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China Syndrome

On the Website of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, I talk about the China trip.

Edited to add:
Someone belatedly drew my attention to OperaChic's post on this momentous event, which I thought was too funny to leave unremarked.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 24, 2009; 5:24 PM ET
Categories:  Washington , music on the Web  
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I did not see this particular interview but I did read the series of articles you wrote from China. I must note that in general I find your reviews often gratuitiously harsh, especially when it comes to the NSO. Your description of the group as a "decent" orchestra does them and your readers a disservice. Having recently traveled to Chicago to hear Haitink conduct the Bruckner's 8th with the CSO and then to Philadelphia to hear Rattle conduct the same piece; I would never confuse the CSO and PO with the NSO. Clearly these Orchestras, particularly the CSO play with a greater sense of unity and with superior 1st desk chairs. The power of the CSO in such music remains as impressive today as it did 30 years ago when I was a student at U.of Chicago during the Solti, Guilini, and Abaddo era! Nonetheless, with the right conductor the NSO has the talent to produce first rate performances. The lower string section on a good night can compete with the best in the world. The violins have improved immensely and the first trumpet player is truly magnificent. Recent performances such as the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra under Fischer, show that the NSO can play on an exalted level; a level unattianable by a "decent orchestra." It is true that the orchestra has been rudderless for a while and let us hope Eschenbach will raise them to new heights. In sum, while I am totally against home town boosterism, I believe that the NSO is a lot better orchestra than one would think based soley on your reviews. I might also note that while harsh criticism is certainly justifiable on occaision and some of the great music critics could do so with much elan; I find a certain lack of joy and love of the art form in much of your writing. I am sure it is there, but too often it gets buried in your demolition of that review's target.

Posted by: commenter4 | June 24, 2009 10:48 PM | Report abuse

I must disagree. Anne Midgette is the most intelligent and perceptive music critic I've read in a very long time. (Having seen the interview on the PBS web site, I realize she is also beautiful.) She does not suffer mediocrity gladly, which is all to the good of her audience. The NSO is a second-rate orchestra, but one does not need to pretend it is not, in order to enjoy what is worthwhile about their performances-- unmediated live music is good for the soul regardless of the ranking of the musicians. However, rather than calling Anne harsh, we should be grateful for her tough love and for her efforts to help get the music culture out of its apparatchik mentality.

Posted by: gauthier310 | June 25, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

I recommend the following to the two posters above. It comes from Tim Page, former critic of the Post.

Commenter4 may find the following paragraph particularly relevant to the incumbent:

Yet the reviewer does not work in a vacuum. What is published will have an effect, and words should be chosen with the utmost care. It's all a question of degree — one can say anything one wants, but the tone should be adapted to suit the circumstances. If the concert has been less than satisfactory, there are ways of getting that across without mockery or condescension, without making a liar of oneself, but without being unnecessarily cruel.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | June 25, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

I take the defense of Ms. Midgette seriously and thought the gauthier310 response was very thoughtful. I would just add that for me the critic I most enjoy reading is Ms. Midgette's former colleague; Anthony Tommasini. He seems to find almost the perfect balance between criticsm of the performer and educating the reader about the music without undue harshness or over analysis of the music. The love and joy of music pervades his writing. I invariably come away from his reviews more knowledgeable about the music performed as well as the performance itself. I am a serious amateur musician and having beein reading music criticsm since I was in junior high. So this subject is of more than passing interest. In the end though I will note that appreciation of art and music criticsm as well as the music being performed is a subjective act and we can disagree in a mutually respectable manner

Posted by: commenter4 | June 25, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, can't agree. Anthony Tommasini is one of the most dishonest charlatans who ever written about music, second only to his former colleague Bernard Holland.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 25, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

I am rather shocked at the comment about Tommasini. I would be curious at to what the reasons for such a strong reaction. What about Alan Kozin or the previous chief critic Donald Honehan. Just to stir the pot, I would like to give praise to Alex Ross whose book "The Rest is Noise" is fabulous.

Posted by: commenter4 | June 25, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Allan Kozinn is the best critic currently on the staff of New York Times and I also like Alex Ross. I am not familiar with Donald Honehan. I actually like James R. Oestreich as well from the Times staff.

Of course, when I want to have fun I read Olin Downes' old articles...

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 25, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Nothing seems to stir passions as much as music critics. I find myself in the Anne Midgette camp with the possible exception of contemporary music which she likes very much and in which I find little to enjoy, as interesting as it may be. I am also critical of people who call the NSO second rate. I know quite a few. Sometimes the NSO plays better than others, but I have recently been able to compare the Philadelphia performance of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Danses with the NSO's and found I preferred the latter. Notice the word "prefer." Who can say which one is better other than hitting the right notes and playing in synch? For those who dislike the NSO, I wish you could have heard them 36 years ago when I began subscribing. Finally, I find my enjoyment of the NSO concerts enhanced by reading Ms. Midgette's review the following morning, whether I agree or not. I usually learn something. I enjoyed the interview and was glad to learn how to pronounce Midgette.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | June 27, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

I like Tim Page, because of the "harsh" words he used in reviewing NSO concerts. When news was announced that Midgette would fill Page's role, i was not sure about it.

My concern was alleviated, after Midgette's first few reviews of NSO concerts came out.

I happen to attend each of NSO'S production twice, at my own expence. So, i do not think anyone can question my loyalty or love for the NSO. My opinions coincided with hers on those concerts.

On the harshness:
Recall: Midgette came from NYC. By definition, she should apply a higher standard to our beloved NSO. If she does not, i would be worried (not to mention insulted).

On the other hand, i actually noticed that sometimes, Midgette can be quite forgiving. e.g., NSO played Mozart's piano cto no. 25, Markel conducting/Ohlsson piano. It was one of the worst i have ever heard. A month ago, i heard Barvarian Radio SO playing it in NYC, Jansons conducting/Ax piano, and a couple years back, the Cleveland, Uchida conducting from the keyboard in Cleveland, Ohio.

I remember that the NSO played this piece at the season opening under Slatkin (Ax, piano). Even then, it was better (by my standard).

So, i guess, i am trying to prove (and concur with those who believe) that NSO can do better than it does oftentimes, when in capable hands and not stressed out. e.g., based on my first-hand experience, i can even say that the NSO tied with the Cleveland and outshone the San Francisco SO in performing Mozart's Prague symphony. But in general, the Cleveland it is not.

Does that automatically mean that we love it less? No. Neither does it mean that Midgette is obligated to upgrade her rating of the NSO, when the rendition does not call for it. Speaking of harshness, I would like to Robert Batty as a critical reviewer of the Post nonetheless.

On the review articles she so timely authored for us from Asia:
I was not there. But, if the performance quality was not to our liking, i think it is totally justified. Recall: They had huge jetlags, not to mention language barriers/ cultural shocks. (Specifically, i do not think most of them were seasoned travelers, prepared to deal with the trans-pacific jetlags, the minute they boarded the plane. Recall: Their last tour in Asia was 10 years ago. Moreover, many players were hired after their previous China tour. ) All of those translate into stress, which would affect any players' ability.

I can attest to this, because i often travel out of town for concerts. i do not have cultural or language barriers to deal with, and i still get stressed out, to varying degrees.
On NY Times critique Tommasini:
I liked him. His negative critique of the Cleveland’s performance at the Carnegie Hall season opening a few years ago (Mozart’s piano cto no. 17) under Wesler-Most was on the money. I can say that because I was there and also because I happened to hear the Cleveland playing it three days before that at their home base, Severance Hall. It was much better then.

Posted by: fleurfo | June 28, 2009 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Donal Henahan was a mean hack, well forgotten. I think Tommasini is pretty fine, as is Kozinn. I think Anne and Phil Kennicott are the best of the bunch, however, and only wish that the Post still sent people to more world events that didn't include the National Symphony. Page used to report from New York, and even lived there for a while after he came to the Post. That was a little much but it was good to hear about the Met now and then.

Posted by: musiconly | June 29, 2009 7:36 AM | Report abuse

Let's however point out that, while generally speaking the NSO may not be the best of American orchestras, its level is nonetheless more than respectable. To compare, I remember a few years ago when I listened to Strauss Daphne with Renee Fleming and WDR Orchestra of Koln under Semyon Bychkov. I can tell you that I was longing for the NSO.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 29, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

I am glad I started such a lively and engaging discussion about music criticism. It has certainly brought to light how viscerally indiviudals react to music performance and the the art of music criticsm. Using written language to describe one's technical and emotional reaction to the performance of the most abstract form of artistic expression in bound to lead to differing point of views.
Nonehteless, I still find some of Midgette's reviews puzzling as in today's review of the Meesian performance which states

"Hardy, who plays with rich warmth, sounded a little out of his element with Messiaen's long, almost sexless notes"

As a neighbor of his who often sees his wife walking the family dog, I intend to discreetly ask her about her husband's inability to produce "sexless notes" on demand.

Posted by: commenter4 | June 30, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

RE: China Tour

Everyone interested in learning more about Midgette's China Tour is encouraged to view the interview link she provided in her blog thread at the top of this page.

Without currying favor, I would like to concur with the other poster who thinks Midgette is good-looking. Should I add that the head portrait used by the Post on this page does not do her justice: the shape or the color.

Posted by: fleurfo | July 3, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

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