Sour Grapes from NY Phil Trombonist

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An op-ed and the first Jaded Clam for 2009.

Amateur musician Gilbert Kaplan is not a professionally-trained musician but his 20-year experience with one composition in particular does give him a strong merit and qualification with it. He is arguably the world’s foremost scholar on Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony.

This is old news by now but New York Philharmonic trombonist David Finlayson last month wrote an extensive and articulate blog essay in response to a recent Mahler 2 Philharmonic performance lead by Gilbert Kaplan.

In his blog essay, Mr. Finlayson labels Mr. Kaplan an “imposter:”

Mr. Kaplan and his assault on conducting leave many musicians angry, bewildered and befuddled. I submit that Mr. Kaplan has succeeded in drawing an audience because of the wide popularity of Mahler’s great symphony and our culture’s intrinsic want to see someone break down barriers that have remained seemingly impenetrable.

Accusations have surfaced that Kaplan secures his conducting gigs with large contributions via some kind of underhanded quid pro quo arrangement. To a conspiracy-minded malcontent this factor, whether true or not, adds even more heat to their angry-beef stew.

On the one hand I can certainly empathize with any musician who is unhappy with a conductor that they perceive as incompetent. It can indeed be frustrating. Outside of music too, I have worked with a few bosses that were less than inspiring.

On the other hand, I am completely unsympathetic. At least one audience member enjoyed this concert and given the reported strong attendance at the concert, so may have many others.

What bothers me most is the general tone of Findlayson’s post. It is exactly the kind of thing that alienates symphony musicians from management and almost every other person who has worked a regular 9-to-5 job. In almost any other profession, public criticism of this type would be grounds for disciplinary action if not outright dismissal.

As Norman Lebrecht points out:

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.

This aside, Mr. Findlayson’s blog article demonstrates a pervasive attitude among symphony musicians that is both distasteful and self-destructive. Not only was this concert a benefit for the musician’s pension fund, but it was also the centennial anniversary for the composition’s premiere in New York City. Airing dirty laundry under these circumstances hardly seems appropriate.

For myself, not much empathy is felt for a symphony musician who complains about being gainfully employed when dozens, if not hundreds, of highly-qualified players would give their eye-teeth to be in that same position.

Yeah…conductors can suck, but so can a musician with a poor attitude.

This story even made the New York Times, yet, rather than question why some highly-paid, world-class musicians are so unhappy, the focus was instead on Gilbert Kaplan and his ability to lead an orchestra.

The headline should have read “Yet Another Musician With A Great Job and Poor Attitude Complains.” Unfortunately for musicians the sentiment of this headline is not news to the general public – that classical symphony musicians are an out-of-touch, ungrateful group of self-proclaimed elitists.

Therefore, for putting the “jade” in “jaded musician,” the first Jaded Clam Award for 2009 goes to David Findlayson of the New York Philharmonic.

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