[G]iven your desire for each audience member to have an authentic, individual experience, who are you writing for when you review concerts, and what do you hope your readers’ relationship to your writing is?
Being a critic is weird. All you can really do is write what your own individual reaction is, and hope it has a little bit of resonance with a reader or two. I think if you try to anticipate the reader’s response–by either deliberately going with the flow, or going against it–you turn into either the worst kind of shill, or the worst kind of scold. So I guess I’m writing for people who are interested in expanding their own listening technique by eavesdropping on how someone else does it. I don’t think my ears are any better than anyone else’s, but they’ve at least had more practice than most, so I try and articulate exactly what it is I listen for, what I notice, how much historical information I think is worth bringing to the table. I think one learns to listen the same way someone learns to compose–you start off with a vague sense of what you like, then you try a bunch of different things in order to hone in on it. And those things can and do include flat-out imitation. I tried on a lot of other people’s ears via criticism when I was working out my own relationship with music.
I think that gets back to that tension between inherent specialness and manufactured specialness. One of the things that’s inherently special about classical music is that it has a lot of history, and that a lot of that history never becomes obsolescent. It’s the sort of thing that often gets rather fuzzily incorporated into the the term “timeless,” or pejoratively incorporated into the term “old.” But I think that aspect of classical music is one of the most radical things about it, the fact that it puts you into such a wild and far-reaching continuum–that a lot of those ears I can try on so effortlessly are listening from vantage points decades or centuries away from mine. Frankly, I like being plugged into that much possibility every time I go to a concert. (Whenever I hear Beethoven, for example, I always remember that Friedrich Engels liked Beethoven. Take that, Che-t-shirted hippies!) Jonathan, you were using the term “vessel,” which I think hints at that aspect, but give yourself credit: it’s more active than that. Performers are like the bioengineers in Jurassic Park. Classical music might be a dinosaur, but bring that dinosaur back to life and let it run amok in present-day culture? I’d say that’s a special concert.
about reviewing a concert of an artist [I’ve] met or heard significant buzz about versus reviewing a concert of an artist whom [I know] nothing about
This is the risk of “special” concerts–the more hype there is, the more the review is going to be about whether or not the concert lives up to the hype. The risk can pay off–Dudamel, e.g.–but can also distract. (Lang Lang and his sneakers, &c.) There are composers and performers I keep my eye out for because of buzz, but there are also those I keep my eye out for because I happened to hear them and wanted to hear them again. And I’m more likely to take or create the opportunity for promotion in the second category. The trick then, maybe, is generating enough specialness to get people in the door but not so much that it gets in the way of making fans within the concert, because that does more in the long term. Personality can certainly get people in the door, but if you can’t channel that personality into a memorable musical experience, it’ll only get them in the door once.
Incidentally–Moe is the actual dog. “Soho the Dog” was lifted from Sir Michael Tippett–not so incidentally, a musician who really knew how to let his personality shine through in his work. (And be careful asking for a conversation on Boccanegra–I can blather on for hours.)