An interview with Gilbert Kaplan (March 3 1941-January 1 2016)

I interviewed the late Gilbert Kaplan back in March 2001 when he was about to launch his radio show Mad About Music. His kindness, insight, humor and generosity made a big impression. My 2001 article based on that interview has not been available for many years, and is all but impossible to trace online. Fortunately I preserved my original draft, and I’d like to share it with readers and music lovers, in memory of this remarkable man.

A Conversation with Gilbert Kaplan (March 2001)

The word “amateur,” as generally understood, refers to one who engages in an art or science as a pastime rather than as a profession. It is often used in a disparaging sense, describing, for example, one that lacks professional skill or ease in performance. Yet the award-winning publisher, foundation head, and amateur conductor Gilbert Kaplan’s considerable achievements on behalf of Gustav Mahler’s music reflect the connotations of the word’s Latin source, amator, meaning “lover, devoted friend, devotee, enthusiastic pursuer of an objective.” These words characterize the passion and high standards Kaplan brings to his foundation’s Mahler publications, his performances of that composer’s mighty “Resurrection” Symphony (the only work he conducts), and a new public radio series he will host on New York’s WNYC 93.9 FM, Mad About Music.

Mad About Music is a monthly, one hour celebrity classical music and interview program that debuts on WNYC at 7 pm Friday April 6th, and repeats at 8 pm on Saturday April 7th. Kaplan’s guests select five key musical works and discuss why these pieces are important to them. “If you have a passion,” Kaplan explains, “you’re fascinated if somebody famous has that same passion. You talk to golfers, for example, and they cannot get enough of reading about a certain President’s golf game. Did that President, for example, like a sand wedge or a pitching iron in a certain situation? I think the same thing is true with music.”

During a recent chat at his New York office, Kaplan traced the show’s roots to the popular British radio show Private Passions, on which he had been a guest while conducting in England. The feedback was plentiful and positive. From that experience, Kaplan thought of a show that would focus on famous people who happen to love classical music.

He proposed the idea to WNYC, for whom he had hosted a 13-week Mahler series in 1997, providing background and commentary. The station accepted. In contrast to Private Passions, Mad About Music sets the hurdle for fame extremely high. Indeed, Kaplan’s guest list is a veritable Who’s Who of influential figures in media, government, business, and the arts.

The opening program features former President Jimmy Carter, who perhaps is the most musically well-rounded President since Harry Truman. ” I was astounded by the scope of Carter’s musical interests, the degree to which music just overlapped his life from the beginning, “said Kaplan, “and found his tastes to be quite eclectic and impressive.” Carter’s knowledge of Wagner, chiefly Tristan und Isolde, helped land him a top job in the Navy. By contrast, lighter fare such as Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince is inextricably linked with the most intimate moments in Carter’s marriage.

During his presidency Carter hosted concerts at the White House that were televised around the world, including a rare appearance by the mercurial pianist Vladimir Horowitz. In his interview with Kaplan, Carter recalls shipboard discussions with his Navy roommate as to whom was better in the Rachmaninov concertos: Rachmaninov himself, Arthur Rubinstein, or Horowitz. Could you imagine George W. Bush extolling the finer points of Brendel versus Pollini in late Beethoven?

Kaplan feels that what you learn about celebrities through their musical taste is very illuminating. “If most people were asked to give their impression of ABC News anchor Peter Jennings simply from seeing him on the news each night, they would say that he’s a cool customer, a bit formal. Yet you listen to his selections of music and discover he’s a hopeless romantic.” Jennings tastes run the gamut from barbershop quartets and Duke Ellington to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, plus everything in between. The only thing he can’t listen to is heavy metal.

As a father of four, does Kaplan better tolerate for loud, contemporary pop styles? ” It’s curious. When Columbia House released my recording of the Mahler Second in their record club, the person in charge of their classical division actually overlapped with heavy metal. I told him that that if he loved classical music than he’d have some idea what my taste is. I can’t listen to heavy metal happily. What heavy metal could he give me to hear that might be appealing to someone of my background and interests? So he sent me quite a few records. Out of them all I only found Metallica to my taste, quite a bit of it I liked. My son quickly scooped up the rest of the records!”

Asked if the celebrities’ repertoire tastes or recording choices might influence audiences, Kaplan says it’s entirely possible. “For example, President Carter talks about Doretta’s Dream from Puccini’s La Rondine. sung by Mirella Freni on a recording with arias that he loves. Carter even mentions that it’s track sixteen! And I was thinking I’d love to have this recording.” The President thinks less well of a Maria Callas aria on the same disc, where, as he says, she sings off-key.

WNYC will be broadcasting Mad About Music on the world wide web, a fact that pleases Gilbert Kaplan, who imagines the internet will come into its own as a disseminator of archival and historic recordings. Likewise, Kaplan’s interviews may well prove to hold equal documentary value. In addition to Carter and Jennings, Kaplan’s guest list includes luminaries like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and Citigroup Chief Sanford Weill. Putting together a roster like this requires a little detective work. Kaplan speaks to the powers that be in opera houses and concert halls, and asks his guests what other classical music lovers they know. And once in a while Kaplan will host a performing artist like Yo-Yo Ma, and find out what they like to listen to when they’re not playing music.

“Three very wonderful people have accepted invitations: Condoleezza Rice, our National Security advisor (and also a concert pianist), Katherine Graham from the Washington Post, Barbara Walters, who is probably the most formidable interviewer on television. That’s going to be a challenge.”

Kaplan may also want to explore the entertainment world for guests, like the comedian Phyllis Diller, who is an accomplished concert pianist, or film director and part-time clarinetist Woody Allen. And, of course, America’s most famous tenor saxophonist, William Jefferson Clinton. Has anyone said no yet? “One guest who I’d love to have and who’s been a personal friend for 30 years, Alan Greenspan, turned me down. I was surprised. But its his policy never to give one-on-one interviews even though I assured Alan that I wouldn’t ask him about interest rates! Little beknownst to the world, Alan is a Julliard graduate. He’s the ultimate Mad About Music guest because he’s really famous and he really knows music.”

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