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A dream, like the act of love, has its own time frame and can be all the sweeter for delayed fulfilment. This week, after quarter of a century, I saw a man achieve his fantasy.
In 1981 rumour reached me of a wealthy American who was hiring one of the London orchestras to rehearse Mahler’s second symphony, known as the Resurrection. He did so not with any avowed intent of giving a concert so much as to fathom the secrets of one of the most daunting peaks of symphonic literature.
Not long after, I heard via the ex-prime minister Edward Heath that the American, a financial publisher called Gilbert E Kaplan, had conducted a strictly private, invitation-only account of the work at New York’s Lincoln Center for the benefit of world leaders returning from an International Monetary Summit. Since the Resurrection requires an orchestra of more than 100 and a chorus twice that size, and there were 2,700 garrulous politicians and bankers in the audience, the feat was not going to remain under wraps for very long. After talking to musicians and hearing an audiotape, I flew to New York to meet Kaplan, and found a man with an impossible dream.
The story he told was this: as a cub economist on Wall Street in 1965, he had been dragged by a pal to a Leopold Stokowski rehearsal and, that night, was unable to sleep. The music had affected him in some organic fashion, dissolving him in tears during the next day's concert.
He was not, I could tell, one of your typical arts softies. At 27, Kaplan had the idea of starting a magazine that would speak to the disparate professionals who manage vast sums of money for banks, pension funds, industries and governments. He named his monthly Institutional Investor and defined his readership with such magnetic precision that, within a couple of years, he was a millionaire in his own right, earning awards for a number-crunching blend of arcane fiscal mechanisms, political profiles and high-powered gossip.
But the Mahler epiphany had awoken a side of his character, which threatened to get out of hand. He took his future wife, Lena, on their first date to hear the symphony at the Royal Festival Hall and she, seeing him grapple with obsession, told him to get a grip: either master the work or drop it. With no more musical knowledge than piano lessons from a New Jersey boyhood, he hired a conducting teacher and, over 18 months, worked his way round every performance on earth, buying dinner for top conductors, who are often in search of financial advice.
In September 1982 he put his life on the line by conducting the symphony for the monetary elite and brought off an astonishing feat. Among many firsts that night, he had cracked one problem that eluded the professionals – how to communicate with the offstage brass band which, unseen and ‘in the far distance’, heralds the Resurrection. Most conductors give cues to an assistant at a half-open door. Kaplan, reviewing Mahler’s original notes, decided to run television cables up to the the band in an upper corridor. Audience members craned their necks to see where the ethereal sound was coming from. No performance of the Resurrection would ever sound the same again.
Kaplan's dream began to acquire dimensions of destiny. Mahler’s manuscript, owned by a Dutch foundation in financial distress, was put up discreetly for sale. Kaplan not only bought the score; he published it in a facsimile that is now indispensable to serious performers. Elsewhere, he acquired the ring that Mahler gave to his wife, Alma, and placed it on Lena’s finger as a token of gratitude.
In 1986 he staged a ground-breaking Mahler symposium at the Royal Festival Hall and the following year he came to Cardiff to record the symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra. I heard a player summoning his wife to ‘get down here fast, something extraordinary is happening.’ Hard-bitten musicians could not believe that a rank amateur with rather jerky gestures could tell them something new about Mahler but Kaplan, by this time, knew every note that Mahler had erased and replaced in 14 versions of the score, every word he had ever uttered about a symphony that was his very essence – a work that questions the purpose of life on earth.
Kaplan's recording went on to outsell any Mahler record ever made – 180,000 and rising. He gave the symphony its first performance in China in 1995 and opened the Salzburg Festival with the Philharmonia. His compulsive knowledge obliged Universal Edition to reprint the score with 400 corrections; and when he recorded the new edition with the Vienna Philharmonic I watched in amazement as the trumpets, after ten takes, insisted on playing a passage for an eleventh lip-splitting time to make sure they got it exactly right.
Over the past quarter of a century, hardly a week has gone by without Kaplan and I chewing over some Mahler theory or discovery, some clue that might take us closer to the composer's mission. Kaplan has, I believe, changed the way we hear this work and, more importantly, demystified the art of conducting to a point where no-one will ever again dismiss the performance of a determined amateur. He had, in a verb, democratised the maestro myth.
When I ask him to assess what his contribution to music might be he ducks the question, but when I want to know how it affected his own life he easily pinpoints the gulf between two halves. ‘What you must understand, Norman,’ he smiles, ‘is that most people I used to know get up every morning and ask themselves, how much am I gonna make today? That was their only motivation. Mine became something else.’
At 67, he is a director of Carnegie Hall, after a decade as a governor of London’s South Bank. Having made his point, you’d think that this might be a time to bask, but from our earliest conversations there always was one red-letter date in his diary that he told me to keep open.
This Monday night at eight pm, 100 years to the moment after Mahler conducted its US premiere on December 8 1908, Gilbert E Kaplan stood in front of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Westminster Chorus at the Lincoln Center and gave the centenary performance. Tickets had sold out a month in advance as a city in the throatlock of recession suspended tough reality and sank into the glow of a very American dream.
Stacking the odds to breaking point, Kaplan delivered an hour-long power-point lecture before changing into conductor's tails and coming out in front of the orchestra. The effort may have made the opening of the symphony sound a shade deliberate, but everything Kaplan does now has reason in the score and, as the performance unfolded, tensions and contrasts built. The two choral entrances announcing the resurrection - the first as soft as any in the whole of classical music and the second eruptive and explosive - were as close to overwhelming as I have ever heard. A packed house leaped to its feet. The work was complete. Its second century could begin.
There is no universal moral to this story, but one or two lessons abide. What I learned on Monday night is that every human life needs a secondary purpose, and that in art no obsession can ever be considered unhealthy. Resurrection? We all need one.
Essential Mahler Seconds on Record
Rattle’s award winner is marred by patchy singing, Klemperer’s by rough sound and Abbado’s by over-silkiness. The ones to have are:
Kaplan (Conifer, 1987)
Chailly (Decca, 2002)
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]