admits, “is that I really am taken seriously now, instead of just as a businessman who wants to conduct. That is never what it was really about.”

And he has even become a noted Mahler authority--he recently lectured to graduate students and professors at Harvard; he is invited to guest-teach at prestigious conducting workshops at Tanglewood and the Eastman School. He is a regular at Mahler symposiums--he organized one last fall at Carnegie Hall, and he took part in the international Mahlerfeest at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in May. He will also co-host the radio broadcast of the performances from Amsterdam, when they air next season in this country.

How does Kaplan explain all this success? He pulls down a score from the shelf of his spacious office at the Kaplan Foundation (early 20th-Century French posters and Mahleriana decorate it) and starts singing the parts. And, in fact, that does explain much. It has long been Kaplan’s notion--and it was also part of the reason he started conducting--that the most astonishing aspect of Mahler’s music is exactly what’s in the score. One of the reasons for the initial allure of Kaplan’s recording is just that literal-mindedness, which sounded very refreshing during the excessive ‘80s, when overblown Mahler performances were becoming common. It is something, moreover, that Kaplan still believes in. “My interest is in trying to achieve what Mahler really wanted,” he says, “and my feeling is that the great performances stem from his notation. I feel it even more now.”

The “now” is an indication, however, that Kaplan has also changed over the years. He still calls himself an amateur, and he says he never intends to start collecting a fee for conducting. Nor is he ready to add anything beyond the Mahler Second to his repertoire, although he has recorded the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in order to demonstrate that Mahler meant it as a love song, not as the slow tempo funeral dirge it has become for most conductors. (He has yet to decide whether he will double his live repertoire Friday by upholding Hollywood Bowl tradition and conducting the national anthem.)

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But he also admits that the word amateur, more and more, appears in quotes when it used in reference to his conducting. He has, after all, conducted one of the biggest and most demanding of all symphonies with 24 different orchestras, and between now and next year he will conduct it with eight more orchestras in 12 more countries. His is clearly an experienced hand.

And Kaplan admits that he now does some things differently on the podium because he can. “I feel much more confident to really go for further extremes in trying to get what I want in the music,” he says. “There was a time in the beginning when I might not be able to technically bring it off. I could ask [the orchestra] for it, but I might not be able to make it happen. I don’t feel that at all anymore.”

But that does not mean he has drifted away from the letter of the score. In fact, as Kaplan travels farther and farther afield in his Mahlerian mission, he gets more and more deeply into his personal Mahler obsession. He has, for some time, been an avid Mahler collector. He owns, among other treasures, the manuscript to the Mahler Second and has printed a facsimile of it through the Kaplan Foundation. The foundation, which he established, underwrites all sorts of Mahler activities, the latest of which has been the joint-publication, with Abrams, of an elegant coffee-table album of all the known photographs of Mahler.

The far-afield aspect of Kaplan’s career means he has collected Mahler experiences in lots of interesting places. There was, for instance, the challenge of getting reticent Chinese musicians, who had never played the piece, to bring to it some emotion, when he led the first performance of the symphony in Beijing. “They had no idea of the Mahler style,” Kaplan recalls. “They didn’t even know how to translate the directions in the score, and as a result we had to proceed bar by bar. But, fortunately, I was given 10 rehearsals.”

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Kaplan says that one of his ways of coping with multicultural confusion is to learn enough of the local language to use it a bit in rehearsal. That proved handy in Brazil, when the orchestra threatened to walk out because he freely corrected players and used up all the rehearsal time instead of letting the orchestra off early.

“I stayed up all night working with a translator and memorized a little speech in Portuguese about what it means to be a musician,” he explains. “And they went back to work.”

In Siberia, the worst problem was the poor quality of the instruments; two keys fell off an oboe. But it was on that trip that Kaplan met former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who turned out to be a huge Mahler fan. “He told me,” Kaplan recalls, “that when he heard the Second Symphony for the first time he was emotionally destroyed by it. He said to me that it must have been because he was having a bad day and having some bad experiences. And I said, ‘No, you could be having a good day, and Mahler is not going to let you get away with it.’ ”

Kaplan, who founded the magazine Institutional Investor, and who once got Salvador Dali to design a cover for an issue, says he now divides his time equally between music and what he describes as a mixed business portfolio. But he also confesses, “When I was thinking more seriously about the stock market, I could from time to time slip in a thought about music. But when I’m thinking about music, it does take over. So that tells me that it’s a more telling force for me than the financial world.”

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The most telling anecdote, however, is courtesy of Georg Solti, one of the conductors with whom Kaplan has consulted. “I remember when I was apologizing to Solti that I was taking up so much of his time with my questions, he said to me, ‘Oh, not at all. You have no idea what a pleasure it is to meet someone from Wall Street with whom I can discuss music. When I meet the conductors, all we talk about is money.’ ”

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Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” (Mahler). Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gilbert Kaplan, conductor;Los Angeles Master Chorale; Gwendolyn Bradley, soprano; Ruby Hinds, mezzo-soprano. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave. Date: Friday, 8:30 p.m. Phone: (213) 480-3232.


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