Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Fred Kirshnit

Yesterday, December 5, 2006, a bizarre article appeared in The New York Sun. The title of the article was "New York Drops Off The List Of The Big Five Orchestras". The author of the article was Fred Kirshnit.

The thrust of the article was to claim that America's five finest orchestras are now the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony, the latter three ensembles having replaced the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, former members of this exalted group.

Kirshnit is a virtually unknown personage who for years posted concert and opera reviews on an obscure website,, before joining the Sun to supplement Jay Nordlinger. Anyone who wishes to sample the quality of Kirshnit's work will have hours of fun and millions of laughs leafing through years and years of Kirshnit's web reviews, which remain posted at These old reviews are some of the best sources of reliable hilarity in the entire online world, akin to the novels of E. F. Benson--always available when one needs a bit of light amusement.

When I first discovered the website, initially I thought that the whole thing was a big put-on. Kirshnit's reviews were, I thought, deliberate send-ups, mimicking the bad writing and perverse musical judgments too often on display in musical coverage in American newspapers and magazines.

After I read about a dozen or so of Kirshnit's pieces, however, I started to realize that this guy's writings were not tongue-in-cheek at all but that he took himself deadly seriously, just like the television character Ted Baxter or the vocal artist Florence Foster Jenkins, neither of whom had a clue that they were ridiculous figures, entitled to nothing but scorn.

As I learned in law school, anyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but no one is entitled to his or her own set of facts. While Kirshnit's judgments in his Sun article are neither serious nor informed--they speak for themselves and will be taken seriously by no one--his many ridiculous misstatements of fact need to be corrected for the record.

I am going to italicize the biggest howlers, but I encourage everyone to read the full article, as it truly is priceless. Visits to the website are also a must for anyone who needs a laugh.

But music director Mr. Jansons recently announced his intention to move back to Europe permanently, taking over not one, but two of the world's finest ensembles, and leaving Heinz Hall forever.

Yes, Mr. Kirshnit, and thank you for that timely news bulletin. As everyone on the planet already knows--except for you, apparently--in June 2002, four and one-half years ago, Mariss Jansons announced his "intention" to leave his post with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

And, alas, I have even more news for you, Mr. Kirshnit. JANSONS IS ALREADY GONE! He has been gone for two and one-half years!

Now the powers that be have spent their money not on a new music director but rather on spin doctors. The new paradigm is for the orchestra to be led by Sir Andrew Davis, Yan Pascal Tortelier, and Marek Janowski. And, apparently, the twain shall never meet. The plan is for each conductor to instill his own ethnicity into the mix and for the public to swoon with delight at the innovation.

Mr. Kirshnit, you are to be commended on your excellent Jackie Collins imitation!

And once again, Mr. Kirshnit, you are to be thanked for that timely news announcement, which the rest of the world learned in September 2004. You will be happy to learn that "the plan" has now been in place in Pittsburgh for 18 months.

But wait, Mr. Kirshnit--I have even more updates for you! Andrew Davis announced, more than two months ago, that he will not continue as part of "the plan" and that he will cease to "instill his own ethnicity" in Pittsburgh when his contract expires in another 18 months. Are you withholding this news, waiting to break it in March 2009 or thereabouts?

Rumor has it that the very talented Kent Nagano will leave troubled Montreal and settle on Michigan Avenue.

"Rumors" about Kent Nagano taking over the Chicago Symphony may be floating about in other solar systems, but in OUR solar system there are no rumors involving Kent Nagano and the Chicago Symphony. Anyone who knows anything about the Chicago Symphony and its Board Of Directors and its management knows that Kent Nagano is not on Chicago's short list or on Chicago's long list or on ANY list concerning Chicago's search for a music director.

The "rumors" in Chicago involve Riccardo Chailly, Riccardo Muti and David Robertson. The members of the orchestra want Chailly, the Board Of Directors wants Muti and Deborah Card wants Robertson. The members of the orchestra are lobbying against Robertson, Chailly needs to be given a reason to leave Leipzig, and everyone would love to have a glamour figure like Muti at the helm of the orchestra but there is great concern that Muti would be hard to handle.

Austrian Franz Welser-Most had a terrible reputation when chosen to take over. Crucified by the British press--they quickly dubbed him "Frankly Worst Than Most"--he was hunted down in London as relentlessly as Bill Sykes. His tenure at the head of their Philharmonic was not just stormy but deeply unsatisfying for audiences at the Royal Festival Hall.

In Cleveland, performances have been uniformly poor, unpopular with both patrons and critics alike. For four years now, Maestro has brought his charges to Carnegie and my critical reaction has been somewhat subdued as I have been forced to concentrate on physically controlling my impulses to shudder on a regular basis.

Mr. Kirshnit, thank you for that 1990 update, as well as for the Norman Lebrecht imitation, which I genuinely enjoyed. Are you participating in a competition for a bad writing award?

Things have changed quite a bit in London since 1990, Mr. Kirshnit. Welser-Most was always popular with London audiences but fiercely opposed by some of the London critics at the very beginning of his tenure with the London Philharmonic. Welser-Most was only 27 years old at the time, and his youth was held against him.

By the end of his tenure with the London Philharmonic, in 1996, Welser-Most's London reviews were quite good (and often considerably better than that, especially in Bruckner--he began receiving superlative London notices in Bruckner from the age of 30 or so), and he and the London critics have long since made peace. Welser-Most's reception in London today is near-rapturous, which you would know if you kept abreast of the London musical scene.

The performances in Cleveland under Welser-Most have been uniformly excellent, at a higher standard than anywhere else in the world. This cannot be a surprise to anyone, as the Cleveland Orchestra is the finest orchestra in the world on a pure ensemble basis. Anyone selected at random from the telephone directory could conduct the Cleveland Orchestra, and the performance would be magnificent. This is because the members of the orchestra would ignore the conductor and play as a chamber group, acutely listening and responding to each other.

Welser-Most's reception in Cleveland has been extremely positive among audiences, patrons and the Board Of Directors. It is the critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Donald Rosenberg, who does not like Welser-Most. Other than Donald Rosenberg, Welser-Most's Cleveland reception has been a very fine one--so fine, in fact, that after his first year in Cleveland the orchestra's Board Of Directors asked Welser-Most if he would extend his five-year contract to a ten-year contract, which Welser-Most agreed to do.

In the late 1990's, Seiji Ozawa became the most infamous victim in Massachusetts since Sacco and Vanzetti. His troubles began with The Great Nutcracker War, when he took his orchestra to Asia in November and December 1996, leaving the city without a season of Christmas music performances. Then he dared to assert his leadership at the Tanglewood festival, replacing certain key personnel who were beloved by the press. The crushing blow came from New York critics, who wrote articles claiming the BSO had lost all professionalism and that its sound was devoid of proper intonation and balance. This avalanche of disrespect eventually led to Mr. Ozawa abandoning his lifelong artistic project and signing on with the Vienna State Opera, where, I am happy to report, everyone loves him.

Mr. Kirshnit, are you writing about Vienna, Austria, or Vienna, Saskatchewan? You clearly know nothing about the music scene in Austria.

Seiji Ozawa has been a well-publicized disaster in Vienna, held in such low repute by all parties that he has basically departed from the house, and is now merely a figurehead whose appearances are confined to the opera house's stationery.

Ioan Holender, the Intendent, does not like him, the critics do not like him, the public does not like him, and the members of the orchestra do not like him. Ozawa's conducting of his first big production in the house, Ernst Krenek's "Jonny Spielt Auf", was such a preeminent disaster--reported in frightful detail, worldwide--that he was basically written off by everyone concerned from that time forward. And that "Jonny Spielt Auf" was the absolute high point of his Vienna tenure!

The Wiener Staatsoper is now simply waiting for Welser-Most's contract in Cleveland to expire, because Welser-Most is Holender's choice to replace Ozawa. Welser-Most is also being aggressively lobbied for this post by the Austrian Ministry Of Culture, on orders of the Austrian government.

Ozawa now only appears in Vienna for a handful of performances each season--roughly eight performances a year, in a house that performs seven nights a week, ten months a year--and he has no involvement in the selection of repertory, artists, new productions or anything else pivotal in the administration of an opera house. He is music director in name only. Everyone in the world knows this, whether they live in Vienna or elsewhere--except, apparently, you. And you are "happy to report" that "everyone loves him" in Vienna? YOU DO NOT HAVE A CLUE WHAT YOU ARE WRITING ABOUT, MR. KIRSHNIT.

Your recitation of the facts about Ozawa's deteriorating situation in Boston is also totally mucked up. The facts in Boston are as follows.

Ozawa completely lost the confidence of the members of the Boston Symphony between 1980 and 1990. From 1973, when Ozawa assumed his position in Boston, until the very early 1980's, the members of the orchestra disliked him--from a musical standpoint--but nevertheless the musicians continued to play exceptionally well as an ensemble, assuming that Ozawa, a very limited musician, had such obvious shortcomings that the Board Of Directors would replace him in short order.

In 1980, Ozawa's contract was extended, to the dismay of the musicians, and Boston Symphony musicians began departing, moving on to other orchestras. Morale among the musicians got worse and worse throughout the 1980's as Ozawa's contract kept being extended , and departures of orchestral members continued, until by 1990 the orchestra was only a shell of its former self. It was during this same decade that much of Boston's traditional subscriber base abandoned the orchestra.

The management of the Boston Symphony did not handle the situation well. Boston has the largest endowment of all American orchestras, and long-term full-season subscribers who departed were to some extent replaced by new, mini-season subscribers. The orchestra, financially, was still doing quite well and the management, through some combination of inertia and bad judgment, allowed the situation to continue to deteriorate for another decade.

It was only when Mark Volpe became the orchestra's Executive Director, in 1996, that he was able to convince, quietly, important members of the Board Of Directors that it was time to ease Ozawa out the door.

Ozawa's departure from Boston had nothing to do with the 1996 tour to Asia or to staff changes at Tanglewood. The infamous 1998 Greg Sandow Wall Street Journal article, similarly, had nothing to do with Ozawa's ouster, which by that time was, in any case, already engineered. Publicly, Boston even came to Ozawa's rescue. Anyone can read, online, the furious denunciations of Greg Sandow issued by the Boston Symphony in response to his Journal article as well as the statements of support the BSO strong-armed out of several prominent musicians on Ozawa's behalf.

Boston's reviews, in any case, had been deteriorating for years, in New York and elsewhere, long before the appearance of the Sandow article. Andrew Porter's Ozawa reviews in The New Yorker, still widely available, address the shortcomings during the first fifteen or so Ozawa Boston years, after which point no one--the members of the orchestra, Boston's musical public, the record companies--any longer cared. Boston's fall from greatness had already happened. By 1990, it was a done deal.

Despite having been so good for so long, the Philadelphia Orchestra has quite recently lost its edge. After enjoying the heralded reigns of Stokowski, Ormandy, Muti and Sawallisch, all of whom preserved that patented "fabulous Philadelphians" sound, the players were extremely upset by management's decision, taken unilaterally and without consultation, to hire Christoph Eschenbach. That signature sound is now unraveling at the seams.

Mr. Kirshnit, Philadelphia lost its unique sound long ago, during the Muti years. Muti deliberately altered the "drenched" nature of the Philadelphia string sound, which he believed to be inappropriate for much of the orchestral repertory. That was one of his publicly-stated objectives when he was named Ormandy's successor and, whether people liked the change or not, Muti effectuated it, and he effectuated it fairly quickly. The Philadelphia sound, as altered by Muti in the early 1980's, has not substantially changed since that time. Sawallisch consciously sought a less brilliant sound than Muti, but the Philadelphia sound has been consistent since 1982 or 1983, through the remainder of the Muti years and through the Sawallisch years and through the now short-lived Eschenbach years.

The "unraveling at the seams" in "that signature sound" occurred almost a quarter century ago, Mr. Kirshnit, and not under Eschenbach. Eschenbach's problems in Philadelphia have had nothing to do with Philadelphia's sound--they have been caused by his wildly fluctuating tempos, which have not convinced the musicians, and the attendant decline in unanimity of ensemble that all those tempo changes create.

Eschenbach's fate in Philadelphia was determined during his first European tour with the orchestra, a tour that included concerts in Vienna and elsewhere in Central Europe. Influential patrons of the orchestra accompanied the orchestra on that tour, and when they read the orchestra's reviews--especially translated for them--from the German and Austrian newspapers, they were shocked. The reviews were brutal, just about the worst reviews any major American orchestra has ever received on a European tour. The critics announced that the Philadelphia Orchestra was no longer a "great" orchestra, no longer a "special" orchestra, no longer an orchestra worth going out of one's way to hear. The Philadelphia Orchestra's supporters did not much appreciate reading such harsh words about their orchestra. Eschenbach's fate in Philadelphia was sealed after that first European tour, a fact widely if quietly known in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Nobody in this part of the world seems to know how good this ensemble really is, but this, I believe, is strictly a matter of East Coast superciliousness. Esa-Pekka Salonen is a dynamic, exciting presence, and a first-rate composer to boot. His ability to prod his forces into extraordinary bursts of color while still keeping proper balance allows the left coast Phil to dance on winds positively fairy-blown. The strings are lush but nimble, the woodwinds precise and poetic, the brass warm and accurate, the percussion bright and crisp. All are allowed to let loose in a rather elastic manner. Perhaps Mr. Salonen's secret is a palpable confidence that allows his players to breathe freely while still under his strict control. Whatever the formula, he has applied it exceptionally well. For 20th century music, this is the band of choice.

Mr. Kirshnit, I love your Barbara Cartland imitation! I hope you win that bad-writing award, because you sure have worked hard to come out on top. That is one of the most inane paragraphs anyone has ever written!

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is a regional orchestra. It has a very unpleasant sound--it has always had a very unpleasant sound--and its level of ensemble "swims": the orchestra cannot play as a tight, cohesive ensemble.

The string sound of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is particularly unpleasant. It is a very thick, colorless, undifferentiated sound. It is not luminous, it is not translucent, it is incapable of delicacy, and it suffers from a total lack of refinement. It is, however, loud.

The woodwind section is the best section of the orchestra, but the Los Angeles Philharmonic winds offer no competition whatsoever to the wind sections of the Cleveland Orchestra or the Chicago Symphony or the Philadelphia Orchestra, all three of which feature wind ensembles at an entirely different--and much higher--level.

The brass section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is merely bad. However, I would like to concede one point to you: the orchestra's percussion section, no doubt, truly is "crisp", as you state. But are not all percussion sections, because of the instruments they play, by their very natures, "crisp"?

Alas, none of the different sections of the Los Angeles Philharmonic blend well together. I can say this, having heard the orchestra on its home turf, Disney Hall. I have also heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform at the concert hall of the Kennedy Center in Washington and at Carnegie Hall in New York, and the orchestra sounded disgraceful in both of those venues, too. However, orchestras can be shaken out of tune by traveling, and orchestral musicians generally hear each other in new and different ways in foreign halls, so it is impossible to know how any orchestra truly sounds unless that orchestra has been heard in its home auditorium. I HAVE heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic play in its home auditorium, and I can state, uncategorically, that the orchestra sounds just as bad in Los Angeles as it does on the Eastern Seaboard.

However, all of the West Coast orchestras have horrible sound, and they have ALWAYS had horrible sound. The San Francisco Symphony has a horrible sound, too--not even Herbert Blomstedt could do much with the sound of that orchestra--and the Seattle Symphony has a TRULY horrible sound. I have always assumed, rightly or wrongly, that this must have something to do with the very, very best musicians always gravitating toward Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia, always the most prestigious jobs for American orchestral musicians since Boston's downfall.

So, Mr. Kirshnit, which are America's very finest orchestras?

I know of no informed, serious person who does not rank the Cleveland Orchestra number one. Cleveland is also the ONLY American orchestra that ALWAYS receives dazzling reviews in Europe.

I know of no informed, serious person who does not rank the Chicago Symphony Orchestra number two. The Philadelphia Orchestra traditionally offers Chicago its competition for the second spot, but the Philadelphia Orchestra is going through a bad period right now.

I know of no informed, serious person who does not rank the Philadelphia Orchestra number three. Despite its current difficulties, it remains a splendid ensemble, capable of playing any other American orchestra under the table, save Cleveland and Chicago.

After the top three spots, rankings become more difficult. The next grouping would have to be, in alphabetical order, Cincinnati, Dallas, Minnesota, New York and Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh is losing important musicians now, moving to other orchestras, a situation I am confident you are keeping up-to-date on, Mr. Kirshnit). The next grouping would have to be, again in alphabetical order, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Boston. After that grouping, the rest of America's orchestras are all pretty much lumped together in a muddle.

Truly, the concept of the traditional "big five" American orchestras should be replaced by the "big three", because that has been the reality of the orchestral situation in the United States more or less since the day I was born--in 1980.


  1. Andrew, I generally agree with your article here. However, I am puzzled over your assertion that the brass of the LA PHil are "merely bad." The last time I heard them the brass of the LA Phil sounded wonderful (Shostakovich Cello Concerto, Sibelius Kullervo). I think they have one of the finest low brass sections in the world.

  2. I think you need to attend an LA performance again. The LA Phil is playing beautifully when I heard them last year. And like davei, I had no problems with the brass section.