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Where's the buzz?

Riccardo Muti starts as music director of the Chicago Symphony, and the classical music press congregates in Chicago. Christoph Eschenbach starts as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and I don’t see a single out-of-town journalist at either the season-opening gala or the start of the regular season -- unless you count Tim Smith, of the Baltimore Sun, as “out-of-town.” Even the local coverage seems relatively scanty. DC Arts Beat also reviewed the opening gala, and Charles Downey reviewed the regular-season opener on DCist, and Tom Huizenga of NPR also wrote about it. (There was a big advance piece in Washington City Paper, but I haven’t seen a review.) No reviews from the Examiner; the Washington Times; No entries on other local blogs? Where's the buzz, the conversation, the interest? Have you seen others that I’ve missed? Send them in.
(read more after the jump)

(Muti made more news yesterday by announcing that he has to return immediately to Italy due to illness, described as “extreme gastric distress,” thus cutting short his honeymoon in Chicago by cancelling three whole weeks of performances. Harry Bicket, Asher Fisch and Pierre Boulez will step in to replace him.)

You could say that Muti is, at the moment, a bigger star than Eschenbach, but the two approximately coeval conductors (Muti turns 70 next summer) have a lot in common. Both have significant international reputations. Both divide opinion, with passionate partisans and harsh critics; Muti is currently riding a wave of popularity, but there have been times when Eschenbach was the flavor of the month. Both are former music directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Both have been stung when they had to leave prominent music directorships earlier than anticipated (Eschenbach in Philadelphia, Muti at La Scala). Both unexpectedly took American music directorships this fall, and both are being welcomed rapturously by very happy musicians.

Whatever you think of their relative merits, frankly, part of the contrast between these two debuts has to do with simple PR. I’m talking about buzz. I’m talking about giving a free concert to the citizens of your new city (as the LA Philharmonic had Gustavo Dudamel do last year, and the Chicago Symphony did with Muti this year). I’m talking about attracting the national press -- at least getting a critic from the AP to show up for your music director’s first concerts with your new orchestra, so that newspapers around the country can pick it up.

Why can’t the National Symphony Orchestra, with the whole power of the Kennedy Center behind it, attract more attention for one of the biggest events in its history? Eschenbach is introducing some fine new ideas during his first weeks here: live music as part of post-concert discussions, a free concert at the Millennium Stage with him, the violinist Christian Tetzlaff, and NSO musicians on October 8. But I find it surprising that nobody at the Kennedy Center came up with a new way to kick off the tenure of their new music director: rather, it was the same gala and regular-season opener they do every year.

I'm sure there are excuses: scheduling difficulties, previous commitments, a lack of a national music press to appeal to. Nonetheless, it seems to me that this was a missed opportunity to spotlight our country's "national" orchestra and its important new conductor. What do you think?

By Anne Midgette  | October 4, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Washington, national, random musings  
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A lot of it has to do with how the cities regard their respective orchestras. Los Angeles and Chicago identify their orchestras as actually being a part of their cities. In DC, the NSO is considered the play thing of the national government. Locals don't think of the orchestra as part of the city culture, and the orchestra in turn doesn't do anything to dispel that belief.

Posted by: robertcostic | October 4, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I would have to agree with Robertcostic, though I believe that most locals think of the orchestra not as a plaything of the national government, but of some exclusive club of rich folks. The NSO is not a part of the fabric of life in the broader DC community, so we shouldn't be surprised by the lack of national interest in what happens to it.

Look, Michelle Obama's togs get more space in the Post than the NSO. The review of the gala opening was relegated to the backpage of the Style Section. It was surprise to me to see Eschenbach's arrival get the lead story in the Sunday magazine last week.

But, I think that the real reason for the lack of national coverage is that the NSO is not the CSO. A new conductor of what arguably is the best orchestra in the United States is going to get more buzz than a new NSO conductor.

Posted by: GRILLADES | October 4, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

It's simple: Muti has great sex appeal, Eschenbach has very little. End of story.

Posted by: bobman1 | October 4, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Ann, you seem to ben obsessed with decorum rather than music making of a superior nature. What is ailing your music critic's brain?
If non-local journalists (music critics) failed to attend and/or report on the season opening concert with Christoph Eschenbach making his debut as music director of the NSO, it is not necessarily a sign of failed PR. Indeed, you would not really know of management's PR strategy unless you talked to them, would you? And why the buzz comparison with MUTI -- the two conductors or events are not mutually inclusive, are they? This comparison is creative journalism but not necessarily relevant, especially given the fact that you tried to tear the NSO's new music director to shreds in the first two reviews you wrote during his new tenure.
You would do your readers and Washington audiences a great service focusing on intelligent and informed critiques of the music rather than the subjective dribble you have produced so far. It took an out-of-town critic to report on the magic that was happening during last weekends phenomenal concerts with Eschenbach and the NSO. Take note lest his reviews make him the "critic of choice in the greater D.C area. Now, the would be quite a buzz!

Posted by: uschinka | October 4, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

"Indeed, you would not really know of management's PR strategy unless you talked to them"

Uschinka- I would hope that any successful PR strategy wouldn't require the necessity of a formal interview to find out what it is. Nor is it the critic's job to be the orchestra's PR person and gloss over a sub-par performance because there's a new kid in town (and Eschenbach is not some young up-and-comer worthy of protection).

Can someone enlighten me as to how exactly the relationship between the Kennedy Center and the NSO (and probably soon the opera) functions? How much of the marketing/PR is handled by the Kaiser Center, where it wouldn't be as focussed due to the Center naturally having to work on all their other projects simultaneously?

Posted by: ianw2 | October 5, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

The Chicago SO is an internationally famous organization with a long history of great and world-famous conductors. The National Symphony is a worthy local orchestra. There's no mystery in why the coverage is different. And I don't think the two men have had comparable careers at all. Muti has been a star conductor since the 60's, and he's closely identified with La Scala and opera, for which he's been getting coverage for decades. He's a bigger name and the CSO is a bigger name and that's all there is to it. Though, of course, that doesn't explain why the local press is so indifferent.

Posted by: BobG5 | October 5, 2010 11:29 PM | Report abuse

So uschinka, let's pull a Rosenberg on Ms. Midgette, no?

I have my own disagreements with Ms. Midgette, yet while reading her reviews I never feel any kind of "dribble" on her reviews. If Ms. Midgette does not like a certain artist or an aspect of the performance, she does clearly justify why she didn't like. And to put that in writing is very difficult - at least for me, and I am not a critic.

And remember that virtually every great conductor has received his share of criticism. Here are some examples - and I don't necessarily agree with all of these comments, although I do agree with some: Furtwangler is messy, Knappertsbusch is downright sloppy, Bernstein is jazzy, Karajan smooth, Celibidache slow, Toscanini stiff, yada yada yada.

I sometimes seem to think that a reason why Washington never had a truly world-class orchestra is because the public, except for some discerning listeners, never demanded one. Many would have been content with a merely competent band (and the NSO is much more than that) playing the 3 Bs all the time - and again, thankfully the NSO plays more than that.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 7, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Sorry "ianw2" and "cicciofrancolando" for not commenting sooner.

I just read the review of last night's concert by a different critic. If you have not yet read it, I highly recommend you consider doing so. It is a critique and not a criticism of a performance dripping with subjective bias against the conductor.

And yes, the "The Rosenberg Syndrome" is highly applicable to Ms. Midgette's reviews so far which in itself is not a reflection on either critic's ability to write serious critiques; rather it is a reflection on each journalist's attempt to (ab)use the power of their pen to pursue an agenda separate from writing a fair review of a performance.

In this respect, yes ... if a serious and unbiased critic claims she heard Mahler instead of Beethoven when, clearly, the execution of the 9th of the piece was one of the most impressive interpretations of the great master's glorious piece by the conductor and the orchestra, then it is dismissive dribble by someone who did not come to listen with an open mind but rather with her mind made up already.

As to excellent PR strategies not needing management's explanation, absolutely in the ideal world of promotion. Yet, some times there is a plan to promotional madness, and it is definitely advisable to talk to management before making claims of incompetence.

Posted by: uschinka | October 8, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

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