ST. LOUISIf I were asked to summon one specific memory that might encapsulate my four seasons as chief classical music critic of The Washington Post, I would not single out any particular concert or opera performance.
Rather, I would return to one of those airy, clement intermissions spent on the back patio of the Kennedy Center, as the sky turned deepest orange, and Georgetown began to twinkle for the evening. There, to the droning accompaniment of airplanes on final approach into Reagan National, I was content to sit and watch the Washington promenade--lawyers and politicians enjoying their brief escape from the crush of worldly concerns, animated music lovers talking over niceties of the performance, children simply taking everything in, a quick and lambent wonder in their eyes. At such moments, all seemed right with the world--and the capital city became its charmed epicenter.
It is a fond memory, one to which I expect to return many times. But memory it is, for I have left Washington for St. Louis, and thrown over music criticism for artistic administration. After two decades as a working critic, during the course of which I attended some 3,000 concerts, I have come to the conclusion that I've pretty much said most of what I needed to say about music. Henceforth, it will be time to put theory into practice.
I began writing criticism in 1979, straight out of college, when I sent an unsolicited manuscript to a short-lived arts publication called the Soho News in Manhattan and soon found myself its classical music editor. Thereafter, I passed through the New York Times and Newsday before arriving at The Post in 1995, where my very first event was a National Symphony Orchestra Labor Day concert of patriotic music on the Capitol lawn--a perfect welcome to Washington.
From the beginning of my career, it had been my hope to infuse some of the passion, allusiveness and occasional irreverence I found in the best writing about jazz and rock back into the realm of classical music. Everything has always reminded me of everything else, anyway, and I saw no reason why a "high" art was necessarily compelled to be an unrelentingly solemn one. Like so many writers of my generation, I owed an enormous debt to the work of Thomas Pynchon, who proved conclusively that there was room for Three Stooges-style silliness in one paragraph and sonorous majesty in the next. This, then, was what I wanted to approximate in my own writing.
And, to be sure, there was silliness and sublimity aplenty on which to report during the last four seasons. The silliest single moment must have been that night in 1996 when the English surtitles misfired in the last few minutes of a Washington Opera performance of "La Boheme" and Rodolfo responded to poor, dying Mimi's entreaties never to leave her with the computer-generated message:
"Your batteries are running low and your light has been dimmed."
The sublimities? Robert Shaw's incandescent performances of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" and the Ninth Symphony with the NSO, only weeks before his death. The intricately plotted, magnificently realized renditions of "Der Rosenkavalier" and "Tristan und Isolde" led by Washington Opera Music Director Heinz Fricke, who remains that company's strongest asset. The nonpareil Cleveland Orchestra in a measured and meticulous performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, under the direction of Christoph von Dohnanyi. Thomas Quasthoff's bass voice booming throughout the purple air of Constitution Hall in a Good Friday presentation of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion." An infectiously joyful NSO children's concert under Bobby McFerrin. Evgeny Kissin caressing the notes of Beethoven's Sonata No. 28 in A, Op. 101, so tenderly that the piano began to sound like a bowed instrument. And so many more.
Washington is blessed with a varied and vital musical life. And, despite the occasional bout of clapping between movements, which seems to be endemic everywhere, the audiences are unusually sophisticated as well. Certainly my correspondence has been consistently on a higher intellectual level than most of what reached me at the New York Times or Newsday.
For anybody who would chronicle musical activities in Washington, however, there remains one central problem: Almost all of the best classical performances in the area take place at the same time--that is, between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, mid-September through mid-May. As such, Post critics have occasionally been forced to miss events that might well have made the most important musical event of the week had they been presented on, say, a Tuesday night in August.
Fortunately, the National Symphony Orchestra begins weekly concert series on Thursday night--and, for the last two seasons, it has begun them at the eminently civilized hour of 7 p.m. What a pleasure it has been to hear this orchestra grow! Music Director Leonard Slatkin, who arrived in 1996, was just the person to drill what had long been a promising but disorganized ensemble into shape--and it was good to hear so much American music in the nation's capital. While there are still problems to overcome--and some key appointments to be made--Slatkin has done much to give us a National Symphony Orchestra worthy of the name. And it was nothing less than a thrill to watch the NSO bring a reserved Vienna Musikvereinsaal audience to its feet during the triumphant fall tour in 1997.
Slatkin's efforts were assisted enormously by the advent of the new Kennedy Center Concert Hall in October 1997. Handsome and acoustically responsive, this is undoubtedly the best large auditorium Washington has ever had--and infinitely superior to the eggy mass that stood in its place from 1971 to 1997, during which time the musicians couldn't hear one another from 30 feet across the stage. Since the renovation was said to have been undertaken to bring the hall up to current safety codes, it is a little strange that listeners are buried at the ends of the side rows on the parquet level. (Because there are no longer side aisles, those in the far end must climb over an entire row of people to get in or out of their seats.) But the overall excellence of the renovated hall cannot be denied.
The best thing Placido Domingo has done as artistic director of the Washington Opera is to sing very beautifully those works in which he has chosen to appear. He has not been a hands-off, in-name-only director, as was feared when he took the job. But administration does not seem to be his strong suit and the company has occasionally seemed a sort of dumping ground--where old friends now past their prime can come to star in one final production, where operas Domingo has sung elsewhere can be slipped into the season (who can ever forget that staggeringly campy "Il Guarany" from the Los Angeles Opera, throughout which the tenor moved around the stage with what appeared to be a potted plant on his head?), and where wife Marta Domingo might be permitted to exercise her decidedly modest talent for stage direction.
On the other hand, a move that initially seemed a certifiable Dumb Idea--the 1996 decision to purchase the old Woodward & Lothrop department store downtown with the intent of transforming it into a permanent home for the company--now appears to have been remarkably canny. It is unclear whether the directors of the Washington Opera knew all along that the promised transformation would never happen (although that was the unanimous opinion among the opera professionals to whom I spoke--including Domingo, who was deeply skeptical throughout the process), but it proved a brilliant real estate gambit.
After the sale of the old Woodies building for $28 million earlier this year, the Washington Opera ended up with a spectacular nest egg that will, one hopes, allow it to fulfill its dream of gaining a foothold among the top-level troupes in the country. There are some smart, creative people on board, and the company's best nights (usually, but not necessarily, those conducted by Fricke) are already compelling indeed.
The other important music theater ensembles in the area are the Virginia Opera (which brought loving performances of Copland's "The Tender Land" and Gluck's "Orfeo et Euridice" to town) and Washington Concert Opera, which presents unstaged but exceptionally well-cast performances of large works that are rarely heard elsewhere. (Good luck, by the way, to the WCO in its suit against soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, who abruptly reneged on a 1998 contract to sing Ambroise Thomas's "Hamlet" at Lisner Auditorium to make a recording in Europe.)
High and Low Notes
Washington life would be the livelier if more attention were paid to contemporary music. Despite this paucity, I shall not forget the exhilarating visit by the Paul Dresher Ensemble, the Washington premiere of Ned Rorem's achingly eloquent late song cycle "Evidence of Things Not Seen," or the talents of such Washington composers as Jeffrey Mumford, Haskell Small, Jessica Krash and Anne LeBaron, to name only a few.
If we are to be saddled with the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage forever, let us hope that it is still a work in progress. These free concerts, presented evenings at 6 in the foyer of the Kennedy Center, are the sort of "feel-good" events that are supposed to prove, once and for all, that we live in a Great Democracy Where Art Belongs to All the People. But much of what I've heard in this series (unsystematically, I must confess) has been squalling junk, and sometimes it has been dismayingly disruptive: The worst came on the night that "Tristan und Isolde" opened at the Washington Opera, where ticketholders, on their way to experience one of the great masterworks of Western culture, had to shout in a near-Wagnerian fashion themselves to be heard above the din.
The Washington Performing Arts Society is an ambitious organization that has brought many, if not most, of the big-ticket artists to town. The 1999-2000 season seems rather on the PC side, but there are still some fine events to look forward to--notably a rare visit from the Berlin Philharmonic.
Without WPAS, we would likely not have heard Kissin, Dohnanyi, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (with an ambitious Gershwin program) or Anne-Sophie Mutter in that infamous recital that may or may not have started a minute or two early. (Due to her hyper-punctuality, hundreds of ticket-holders were forced to wait more than 20 minutes until the first break--after having paid up to $55 a seat.)
There were imaginative and stylistically authoritative early-music concerts presented by the Folger Consort (one of its guiding forces, Christopher Kendall, doubled as the director of the 20th Century Consort). Because I do not drive, I usually left coverage of the George Mason University Center for the Arts to other critics, but my few times in deepest Fairfax were illuminating--this is indeed a splendidly adaptive mid-size hall. So, one hopes, will be the new Strathmore Hall, off Rockville Pike, which is scheduled to open early in the next century.
Washington is a bastion of collective musicmaking, and one wonders whether any other city in the country can rival it for the variety and excellence of its choral ensembles. Think of it--the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the Washington Chorus (formerly the Oratorio Society of Washington), the Paul Hill Chorale and Washington Singers, the Cathedral Choral Society and the many smaller groups presenting their work throughout the year. Holiday season in the capital city is a joyous occasion for anybody who loves the teaming of voices.
All best wishes to Thomas Beveridge, who built the Washington Men's Camerata into a distinguished ensemble and was then rewarded with a weird bit of musical politics that removed him from the organization; the composer and conductor is already starting a new chorus. And who can forget those marvelously creative Tuesday afternoon cantata performances downtown at the Church of the Epiphany presented by the Washington Bach Consort under J. Reilly Lewis? Then there were the smaller orchestras, with programs that were often ambitious and exciting--the Washington Chamber Symphony, the Arlington Symphony, the Prince George's Philharmonic, Eclipse and several others.
Still, if I were to name the most reliably first-rate of all presenting organizations in Washington, I'd have to select Gerald Perman's Vocal Arts Society. The group, which now offers eight concerts a year, most of them in the French Embassy, gave first Washington recitals to sopranos Renee Fleming, mezzo-sopranos Lorraine Hunt and Suzanne Mentzer, tenors Stanford Olsen and Rockwell Blake, countertenor David Daniels, and baritones Sanford Sylvan and Ian Bostridge long before these estimable artists were generally known.
Next on the Program
The classical music industry remains in a spiritual crisis. The large record companies devote more and more of their time to reissues, and the new discs they do record are often musically bankrupt. Although Washington was spared the spectacle of poor, damaged David Helfgott moaning and groaning at the keys, the Kennedy Center itself presented the American concert debut of "tenor" Andrea Bocelli--a rank amateur, albeit one gifted with a few (very few) wonderful sounds. Enjoy his heavily doctored recordings if you will, but don't believe them for a moment.
And the prodigy syndrome, which was already an annoyance in 1995, has become a major ill. For every Midori or Hilary Hahn who has come along, we have been forced to endure unformed, uninspiring and immature playing by the likes of Helen Huang or Sarah Chang. I mistrust the "cute kid" brigade for two principal reasons: It is deeply exploitative and often ruinous to young artists, and it transforms age--which, after all, provides a natural accumulation of musical and personal experience--into a liability for more seasoned players.
But it has been heartening to watch some "superstars" continue to take risks. One great moment came earlier this year, when Yo-Yo Ma played a dense and absolutely uncompromising afternoon of music for solo cello--works by Bright Sheng, Mark O'Connor and the mammoth sonata by Zoltan Kodaly, among others--and not only kept the audience riveted throughout the program but inspired it to rise as one to its feet at the conclusion.
Looking back, it is obvious that I made my share of mistakes during my stay at The Post. After hearing Eri Klas lead a noisy, tub-thumping performance of some Russian material with the NSO, I blamed conductor rather than material. What a humiliating but delightful surprise, then, to discover the clarity and sensitivity Klas was able to bring to more substantial music when he made his second visit to the Kennedy Center last year. I've rarely been happier to correct myself.
Fortunately, I had my readers to remonstrate with me on such occasions. The tone of the letters was almost unfailingly cordial, and I ended up on good terms with some correspondents who had originally wanted my head. Either we found points of agreement or just agreed to disagree, as music lovers will. (Put five critics in a room and throw out the name "Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg" and watch what happens!) I hope I've never been presumptuous enough to pretend I had any sort of "final word" on a concert; I've always considered my job one of public rumination rather than the carving of tablets.
I owe a great deal to my predecessor in this job, Joseph McLellan, who couldn't have been a more helpful and considerate guide to Washington musical life, and to my tireless staff of stringers, who always seemed ready to drive out miles and miles beyond the Beltway to cover some not-to-be-missed concert that miraculously appeared on our schedule two hours before show time. And then there were the people I met--Elizabeth Mensh, the "hat lady" who has been attending NSO concerts since their inception in 1930, the various representatives of the Kennedy Center and its constituents (especially National Symphony's tireless Patricia O'Kelly), some of the great musicians who live in the area, notably soprano Evelyn Lear and bass Thomas Stewart, heroes of my childhood who, to my amazement, became friends in my adulthood, and audience members of all stripes.
Philip Kennicott, The Post's new classical music critic, will begin his work in these pages later this month. He comes from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (yes, we are swapping cities) and worked for me at Newsday in the late '80s and early '90s. I admire him enormously and feel comfortable leaving this precious franchise in his hands. Most of all, I envy him the process of learning about Washington--this intricate and courtly city that is part Henry James, part V.S. Naipaul--and hope that our readers will be as forthcoming with him as they were with me.
I'll be contributing to The Post on a fairly regular basis, but I leave the world of concert reviewing without regret, for it was time to go. Still, I'll often reflect on the cheerful, sophisticated patter to which I used to listen high above the Potomac and, at such moments, I will be deeply grateful to have been your music critic.
Over to Philip Kennicott.
Tim Page is the newly appointed artistic adviser and creative chair for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. His writings about music in Washington won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997.
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