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Criticising the critics: Audience members say review is so uncool

Washington DC is having a season of Nordic music, most of it unfamiliar to orchestra and audiences. The second critic on the Post gave it frostbite in his review. But the audience are hitting back. Read review and comments here.



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  1. Terry Carlson says:

    The review appears online in the Washington Post’s “Lifestyle/Style” section rather than “Entertainment/Music” — are the editors trying to tell us something?

  2. The problem with this concert, which I attended, was Eschenbach. His conducting of the two modern works, by Saariaho and Lindberg was extremely sloppy and cursory. The orchestra was poorly rehearsed and was out of balance and way to loud during the concerto, repeatedly and quite obviously drowning out the soloist. The Sibelius was a bit better, but lacking the much needed mysterious atmosphere of the Seventh. Sadly it was for me yet another Eschenbach disappointment. I start to understand why this guy was not liked in Philadelphia, eventually having to leave and then also wore out his welcome mat in Paris, who also showed him the door. There is something false, mannered and distant in his approach, something that just leaves me and two of my regular fellow concert goers annoyed and more disappointed with every Eschenbach NSO concert that we attend.

    • Steven Honigberg says:

      Dean this is totally unfair and I am stunned that you would use these pages to voice your opinion about a great artist. Coming from a cellist in the orchestra and part of this Nordic experience, Eschenbach did an incredible job with this rare and very difficult program (granted not all the music programmed were masterpieces). He is a totally committed musician and the love of this music was written all over his face and gestures. Rehearsals were detailed and thorough. The orchestra did the best job they could in a violin concerto that was just too densely composed. It is in need of revision. Dean, perhaps you missed Eschenbach’s wonderful Brahms Symphony No. 2 the orchestra performed last month? It is possibly the best Brahms No. 2 I have ever been part of.

      • Harry Kessler says:

        Mr. Honingberg, what is so”unfair” about an honestly-voiced opinion? Dean is saying only what hundreds if not thousands of people have opined about Mr. Eschenbach ever since he began his conducting career. Battey’s review is – overall – quite well-balanced, and even good-humored, displaying both enthusiasm and expertise. Frankly, your small screed smacks of that familiar syndrome, the performer who can accept only praise.

        • Steven Honigberg says:

          Mr. Kessler. In rereading my comment, I made no mention of Mr. Battey, whom I have worked with and respect as an artist and critic. It is the dagger thrown by Dean into the back of a conductor that I will take my stand. I didn’t like it when these were lofted toward my previous music directors Rostropovich or Slatkin as well. These conductors are the best in the business and have much more to say than either of us ever will. Washington is quite fortunate to have had such eminent conductors in its history starting with Antal Dorati (1970-1977).

          • Mr. Honigberg, I respect that you obviously like and appreciate your current music director. I am pleased for you, as it is important for a musician to feel good with his leader. Please also respect that there are many many thousands who don’t like Christoph Eschenbach, actually detest him as a conductor and as a musician. He has always been controversial and as Dean said above, he was chased out of Philadelphia and wasn’t much appreciated in Paris either and ultimately had to leave there as well. I lived and studied in Philadelphia during much of his extremely troubled tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra and I personally witnessed some of the worst concerts that I have ever experienced as a concert goer and as a professional musician. All of these disasters were under Eschenbach. I agree with Dean that there is something extremely artificial, mannered and false about his music making and this really disturbs my musical sensibilities. I know that there are of course people who like making music in this way, but for me and many others, Eschenbach is not what I look for when I want a great musical experience. You must just accept that many others don’t share your view, just as I accept that you have a different opinion. That is what makes life interesting!

      • I just have to add, that having studied the Lindberg Violin Concerto -score, instrumentation (the very modest 0202/2000, strings) and his orchestration mastery, it would be rather impossible to cover the violin soloist in this piece, unless the orchestra was practically encouraged to play extremely loud all the time…

  3. The reviewer writes: “The NSO’s horn section, now predominantly female, is the glory of the orchestra. ” That’s cool.

  4. Timon Wapenaar says:

    Once again, a critic who has the temerity to write a strongly negative review find himself at the centre of a deluge of protest. Say what you like about Mr. Battey’s review, at least he made some attempt to actually review the music in its own right, which is more than you can say for the vast majority of so-called criticism of new classical music (Cf. the reviews of Ades’es’es’ new opera Norman has posted elsewhere). I’ve noticed that a sizable chunk of those posting comments which take issue with Mr. Battey’s review seem to think that a favourable reception in another city means Mr. Battey must be wrong, so once again we talk about the audience instead of the music. Following this logic, we should dispense with the critic entirely, and instead move our concerts into the studios used to record “America’s Got Talent” and “The X-Factor”. The quality of the music will then be decided by the audience, and displayed to the rest of the world using the familiar system of flashing lights.

    If people read the reviews of Mr. Shaw, we’d all be spared a lot of useless bother.

  5. Martin Locher says:

    This articale includes a description of Lindberg’s Violin Concerto from someone who listens to the music rather than getting horny because of female brass players or being irritated by the soloists clothing.

    And the recording which is mentioned in the article can be listened to on Youtube

    I heared some excellent modern Finnish Violin Concertos recently and hope my local orchestras will soon start playing them. I.e. (Jaakko) Kuusisto, Lindberg, Salonen, Fagerlund.

  6. To risk speaking about the music instead of the reviewer, Lindberg’s concerto is beautiful and extremely well-composed, but the stylistic language sounds to me like slightly updated Berg with appropriate nods to Sibelius. It so dutifully adheres to current conceptions of lyrical European modernism that it is actually a cautious, almost conformist sort of work. It points to the taste-makers of the classical music intelligentsia
    and wants to please.

    Finland has more orchestras per capita than any country on earth – twice the number as even Germany and Austria, and all state owned and operated. This accounts for the dominance this little country of 5.5 million has in the music world. We also see that the USA is willing to surrender the classical music stage to little countries that genuinely support it.

    But to be more provocative, I also wonder if more funding would create more successful American orchestral works. Perhaps Finland’s dominance is also because it is one of the few remaining countries that is still so bourgeois in its sensibilities that it can produce people who can in good faith write something like a violin concerto. Why can Finland produce people who think it appropriate to stand in front of a hundred musicians as an absolute authority figure while other countries might define such a mindset as almost gauche in this day and age? Does Finland’s unhesitant conformity and traditional perspectives of culture contribute to its status in the ever more anachronistic world of classical music?

    • Timon Wapenaar says:

      Thank you for this. If you read the Guardian piece linked-to above, you will see how Mr. Lindberg’s conservative conformism is dressed up as “nostalgia”. There is even an astonishing line in which it is admitted that Mr. Lindberg was last on the cutting edge 30 years ago. I am in absolute agreement re the Berg/Sibelius mix. The work strikes me as technically formulaic (take motive of 4-6 notes and run through gamut of rhythmic/tonal transformations. Rinse and repeat.) as well as stylistically two-dimensional. It’s a bit like removing all of the passion and vigour from the Sibelius, and all of the formal elegance from the Berg, and then combining the results.

      Perhaps a clue to Finland’s ability to produce authority figures could be found in its gun ownership figures?

      • Finally an explanation of why there are so few great American conductors. The people have too many guns.

        • I am sure Timon meant the opposite. Finland is among the top nations in gun ownership even though urban areas are strictly no-gun zones. So following this logic America should have even more great conductors since they are even bigger in gun ownership.

          • Timon Wapenaar says:

            @Sasha. Hmmm… to my shame I must admit you have blasted a hole in my argument. But since I am stubborn, I will suggest that the existence of the urban no-gun area indicates a somewhat more nuanced attitude towards firearms, and one more likely to engender respect. I think we respect the conductor who uses what he has judiciously more than the conductor who lets rip at every opportunity.

  7. Rosalind says:

    One should make the point that Mr Battey is a professionally trained musician, specifically a cellist with wide professional orchestral and chamber music experience and someone who certainly “knows” music more than many critics plying their trade.

    Anyway, wouldn’t life (and this blog) be so incredibly boring if we all had the same opinion of a concert/piece/composer? Personally I found the vivid descriptions of the music make me want to look out for these pieces in the future so I can listen and form my own impression.

  8. Christoph Eschenbach is what one can call a “has been”. He has been a failure in Philadelphia, in Paris and now his work with NSO is again seen with raised eyebrows. His preference to bringing soloists of mediocre quality whom he calls his prodigies (Dan Zhu, Tzimon Barto, Erik Schumann, Marisol Montalvo etc) is a total embarrassment to the orchestra and the public. NSO deserves a much better judgment from their Music Director if they want to be a first league US Orchestra!

    • harold braun says:

      I heard the NSO live in Frankfurt some weeks ago and I must say I was totally amazed.While I am defenitely not a huge fan of Mr.Eschenbachs rather erratic conducting style the orchestra playing was indeed world class-The concert started with Beethovens Grosse Fuge in Weingartners arrangement,and the string playing was absolutely stunning ,incisive,brillant,sensitive and colourful,like a top string quartet muliplied(Just by the way,their violin section is predominantly female now.!)The Bartok Concerto for orchestra was also fantastic,brillantly played,with again fantastic strings,glorious woodwind contributions and a truly awesome brass section(crowned by the trumpets and their unbelievable principal player Steve Hendrickson).
      While some of Mr.Eschenbachs tempi were very slow by common standards and Bartoks metronome markings,the performance nevertheless was amazingly coherent and moving.I got the impression,that Mr.Eschenbach might not be the greatest conductor in technical terms,but a very intense and convincing musician who certainly inspires his musicians,

  9. @ Reiner – “Eurotrash” is a fairly well-recognised term, and even the title of a TV programme (a UK Channel 4 programme which ran from 1993 – 2007, pulling in around 20% of the audience share for its slot, and one of the longer-running shows there). I don’t think enough has changed in the last five/six years that “Eurotrash” can be considered in an way a “hate-speech term” as you suggest. It is at worst a mildly derogatory term of reference.
    I may disagree with Battey’s review, but I don’t see that it is at all ‘evident’ that he went to the concert “filled with hatred” as you suggest. It seems more likely that you typed your comment desirous of filling it with anti-Battey rhetoric than him going to the concert determined to write against it because it’s “not American” as you claim.

  10. Timon Wapenaar says:

    As a South African, I find it somewhat amusing that this term should excite such emotion. After all, we wrote the book as far as hate speech goes. I have at my disposal a sizable number of truly repulsive pejoratives which could constitute hate speech. “Eurotrash” certainly isn’t one of them, nor is “nob”, “toff”, “nonce”, nor indeed is “neoliberal wafflekopf”. Our courts have determined that singing “Shoot the Boer”, while miming firing a gun does constitute hate speech, and at the moment this is where the precedent rests. Perhaps if it could be proved that the use of the term “Eurotrash” was accompanied by aggressive miming of credit card use or other spectacular consumption we’d have a case.

  11. I always get amused when my American colleagues use the word “Eurotrash”. They usually are then referring to some European conductor who is doing rather well. I have yet to be offended…

  12. DrewLewis says:

    No one who uses the phrase “End of.” has any business contributing to a literate blog.

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