Too much praise

A while ago, driving into New York, I listened to the start of the broadcast of the opening concert of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival. I heard one complete piece, the overture to Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito, along with commentary from Margaret Juntwait and Fred Child, top radio personalities from, respectively, WNYC (New York’s public radio station) and NPR’s Performance Today.

And the commentary made me itch. Juntwait and Child sound like smart, humane people, and when they started praising Mostly Mozart’s new music director, Louis Langrée, I didn’t disagree. He sounded like a real live wire, a vigorous, driving conductor.

But why were Juntwait and Child praising him at all? Why did they all but gush as they told us how he leaned forward as he led the music, almost melding with the orchestra? (Caveat: I’m paraphrasing all this from memory, and may not have the details quite right.) Should it be their job to tell us — either explicitly or by implication — how wonderful the concert is?

No, I say, unless, of course, they’re also willing to say when a concert is bad. And if they’re going to offer any evaluation, they ought to go further. How well does the orchestra play? This they didn’t tell us, and in fact the playing wasn’t first-rate. The strings didn’t articulate fast notes very clearly, certainly not with the joyful precision of their colleagues in the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Shouldn’t Juntwait and Child tell us this, something any musician would notice, at least as a footnote to their praise of the conductor?

Now, I’m sure I’m asking the impossible. What I’m talking about just isn’t done. The broadcast is in some sense a collaboration between the performing group and the broadcaster, and Lincoln Center won’t be happy if their moment in the sun is sabotaged by negative comments, even if they’re well deserved. Juntwait and Child — whom I have nothing against; I’m sorry if my words here offend them — may well justify their praise, saying they wouldn’t offer it if it weren’t honest. If they didn’t like the concert, they might say, they’d just keep quiet.

Certainly situations like that aren’t unknown. In the ’80s I did a piece for the Wall Street Journal about reporting on audio issues in Stereo Review magazine. Its editors had no problem telling me that Stereo Review never ran negative reviews of audio equipment; if they didn’t like something, they just wouldn’t run any review at all. Maybe, given all the interests involved (in Stereo Review‘s case, the editors didn’t want to offend any advertisers), that’s a reasonable, even honorable way for announcers of classical music broadcasts to behave.

But I don’t like it. Classical music suffers from the notion that all of it is wonderful, that every work is a “masterpiece,” and that every performance is “great.” Or inspiring, acclaimed, exciting, moving…take your pick. Or that, even if some performances aren’t as good as they should be, the overall enterprise still is inspiring, exciting, moving, and of course acclaimed, not to mention central to civilization.

Life, of course, isn’t like that; nothing is uniformly wonderful or even mostly wonderful, not even ice cream or fudge. (Exercise might come closest.) So — because classical music is too cut off from everybody’s normal life — it’s best to be honest, to admit that classical music varies just like everything else, and not to praise it unless there’s also room for criticism. If Juntwait and Child aren’t prepared to point out any problems they might hear, then their praise of concerts they broadcast, even if it’s completely honest, helps undermine classical music by making it seem like some kind of fairyland, glowing, untouchable, and of course completely unreal.

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