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England’s hero gets a terrible kicking at the Met (were you there?)

Edward Gardner has done wonders as music director and part of the team that has made English National Opera the buzziest house in town. He’s a very good conductor, sometimes outstanding.

But reputations travel slow and his opening night at the Met in a revival of Michael Grandage’s Don Giovanni took a terrible trashing in the Post from James Jorden, editor of the never-knowingly-low-camp Parterre box. A shambles, he called it.

Zachary Woolfe seemed agree in the Times, though he called Gardner ‘talented’.

Was this free and fair? Were you there? Add your voice to the growing cacophony.


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  1. I listened to opening night. I enjoyed the 2011 performance when I saw it, but listening to this year’s opening night, found it terribly and draggingly long, and the sense of ensemble missing. I wondered what the reviewers who were in the house would say.

  2. “Leaden conducting” from EG. Not in my experience. Poor old NY.

  3. Red Riding Hood says:

    I have yet to see a review by Zachary Woolfe that isn’t negative and back-biting. He’s so concerned with showing off his academic knowledge of the specific areas of classical music he happens to be informed on that he’s not actually reviewing, he’s pontificating. And throwing in a lot of unwarranted mean comments as he does so.

    He’s mean-spirited, he’s lost his credibility in an amazingly short time with a large percentage of readers because of his nasty treatment of beloved artists. He should not be reviewing for the NYTimes. Classical music does not need a [redacted] like Woolfe.

    • I agree. I don’t care how smart he is if the tone is so negative and snide as to be unreadable and useless to me. Unfortunately, it seems the NYT is following much of the blogosphere into mucky negativity. It disturbs me that blog reviews are dominated by several individuals / sites consumed with such negativity, and I wish artists would stand up and say – “enough.”

      • Red Riding Hood says:

        Janey, you are absolutely right. Artists should protest. And if they do not, their fans should.

        Mr. Woolfe’s unprecedented attack last month in his review of an iconic European instrumentalist visiting NY in a rare solo US appearance sent tidal waves, both directly and indirectly, through the very close-knit community of this musician’s fans.

        Mr. Woolfe gave a pompous, and in my opinion, uninformed, review of this musician’s solo performance, haphazardly throwing in irrelevant and haphazard criticisms simply for the purpose of making a clever piece of writing. As usual, he wallowed in references designed to call attention to himself and his own
        academic knowledge, with its limited circumferences.

        Mr. Woolfe wrote with absolutely no understanding of who the instrumentalist is, why he was appearing with the ensemble he appeared with, and the importance of his unprecedented solo NY concert.

        The artist in question was by all reports, quite affected by the review. It’s unlikely, thanks to Mr. Woolfe, that NY audiences will have the pleasure of enjoying him in concert again. We’ll be lucky if he ever decides
        to concertize anywhere in the US again.

        I’ve followed Mr. Woolfe’s reviews carefully since this incident, and I see that it is typical of his writing. He is mean-spirited, and he is, as many others have commented “agenda driven”. His agenda is to show off his own chops as a writer and music “expert”. He shows little understanding or respect of the artists he reviews. He has completely lost credibility as a music critic with me and many others like me.

        • Red Riding Hood writes: The artist in question was by all reports, quite affected by the review. It’s unlikely, thanks to Mr. Woolfe, that NY audiences will have the pleasure of enjoying him in concert again. We’ll be lucky if he ever decides to concertize anywhere in the US again.

          Oh Lordy …

          If the artist in question is going to remove himself from one of the Western world’s largest and most lucrative markets because he’s upset by one review by one freelancer in one newspaper, then …

          … well, I was going to write that his ego is too fragile to be in this business at all, but he (whoever he is) has evidently managed to make a successful career despite a fragile ego.

          In any case, it’s not the job of a critic to be solicitous of an artist’s feelings (or those of an artist’s devoted fans). It’s a critic’s job to give an honest, informed, clear and (as far as possible in a subjective exercise) fair assessment of the particular performance he or she is reviewing. Opinions will differ as to whether any given critic does that job well, but that’s the job. Promoting or coddling (in the sense of being unduly gentle to) a particular performer or institution is not part of a critic’s job.

          I haven’t read everything Zach Woolfe has written, but I’ve read a good bit. I’ve seen him give some negative assessments, and I’ve disagreed with some of those, but I have never seen him engage in gratuitous abuse or insult. Same with Anne Midgette, another critic who has acquired a reputation in some quarters for being harsh: I’ve always found to be very well-considered and eloquent, even when I’ve completely disagreed with it. I have definitely seen some prominent critics deliver gratuitous insults in print, but not those two.

          • Come to think of it, Norman, that issue could be a good one for a separate blog post and discussion thread. What counts as legitimate criticism of a performance that a critic thinks doesn’t work, and what constitutes gratuitous abuse or insult? Where does a critic or editor draw – or find – the line between the two?

          • Very good point,Matthew. Do you want to write a post on those lines?

          • Red Riding Hood says:

            MWnyc writes: ” If the artist in question is going to remove himself from one of the Western world’s largest and most lucrative markets because he’s upset by one review by one freelancer in one newspaper, then. . . ”

            Seriously?!! My friend, if you honestly believe that NYC is “one of the Western world’s largest and most lucrative markets” and that classical artists must perform there in order to have successful careers, your perspective is pretty skewed. NYC is not the cultural center of the universe.

            Performing in NYC is an option, not a necessity for a classical artists, particularly for the instrumentalist I’ve been referring to. Critics like Zachary Woolfe make the option much less appealing.

            And Mr. Woolfe, as I understand it, is not a “freelancer”. He has recently been added to the permanent staff of NYTimes as music critic. He represents a very important newspaper. He is not doing them justice.

          • My friend, if you honestly believe that NYC is “one of the Western world’s largest and most lucrative markets”

            I was referring to the entire United States, as you had written that we’d be lucky if this artist returned to our shores to perform ever again.

            I’m sure that would be a misfortune for said artist’s many fans here, and I’m sorry that he received a harsh review. But my sympathy has limits. Unfavorable reviews are an occupational hazard in his profession, and this artist surely knew that when he chose his career. If he’s going to stomp away in a fury from an entire large country and its audiences because of one harsh review, then … well, good luck to him.

            And I’m sure you’re not suggesting that a critic should write a review with the thought that the artist(s) in question will flee and never return if his/her feelings are hurt by the review. (That said, I certainly don’t condone – at all – gratuitous insult in a review. I wish that went without saying.)

            Speaking of reviewers, what Zachary Woolfe recently joined is The New York Times‘s roster of freelance classical music critics – along with Steve Smith, Vivien Schweitzer and Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim. With Allan Kozinn’s reassignment, the NYT‘s only “permanent” (meaning on staff full-time and salaried) classical music critic is Anthony Tommasini. (James Oestreich is the classical music and dance editor.)

          • I agree wholeheartedly about Anne Midgette. She is superb, even though she is often highly critical. Never a hint of snide or snark. Truly one of the best.

    • Ichtrinkkeinwein says:

      There are excellent reviewers who are negative and snide. Sometimes the objective is to create an amusing piece of writing, albeit at the artists’ expense. What is wrong with that?

      The best critics succeed because they don’t care what anyone thinks, are not “in” with the orchestras and opera companies they cover, and — sine qua non — judge with pinpoint accuracy.

      Disclaimer: Am not suggesting Zachary Woolfe fits the bill here.

      • “Sometimes the objective is to create an amusing piece of writing, albeit at the artists’ expense.” That is certainly not the job of a true critic in my book.

        A critic should provide background on a piece, additional knowledge the reader may not have, and give his or her detailed opinion on the production both as a whole and in “pieces” (meaning, the direction, performances, orchestra, etc). There should be comparisons if useful and context. Yes, it should be interesting, but I might read any number of writers to be amused; I read critics to gain insight on a production in order to help me decide whether to attend. Or perhaps simply to determine whether a certain singer, player or director produced good quality work.

        A consistently negative and snide critic makes his commentary useless because it is unclear whether he means what he says or whether he is nothing more than a negative sort trying to be amusing – while lacking the knowledge and discernment to produce a more complex piece.

        I agree that the best critics should not be concerned with what others think of their reviews. Still, I would not stretch that to suggest that the best critics should not care if they are cruel. There is no reason critique cannot be constructive if the writer has skill. Non-constructive and consequently often cruel critique is used by lesser writers (or perhaps lesser people), much as the most cruel jokes are made by comedians who cannot think of anything better to say.

        • Ichtrinkkeinwein says:

          Your point is well taken, Janey. Sometimes “an” objective, I should say.

          Perhaps the job is 33% to report the facts, 33% to opine, 33% to create a good piece of writing.

          Separately, no review can be cruel unless the artists actually read it. Certain artists have famously avoided reviews, which makes sense when you consider that the writer’s duty is to the general reader.

          ZW’s criticism of the “Don Giovanni” is a rare instance of a Met production being trashed from top to bottom. I found it refreshing.

          • Red Riding Hood says:

            Dear Ich,

            When a critic consistently trashes artists and productions as Zachary Woolfe does – often for ridiculous, musically unfounded reasons, as with the instrumentalist he criticized last month – it’s a pattern and it’s no longer “refreshing”.

            He’s been on the job at the NYTimes, what, for a few months now? How many readers have they lost because of him in this short time? How many people have decided not to attend events based on his reviews, unaware that he seems to trash everyone and everything brutally.

            I’ve read some of his work before he joined the NYTimes, and it’s fine. Interesting, informative, not negative at all. For some reason, this young man – and he is quite young – upon joining the NYTimes seems to feel the need to do serious damage to artists to earn his stripes. He’s doing it at the expense of classical artists and audiences and he needs to tone it down.

          • Well, perhaps that is why cruelty is allowed to flourish. Many seem to find it refreshing.

            I have seen two performances trashed from top to bottom by Mr. Woolfe, including one at the Met (not this one). While I saw flaws in both performances, I came to conclude that the trashing was probably more based on the reviewer’s antipathy toward the leading ladies than anything else. I knew no one in the productions and wasn’t involved with them, to be clear.

            In this case, I think Mr. Woolfe truly does not like the Metropolitan Opera, nor does he like many of the singers performing there. Or rather, he seems not to.

            I think the NY Times is doing a great disservice to not only the Met but also classical institutions around the city.

  4. Terry Carlson says:

    It sounds as though even the best conductor would be unable to save this production. Too bad for EG, because I thought his conducting of the BBC Proms Last Night two years back was exceptional (from excerpts seen on YouTube). I hope the Met will give him a better production to work with next time.

  5. Robert Hollingworth says:

    Terrible kicking from NYTimes is not de facto a terrible kicking at the Met.

  6. well, maybe i’m just a californian who visits london occasionally, but i thought it was the best don giovanni yet.

    • I saw widely varying opinions on social media.

      I know three people who saw it. Two enjoyed it but it was not their favorite Met production (One said, “It was a good evening but I’d choose another production in the future) and one called it very dull. All were shocked that someone would suggest it should cause the Met shame. Even the individual who said it was dull did not agree with that statement. That one comes down to the reviewer, of course. Overblown comments like that are expected in this case.

  7. Here is what I would consider a balanced review, well-written with no bitterness apparent:

  8. I was there opening night and the second performance.

    The opening night was brutal. Dull, long, and boring. The first half of the first act was the worst in terms of energy. It got slightly better as the night progressed. The second performance was much, much better. Thrilling even.

    For the second performance, I was in the 3rd row orchestra right and able to see Gardner. He looked angry when he got on the podium. Clenched jaw, practically breathing fire. If you had seen him outside walking towards you, you would have crossed the street. That kind of anger. Obviously he read the reviews and he may not have had any sleep since doing so.

    For the overture, he was conducting like a man possessed. Essentially demanding that the orchestra perform for him. Absolutely determined. And they did respond. He still looked pretty pissed the remainder of the performance though slightly less than the overture. He was never relaxed and never enjoying himself.

    For the Commendatore scene, he once again was conducting with fury and intensity. Huge physical movements. Basically grabbing the orchestra by the neck and screaming “PLAY DAMNIT!!!” They did.

    My take is the orchestra worked him over opening night – and he was not expecting that. Yes, they are very talented but if they don’t have a reason to respect or listen to a conductor, they’re just going to give a run-of-the-mill performance. The 2nd night Gardner through willpower made them pay attention.

    Those negative reviews – though accurate for that night – should not be taken as a testament to Gardner’s abilities (or supposed lack thereof.) Instead they’re a reminder that he learned a very public and humiliating lesson that talented artists – even in one of the great houses – don’t always give a damn unless you make them. The Met Orchestra can play great. A conductor who complacently assumes they will play great /for him/ may get a nasty surprise. They don’t dole out respect lightly.

    It will be interesting to see how the rest of the run plays out.

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