Due to over-hasty cutting and pasting, I messed up some links in my responses to some comments. I’m fixing them. And right now I’ll restate two of them correctly:.

My wife Anne Midgette’s review of the spectacular National Symphony’s concert,featuring Hilary Hahn in Paganini, and David Del Tredici’s Final Alice is here.

Christopher Small’s evocation of the secret life of a concert hall is here.

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  1. says

    It’s about time audiences were asked to “fasten their seatbelts”. I really enjoy the piece “Final Alice” -although I have not heard this recent performance (living in Edinburgh, getting to this concert is a bit much).

    Music should (occasionally) require the audience to be put on a roller coast and the brakes kept off.

  2. says

    I have a friend who plays in the National Symphony, and he said that the orchestra played like pigs for all three performances of the Verdi-Paganini-Del Tredici program. He said that weekend’s concerts were among the very worst concerts of the entire Leonard Slatkin era (of which he missed the first three or four years) purely in terms of the quality of the orchestra’s playing.

    He said this was so for two reasons: the members of the orchestra no longer even try to play well for Slatkin; and too many members of the orchestra disliked all three works on the Verdi-Paganini-Del Tredici program and just went through the motions that week, paying scant attention in rehearsal or in concert.

    He said that the musicians of the National Symphony were struck speechless over the review of the program that appeared in the Washington Post. They were dumbfounded–they had expected to receive a blistering notice, and instead received a rave.

    The amplication system malfunctioned in “Final Alice” and totally ruined the first of the three performances. Unaccountably, this fact is not even mentioned by the Post writer.

    Drew, I was at the first and the third performances. It’s well known that the NSO musicians don’t play well for Slatkin, and the first performance seemed like a perfect example of that. The melodies at the start of the Verdi overture that the winds play in octaves weren’t in tune — an easy thing to fix, if the musicians care to fix it. (Or if the conductor demands that they do.) The first chords of the Paganini were disastrous. I don’t know the piece well, and didn’t remember that there are actually two chords, a 16th note pickup followed by a sustained chord. I heard just one sound, and couldn’t hear if it was major or minor until a little time had passed, and the musicians settled into it.

    The third night was a lot better, on both these counts and many others. David’s piece especially had come together. Even the brass — normally, to my ear and to other people — the weakest section in the orchestra — sounded at least on the way to being OK. Passages that at the first performance had sounded like pure cacaphony started to reveal themselves as tapestries of complex independent lines.

    I wasn’t in any position to blame the orchestra for not sounding good the first night in Final Alice. I’ve heard the Cleveland Orchestra play a world premiere by a composer the musicians liked, and even so the first performance was dull, with muddy orchestral sound. By the third performance, things had come together and the piece started to glow. So I was hardly surprised when that happened at the NSO with David’s piece. It’s very hard to play, and certainly won’t be to every musician’s taste. And even an orchestra that likes it will have to get it all in their ear, which they can only do by playing it repeatedly.

    So these were all the negative factors that I heard. I won’t speak for the critic, even though she’s my wife, because it’s not my job to pass on in public things she doesn’t write in her reviews. But her ear for orchestral detail is quite good, and her past reviews will show that she’s no fan of the way the NSO sounds these days.

    Why would she and I like the concert? Well, consider the positives — positives, in any case, for us. We loved Hilary’s playing. (I’m friends with both Hilary and David, and you can decide, if you like, that I’m not being objective. But on the other hand, admiration for their work is one reason I spent time in their company, and became friends.) Just about everyone who heard it loved it — including the musicians, if I can judge by their applause when she took her bows, and by things I heard some of them say to Hilary backstage.

    And we (my wife and I) loved Hila Plitmann’s performance — as, again, I’d think just about anyone would, especially anyone with a sense of what good singing and good acting is. And finally I loved David’s piece, which is nothing new for me — I loved it on the recording that came out in the 1970s, when the piece is new, and I love it now. I love it even more, in fact, than I did before, because I’d never heard it live, or complete (the recording is cut). It makes an even stronger impression live and complete than I imagined it would.

    I can see that musicians who didn’t like the music would have a different impression, which they’re entitled to. But I’d also say that they couldn’t hear the effect of the concert from out in the house, and might not be aware, first, of how strong an impression the evening made, despite various problems, and, second, of how much better they, the orchestra, sounded the third night as compared to the first.

    As for the amplification, “totally ruined” seems wildly overstated. I didn’t think the amplification was great either night — I thought the balance was poor, and also that there should have been some discreet EQ (by strengthening the high frequencies), to put some air around Plitmann’s voice, and make it ring out more clearly. But this didn’t ruin the performance for me at all. Drew, may i ask you if you were there? Or are you relying on reports from musicians (how many of them?), and maybe overstating — as comments pass through them, and then through you, and maybe get a little amplified (no pun intended) — how bad the problems really were? Or, rather, how badly the problems (which certainly were there) destroyed the effect of the concert?

    This has been long enough, but I’ll add one last thought. Final Alice is bound to be a controversial piece. It’s willfully excessive, among much else, and anyone’s reaction to it is bound to be conditioned by how much they like David’s brand of excess. The audience the first night seemed stunned, and good friends of my wife’s and mine, who were at the second performance I went to, and who know music (including new music) very well, didn’t seem to know what to make of it, either. So I suspect that anyone’s feeling about the concert is going to be conditioned, above all, by whether they liked David’s piece. I loved it, so (with Hilary’s amazing playing added in), I was over the moon. Someone else might have felt very differently. Though I must say I didn’t hear one dissenting voice about Hilary.

  3. says

    I know “Final Alice” only from the Solti recording, but I happen to like it very much. My friend who plays in the National Symphony also liked the work, even though many of his colleagues did not.

    Some day I would like to hear a concert featuring two related Del Tredici works: “Final Alice” and “In Memory Of A Summer’s Day”. I am surprised that such a concert has never been programmed–and by Slatkin, since he must be one of the few conductors anywhere who knows both scores.

    No, indeed, I was not present at any of the “Final Alice” performances in Washington. I went to law school there, but I live in Minneapolis now. As I noted, it was my friend who plays in the orchestra who told me all about the performances.

    He told me that there was a great to-do backstage after the first performance because of the amplification malfunctions. The to-do involved a notable musician, Kennedy Center officials at the highest level, and members of the Kennedy Center technical staff. Heated words were exchanged among all parties, to put it in terms suitable for a general audience.