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Music David Kaplan: A teacher who bridged worlds through music

David Kaplan, seen in 1962, sought to make music inclusive.

The Saskatoon StarPhoenix/Saskatchewan Archives Board

The man who introduced world music to Saskatoon and Saskatoon to the musical world hadn't heard of the city when he received a job offer from the University of Saskatchewan. David Kaplan, a Chicagoan, wasn't intimidated by reports of cold temperatures and endless wheat fields and instead saw Saskatoon as a land of musical opportunity, so he took the job.

Prof. Kaplan moved there for a two-year position at the University of Saskatchewan's college of education in 1960 and ended up staying for life. Along the way, he happily became a catalyst to many kinds of music making.

After founding the University of Saskatchewan's Department of Music, he served as its head from 1966 to 1982, introducing new programs such as BAs in music and music education and graduate degrees in music education and music arts. As a professor, he taught courses in music history, theory and world music. Prof. Kaplan, who died at his home in Saskatoon on April 6 at 91, also conducted the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, founded Zmarim: the Saskatoon Klezmer Band and was an avid collector of musical instruments.

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"Over the course of many years, when he travelled, whether he was on sabbatical or on vacation, wherever he went, he would come back with instruments from different places," says Prof. Glen Gillis, interim head of the music department and a former student of Prof. Kaplan's. Prof. Kaplan donated his personal collection of almost 200 instruments to the University of Saskatchewan in early 2013. The exhibit opened with a gala and went on permanent display in the music department.

David Leon Kaplan was born in Chicago on Dec. 12, 1923. He grew up in a musical family. His father, Joshua Samuel, who played euphonium in a Russian army band, eventually settled in Chicago, where he played in brass bands and became a general practitioner. His mother, Nettie (née Lurie), born in Lithuania, was a piano student.

Young David took piano lessons in grade school but migrated to the clarinet in high school, where he joined the band and discovered his love of music. He wrote his first symphony at 14.

He served in the U.S. military during the Second World War, from 1942 until 1946, playing in a Special Services branch under the command of Major Wayne King, known as the Waltz King of America. Prof. Kaplan credited his wartime service for exposing him to new musicians and new musical styles, including jazz.

Following the war, he enrolled in premed at Roosevelt University, in Chicago, initially planning to follow in his father's footsteps. But he quickly found himself spending more time on music than on his medical studies. With his father's blessing, he switched his major to music.

He received his BA in music from Roosevelt University in 1948 and his master's in music from Oberlin College, in Ohio, in 1950. He taught music in Chicago, rural Illinois and West Texas State University before moving to Saskatoon.

"He brought a spark that ignited the musical climate on campus, at the symphony, in the klezmer band and in the broader community and province," says Brian Unverricht, a former student, fellow musician and colleague of Prof. Kaplan's.

A number of organizations benefited from Prof. Kaplan's involvement, including the Canadian Music Council, the Canadian Music Centre, the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the Nutana Rotary Club and the Saskatoon Multicultural Council. He was founding chair of the Saskatchewan Music Council in 1967.

Prof. Kaplan conducted the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, a professional 60-piece orchestra, from 1963 to 1969 and again from 1970 to 1971. He also composed music for plays and musical productions, and wrote books on the clarinet and music education.

Nearly three decades after completing his master's, Prof. Kaplan received a PhD in music from Indiana University in 1978. His thesis examined stylistic trends in small woodwind ensembles between 1750 and 1825.

Always one to make music an inclusive experience, Prof. Kaplan co-founded the Saskatoon Festival of Faith, which is now in its 30th year. The event brings together people of different faiths, including aboriginals, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others, to express their spiritual traditions through speech, music and dance. He was the festival's music director from 1985 to 1989 and wrote five choral works on multicultural themes.

During this same period, an impromptu jam session at a bar mitzvah at the Congregation Agudas Israel synagogue led Prof. Kaplan to found Zmarim: the Saskatoon Klezmer Band. He went on to write more than 200 arrangements for the ensemble and to inspire the organization of another klezmer band at Walter Murray Collegiate, a public high school in southeastern Saskatoon. The inaugural Saskatoon Klezmer Music Festival was held in November, 2007.

"He believed that we should be open-minded and use music as a way to connect with people, including people of other cultures," Prof. Gillis says. As a music educator, performer, composer, musicologist and ethnomusicologist, Prof. Kaplan influenced countless musicians and music teachers and shaped the reputation of the Department of Music at the University of Saskatchewan, Prof. Gillis recalled.

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Prof. Gerald Langner, a past music department head and former student of Prof. Kaplan, remembers a "remarkable man … whose vision, energy, wisdom, insight, compassion, as well as his wit and sense of humour left an indelible mark upon, and example for, all of us who were fortunate to be his students during a very formative time in our lives. His profound influence guided my professional career and continues to the present day."

Prof. Kaplan, whose messy office had an internal logic and whose handwriting required an advanced code breaker, was seriously funny and whenever possible he used humour to get his message across.

"You knew you were in his good books," Prof. Gillis recalls, "when you could tease him back. As an undergraduate, I attended faculty recitals where Prof. Kaplan performed on his clarinet for the music students. At that time we could eat our lunch during the noon-hour recitals. Immediately after his recital I had a lesson with him in his office. As I was warming up on my instrument he entered with some lunch in hand and gave me that typical Prof. Kaplan look with a grunt and remarked,'You mean to tell me I have to eat and hold down my lunch while listening to you play?' And I answered, 'Well, I had to do it when listening to you.' He looked at me and said 'Well, okay. That seems fair.'"

Prof. Kaplan was predeceased by his first wife, Harriett (née Shapero), who died in 1991. He leaves his wife, Susanne Micheaux Kaplan; three children, Edward, Sarah and Jonathan; five granddaughters; one great-granddaughter; and two stepchildren.

For his contributions to the musical life of his province, Prof. Kaplan received numerous honours, including the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal, the Saskatchewan Order of Merit and induction into the Order of Canada. In 2009, he was named ambassador of the Canadian Music Centre in recognition of his life's work. Kaplan Green, in Arbor Creek, a residential neighbourhood in northeast Saskatoon, was named in his honour. He retired from the University of Saskatchewan's music department in 1991.

A tribute concert was held in 2004 to celebrate Prof. Kaplan's life and work. The following year, he held a concert series to showcase the Jewish experience in music. In 2009, the Saskatoon Composers' Performance Society, which he co-founded, created the annual David L. Kaplan Concert Series, which brings together the city's diverse music and cultures.

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