Abraham Kaplan was an Israeli-born American composer. He was born in Tel Aviv in 1931. His grandfather had been a highly respected cantor in Europe, and his father, Shlomo Kaplan, was among Israel’s most noted conductors of synagogue and community choirs. Starting from the age of six or seven, young Abe sang soprano, and later bass-baritone, in his father’s ensembles. During his compulsory military service he directed choirs in nearby kibbutzim, composing arrangements of popular songs in his head and teaching them to the choir by rote. He eventually undertook study at the Israeli Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem, where he soon became director of both the conservatory chorus and the professional Kol Israel Radio Chorus. He prepared both the Radio Chorus and the chorus of the Jerusalem Academy (where he also taught) for the premiere of Darius Milhaud’s opera David in 1954.
That summer he participated in the Aspen Music Festival and School, where he studied composition with Milhaud and conducting with William Steinberg. After Aspen he proceeded to advanced studies at the Juilliard School in New York. Upon completing his studies in 1957, he returned to Israel. The President of Juilliard, William Schuman, convinced a reluctant Kaplan to leave his homeland again and to become Director of Choral Music at Juilliard in 1961.
Career in New York
Kaplan immediately embraced New York’s broader choral community, becoming director of the Collegiate Chorale (1961–73) and the Symphonic Choral Society of New York (1968–77). In 1961 he founded a professional choir, the Camerata Singers. He prepared these ensembles for dozens of performances with the New York Philharmonic, developing a close working relationship with Leonard Bernstein. He prepared the choirs for premiere performances of Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony and Chichester Psalms.
Abraham’s collaborators in New York were a compendium of the greatest conductors of the era, including Leopold Stokowski, Charles Munch, Rafael Kubelik, George Szell, George Solti, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Sir Neville Marriner, and Seiji Ozawa. He also worked with many composers on performances of their own works, most notably Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Randall Thompson, Vincent Persichetti, and Zoltán Kodály. Kaplan appeared as a guest conductor with the NBC Symphony, San Francisco Opera, the Israel Philharmonic, and various other ensembles in the United States, Canada, and Israel. Many of these experiences are recounted in his memoir, Splendid Encounters, published in 2009.
In the early 1970s, Kaplan recorded some of his own works. This marked the beginning of his first dedicated efforts in composition since his student years. The result was the album Glorious, sung by the Camerata Singers and released in 1974. Other large-scale works for chorus and orchestra soon followed: Arvit Leshabat (Sabbath Eve Service, 1977), Psalms of Abraham (1979), Crystal Cathedral Psalms (1980), and the K’dusha Symphony (1982). He composed a fanfare for the first visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the United States in 1983, for which occasion he conducted the Camerata Singers. All of his major works have been recorded, including the Psalms of Abraham by the Vienna Choir Boys in 2000.
Career in Seattle
In 1977, Kaplan left his post at Juilliard to become Director of Choral Music at the University of Washington in Seattle. His efforts as a pedagogue continued with the publication of Choral Conducting (1985), which quickly became the most widely used college textbook on the subject. He also served as Associate Conductor for Choral Activities at the Seattle Symphony (1995–2000). In 2004, he retired from his university post to devote himself exclusively to composition. Among his recent works are Eight Days of Chanukah (2010), The Song of Songs (2013), and Lincolnesque (2015).
Later in life
In early 2020, Kaplan moved to Baltimore, MD. He enjoyed the proximity to his son and his grandchildren, and did not resign to a quiet life-- Kaplan continued writing and produced an oratorio entitled "Neither Shall They Learn War Anymore", and set several of his favorite poems to song. He moved back to Tel Aviv in 2022 as he wished to be surrounded by his mother tongue and culture while he continued writing music.
Abraham Kaplan passed away peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by loved ones in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, the 6th of September, 2023. His obituary in the Seattle Times can be found here.
Among Abraham Kaplan’s students at Juilliard were:
Abraham Kaplan’s students in Seattle included:
Glenn Gregg, conductor of Kirkland Choral Society
Fredrick Lokken, conductor of Bellevue Chamber Chorus
Loren Pontén, conductor of Opus 7
Past commissions include:
Arvit Leshabat (1977)
Psalms of Abraham (1979)
Crystal Cathedral Psalms (1980)
The K’dusha Symphony (1982)
RECENTLY PUBLISHED: A retrospective by Jewish In Seattle (ed. Emily Elhadeff) was published in their June-July 2018 issue, and is available with their kind permission: The Maestro Among Us (PDF, 3MB) by Tova Gannana. Also available from the Jewish In Seattle website.
with Lorin Maazel
with Igor Stravinsky
with Seiji Ozawa
with Leonard Bernstein
“To Abraham Kaplan
with deep appreciation and best wishes,
Patricia Nixon Richard Nixon”