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Eschenbach and NSO: maiden voyage

In today's Washington Post: Eschenbach conducts awful vocal quartet in NSO Verdi Requiem, by Anne Midgette.

By Anne Midgette  |  March 12, 2010; 8:46 AM ET
Categories:  Washington  
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Alas, I am afraid that I agree though perhaps not as strenuously as Anne portrayed her disappointment. I noticed too that Nikitin seemed to be a Hz or two short of perfect pitch, but mostly in the Confutatis and I wondered if this was deliberate in an attempt to give an edge to the music. I did like Fujimura. She was a little weak for the first few measures, but soon was at her stride, forceful and dramatic. I liked it. I also liked some unusual combinations of voice and instruments that seemed new and fresh to me. I found the mixing of the voices in the chorus interesting as well, rather than separating the altos, sopranos, etc., into sections. I had not seen this before and wondered why it was decided to position the chorus this way. I also agree with Anne's more positive statements about the concert. The audience clearly loved it, with a lot of cheering and a wild roar of approval for the chorus in particular. I had hoped to see Jauvon Gilliam in his first series concert with the NSO but he was positioned in my obstructed view. With the Verdi Requiem however, the bass drum is the star of the percussion.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | March 12, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Welcome to Washington, Mr. Eschenbach. Just want you to know who the real music director in this town is so you can get used to it early. She writes for the Washington Post, an important institution in Washington, like the NSO. She'll review your concerts, and she'll call 'em like she sees 'em. She'll call your soloists an "awful" quartet of "ugly bridesmaids" as a way of demeaning them, and you. She knows how the Verdi Requiem is to be performed. There are no two ways. Do you know that your emotional approach to this work came "at the expense of its structure" and your phrasing battered the confines of "proper phrasing"? You better not do that again. Who do you think you are, Mr. Eschenbach? A trained, world- class musician?

Seriously, Ms. Midgette, after reading your review, I was horrified. I had, as part of my season subscription, tickets for Friday's performance and was considering not going or wearing a bag over my head in shame. Well, I went. And while the soloists may not have been the very best I ever heard, they were far from "awful." Indeed, it was a wonderful evening of very powerful, well-presented music. Eschenbach's spiritual approach to the Requiem was beautiful, maybe not the way you would prefer it, but beautiful. Certainly, the audience was pleased, as evidenced by an immediate and prolonged standing ovation.

Which leads me to ask, by what standard do you judge this performance? I want to know? Did you come in with very high expectations that went unmet? Is there some textbook or industry standard for the Requiem from which Eschenbach strayed?

More importantly, the NSO and the Post are important institutions in this town. The Post critic has a job to do, and that job is not to be a flack for the NSO, even when they are debuting their new music director, a significant event to the NSO. But, the critic also has a duty to be fair. The review you wrote was brutal, harsh and demeaning. It was the buzz of appalled concert goers prior to the Friday performance. Frankly, this type of review demeans you, in my eyes, because it was so uncalled for. I assume that you have the substantive background to be a music critic. You are also a journalist at the Washington Post, and you should know how to say that this was not, in your view, a great performance of the Requium without the snarky invective that undermines another important institution like the NSO. It really does seem like you were marking your territory so that the new guy knows that you're around. Hardly a high-class thing for the Post, or you, to do.

Posted by: esfesq | March 13, 2010 12:14 AM | Report abuse

Ms Midgette, I have trouble believing you were even present at the concert. The trumpets (except the ones you correctly noted in the balcony) were clearly visible onstage the whole time in the middle of the rest of the orchestra, not "offstage" as you claim. Why put something like that in your review anyway, but particularly if it's not even true?

More importantly, why spend so little time on the orchestra and chorus? Your audience isn't like to hear these soloists again anytime soon, whereas the orchestra and chorus are here to stay. It's one thing to be appalled by soloists, but it's another to forsake your responsibility as a concert reviewer in order to turn what could have been a real review into a rant about some soloists.

Posted by: fireflydragon | March 13, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I can neither agree nor disagree with Ms. Midgette's assessment of this concert (I wasn't there), but I can say that it's most refreshing to read a classical music critic writing today (one who does indeed have "the substantive background [necessary] to be a [classical] music critic" for a major metropolitan daily) who speaks her mind without pulling her punches.

Most encouraging.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | March 13, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

We really shouldn't be perplexed by this notice. Ms. Midgette's reviews of the NSO have long evolved into a quality that can only be classified as notoriously inane. Her reviewing style involves some basic and predictable elements. She alternately 1) compares NSO performances to something better she once saw at Avery Fisher Hall or Tanglewood or some other place during her youth or salad days -- anyplace other than the Kennedy Center, or 2) she compares the execution of the performance to some well-known and easily accessible historical context of the composer's intent or the framing mood of the period in which it was written, or 3) she picks on some section of musicians or soloist in the orchestra for their perceived lack of fluidity, intonation, appropriate phrasing or somesuch thing -- as if the Thursday night rendition by the musician(s) will somehow magically be exactly reproduced during the next two performances. There are a few more but I'm growing weary just trying to recall them. One of her "go-to" hackneyed techniques involves some snarky attack such as this with a dash of "I'm smarter than you" thrown in just to convince the reader that, well, she is.

A couple of years back my wife and I -- both donors and season ticket holders -- were finally relieved with a piano solo performance in which we could actually hear the piano. It's not an uncommon problem for the ensemble to drown out the soloist, particularly in complex or delicate elements of a piece but this particular performance had no such examples. Months later, we hired a piano tuner who, as it turned out, had been the piano technician for the performance in question. His technique that contributed to the piano standing out is not important to this story but he did reveal one thing about the Thursday night performance. He told us that Ms. Midgette came up to him during the intermission asking why the piano was so loud. Sure enough, this particular issue was the major theme of Ms. Midgette's review in the Post for that Thursday night. As another poster suggested, I suppose the piano just didn't fit into her concept of what the performance was supposed to sound like -- at least according another one of her weird historical benchmarks and standards. To be fair, she sometimes is critical when the soloist is overpowered but she really is easily distracted by some strange issues and makes them the foundation on which she builds her creaky review.

The standard-bearer for critical reviews in this paper is Tom Shales, hands down. When she becomes annoyingly snarky like this I have long believed it is because Ms. Midgette fancies herself the Washington arts scene's version of Tom Shales. The key difference, however, is that Mr. Shales' most critical reviews are usually leavened with a strong dose of hilarity and good fun. Ms. Midgette seems to miss the point of that. She is more akin to the local music scene's Mother Superior -- ready with the literary equivalent of the slap of a ruler across the hand for any transgression that sets her off on that particular Thursday.

She often seems to miss the point of the art of reviewing altogether. I never believe she does justice to an entire performance but only focuses on whatever sliver that has annoyed her at a given moment during the night. I agree that it is not her position to be a shill or a flack for the NSO, nor to make season ticket holders and donors like us feel confident and secure in our decision to support this organization. Suggesting, however, in this case that the Music Director Designate purposely went out of his way to select soloists who were "awful" in an effort to make his maiden voyage seem transcendent or something is once again incredibly inane.

I suppose this predictability is why these reviews (like this one) often don't appear in early editions of the paper or during the subsequent day's run. It's just not worth setting up the presses for them.

Posted by: Daniel703 | March 13, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

This review was unusually nasty in tone, and clearly designed to draw attention to the reviewer.

Regrettably, Ms. Midgette is unprepared to speak about what happens between the baton and the musician, why things sound good and why things go wrong.

The acoustics of the Kennedy Center stage, placing of the performers, the performers strengths and weaknesses, all conspire to make things beautiful or not so beautiful. Intonation problems can arise for a number of reasons. Stuttering instrumental entrances can also have several possible origins.

As a concert-goer, Ms. Midgette lacks the experience to decipher the reasons. She is captivated by various anomalies in the performance and believes that her impressions need to be recorded as a headline.

Posted by: dogcatdogcat | March 14, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Unlike Anne Midgette's (and her husband, UFO expert, Greg Sandow's) blogging buddy ACDouglas, I actually attended the National Symphony Orchestra performance of the Verdi Requiem under its distinguished new music director Christoph Eschenbach. And like the younger Alan Gilbert's performance of Berlioz's 'Symphonie Fantastique' with the New York Philharmonic last autumn, the performance of the Verdi Requiem by the NSO and its soloists and the Washington Chorus was not the total disaster that the bizarre Anne Midgette made it out to be, in my informed opinion.

I strongly disagree with ACDouglas that Ms. Midgette has "the substantive background [necessary] to be a [classical] music critic" for a major metropolitan daily." She was neither a music major in university, nor a successful performing artist in her own right before she decided, in mid-life, that she wanted to be a classical music critic.

Rather than being a refreshing part-time asset to the Nation's Capital, she is increasingly becoming an embarrassment to our city and region.

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 15, 2010 12:36 AM | Report abuse

There was no need to be as mean as you were in your review. You can say the work needs world class Verdi singers, which these singers weren't, without being ugly and demeaning. I was there the night you were and I think your review was way off the mark in terms of the quality and success of the overall performance.
Please, give yourself and the rest of us a break and give up reviewing the work since you clearly are unable to be objective about it.

Posted by: c-clef | March 15, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Hi, Anne. I enjoyed reading your comments about the NSO's recent Verdi Requiem. There was one comment, however, that I didn't understand - "...trumpets kept offstage except for one grouping in an upper balcony...". There were four trumpets in the upper balcony that played only in the Dies Irae and four trumpets onstage that played throughout the piece. There were no other offstage trumpets. Could you please explain? Thanks.

Posted by: moderator | March 16, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

"There was one comment [in the review], however, that I didn't understand - '...trumpets kept offstage except for one grouping in an upper balcony....'"

Does this slight rewording of the sentence (Sorry, Anne!) make what Ms. Midgette wrote more clear?

"Still, the intensity of the strong moments, like the roar and drum-kick of Judgment Day, with its grouping of four raucous trumpets kept offstage and placed instead in an upper balcony, showed a commitment that is a good thing to have at the start of what one hopes will be a beautiful relationship."


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | March 16, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Sitting in the front of the upper center balcony for this Verdi performance, unlike our normal orchestra level seats, we were able clearly to see the four trumpeters in the front of the upper left balcony tier, as well as the massed brass on stage right.

Some confusion as to use of off-stage trumpets may have stemmed from the placement of a small boxy mounted video camera on the far left side of the orchestra stage. However, the conductor clearly communicated with the upper balcony trumpeters by partially turning and leading them, and not through the use of video. (Was the new NSO conductor's graceful hand and body movements being beamed to the high school and other tour groups visiting the huge Presidential Memorial Lobby? Not a bad idea, I think, to offer the visiting students, taxpayers, and foreign guests some virtual, 'live' classical performance art. It need not interfere with the free Millennium Stage presentations.)

Also, from our seats, I was able tremendously to enjoy the wonderful balletic classical musicianship of the new NSO timpanist Jauvon Gilliam, especially in the opening movements. I agree that the bass drum had an equally starring role, especially as the work went on. Interestingly (to me), I don't believe that the timpani and the bass drum could see one another, the bass drum being set back to the side of the chorister risers.

There was much to celebrate that evening, despite the mixed sadness of the choice that evening of a powerful Western Requiem Mass.

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 17, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

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