Classical: Mahler. And nothing but

Gilbert Kaplan's strength is that he has absorbed every indication Mahler made on the score
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The Independent Culture
This weekend one of the world's leading Mahlerians will sweep into London to preside over a symposium, launch a budget edition of his prize-winning Mahler recording and conduct some Mahler at the Royal Albert Hall. He has recently been giving Mahler masterclasses to fledgling conductors in St Petersburg, and he will soon be doing the same in London. Gilbert Kaplan is, by any standards, a hot gun.

But the funny thing is this: apart from the Adagietto of Mahler's Fifth Symphony (as in Visconti's film, Death in Venice) the only music Kaplan conducts is Mahler's gigantic Second Symphony.

Flatter him or batter him, you will never get him to conduct anything else. For this 56-year-old New York publishing millionaire is determined to preserve the purity of his obsession, which began when he was taken by a friend to a rehearsal of the aforesaid work.

"It was like a bolt of lightning going through me," he says. "I can't explain why: I could describe all its remarkable aspects, but you could say the same of Beethoven's Ninth or Mozart's G Minor. I can only liken it to a love affair, where you can say how you feel, but not why."

He spent the next year acquiring the elements of the conductor's craft, and travelled the world attending every performance of the symphony he could find. Then, exercising the privilege of wealth, he hired an orchestra and conducted it himself. "That was supposed to be the first and last time I ever conducted," he says. "It was never my ambition to become a conductor. Even now, I don't regard myself as part of the conducting profession - I don't agree with amateurs meddling in a professional world."

Yet this is a man who gives masterclasses! You could not wish for a neater conundrum. Is conducting, like photography - on a good day we can all take Cartier-Bressons - a mere knack?

Some surprising people think so, including violinist Pinchas Zukerman, who periodically does it himself and regards it as the most bizarre profession of all time. "Well, think about it," he barks. "You're the one person on stage who's facing the wrong way. And how much does the orchestra need you? Very little."

One thinks also of the LPO violist quoted in Danny Danziger's notorious book, The Orchestra: "If you put an egg-beater in front of us, we would still produce a good performance." On the other hand there is plenty of testimony - from players adept at spotting frauds - to the spell woven by the Furtwanglers and Karajans.

So where does Kaplan stand? He does not think physical technique matters much. "No two great conductors do it in remotely the same way, and everyone has their own vocabulary of gesture."

The mark of a good conductor, he says, is the ability to create the sound he has in his head, "always assuming his ideas are good". This is, for him, the crux and this is why he feels entitled to give masterclasses on his chosen work. "I hand out one simple page of the score, and ask the students to mark the things they would look out for. And they usually focus on two or three points. Then I give them another copy of the page where I've put 16 arrows, indicating the points I think are important. Then we discuss, and that discussion can go on for five or six hours."

His strength is that he has absorbed every tiny indication Mahler made on the printed score (he owns the manuscript, and has published a facsimile edition). "A little more of this, a little less of that, something to create a gasp - that's what makes the music Mahlerian."

And no, he never gets bored with it. "I follow Mahler's rule that in every performance a work must be reborn. Every time I study a clean, unmarked copy of this score I find something I've missed."

For a businessman with no musical training, who puts in five days a week at the office, all this is disarmingly impressive, as is the fact that he is currently showing his Surrealist art collection in Chicago, but even that brings him back on track. "Mahler may predate Surrealism, but he had as much connection with it as Debussy had with Impressionism. His music puts side-by-side some very contradictory pictures."

Meanwhile, wearing yet another hat, Kaplan is now a board member of London's South Bank Centre, which he wants to see taking more creative risks than hitherto. "Better to fail," he says, "than not to try." That is the spirit in which he will take up his baton on 5 October at the Albert Hall.

DEPARTMENT OF premature gush: last Friday I described English National Opera as "a ship in fine shape". Well, fairly fine: on that same day, ENO premiered a khaki, Carry On-style Otello which climaxed with all-in wrestling on a camp-bed (the Moor narrowly won on points). How could this happen?

Well, it seems reformed-revolutionary director David Freeman is liked by ENO - so easy to work with, such a contrast to "difficult" Graham Vick, whose superb Butterfly, as it happens, is to be revived tonight. When it comes to reviving Otello, they should junk the Freeman travesty and restage its predecessor - if it has not been binned - by a certain Dr J Miller.

LIVING IN the shadow of Sadler's Wells, I have watched with amazement its progress towards rebirth. No cock-ups, no stoppages: still at the hard-hat stage, but perfectly on course for its opening in four weeks' time. The sight-lines are excellent, the seats give comfortable leg-room, the place is already looking good. But this week its bosses have been desperately trying to stave off disaster, after learning - from the papers - that the Royal Opera's current mismanagers have cut the RO's planned 25-week season at Sadler's Wells next year.

Sadler's Wells should take heart from a statement in last week's chirpy ROH press release: "There are no short-term cash flow difficulties at the ROH." Screw them for every penny!