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This is a story about a man who had a dream and the money to make it come true.

One morning in 1981, Gilbert Kap-lan, on the verge of 40, woke up, looked in the mirror and decided that, finally, he had to conduct Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony. Now, millions of people have, at some point in their lives, lingered over fantasies of standing before a world-class orchestra, creating glorious sounds with the mere wave of a baton.But Mahler's Second, the "Resurrection Symphony," goes a bit beyond the standard daydream. The scope alone would make most Walter Mittys of the concert hall feel faint: 139 instruments, a 200-voice choir, five movements lasting at least 80 minutes in all. And the subject matter! Nothing less than the basic conundrums of human existence: Why are we put on Earth, what happens after death, what is the meaning of life?

Reports of Mahler's premiere performance tell of "grown men weeping and youths falling on each other's necks." Mahler himself told a friend, "Never again will I attain such depths and heights," and he compared the work to Beethoven's "Ninth," Goethe's "Faust" and Dante's "Divine Comedy."

Furthermore, Kaplan had no formal training in music beyond the obligatory three years of piano lessons in his boyhood. He could barely read a score. Nor was his family particularly musical, unless one counts his brother, who, under the name Joe Brooks, wrote the Debby Boone pop tune "You Light Up My Life."

But by early autumn, Kaplan had studied and rehearsed the first movement of Mahler's Second with the New York-based American Symphony Orchestra. A year and 12 rehearsals later, in September 1982, he conducted the entire work before a private audience at Avery Fisher Hall in New York's Lincoln Center, in a performance described by one attending critic as "one of the five or six most profoundly realized Mahler Seconds . . . in a quarter-century."

Last year, he recorded it with the London Symphony Orchestra on an album that rose to No. 1 on the classical charts in England, hit No. 10 in the States and earned lavish praise from critics besides, one reviewer in Ovation magazine calling it "the benchmark against which all other performances will now be measured."

This unlikely saga had its vague beginnings 24 years ago, when Kaplan was pulling down $15,000 a year as an economist on the American Stock Exchange. "A friend of mine invited me to go to a rehearsal of the American Symphony Orchestra," Kaplan remembered. "It was Leopold Stokowski conducting Mahler's Second. I'd listened to music all the time, but I'd never heard Mahler's music. There were a lot of starts and stops - it was a rehearsal. I never got a sense of it. But it intrigued me. I kept hearing the music in my mind."

He bought a ticket and went back for the evening's performance. "And that was it. Zeus threw the bolt of lightning. I walked out of that hall a different person. I felt some abstract but very emotional attachment to that music. There's been nothing that put me in orbit the way this did."

Eighteen months later, quite by coincidence, Kaplan got the idea to start a magazine and, with it, defined a new profession. His kernel of insight: There were portfolio managers in banks, insurance companies, trust funds and other disparate institutions who had more in common with one another than with the businesses that employed them - and yet had no means of communicating with one another.

Within six issues, the magazine, called Institutional Investor, was in the black. Within two years, Gilbert Kaplan made his first million dollars. He was 27 years old - the same age, incidentally, at which Mahler began his Second Symphony.

The magazine now boasts 150,000 subscribers in 140 countries and has branched into an empire with newsletters, books and international conferences. The enterprise has grown an average of 35 percent in each of the past 10 years. Annual sales total $45 million.

Four years ago, Kaplan sold it all to Capital Cities Communication, which also owns ABC. The price, his friends say, was $78 million (a sum that Kaplan, who remains the magazine's publisher and CEO, neither confirms nor denies).

Mahler's Second had never quite left Kaplan's mind, but it never quite occupied it, either. Then approached the ominous 40, and suddenly the symphony loomed very large.

Even now, Kaplan can't quite figure out why the Second triggered such an obsession. The themes of the piece - death, epiphany, resurrection, the meaning of life - don't resonate deeply in his soul.

"I'm not a religious person," he said, sitting in his spacious 14th-floor Madison Avenue office, its walls chocked with surrealist paintings, the window filled with a spectacularly peaceful view of St. Patrick's Cathedral. "I can't say these questions occupy an important part of my thinking. I pretty much - as I have since my teen-age years - look at life with a view of, you know, `That's pretty much how things are."'

Kaplan had always had cultural inclinations - attending concerts, museums, the opera - and his financial standing won him a seat on the board of directors of Carnegie Hall. He started asking some of his friends in those circles how he might go about learning the art of conducting. "I was given discouraging advice," he recalled, "understandably. They said it was insane. They were right, of course. It was.

"I tried to read a book on conducting and couldn't understand it, though I consoled myself with the thought that if I tried to read a book on tying a shoelace, I probably couldn't understand that, either."

Finally Kaplan was introduced to a young conductor, recently out of the Juilliard School of Music, named Charles Bornstein, who later directed the Newfoundland Symphony. "My idea at the time was to give myself a test," Kaplan said. "I didn't want to give up the idea at all, but I'm not a fool. I don't do reckless things. I don't go off to climb mountains or, you know. So my proposal was to spend 30 days together in East Hampton (N.Y.), where I had a house and where we would see what we could accomplish."

This was in August 1981. Kaplan and Bornstein concentrated just on the symphony's first movement, only 22 minutes but a conductor's nightmare, a zigzag of tempo changes, some quite ambiguous, others awesomely sudden. They worked every day, nine hours a day, listening to recordings, sitting at the piano, going over the score, learning one bar at a time, putting it together.

After the 30 days, Kaplan rented Carnegie Hall and all the musicians of the American Symphony Orchestra for a rehearsal. "I can't say it was the most wonderful music ever made," he remembered, "but I did get through it. The musicians encouraged it. They didn't know how long I'd been doing it. They thought I'd been trying a couple years."

Bolstered by the experience, Kaplan vowed to attend every performance of Mahler's Second everywhere in the world over the next year. He tied his travels in with his magazine's business. In Tokyo, for instance, he interviewed the head of the central bank and then attended a rehearsal of Seiji Ozawa and the New Japan Philharmonic.

He continued to work at Institutional Investor from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and spent his early mornings and evenings poring over the symphony, bar by bar. Gradually, Kaplan, who looks a little like Mahler crossed with Woody Allen, arrived at the conclusion that he had a spooky connection with this music.

"I'd listened to a lot of recordings," he said. "I thought I had some clear ideas about what I liked and didn't like, how I would shape the piece with my own stamp. But what I discovered was that virtually every idea that I had turned out to be Mahler's idea, very clearly marked in the score. What I liked was what Mahler wanted.

"There is a connection between me and this music, and it is the driving force behind everything I've done," Kaplan said. After 12 rehearsals with the American Symphony, starting with his first-movement outing at Carnegie Hall in the fall of 1981, Kaplan's moment arrived.

Sept. 9, 1982. He threw a major bash at Lincoln Center, celebrating the 15th anniversary of Institutional Investor. The world's leading financiers were there. As a fitting climax, Kaplan led his 2,700 guests to Avery Fisher Hall, where he conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's Second, his first in public.

The story of the bizarre multimillionaire who conducted Mahler by memory got around, as did the triumphant reception of his debut. Carnegie Hall was next, in front of a disinterested, paying audience. Since then, he has conducted the piece in Frankfurt, West Germany; Tokyo; Stockholm, Sweden; London; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Budapest, Hungary, among other places, and the invitations continue to pour in.

What surprised Kaplan most about the entire experience was how difficult conducting is. First is the physical rigor. "It's hard to keep your hands up in the air for 80 minutes," he said. "Try holding a light bulb up for that long."

Then there's the disconnected feel of the whole business. "There's no mechanical connection between you and the players. There's no way of really making anything happen, like there is by playing that instrument. You don't get exactly what you want."

"The hardest thing for a conductor to do is to get the orchestra started and to get the right tempo. In Mahler, he changes the tempo every few bars, which means you're constantly starting and stopping 100 people. In some passages, Mahler tells you to move faster unnoticeably."

But all this is nothing compared with putting together the elements in a coherent whole, making it exciting, combining the notes on the page with the players in the orchestra and somehow turning it into music.

Kaplan still calls the period between late 1981 and early 1982, when he learned the score to Mahler's Second Symphony, the most exciting year he has ever had. "When it was over, what I missed most about it was sitting alone in the attic out in the country, just alone with the score, seeing how this unbelievable music was notated in notes _ the idea of actually seeing how something so magical could be notated."

Kaplan will conduct Mahler's Second with any orchestra that asks him, and there have been more times than he had counted on when he first made the offer. He made a rule to stretch out the dates so he wouldn't have to conduct the piece more than three times a year ("because I always like to keep it fresh"), but this year he received so many invitations that he added a fourth ("because I never say no"). He refuses rather lavish fees, saying, "I don't consider myself a professional conductor, so I don't think I should be paid."

Still, the record should show that Kaplan has been studying Mahler's Third Symphony "pretty carefully" lately _ and the awesome Ninth as well. Does he plan to conduct them? "We'll see," he replied, adding cagily, "I don't have any intention to conduct them now. That's not my idea. Of course, I would like to conduct more, but not right now. I'm so pleased I'm accepted by musicians as one of the boys. I don't want to announce, `And now for my next work. . . . '

"And yet," he went on, his eyes wandering to some faraway plane, "conducting is addictive. When it's going smoothly and you're in real time and you're immersed in the sensuousness of the sound, it's an extraordinary experience to be able to shape, with your own body, musical poetry." Then his gaze returns to earth. "But, as I say, I don't feel I'm a conductor. I still barely read music."