Critic Goes After Local Conductor: Sky Falls!

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Ralph
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Critic Goes After Local Conductor: Sky Falls!

Post by Ralph » Sun Oct 16, 2005 8:31 pm

FT.com


Conductor in the line of fire
>By Andrew Clark
>Published: October 14 2005 03:00 | Last updated: October 14 2005 03:00
>>

Something unusual has happened in US musical life. A critic has turned hostile to the conductor of his local orchestra.

Not much news there, you may say. Music critics are renowned for dishing out as much dirt as acclaim. That may be the case in London, Paris or New York but it is virtually unheard-of in one-orchestra, one-newspaper US cities. In Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Saint Louis the orchestra is a focal point of the community - a symbol not just of culture but also of civic pride and aspiration.

In provincial America a critic's job is to speak to his readers and persuade them of his viewpoint. If you question the priorities or achievements of your community's most prized symbol, you risk alienating readers and losing your power. That is why so few US music critics are openly critical - even when, as in the final decade of Seiji Ozawa's 29-year reign at the Boston Symphony, there was justification for it.

Imagine, then, the horror felt by many people in Cleveland, Ohio, when Donald Rosenberg, critic of The Plain Dealer and one of North American's most respected music journalists, came back from the Cleveland Orchestra's recent west coast tour with an extremely blunt assessment of itsAustrian music director, Franz Welser-Möst. Three years into the conductor's tenure, wrote Rosenberg, Welser-Möst's interpretations were "vacant"; hewas a conductor of "high proficiency and low inspiration". he bemoaned thefact that Welser-Möst's contract, worth nearly $1m (£570,000) a year, had been extended to 2012.

Rosenberg's outburst might be dismissed as a little local difficulty, if Cleveland were not home to one of the world's greatest orchestras, regularly spoken of in the same breath as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics. No city in Europe or the US has an orchestra as important, relative to the size of population it serves. The Cleveland validates that reputation on its international travels: after visiting New York's Carnegie Hall on Monday, it embarks on its second European tour in three months.

What makes Rosenberg's stand doubly interesting is that this is not the first time Welser-Möst has become the butt of outspoken criticism. After six years as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, he was virtually hounded out of the UK in 1996, and still speaks of London critics as a "pack". The pack duly gave him a roasting at this summer's Proms - while eulogising his orchestra.

Attacks on its music director are not the Cleveland Orchestra's only worry. Its accumulated deficit - $7m and growing - is higher than any other US orchestra, fuelled by a contraction of the city's industrial base and an exodus of big corporate donors. The orchestra has also adopted the high-risk strategy of opening a base away from its home market - at Miami's new $412m Performing Arts Center, where the customer profile could hardly be more different to its loyal and adventurous audience in Cleveland.

But an orchestra's reputation usually hangs more on its artistic prowess than its fiscal stability. And having just heard the opening pair of programmes in the 2005-6 season at Cleveland's Severance Hall, comprising repertoire for the forthcoming tour, I can sympathise with many of Rosenberg's arguments. The repertoire was unusually wide, embracing Brahms's First Symphony, Messiaen's Turangalîla, Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles and Thomas Adès's Chamber Symphony. In each case it was the precision and textural refinement of the orchestra that commanded attention, not the individuality of interpretation.

A boyish 45, Welser-Möst is respected by his musicians for being well-organised and lacking in narcissism. There is none of the temper that, during the 18-year tenure of Christoph von Dohnányi, soured the air. In rehearsal he talks a lot; in concert he demonstrates almost mech-anical fidelity to the score. There may be no "lift-off" but he never pulls the music around. Welser-Möst says "I can only do what I believe in, which is enabling the orchestra to perform at its best . . . The most difficult thing in performance is to let the music speak for itself and put yourself aside."

Rosenberg is not powerful enough to run Welser-Möst out of town, in the way Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune hounded Jean Martinon from the Chicago Symphony in the 1960s. Nor is the Cleveland Orchestra likely to put pressure on The Plain Dealer by withdrawing advertising, as the impresario Arthur Judson did in New York in the late 1930s when John Barbirolli's Philharmonic tenure came under attack. Welser-Möst is popular in Cleveland. As long as his concerts are played in tune and do not ignore mainstream repertoire, most people are happy.

When the Cleveland board cast around for a successor to Dohnányi in the late 1990s, it knew what it was aiming for: a conductor who could maintain the discipline and pride instilled by George Szell in the 1950sand 1960s - qualities that created a world-class orchestra in a city that had never aspired to it. That meant choosing someone familiar with central European tradition, interested in intellectual new music andwith a perfect technique. The pool is small.

No one is arguing that Welser-Möst has damaged the orchestra. His problems are aesthetic: the local critic does not find him sufficiently motivating, and he is not alone. But even if the musicians were to agree with Rosenberg that their conductor is short on interpretative depth, that is only the cherry on the icing. Every other part of the Cleveland cake is in place. Welser-Möst is not perfect, but there is no one more perfect available.


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Post by springrite » Sun Oct 16, 2005 10:14 pm

I would agree with much of the accessment of the critic on Franz. But he will be there for a long time. He serves the purpose under the current circumstances.
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Post by Barry » Sun Oct 16, 2005 10:31 pm

Rosenberg should switch jobs with Peter Dobrin, one of the two music critics at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

I didn't want Philadelphia to hire Welser-Most for exactly the reason stated by Rosenberg. I am more interested in interpretation than technical proficiency. And in Philadelphia, we have the exact opposite situation with Eschenbach. He never lacks a unique vision of whatever work he's conducting. But his unorthodox style on the podium and take on old warhorses has led to playing that is not quite at the level of where it was at when Sawallisch was here.

Peter Dobrin is one of those critics who likes the conductor to let the music speak for itself. He simply hates Eschenbach for his interpretive style and routinely slams the way the orchestra plays for him (our other critic, David Stearns, has been more positive in his view of Eschenbach, or at least more balanced). Interestingly, when Welser-Most led the Cleveland on their first east coast tour with him as MD a couple years ago, he took a lot of criticism from the critics in those cities, with one exception; Dobrin.

I get the feeling Dobrin would fawn over Welser-Most if he were writing in Cleveland, and perhaps Rosenberg would have a much more positive view of Eschenbach were he working in Philly.
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Post by GK » Mon Oct 17, 2005 11:21 am

I heard that a trade of Welser-Most for Echenbach was in the offing but fell through when Cleveland insisted that Philadelphia throw in Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

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Post by karlhenning » Mon Oct 17, 2005 11:25 am

Oh, dear . . . .
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Post by Barry » Mon Oct 17, 2005 11:57 am

GK wrote:I heard that a trade of Welser-Most for Echenbach was in the offing but fell through when Cleveland insisted that Philadelphia throw in Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.
:lol:

Philly offered Owens instead of McNabb, but Cleveland wouldn't hear of it.
"If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee." - Abraham Lincoln

"Although prepared for martyrdom, I preferred that it be postponed." - Winston Churchill

"Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement." - Ronald Reagan

http://www.davidstuff.com/political/wmdquotes.htm
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pbp0hur ... re=related

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Post by Ralph » Mon Oct 17, 2005 6:37 pm

Apparently Cleveland is offering to trade Eschenbach for BOTH Peter Dobrin AND Barry.
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Post by jserraglio » Mon Oct 17, 2005 7:07 pm

Conductor baiting as blood sport . . .

Alsop, Eschenbach, & Welser-Most today--

Bernstein ("Broadway Lenny"), Stokowski ("Hollywood musician"), Mitropoulos, Barbirolli, Martinon, Rodzinski, Ozawa, Ormandy, Maazel (his Cleveland stint), Leinsdorf yesterday--

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Post by MahlerSnob » Mon Oct 17, 2005 11:01 pm

Alsop, Eschenbach, & Welser-Most today--
From what I've seen and heard of these conductors, all of the critical comments are justified.
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Post by Dickson » Tue Oct 18, 2005 7:08 am

Whenever I hear a conductor say something like "I can only do what I believe in, which is enabling the orchestra to perform at its best . . . The most difficult thing in performance is to let the music speak for itself and put yourself aside", I wish that orchestras would hand out nodoze instead of cough drops.
Whoever this writer in Cleveland is...I wish he would move to Atlanta.
"Enabling the musicians"...sounds like a musicians union politically correct phrase, rather than anything to do with making music.

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Post by Ralph » Wed Oct 19, 2005 7:57 pm

From The New York Times:

October 19, 2005
Classical Music Review | Cleveland Orchestra
Familiar Brahms and an Unaccustomed 'Four Seasons'
By BERNARD HOLLAND

Some people go to concerts for the performers, others to hear what they are playing. The Cleveland Orchestra threw a little satisfaction in both directions on Monday night. Chen Yi's "Si Ji" was there to discover. Most of this audience at Carnegie Hall, to put it euphemistically, had heard Brahms before, including the First Symphony and the "Academic Festival Overture," both on this program.

Indeed, the Cleveland Orchestra's reputation for refinement tends to attract listeners who know their Brahms in every conceivable way: fast and slow, loud and soft, exalted and butchered. Repetitious or not, here was a chance to hear one of the world's truly fine orchestras advancing over familiar territory. The evening was also a progress report on Franz Welser-Möst's deepening relationship with the orchestra as he goes into his fourth season as music director.

The eyebrows that lifted when Mr. Welser-Möst was given this job must certainly have settled by now. One hears his casual elegance reflected in his players: a fastidiousness that is never prim, breathing naturally. The musicians sounded as if they believed in their conductor; he must be delighted with them. The Cleveland played on Monday with the good intentions of the best European orchestra, but with an ability to carry them out that hardly any European orchestra can match. I don't think the symphony's slow movement has ever been so exquisitely played, or the piece as a whole made to sound so beautiful.

Ms. Chen's piece, new to New York City, translates from the Chinese as "Four Seasons," and an unsettled weather report it is. Buzzing strings, rippling mallet percussions, nervous brass figures, big timpani and high-pitched wind chords create a lot of thunder, lightning and general instability. Interspersed are Ms. Chen's long singing lines, which negotiate between Western-tuned instruments and Eastern ideas of tunefulness.

Most musical East-West fusions converge in the middle and run unavoidably into Ravel. It is hard to get away from. European instruments and the scales they are constructed to play seem to have a naturally debilitating effect on China's musical vocabulary, softening it into the ravishing cuteness that turn-of-the-century France produced with such skill.

Ms. Chen creates a third musical world, one that looks neither to Europe nor to Asia and yet is a distant mirror for both. In "Si Ji," color becomes a kind of counterpoint, layer added on layer. Rather than circle back on itself in the European sonata-form way, the forward progress is a thoughtfully edited stream of consciousness, one idea leading to the next. Ms. Chen has an individual voice. She was also lucky to have an orchestra good enough to let us hear it at its best.
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Re: Critic Goes After Local Conductor: Sky Falls!

Post by MaestroDJS » Sun Oct 23, 2005 8:21 am

Ralph wrote:Rosenberg is not powerful enough to run Welser-Möst out of town, in the way Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune hounded Jean Martinon from the Chicago Symphony in the 1960s.
I cannot comment on the situation in Cleveland, but it still fills me with dismay that Chicago Tribune and WFMT harpy Claudia Cassidy hounded both Jean Martinon (in the 1960s) and Rafael Kubelik (in the 1950s) out of Chicago. They were great conductors, and their Chicago recordings are still top-notch. It was poetic justice in a sense that by the early 1970s, Cassidy herself was being phased out. By then her critiques and commentaries were usually filled with name-dropping -- the only interesting one, albeit frequently repeated, was that she was at the première of Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at La Fenice, Venice in 1951.

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Re: Critic Goes After Local Conductor: Sky Falls!

Post by jserraglio » Sun Oct 23, 2005 7:08 pm

Franz Welser-Möst - The conductor they loved to hate

By Norman Lebrecht / February 12, 2004


Twice in as many years, I have seen a music director run out of town. The first was Giuseppe Sinopoli who arrived at the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1984 with an 80-disc Deutsche Grammophon contract and a winning smile. Intelligent and affable (he held a medical doctorate and medals in archaeology), Sinopoli was a capable opera conductor who had yet to prove himself in the unsparing light of concert sound.

The cerebral Italian spent rehearsals waffling on about the neuroses of Mahler and Schumann when all the band wanted to know was whether he wanted them to play louder or softer. The reviews were so awful that some critics refused to attend another concert and guest conductors backed off. In 1994, the orchestra dropped Sinopoli. He died, poor chap, three years ago, aged 55, while conducting Aida in Berlin.

I once suggested that the Philharmonia had split on his merits, only to receive a correction from the chairman who insisted that no more than five players ever thought he was any good. The rest put up with him for the record deal. In Sinopoli’s case, the verdict of musicians and critics was pretty much unanimous.

It was less so in the curious case of Franz Welser-Möst. At the milksop age of 29, the bespectacled Austrian opened his tenure at the London Philharmonic in 1990 with a seven-work concert, overlong for his rehearsal time. It was downhill from there on. He sacked a chorus director and front-desk violinist. The players dubbed him Frankly Worse Than Most. A good manager might have saved him but the LPO kept firing its managers, leaving the young maestro defenceless. In 1996 he quit London for Zurich Opera. One critic wrote: ‘he came from nowhere, he’s going nowhere.’

The case was curious because Franz had talent. I saw him in Japan take over a Klaus Tennstedt concert unrehearsed, ripping off as fiery a Beethoven Fifth as I shall ever expect to hear; it was the first time he had ever conducted the score. Even those players who loathed his disdainful, glinty-eyed strangeness had to admit that there was something about the boy. In the end, the persistently rotten reviews did him in.

Fast forward to 2004. Franz Welser-Möst, now 43, heads America’s most refined orchestra. After two exhilarating seasons in Cleveland, his contract has been extended until 2012. Back home, he will conduct the next Ring cycle at the Vienna Opera, where he is regarded as the heir apparent. His disastrous start has been reversed, though not forgotten. This week, Franz Welser-Möst is conducting a London orchestra for the first time since his departure; there is something personal about these concerts, something to prove.

‘After London,’ he told me the other day, ‘you learn to take criticism the right way. You learn the political side of our business – who has power, who abuses it. You learn to trust your instincts. The experience made it easier for me to deal with the world, to be stronger in my beliefs. I don’t regret one second of it.’

When he took over in Cleveland, he retired several players and revamped the repertoire, provoking rumbles from the city’s chief critic, Donald Rosenberg. But the benefits of new leadership were soon apparent. He appointed the orchestra’s first woman principal player, an oboist, and conducted scintillating premieres by such 21st century composers as Thomas Ades, Matthias Pintscher and Olga Neuwirth.

He spends 18 weeks a year in Cleveland, more than any music director in the US. ‘For me the great thing is bonding with the players,’ he smiles, ‘and that happened faster than I expected. It’s never easy telling people it’s time for them to go, but you don’t have to be nasty about it. You take them aside, ask them to work on their intonation. They get the message.’ He will bring the orchestra to Edinburgh this summer and the Proms in 2005, en route to a residency in Lucerne.

Salzburg is out of his diary. ‘Too boring,’ he shrugs. ‘This summer has one of the most uninteresting programmes of any festival I have ever seen. I can’t think why people would pay good money to see such things.’ As if to make a point, he will conduct a Rosenkavalier in Zurich this July with a cast (Kasarova, Nina Stemme) that powerfully outshines Salzburg’s production the following month.

Diplomacy was never part of his baggage. He mentions having to ask the Berlin Philharmonic to repeat a passage seven times until he got the required pianissimo. Simon Rattle might not be flattered by that remark, but Franz is impervious to the implicit slur. There is something self-enclosed about him, something which might appear almost menacing unless one recognises his essential naivety.

The son of a sometime member of the Austrian Parliament, he was spotted as a teenager by an eccentric, Furtwangler-worshipping baron called Andreas von Bennigsen, who adopted him. He then ran off with the baron’s young wife, Angelika, herself an industrial heiress. Early in the relationship, Franz was smashed up in a road accident; some of the scars are still visible, the pain intermittent. He married Angelika and lives with her in Liechtenstein.

Untouchable throughout was his self-belief. Franz, with baton in hand, never doubted his destiny no matter how murmurous the players, how querulous the critics. He knows exactly where he’s going. He stayed out of London for four years, returning to the 2000 Proms with a hulk of Austrian scripture, Franz Schmidt’s Book of Seven Seals. He returned again with the Zurich Opera, performing Tannhauser at a packed Festival Hall. ‘I’d never seen a London audience respond like that,’ he grins. ‘It was a great feeling.’ He forsees his concerts with the LSO as the basis of a regular relationship, ‘if the chemistry works’.

So all’s well that ends well - except for the unresolved conundrum of how so many music critics got it so wrong. The problem has much to do with the London scene where, with a dozen rival newspapers, critics listen too closely to the cavils of players, and to each other's opinions.

The reverse is equally unfortunate. The New York Times chief critic, Anthony Tommasini, has found fault with every Philharmonic concert conducted by Lorin Maazel, whom most players proclaim to be inspirational. In a metropolis with only one newspaper, the critic has no need to take soundings, and no fear of contradiction.

Critics have a responsibility to get it right and a licence to get it occasionally wrong. When they do get it wrong, however, they face disempowerment. They can write whatever they like now about Franz Welser-Möst: he is a fixture in our musical future. ‘My career only goes up and up and up,’ he laughs.

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