More on judging

It's also helpful if someone -- trashing or loving some work of art -- gives some space to the other side. That's especially helpful if the art in question is controversial, extreme, not well known, or widely misunderstood. For instance, when I write about Cage's 4'33", I could reach out a hand to everyone who can't abide the piece, everyone who sits there during a performance, going wild with boredom or nervousness, wishing the silence would go away. (Though, in the '80s, writing my column in The Village Voice, I had no patience with Edward … [Read more...]


Hilton Kramer, and his assault on the poor, harmless gates (linked from ArtsJournal today)…I really have to laugh. Of course the guy's a long-time curmudgeon, but he doesn't say a thing about what's wrong (in his view) with this Christo/Jeanne-Claude artwork -- just that they're a "defacement" of Central Park, an "assault on nature," and a "wanton desecration of a precious work of art." In these last two points, he's incoherent, since the "wanton desecration" comes about because Central Park is a masterpiece of landscape art, which means the … [Read more...]

On judging art

A footnote to the above. When we read someone trash The Gates as Hilton Kramer trashes them, how can we know whether to take the trashing seriously? Or, conversely, if someone praises something, how can we assess the praise? Here are some ideas. When someone trashes something -- or, at the other end of the spectrum, praises something wildly -- we need to understand whether they actually know anything about what they're trashing or praising. We can judge that from how they praise or trash. Do they mention anything specific about the work … [Read more...]

Mona Lisa

I was in Paris this past weekend, and went to the Louvre, where somehow I'd never been. Of course I had to see the Mona Lisa, which turns out to be three art pieces, all happening at the same time, layered on top of each other. The first, of course, is the painting itself, which is more impressive -- it has more presence, for one thing -- than I'd guessed from reproductions. I wish it were displayed with other Leonardos, especially if its smile is one of its attractions. Other faces in other Leonardos at the Louvre also have sly, surprising … [Read more...]

Also at the Louvre

A painting by Giovanni Paolo Pannini, "Fête musicale donné par le cardinal de La Rochefoucauld au théatre Argentina de Rome en 1747 sur l'occasion du mariage du Dauphin, fils de Louis XV." ("Musical celebration given by the Cardinal de la Rochefoucauld at the Theater Argentina in Rome in 1747 on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin, son of Louis XV.") As its title would suggest, this painting shows a large and rather formal concert. There's an orchestra of (by my count) just over 70 musicians, which certainly supports the point I made … [Read more...]


We need to revise a lot of what we think we know about classical music and its history. For instance, how the audience behaves. We take for granted our current practice, which of course is that the audience sits silently, not even applauding between movements. Of course, we're starting to ease up on that -- applause between movements doesn't seem completely forbidden any more. But what most of us don't know is how recent our current rules for the audience are. They may date only from the middle of the last century. I've made a great fuss about … [Read more...]

So good they linked it twice

Today there's a very important link on ArtsJournal -- or actually links, because the piece shows up both under Music and Theater. (And it was linked yesterday, too, which makes three links!) Seriously, though, this is something everyone who cares about classical music should read. It's by Nicholas Kenyon, a former critic who now (to his everlasting credit, considering what he's done) runs the BBC Proms; it ran in the Guardian in Britain yesterday. What Kenyon says is very simple. Classical music ought to be in fabulous shape, because the … [Read more...]

A small revelation

This just occured to me. Classical music purists insist that classical music is valuable precisely because it isn't popular. Which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You define classical music as not popular, and its look and feel starts to reflect that. People -- no fools they -- start to get the message, and classical music actually becomes unpopular. People stop listening to it. And so the purists get their wish, though not quite in the way they expected. They hadn't figured that if classical music wasn't popular, it might disappear. … [Read more...]

Classical music and the world outside

Here's an e-mail I got from a friend this week, someone who works in the classical music business in New York. No need to say anything to introduce it. It speaks, wistfully, for itself: So this weekend I finally got around to screening some of the DVD's of the Bernstein Young People's Concerts; it's amazing how far we HAVEN'T come.  Who could imagine a Music Director actually leading a series to help people learn how to listen, and a national TV network broadcasting it?  And they're GOOD.    Then I went to MOMA, and I … [Read more...]

Open the gates

There's a lesson for classical music -- and especially big classical music institutions -- in the Arts section of today's New York Times. One of the lead stories (by Julie Salamon, whose byline is always worth looking for) is about Warhammer, a cult wargame played with intricately hand-painted toy soldiers. There was a Warhammer tournament in the visitors' plaza at NASA's Space Center in Houston. And why there? Listen to Mike Wampler, the sales manager at NASA's Space Center: Sixty percent of our visitors weren't born when NASA accomplished … [Read more...]

The Gates — footnote

My wife was walking through Central Park, looking at The Gates. Perched on top of one of them was a hawk, eating its prey -- something large, my wife said, maybe a pigeon or even a squirrel. And down below stood a crowd of people, watching the hawk eat. Only in New York! … [Read more...]

The crisis (second followup)

Someone from an orchestra suggested that I shouldn't have talked about changes in cultural weather. If classical music isn't so popular now, or people aren't buying subscriptions to orchestra concerts, this isn't (my correspondent thinks) a change in cultural weather. It's a change in cultural climate. Weather changes daily; climate changes last for centuries. So a change in climate is far more serious -- and that, my correspondent feels, is what we're facing now. I've since found that this distinction is much debated among orchestra marketing … [Read more...]

The crisis (first followup)

I want to thank many people for their responses -- both by e-mail and in person -- to my January 20 post on the classical music crisis. Perhaps the most striking came from two highly placed people deep within the biz, who both thought things were worse than I'd said. And very informative comments came from people who either corrected me, or added crisis points I hadn't thought of. I knew, of course, that I was only taking a preliminary measure of the crisis, subject to modification and elaboration later on. So thanks to Lisa Hirsch, an … [Read more...]

Hypothetical question

Suppose orchestras knew they were in desperate trouble -- trouble so bad that they could see extinction looming. Or if not extinction, then at least a sharp cutback in their operations. Should they talk about this publicly? Maybe not. It's hard to raise money when extinction looms. "We're asking you [says the orchestra to a wealthy donor, or corporation or foundation] for two million dollars. Oh, and we might be out of business three years from now." Understandably, orchestras might not want to go there. They might think, "Well, we've got a … [Read more...]

John Cage in Pittsburgh

Last week, I did the second concert this season in the "Symphony with a Splash" I plan and host with the Pittsburgh Symphony. These are concerts for people who don't normally go to hear the orchestra; we do short pieces (including single movements of long pieces), with commentary from me. This time we tried something really challenging -- John Cage's famous silent piece, 4'33", with the second of Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra coming just before and after it. We could get away with this because our theme was "Are You Crazy?" -- and we … [Read more...]