Gilbert E. Kaplan is a publishing millionaire who became so obsessed with Mahler's Resurrection Symphony that, without any previous musical training, he learned to conduct it – with astonishing results. After he mounts the podium at tonight's performance in the Royal Festival Hall, it will be hard for the audience to recall that Kaplan made his name as one of the shrewdest observers of the financial scene. Norman Lebrecht reports on a 19-year love affair with an awesomely complex score.
December 1984
Norman Lebrecht

Kaplan with wife Lena and “Mahler baby” Emily

New York's Lincoln Center has hosted many gatherings of the mighty rich, but few as high-powered as the invitation-only audience of September 9 1982. The 2700 guests were drawn from the highest echelons of high finance, many arriving directly from an International Monetary Fund meeting in Toronto. They included the governors of the national banks of a dozen countries, several past and present premiers and finance ministers, heads of multinational industries, a brace of Rothschilds, a fistful of media chiefs, and banking gnomes of every shape and size. If lightning had struck Avery Fisher Hall that evening, it would have done more damage to business confidence than a Wall Street crash.

The moguls of the money markets had turned out to reschedule a debt of mixed gratitude to Institutional Investor, a glib, glossy but penetrating monthly that had covered and uncovered their activities for the past 15 years. To celebrate the anniversary, its publisher, an unassuming self-made millionaire by the name of Gilbert E. Kaplan, was about to make his debut as a conductor. This presumption would have caused little astonishment in a milieu where money can make most Walter Mitty dreams come true. But Kaplan was determined to perform Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony, a 90-minute work of such intricate complexity that professional conductors regularly come to grief on its hairpin bends. It promised to be an unmissable opportunity of seeing a man of substance play Russian roulette with his reputation.

Kaplan had invested $125,000 of his own money in the performance. If he failed, it would cost him the only commodity of real value at the precarious peak of the money world - his personal credibility.

Kaplan's tension as he bowed to the audience was palpable. So, too, was the anxiety of the 119 members of the American Symphony Orchestra, who had painstakingly rehearsed the work with him, movement by movement, for a whole year. At the orchestra's insistence, the few musicians and critics in the audience were made to promise that they would not write a word about it.

Kaplan with the original Mahler manuscript, which he now owns.

The applause greeting the conductor died away, the last feet were shuffled and throats cleared, and a hush of mounting expectancy endured for 20 agonising seconds. Kaplan stuck out his baton, grimaced, then whipped the strings into the opening shudder of the Totenfeier (Funeral Rites) at a tempo and intensity that could not conceivably be sustained. The air began to crackle…

It was 17 years since a broker friend had given him a pass to hear Leopold Stokowski rehearse Mahler's Second on a Saturday morning with the self-same American Symphony Orchestra. "It was interesting and I liked it,"-he recalls pleasantly, "but it didn't overwhelm me. Then that night I couldn't sleep: the music kept coming back to me. I went to the concert the next afternoon--by the time the fireworks erupted in the last movement, I was completely broken up."

The symphony, subtitled Resurrection and signifying the first stage of Mahler's self-martyring exploration into the purpose of life on earth, began to dominate Kaplan's spare time. He bought every available recording and wore them out, attended every infrequent New York performance - the vast orchestra and 200-strong choir make the symphony an expensive rarity - and read everything he could lay lands on about it. Then, although barely able to make sense of a prelude for solo piano, he began to ponder the monumental score. It became a mission, reinforced by what he perceived as strokes of fate. While on holiday one year he fell in love with the Swedish girl who is now his wife, and arranged to meet her again in London. On their first evening together they went to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. It happened to be Mahler's Second.

In business hours, meanwhile, Kaplan was becoming known as one of the shrewdest observers of the financial scene. In 1967, as a $15,000 a year economist at the New York Stock Exchange, he defined a new profession. "I realised that the insurance executive who managed a portfolio, the man who handled investments at a bank and the man who ran a unit trust operation had more in common with each other than with anyone else in their own company. They were professional investors. Now here was a group of people who had no information about their field - and an audience that advertisers wanted to reach in a major way."

He took his idea for an investors' magazine to Gerald Bronfman, the Seagram's whisky king, and came away with a $100,000 loan. He needed a further $50,000, which he raised from friends, banks and his own life's savings of $6,000. "I put everything I had into it, my last thousand."

The first issue of Institutional Investor announced editorially that “the management of money is one of the oldest of the arts and one of the newest of the professions". By the sixth issue the magazine was making a profit. Within two years Kaplan was a millionaire. He was 27 years old.

Alter ego: Gilbert E. Kaplan, president, Institutional Investor, in Madison Avenue office.

From the outset, copies have never appeared on news stands. The magazine was initially sent free of charge to 18,000 top investment executives, but lively graphics and a brash style ensured that it got read and talked about rather than junked with other free sheets.

"I have always maintained the free distribution," explains Kaplan, "because the amount of money we could get from circulation would never be material, while the amount we'd get from advertising would. And I told advertisers: 'If you're interested in the financial field we deliver the whole field'." A page of advertising, for which Kaplan charged $880 in 1967, now costs $12,000.

Today, Institutional Investor reaches 77,000 subscribers in 140 countries (including 6000 in Britain) and claims a pass-on readership of 300,000. Most subscribers still get their copies free, provided they are sufficiently important in the financial industry. Around 20 per cent of subscribers are made to pay a steep $120 annual fee.

The magazine covers everything from Poland's debt, to the workings of the Federal Reserve Bank, to banking shenanigans at the Vatican, to a consumer survey of boardroom lunches in the City of London. Most issues contain a personality profile of a key figure in finance; Sigmund Warburg once gave a rare extended interview; Robin Leigh-Pemberton, Governor of the Bank of England, was a recent subject.

While Kaplan regards himself principally as an ideas man, he enjoys writing an occasional feature, such as a seven-page 1976 interview with President Sadat, who was seeking to encourage western investment in Egypt. He has lately been promised an interview with Fidel Castro. "One day, the head of the central bank of Cuba showed up in my office. We mail the magazine to him through the British Embassy in Havana, and he was very concerned about what we bad been writing about their borrowing capacity, particularly their D-mark loan. He proposed that I talk to the President."

The Cubans had good reason to take note of Institutional Investor's reporting. Its system of credit ratings for individual countries, based on updated information gathered front 100 big banks, has been endorsed by the IMP. Institutional Investor has been telling bankers for some time to cut their losses in Poland and several other debtor countries - "that money is never coming back" - and to revise their accounting of hopeless loans.

In addition to monthly publication, Institutional Investor invites its subscribers to frequent, informative and lucrative conferences that attract speakers of the eminence of Henry Kissinger, Helmut Schmidt and Valery Giscard d’Estaing. The hospitality is lavish. For his first European conference in London in 1969, Kaplan announced a "Jaffersonian Dinner" (the second US president was a famous gourmet) at the Savoy Hotel and flew in 10,000lb of all-American food and drink, including five varieties of crab and a whole turtle.

His annual turnover now stands at $40m a year, of which more than  $7m is profit. Last summer, on a sudden decision and in a matter of three days, Kaplan sold the company to Capital Cities Communications, a media conglomerate, for a price believed to be slightly in excess of $70m. One condition of the deal was that Kaplan will remain as publisher, devoting half of his time to developing the magazine. At 43 years old, with time and millions to spare, he is free to conduct his life exactly as he pleases.

Those businessmen who were stunned by his sell-out should have paid heed to a Keynsian mono postscript beneath his inaugural editorial:

"It is in the essence of (the long-term investor's) behaviour that he should be eccentric, unconvential and rash in the eyes of average opinion."'

As word got round in the previous year that Kaplan was hiring an orchestra to teach himself a symphony, it seemed that be was rushing to fulfil all three essential criteria for high-risk investment. Since 1979 he had been convinced that the only way he could truly immerse himself in Mahler's Second was by conducting it. "At first I would put a record on and wave my arms about - and it seemed to go all right. At times I honestly believed, that the music changed as I conducted it," he reflects soberly.

An impresario friend put him in touch with a former leader of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who advised him to read two basic treatises on conducting. He was unable to make sense of the books - "if you were shown a diagram for lacing up shoes, could you tie them?" - and was repeatedly tempted to give up his dream. The physical effort was also wearing. "Your arms get tired from two minutes of changing a light bulb. Try keeping them up for an hour and a half."

One morning, while in the shower, he resolved to devote 30 days to a make-or-break attempt at mastering the first movement. He hired a young conductor, Charles Bornstein, rented a cottage near his summer home in East Hampton and spent the month of August 1981 absorbing the Totenfeier movement bar by bar, analysing it, and learning the technique of conducting a single work. "If you didn't have to beat eight in the piece, I didn't want to know how to beat eight. Never was my goal to be a conductor. I just wanted to conduct this piece."

In the following month he booked Carnegie Hall and the American Symphony Orchestra for a $5000 private rehearsal. "It was the scariest moment of all. I brought the baton down - and nothing happened. I thought: they're not going to play for me. Then the sons came; it takes a while to arrive. It was problem I had throughout the rehearsal. I kept waiting for the sound, they kept waiting for my beat, and it got slower as slower. It worked, but barely."

Kaplan was discouraged by the results but Bornstein, eager to demystify the art of conducting, was delighted with his pupil. They continued working. Six months later, having memorised the second movement, Kaplan engaged the orchestra again, conducted both movements - and won a spontaneous round of applause from the players. "I never ever felt he was an amateur," said Israel Chorberg, the orchestra's leader.

From that day on, Kaplan was determined to conduct the work in public just once. For the next year, he travelled to every performance of the symphony anywhere in the world, from Missouri to, Melbourne, about 15 in all. He attended rehearsals and talked to the conductors, not all of whom were encouraging. At Detroit a well-known maestro told him: "You may get through a performance, but you won't be able to do what I do as a conductor." Bornstein interjected: "You know Mr. Kaplan conducts this piece from memory." "Impossible," expostulated the pro, "even I cannot conduct it from memory."

He flew to London on the promise of a 20-minute meeting with Sir Georg Solti.

They spent three hours at the piano of his St. John's Wood home, Kaplan conducting Solti at the keyboard, and departing with the advice: "Hang a sign over your bed that says, 'Continue beating.'"

At the suggestion of Edward Heath, a regular speaker at his conferences, he booked the London Symphony Orchestra for a rehearsal in the Barbican. "He was precise, meticulous, well in command, and a pleasure to play for," said Jack Brymer, principal clarinet.

He went to The Hague to study Mahler's original manuscript, to a bell-foundry in Cincinatti to order the perfect bells for his performance and repeatedly to the ASO to rehearse. He counts 12 rehearsals altogether, including five with the Westminster Symphonic Choir and two soloists, Carole Farley and Birgit Finnila. "It was," he recalls, "the most exciting year of my life."

An hour into his epic performance, Kaplan was gripping the attention of orchestra and audience as tautly as he had from the terrifying outset. Yet his task was barely more than half completed, and the toughest test was yet to come. "The real Mahler," observed the composer Ernst Krenek, "emerges where the symphonic form breaks down under the stress to which he had subjected it. The passage just before the entrance of the chorus in the last movement of the Second Symphony is such a break. It is one of the most inspired and awesome passages of musical literature."

Kaplan knew that success or failure rested on the interpretation of this two-and-a-half minutes of music. He had devoted two-and-a-half hours at rehearsal to getting the rhythms right, and weeks of worry to the incalculable problems  of how to position the offstage brass players to chime in synchronously and herald the choral apocalypse.

His solution was hi-tech, expensive and undeniably ingenious. He ran television cables through the heating ducts of Avery Fisher Hall up to the third balcony and out of the exit doors on both sides of the hall, so that the external trumpeters and hornists could follow his baton on a small screen and echo each other's fanfare stereophonically, unseen and from the celestial distance desired by Mahler.

For the audience, it was as if the heavens had opened. Few conductors have ever come so close to realising the composer's intentions for this crucial transitional sequence. It raised the performance to a peak of tension that was dissolved hauntingly as the choir rose to intone Mahler's vision of the purpose of life: life beyond life. By the concluding crash of brass, bells and everything that could be banged, Kaplan's cheeks were streaked with tears and so were many of his musicians'.

The ovation was thunderous and prolonged. "I had the feeling that people in the audience were urging me to fulfil my dream because each of them had a secret ambition they had not attained. So they were up with me on the podium that night, playing baseball for the Yankees, writing the book they never wrote, or getting the girl they never got. If I had failed, they would have as well. I could feel their nervousness."

Edward Heath, who was among the audience, called the performance "a very remarkable feat". Israel Chorberg said Kaplan "was one of the best pros I have played for". And a critic broke cover to publish a review of what he described as "one of the five or six most profoundly realised Mahler Seconds I have heard in 25 years". Amazingly, private video and audio tapes of the concert convey the electrifying excitement of the event.

Kaplan would have been content that night to rest on his laurels, but the orchestra insisted that he return and play it with them professionally at Carnegie Hall. The event was a sell-out and, thought the performance was less nerve tingling than his debut, it was acclaimed as one of New York’s musical highlights of 1983. He has since conducted it with the New Japan Philharmonic in Tokyo and will perform it tonight at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra. In future, though, he does not propose to conduct it more than once a year and has no immediate intention of learning any other work.

He is now consulted by eminent maestri on points of interpretation. Leonard Bernstein--who conducted the very first cycle of Mahler symphonies on record--has sought his help in arranging the off-stage instruments in a performance of the Second. "When you think who he is, and where I have come from… " muses Kaplan.

His sense of predestination was reinforced by an unprompted call from the Willem Mengelberg Foundation, owners of Mahler's manuscript of the symphony, asking if he would like to buy it. For a modest price, thought to be between $300,000 to $400,000, he became the legal owner of the work and is planning to publish it in facsimile. It is almost unprecedented for a public institution to release a manuscript of this importance to anyone, let alone a private buyer, but the Foundation's acute financial need just happened to coincide with first reports of Kaplan's preoccupation.

"I don't want to talk about the supernatural," he says drily, "but I do believe there is something going on between me and this piece of music. I have never heard that orchestra play so well and, since I don't consider myself a great conductor, I have to conclude that something was at work there. Looking back on it, I do not believe it was possible to do what I have done."

Some of the credit must go to his wife, Lena, who supported his quest unquestioningly while, in the year of his rehearsals, expecting their fourth child, Emily ("our Mahler baby", they call her). "Lena told me to do it," says Kaplan, "and she knew I could do it before I did." The family is close-knit and lives four blocks away from the magazine's offices in a house with a garden accommodation as uncommon in midtown Manhattan as an igloo in the Sahara. They have a second home in Long Island.

Kaplan’s Madison Avenue headquarters look out to the front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, far from the sweaty hustle of Wall Street and the financial empires. Kaplan rarely descends into the money mêlée; its masters come to see him in midtown. The walls of his lobby are adorned with framed front covers of the magazine, and of his office with original examplars of his second passion: surrealist art. In the midst of his Mahler matriculation, he found time to compile a catalogue of René Magritte's graphic work, and now wants to write a second volume. His pet theory is that Mahler was a musical surrealist.

In the afterglow of his Mahler triumph, he was elected chairman of the American Symphony Orchestra and has ambitions to make it into something other than New York's second finest. "We can be flexible, doing things more quickly than the New York Philharmonic," he proclaims. When Donald Mitchell, the English musicologist, chanced upon Mahler's unknown setting of a Schubert quartet, Kaplan's new orchestra staged its world premiere in a matter of weeks. Shortly afterwards, he was on the phone with exuberant plans for a Mahler festival next year "perhaps the most complete Mahler retrospective ever staged" - involving Lincoln Center performances of all the symphonies, public lectures by pre-eminent Mahler authorities and less than half the price tickets-- the deficit to be funded entirely by the business community.

A week later, his concerts organiser called. "It's off. We couldn't get the hall at such short notice." Kaplan concealed his disappointment and swiftly made another headline, hiring John Mauceri, a fast-rising American conductor, as the ASO's music director. Mauceri, 39, a popular success in this season's Madam Butterfly at the English National Opera, sounds like a man after Kaplan's own heart. "We don't intend to compete with the Philharmonic," he announces breezily. "They are the great orchestra in town, the one with the big board and the fine traditions. Our only tradition is that the ASO was founded by Leopold Stokowski, who turned convention on its head by making Fantasia with Walt Disney and conducting 'impossible' composers like Ives. What that gives us is a real sense of adventure. We'll make our name doing surprising things."

Whether this orchestra and the running of his magazine will suffice to absorb the high tide of Kaplan's newly-released energies remains to be seen. For the moment, at least, he admits to no further goals. He talks wistfully of his intention to study music ("I have built the roof, now I want to work on the foundations") and yearningly of the days and weeks spent alone in his attic with only Mahler's score for company. "Within minutes of entering the room, in whatever mood I happened to be, I would be transported." The trouble is, Gilbert Kaplan has made his dream come true. Whatever is he going to do now?