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July 22, 2005

Absent critic weighs in - later

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.

Posted by dstearns at July 22, 2005 01:23 PM


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