Saturday, December 20, 2008

Kaplan's Mahler

As the 19th century drew to a triumphant and colorful close in Europe, the Classical music of Haydn grew, through Beethoven, into the Romanticism of Wagner--ever grander with singers and instrumentalists numbering into the hundreds. But the culmination of the century's spectacular Romantic music is embodied in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, particular the staggeringly vast and passionate Second Symphony, "The Resurrection." With a huge orchestra, a chorus, two vocal soloists, and an invisible offstage group of brass and percussion--often with one principle and two subordinate conductors--the five movements spanning one and a half hours tell of the life, death, and personal resurrection of the individual human spirit. The melodies are beautiful; the thematic construction, complex; the harmonies, richly Romantic and even tending to presage the dissolution of tonality that would reflect the twentieth century's strange, deep journey into the savage unconscious of Freud, the astounding new cosmology of Einstein, and the disturbing unreasonableness of quantum nuclear physics.

In 1965 a performance of Mahler's Second Symphony at Carnegie Hall was attended by a young financier, the 24-year-old Gilbert Kaplan. He was overwhelmed; he was confused but inspired. He went back to another performance the next day and found himself sobbing uncontrollably. He said the work "threw its arms around me and would not let go." It changed his life. Although he continued to pursue the career in financial publishing on which he was just embarking (in 1965 he founded the magazine "Institutional Investor," served as the publisher and editor in chief, and then sold it in 1984 for $72 million), he turned his life to the music of Mahler--more specifically, to Mahler's Second Symphony.

He studied the work note by note, second by second, for months and years. He attended every performance he could find. He talked with conductors and musicians--famous and unknown. And gradually he became the planet's most knowledgeable scholar and most impassioned advocate of the staggeringly difficult composition. He found it an aesthetic, artistic, and spiritual accomplishment without peer, and he set out at last to share his revelation and understanding of it with the world.

In September 1982, Kaplan funded and conducted a performance of the American Symphony Orchestra at Lincoln Center--a private performance for his friends, for financiers and politicians. Private, yes, but the musical world discovered he had matched himself to this stupendous work and mastered it as no other conductor ever had. Over the ensuing quarter century, he was invited to conduct more than 50 orchestras in performances of the work. His recording with the London Symphony Orchestra became the best selling, most widely known performance of the work ever offered to the public. In late 2008 his invitations for further performances extend some three years into the future.

Is this a Horatio Alger story of rags to riches? In a way, it is. Kaplan was certainly a very successful, self-made financier. But this story is more than that. Is it a personal awakening, a personal spiritual quest, a personal aesthetic triumph--an iteration of the Great American Dream? Yes, but it is more than that, too. It is a resurrection of a profound musical work and, with it, of an individual life--it is each of us reborn to a higher, more impassioned human existence.