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July 22, 2005
Absent critic weighs in - later
by David Patrick Stearns
By David Patrick Stearns
Coming into this blog rather late, I’m almost as overwhelmed by the plethora of ideas here as I was Thursday night at the U.S. premiere of the Brian Ferneyhough/Charles Bernstein opera, “Shadowtime.” I don’t make the comparison lightly. To address the original topic: American critics have to apprehend a wider range of artistic expression than their European counterparts. The first question I ask when encountering anything I’m reviewing is this: What rules does this piece play by? Even though experimental modernism is out of fashion in the U.S., American critics still have to parse densely written works by Ferneyhough, Matthias Pintscher and others, while, at the other end of the spectrum, coming to terms with more retro, derivative pieces such as Mark Adamo’s “Little Women.”
My personal tastes lie more with Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen (anybody heard his marvelous Piano Concerto No. 4 this season?), but if “Little Women” has accomplished what it set out to do – which is to give the world another Gian Carlo Menotti opera – I certainly acknowledge the art and craft that created a new work that’s going to reach more people than “Shadowtime.” In the realm of opera production, I similarly have to acknowledge why the Metropolitan Opera’s straightforward, decorative Wagner productions are all but institutionalized in New York, though if I’m going to be anything but provincial, keeping abreast of the latest conceptual production to arrive on DVD from Stuttgart is part of job description.
European critics enjoy a wider range of repertoire, since the early-music movement has a higher profile there. That means they have to come to terms with Jacob Obrecht during the 500th anniversary since his death in ways that Americans do not. And this is our loss. I’d love to write about Obrecht because the more variety I have in my ears, the fresher I’ll be. I attempt to clean out my brain with forays into the theater, and by approaching an assignment to review Bebe Neuwirth singing Kurt Weill with the Philadelphia Orchestra as seriously as I would a new George Crumb work with Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001. That’s the only way I can go back to the Dvorak New World Symphony time after time with the necessary alertness.
Years back at a music critic conference in Aspen, Leonard Slatkin said that just as it’s his duty to discover new meaning in every performance of oft-heard old-world music, it’s the critic’s duty to do the same. I take that very seriously. North American critics are more likely than Europeans to live in communities with a limited musical diet - and to be far from other musical centers that might fill in the blind spots. But there's no way I can accept such limitations in my musical diet. It’s true that most of my readers will only hear any given opera when produced by the local company (which in Philadelphia means no Wagner, among other things). European critics may not have as much of a duty as we have to lead their readers out of the potential stagnation of any given classical music season - a stagnation that sometimes seems instutionalized by the managements of various American performing arts organizations. And if critics aren’t always in the process of defying stagnation - especially in a political and cultural climate that's less sympathetic than Europe's to the fine arts - we’re serving neither our professions nor the art that we write about.
Absent Critic Weighs In Late
by Anne Midgette
Due to my being in the mountains with only dial-up Internet access for the duration of this blog, I have not had a chance to peruse it too carefully, and my comments are coming out of left field.
But what I didn’t see addressed when I looked over the comments yesterday was something I feel is a defining trait and problem of both criticism and classical music in general in the US: isolationism (dare I say provincialism?). I started out as a critic in Germany, and the job involved traveling all over Europe going to different notable performances. I got to know a lot of different performers, a lot of different house styles. In the US by contrast most of us are confined to one city with occasional road trips out -- and the very fact that New Yorkers think they’re at the center of the universe makes New York one of the most provincial places of all. I was struck when “Meistersinger” returned to the Met a couple of years ago that some people had not seen the opera since the Met last performed it. And sure, the world’s orchestras come through Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center; but hearing the Leipzig Gewandhaus in Leipzig (which I have done), or the Cleveland Orchestra in Cleveland (which I haven’t) is a whole different ball game. This means that American critics have a narrower frame of reference. I would even say that we are more eager to crown stars (thanks, Hugh, for pointing out that Renee Fleming is not seen as such great shakes in the UK -- and dare I add the name of another American heroine, Deborah Voigt?) -- although admittedly I’ve seen English critics effuse madly and prematurely over decent performers as well.
I think the problem of isolation also affects the orchestra world here -- opera houses possibly to a lesser degree because economic pressures are leading to increased co-productions. But American orchestras seem to me each to be trying to invent the wheel and come up with new ways of dealing with the current cultural climate, just as American critics individually sit and pronounce on them.
I have seen an increase in discussions in the last months which may eventually help to countervene this trend, in part precisely because of blogs like this. Is it possible they don’t even need to be public, and that the exchange benefits those of us who participate even more than it does our readers?
Finding a balance
by Donald Rosenberg
So, maybe we're not so different, after all. Yes, London is an exception when it comes to coverage. The critics there face a distinct set of challenges. But, basically, we want the same things: to be able to write about the music we love with a free hand; to discuss matters we believe are significant to the art; to raise topics that boards and managements of certain institutions wish we wouldn't; to provoke, probe, nurture.
Where we do part is in approach, given the needs of our newspapers and our communities and our own personalities. This doesn't mean we're soft when tough issues crop up, performance-wise or otherwise, nor that we avoid going against the flow of public opinion. Wherever we live, we try to generate interest through lively writing and broad viewpoints. As Norman says, we need to think out of the box. How? By finding ways to make what we do utterly fascinating to the reader. If that sometimes means getting out of review mode to write a column or an interview or a feature or a news story, all the better. Unpredictability and the occasional touch of humor don't hurt. Whatever draws the reader in, without compromising the subject, is fair game.
What we all agree we must to do is fight for space, fight for presence, fight to continue raising our voices pro or con. The fact that the field is getting smaller makes us more crucial than ever. If we continue to do our homework and invest energy and passion in what we do, maybe we can convince editors that we're not at all marginal. In the end, Allan has it right: we mostly want to listen and write. And we have to believe that someone out there wants to know what we're thinking.
we're all right
by Norman Lebrecht
I agree with much of what has been written this past week. Allan is right to say that it’s a matter of personal choice whether to focus on performance criticism, as he does, or use a broader brush, as I do. Hugh is right to say that too much is expected of critics, both by the music profession which wants more paying customers and by editors who want more readers. Andrew Druckenbrod is right to point out that critics outside the major metropolitan centres are often closer to the heart of their papers, and their readers. Larry Johnson makes a telling point about deadlines.
But I don’t see much thinking outside the box. There is hardly a critic on earth who does not face pressure on space and demands to popularise. There is hardly a paper that has not reduced its critical strength and space and cut freelance fees. When I came into the game, a London oldtimer told that when he started the mid-market Daily Express employed five music critics, three of them on staff. These days, the mid-market has no music criticism and the top end hardly any staffers. The activity is in danger of becoming peripheral to newspapers, themselves an endangered species.
Against this backdrop, music criticism has hardly changed. That, it seems to me, is what we ought to be contemplating if we are to preserve and develop vibrant and diverse musical debate within mainstream media.
It's all in the stars
by Fiona Maddocks
The idea of exploring 'alternative historiographies' in a 350-word same-night review for the Evening Standard makes me giggle and would certainly get me the sack, probably quite rightly. It doesn't mean we're not aware of changing attitudes in musicology but it's an ephemeral and secondary past-time compared with trying to understand the music itself. I don't think Allan is trying to be pure at all; he just wants to concentrate on the matter in hand and put his energy into saying fresh things about a score or performance instead of chasing gossip. I couldn't agree with him more about the tediousness of 'music business' issues, while accepting the need to know what's going on. I'm sorry the blog has been dominated by Baltimore matters which have made me glaze over somewhat though I can see it's politically intriguing. Fortunately I am relieved, most of the time, of the need to write about such things having the master of the form (yes yes I mean Norman) as my colleague. Previously, at The Observer, the arts reporter covered these issues except the major stories which needed comment. That worked fine.
One issue not yet raised: star ratings. Hugh and I are almost alone in the UK press in not having a star system attached to our reviews (that is, to the quality of the event not to our writing...). They encourage an extremism, ie very good or very bad whereas most things are somewhere in the middle but that's considered dull criticism. It also saves you the bother of reading the attached text. It's fine for recordings but not live performance. I don't know whether that happens elsewhere but it discourages exploratory debate or, perish the thought. subtlety. It's just another demonstration of the trend to treat reviews chiefly as a consumer service.
Incidentally, in London we have a Critics Circle, struggling to survive beneath a stampede of apathy. Most of us belong but don't/can't attend meetings. In the time I've been a member, the most memorable debates have been about car parking space at the South Bank and second tickets Covent Garden. (You get my point.) It got a bit more lively when a member ended up in prison but unfortunately I missed that meeting. Maybe we're just not a clubbable lot. The fact is we all have to fight our own space battles with our editors and we can only do that alone.