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Fischer and Bach disappoint at NSO

In today's Washington Post: NSO performance at Kennedy Center falls short, by Anne Midgette.

* * *

And here, for reference, are some of the New York Times reviews about Fischer's recent Beethoven symphony project in New York City.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 2, 2010; 8:40 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , local reviews  
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I will strongly disagree with the Washington Post's current music critic. The NSO and chorus performance last night was technically very fine, and the chorus -- comprised of the cream of a local top national university's graduate and undergraduate School of Music students -- was excellent; better than in their performance of the Haydn oratorio "The Seasons" with the NSO last spring.

Interestingly, it was really not the orchestra and chorus that was lacking last night, but the relatively young group of four soloists (three new to the NSO, some of whom have specialized, in Europe, in 21st c. opera and oratorio) who sometimes sang beautifully and movingly, but too often did not blend well in the duets (especially at the outset), or who were often pleasant although too light or inexperienced in their roles.

Perhaps since Anne Midgette and the Washington Post trashed the four soloists in the last NSO performance of a great Western sacred classical musical masterpiece, the Verdi Requiem, last month, she felt that she (possibly encouraged by her deconstructivist husband, a music critic and self-called Romantic composer) should now train her deconstruction on Ivan Fischer, the musicians of the NSO, and the excellent young choristers.

In my opinion, the performance was much better and musicologically informed than when the fairly young Hugh Wolff last led the NSO in the work, 26 years ago. It was virtually in the same league --orchestrally and chorally -- as Dr. J. Reilly Lewis's interpretations of the work over the past 30 years with the local, world-class Washington Bach Consort. (Unlike Ms. Midgette, Dr. Lewis has at least two music degrees -- an undergraduate music degree from Oberlin and a PhD. in music from Juilliard.)

I also hope that the Washington Post will find a new music critic -- one deeply, rather than superficially, musically trained (perhaps being a music major or a double major should be a listed qualification for the position) -- to review the NSO and the U. of Maryland Concert Chorale when they next join forces in the autumn. Otherwise it's going to be another sad, poorly reviewed NSO season starting again next fall.

(I performed in this work 35 years ago, as a student.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 2, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Like snaketime1, I disagreed with Ms. Midgette's review but I disagree with his or her assessment of Ms. Midgette's critical abilities or musical knowledge to the point of calling for her being removed as the Post's music critic. I often disagree with Ms. Midgette, but I find her views interesting and in many ways illuminating. They certainly do not take away my enjoyment of concerts I like. What I find puzzling is why critical comments about Ms. Midgette's husband, whoever he may be, are relevant to her review of this concert. It seems to me that the role of the music critic is to educate us about musical performance and to provoke some reflection on what we have heard and why we liked it or didn't. From time to time when I have been disappointed with a concert but don't know why, reading Ms. Midgette's review or Tim Page's review or Philip Kennicott's review has helped me understand what it was that bothered me. To people who are musically trained and knowledgeable, such illumination is not necessary or welcome, but to someone like me, it is a big help. than in performing music. And quite honestly, I am not convinced that a reviewer with a couple of degrees in music is going to provide me with reviews that I like or even agree with. What I found interesting about this most recent review is that while I agreed with many of the individual points Ms. Midgette made, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and was moved by it while she evidently did not and was not. I have almost the opposite reaction when a contemporary piece of music is played.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | April 2, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Mr Kirchhoff, briefly, I believe that the issue of Ms Midgette not having even a single musical degree is relevant here in this case where she claims that Iván Fischer failed to understand and communicate to others (musicians and audience) the underlying musical structure of J.S. Bach’s extended B minor Mass. Without deep musical training at the undergraduate level (at a minimum), Ms. Midgette is not, in my opinion, in the critical position to evaluate the structural interpretation of this structurally and aesthetically unusual and difficult Western classical work, as performed by a very highly experienced 59 year old conservatory trained and international award-winning European conductor, Ivan Fischer (or by an internationally recognized J.S. Bach specialist, with a PhD from Juilliard and two earlier classical musical degrees, Dr. J. Reilly Lewis, of the Washington Bach Consort.)

Both of these extremely distinguished conductors succeeded as performing classical musicians, as did the musicians that they lead.

(I earlier meant to say that Haydn’s The Creation, rather than Haydn’s The Seasons, was performed by the University of Maryland Concert Choir, with the NSO, at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts, last spring. This excellent student choir has performed with the NSO annually since 2003. The NSO and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts finds it an acceptable practice – during this time of warfare and austerity in the arts in the United States -- to use this distinguished and recorded national university School of Music choir, and I agree with the practice of inviting them annually.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 5, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

I was at the Thursday night performance, and I agreed with very little about what you wrote in your review. You commented to the effect of the student chorus wasn't to blame for not sounding fully professional. I didn't hear anything from them to complain about. The sound was lovely, expecially the sopranos, pure clear tone. The passagework was fabulous, especially the tenors. My only complaint with the chorus was that the altos didn't sound loud enough, but that could well have been acoustics and their placement on stage left, as I was on the other side of the house.

I didn't think Fischer's approach sounded mechanical at all. In fact, I think the music danced, which is as it should be.

My only agreement with what you wrote was the baritone, I couldn't hear him over the small orchestra in his first aria, but that was not the case for his second aria. However, I attributed that not to the conductor, but to his voice and the tessitura, as I think the first aria was mostly in the lower part of his voice, and it didn't sound like it worked well in his voice. The second aria sounded higher and in a more beautiful part of his voice.

Posted by: c-clef | April 5, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

I also enjoyed Fischer's reading of the Mass; this may not be how I would love to hear the work, but Fischer clearly had a vision on how things are supposed to go. One issue was not as much with the lack of variety in the tempo, as much as that in the dynamics.

And while many applaud the "light-and-fleet" approach currently a la mode, shouldn't at we have more weight and gravity, at least in some sections? This is a Mass after all, not dance music.

A few words about a great performance of Mendelssohn's "Elias" at Carnegie Hall under Fruhbeck de Burgos substituting for James Levine. Fruhbeck and the chorus were the heroes of the evening. The soloists were wonderful, except unfortunately for Shenyang who sang the title role correctly but without charisma. Charisma was supplied by Stephanie Blythe in her solo in the second act; that was the outstanding vocal moment of the evening.

The other bad news was the orchestra. Technically it sounds great - a sour oboe solo being the exception - but I felt that it lacked its own personality. Those sweet strings that could still be heard at the begining of Ozawa's tenure were replaced by a generic sound. Not once I was wishing that Fruhbeck would have conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra instead, which survived Muti and still has *something* of its old sound.

Well, let's heard the BSO under Levine next year- alas, at the Kennedy Center.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 7, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

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