Saturday, April 2, 2016

For the Christian Review: Amateurs and Music

My comparison/contrast essay on Florence Foster Jenkins and Gilbert Kaplan has been posted on The Christian Review site:

From France and the USA/UK, two movies have been made recently about the same woman. The French movie, titled “Marguerite,” presents a fictionalized version of the story, while the U.S. film, starring Meryl Streep, is presented as a “biopic” titled simply “Florence Foster Jenkins,” with the explanatory subtitle, “The Inspiring Story of the World’s Worst Singer.” . . .

Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) loved music; she attended concerts and operas; she studied singing; she wanted to perform. She had the money and time to dedicate to the art of classical singing; to learn the languages and the arias; to pay her accompanist and to rent the concert hall.

The only problem: Florence Foster Jenkins could not sing on pitch. Or in rhythm. Or even with proper diction. There was indeed a medical problem as her husband had, like Isak Dinesen’s, given her syphilis. Nevertheless, she fulfilled her dreams of singing on stage.

The two movies examine this story to depict what happens when someone so self-deluded takes the delusion public. It’s one thing to sing the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” in the shower (you’ll swallow lots of water!), another to sing it on stage at Carnegie Hall. Sample her efforts at singing Mozart here. . . . .

Perhaps a counter-balance to her story is Gilbert Kaplan’s fascination and dedication to Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection.” Kaplan, who died at the age of 74 on January 1, 2016, followed the same path as Mrs. Jenkins—but as a conductor.

He earned his money on Wall Street in financial publishing and went to a performance of Mahler’s Second conducted by Leopold Stokowski in 1965; it changed his life. With money enough and time, he studied the score; he learned how to conduct; he traveled around the world to hear live performances of Mahler’s massive symphony: five movements; 90 minutes long; 100 piece orchestra; large choir; soloists; offstage brass and percussion—and an organ!

Then he conducted the Mahler Second Symphony with several world-class symphony orchestras, recorded it twice, and still continued to study it. There was quite a debate among critics and even symphony orchestra musicians whether or not he truly conducted the performances or what he contributed to the interpretation of the masterpiece.

But Kaplan’s dedication bore great fruit and he became known as a specialist on the “Resurrection” Symphony. He purchased the autograph manuscript and published a facsimile, co-editing the latest critical edition of the symphony. Kaplan never accepted a fee for his conducting engagements and limited them to three outings with the Second Symphony annually, the only work he conducted in public, although he did record the “Adagietto” from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. When the Vienna Philharmonic, which Mahler conducted, invites you to conduct and records the results, you have succeeded.

Read the rest there, of course.

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