Classical vs. pop reviews, June 26

There’s no better way to understand why classical music doesn’t speak to many people these days than by comparing pop and classical music reviews. I’ve chosen some from the New York Times, both because I read that paper every day and because the reviews on both sides of the fence are more than reputable. So the comparison, broadly speaking, is fair.

So here’s a bit of Ben Ratliff’s review last Thursday of Gilberto Gil:

His set was a deep fusion of pop and folk culture…

The name of his band, Banda Larga Cordel, means broadband, and Mr. Gil’s communications-technology thoughts lie somewhere between cybertheory and metaphorical poetry about practical things….He’s not necessarily interested in the status or time-saving aspects of, say, cellphones; he’s an artist, the opposite of a salesman. But he is also the minister of culture for Brazil. In interviews, and in songs like the new “Banda Larga Cordel” and the old “Pela Internet” (“On the Internet”) — a tune from 1996 that he played on Tuesday — he casts broadband technology as an empowerment issue, a cheap way to have an entire country, and ideally an entire world, included in political and social discussions.

Brazilians have long been obsessed with the past and the future at the same time, a double consciousness that has helped produce a lot of good music over the last half-century. Mr. Gil in particular made peace with popular culture before many of his contemporaries did; the tropicália movement, which he helped build in the late 1960s, was playfully anti-nostalgia and ferociously anti-purist. He is the same as ever, a man of big ideas.

An interesting artist, you’d have to say. (And Minister of Culture! Note to everyone at NPAC who wanted a Cabinet-level arts department in the U.S. government — beware of getting what you wish for. Suppose Obama wins, sets up a Department of Cultural Affairs, and names John Mellencamp to head it. And suppose Mellencamp, an outspoken populist, says that he thinks symphony orchestras get too much money.)

Now read Anthony Tommasini, the same day, on a New York Philharmonic concert in Central Park:

Standing at the podium looking south from the Great Lawn to the skyscrapers of Midtown, the conductor Bramwell Tovey declared the sight “one of the great views in the world.” Best known to New Yorkers from his guest stints conducting the Philharmonic’s Summertime Classics concerts, Mr. Tovey brings droll British wit to his impromptu commentaries. He was in good form on Tuesday night.

After opening the program with an exuberant account of Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” Mr. Tovey tried to explain to concertgoers how they could vote to choose an encore for the orchestra. “No superdelegates here,” he added….

After intermission there was a refreshingly straightforward performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture. The composer may have been embarrassed by this made-to-order occasional piece, but Mr. Tovey and the orchestra treated it as a respectable score with a knockout finale, here punctuated with booming cannon shots courtesy of an electric keyboard. The concert ended with three marches by Sousa that had the crowd clapping and children marching up and down the grassy aisles.

If I were a smart Martian, new to the earth, I’d read all this, and decide that pop music is serious, and classical music is light entertainment, a blend of Las Vegas and the fourth of July. Somebody, of course, might object that the Philharmonic concert was designed as entertainment, a happy, unchallenging night in Central Park. To which I’d reply that there’s also a pop series in Central Park, and Gilberto Gil could well be on it.

Here’s Steve Smith, also on Thursday in the Times, about the Brooklyn Phlharmonic in yet another Central Park orchestral event:

The 29-member ensemble was amplified but still had to contend with an idling truck, cellphones that were answered rather than silenced, and other sporadic nuisances. The performance too had its rough edges. Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto sounded scrappy, with balances often less than ideal; the robust finale came off best. In Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 the soloist, Tim Fain, played with an easy brilliance and sweet tone. Competing with a nonplused sparrow and a cavorting bystander only seemed to intensify his megawatt smile. Once again, the last movement was strongest.

I took in those works from a seat near the front, then moved to the plaza behind the seats for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. There the sound was clearer and better blended, and [the conductor’s] careful attention to dynamics and rhythm was more readily discerned.

Classical music here seems like a technical exercise. The pieces are known. So how were they played? Badly or well? The Martian visitor — or any smart person, reading the Gilberto Gil review and this one — could be forgiven for simply declining to care. Only at the end of Steve’s review, and in parentheses, comes something that might spark some interest:

(During the Adagio sounds from the New York Philharmonic concert wafted on wayward breezes, briefly creating an Ivesian jangle.)

And this, of course, has — strictly speaking — nothing to do with the meaning or purpose of the concert, or at least not with any meaning the Brooklyn Philharmonic might have intended.

Please note: I’m friendly with both Tony and Steve, and I’m absolutely not saying that either is a bad critic, or that Ben Ratliff (whom I also know) is better than they are. I’m saying that pop music gives Ben more ideas — more substance — to work with.


Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    See, I think that what you’re comparing isn’t pop vs. classical, but composer/performer vs. recreator. What Ratliff has to work with that Smith and Tommasini don’t is Gil’s particular place in the current world. Comparing a review of Gil to, say, a review of Meredith Monk would level the playing field. Or a recreative pop singer to a recreative classical art song recital.

    What you quote of Ratliff doesn’t make me want to hear the music under review. The review would interest me more if Ratliff said more about Gil’s music. My first question about music I don’t know is always “What does it sound like?”

    Hi, Lisa. If you follow the link and read the complete review, I think you’ll find a lot about how the music sounds.

    As for the distinction you draw, I’m not sure it matters. The bottom line would simply be: The pop reviews show that pop music connects to the world around it, and the classical reviews seem to show that classical music doesn’t. You may care more about how the music sounds, but an uninitiated reader — someone not already in the classical music camp — might be interested in more things than that. Besides, remember that this isn’t just Gilberto Gil vs. the NY Phil. It’s about the mass of pop reviews vs. the mass of classical reviews. In writing my post, I was above all concerned with people who aren’t classical music listeners. Why should they be interested? Why should they give classical music a chance? I’m suggesting that an intelligent, curious, active person who reads the pop and classical reviews wouldn’t see much reason to try classical music.

    One other point about the distinction you draw. Recreative music can perfectly well connect to the world around it, and be seen to do so. Look at some of the writing about Beethoven symphony performances in the 1820, when the symphonies were starting to become part of the regular repertoire. They seemed exciting precisely because they connected to the lives people led.

    If you read these reviews, you’d feel that pop music connects to the world around it, and classical music doesn’t. And this is especially true for people who aren’t already committed to classical music. I was thinking largely of them when I wrote my post. Why should they care about classical music? What could make them interested? Not the reviews. They’re not going to care about fancy distinctions that excuse

  2. says

    I was with you until the last line: do these reviews suggest that “that pop music gives Ben more ideas — more substance — to work with”, or is there something about the business of writing pop reviews that allows more room for substantive ruminations on the music than is possible in classical reviews? (That itself might be down to many factors: a particular editorial line; differences in relative training; differences in reader expectations; etc.). I don’t think you can conclude on the evidence here that pop gives reviewers more to work with; it may just be that pop reviewers are more likely to dig deeper.

    Of course you’re right. One comparison can’t prove anything.

    But I’ve written both pop and classical reviews, doing each on a regular basis for a number of years. If you go to five pop shows in a week, as I did when I was a pop critic, you very likely have five very different experiences, with five very different audiences, and five different kinds of connection with the outside world. There’s a lot to talk about.

    But when you go to five classical performances, you’re in a relatively closed world. The first thing you’re likely to do, as a critic, is compare one classical performance to another, because you’re hearing the same music over and over. Not so in pop. If you hear Neil Young, you won’t (as a rule) write a review comparing him to Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or the Arctic Monkeys. He stands on his own. But if an orchestra plays Beethoven’s Fifth, in the back (or, more likely, the front) of your mind are all the other performances of the piece you’ve heard, and so you end up comparing them. Either explicitly, by mentioning some of the other performances, or implicitly, by invoking some benchmarks for how the piece should go. Thus you’re operating in a smaller world than a pop critic does.

    But there’s also a simpler answer to your point. Show me some classical reviews that dig as deeply as pop reviews do. I could do that — I might cite George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson (though note that they wrote in past eras, when maybe classical music had a more electric connection to the world around it). Or I could proudly name my wife, Anne Midgette.

    But then the question would be why classical reviews that, as you say, dig deeper are much more rare than pop reviews that do it. The simplest explanation would be what I said — that pop music gives critics of all abilities more to work with, so it’s easier for them to dig deep.

  3. says

    It’s an interesting idea, that pop music provides more ideas/substance to work with — but I’d venture to say that it is Gilberto Gil that gives Ben R. more to work with. (An artist with a rich musical and personal history, and one who specializes in the connections between music/cultural shifts/ideas.) Artists like Gil, I would venture to say, are not the majority in pop or any other kind of music. (Leaving aside the question of “what is pop” at all.) And if you know Gil’s work well, then reading the umpteenth review of one of his shows may not seem so fresh and invigorating. (Unless, of course, it is written by Ratliff!)

  4. says

    Not buying it, sorry!

    Yes, classical music criticism has loads of problems, but so does pop music criticism.

    Every jot and tittle that pop critics have ever written could disappear tomorrow and it would still ‘speak to many people’.

    The problem classical music faces in finding an audience are hardly the fault of its critics.

  5. Pasticcia says

    To the Illustrious Polypod Avram Boond-ss’bb Fomalhaut (Piscis Australis)

    In the name of the Southern Cross, peace, my dear Polypod. Allow me to report on the initial research concerning the journo-literary artefacts of musical endeavour on planet Earth.

    Based on the extract provided we were uncertain as to whether Mr Gil is in fact a performing musician. But the brief fragment at the top, the revealing words “set” and “played” and the identification of two songs suggests that he can in fact be included in our data. The overwhelming perception, however, is that he (or at least his observer) is more interested in ideas, texts, technology and politics than in music. We regret that we are left with little sense of what his creations or performances might be like or indeed of what quality, beyond the set being “a deep fusion of pop and folk culture” and a loose impression of cultural context. There is no doubt that his observer finds him interesting – “a man of big ideas” – but we have no sense of whether Mr Gil’s music or performance has had any affective impact on the observer.

    The Brooklyn Philharmonic, we can report, is a 29-member amplified ensemble that plays outdoors. However, their observer gives so much attention to the extra-performative factors of the location that we are tempted to conclude that this is not their normal mode of operation. Either this, or that this is not the normal performance environment for the musical works identified. Their observer gives much attention to the quality of the performances and there is a tone of implied comparison (perhaps to an imagined ideal) that indicates these works are not exclusive to these performers. (Mr Gil’s songs, we are inclined to believe, are his alone.) Again, we regret that the observer gives little indication as to the character or effect of the music performed – there is a fleeting attempt in the assessment of the performance of the Mozart work. As with the report of Mr Gil, this fragment does not leave us with a strong sense of the affective impact of the performance on the observer. We detect an attempt at balance and neutrality, and little passion.

    The third fragment is a report of another outdoor performance (a seasonal phenomenon which has perhaps skewed our data for this expedition), this time by the New York Philharmonic, an ensemble of unspecified size but large enough to require a conductor and large enough to perform two musical works for which we have subsequently established the customary forces. The conductor, according to the observer, possesses a “droll British wit”, although the observer has (perversely) reported only the least witty sayings in his attempt to demonstrate the conductor’s “good form”. [Cultural differences may have prevented our fully appreciating the intended humour.] The context suggests that the “good form” applies specifically to the impromptu commentaries and cannot be necessarily applied to the conductor’s musical performance. As with the second fragment, the focus (rather more subdued) is on the quality of the performance rather than on the character of the music – although there are fleeting attempts at this, for example with the apparently crowd-pleasing Tchaikovsky work. This again indicates to us that the musical repertoire is not exclusive to its performers and that interpretative matters are more important to the observer.

    But, as with Mr Gil’s observer, this observer seems more interested in what the performer has to say than in the music or the effect of the performance (although he does comment on certain aspects of the audience response). We are also left with the impression that what this particular performer has to say is distinctly less interesting or important than what Mr Gil has to say. But on both counts we find that neither performer (at least as reported by their observers) has anything to say about his music or his music-making.

    Our researches to date demonstrate that the inhabitants of this planet find music of any kind an intensely difficult subject about which to verbalise and these artefacts, each in its way, do support these findings.

    Your most devoted, etc.

    Assistant to the Supreme Anthropologist, Late Baroque

    The Pasticcia offers her deep apologies to Umberto Eco and Paul Micou

    We’re honored by your visit, Supreme Anthropologist. And also for your willingness to take so much time to give us your report. We feel humbled.

    And while we hardly dare to offer any suggestions, we most humbly — prostrated on the floor — whisper that you might read the entire Ben Ratliff review, which both for legal reasons and considerations of length we were unable to reproduce at full length. We timidly believe that you would find much discussion of music in the parts we didn’t quote.

    Nor (we apologize for any disrespect, but we feel our confidence returning) could I imagine that anyone could have as long and distinguished a career as Gilberto Gil without doing something notable in his music. Especially in Brazil! A country with very high musical standards.

    Finally, with confidence fully returned, I might add that it’s something of a classical music trait to talk about music as if it stood apart, on its own, separate from lyrics or an artist’s character and history. Pop critics (and pop fans) tend to take all these things together, as aspects of a single experience.

  6. Eric Lin says

    “I’m saying that pop music gives Ben more ideas — more substance — to work with.”

    I think the orchestral concert format (or chamber music format)–is dead. I’m so glad you pointed out that classical concerts are generally pretty empty in content these days. Not the music itself of course, but how the concert is put together. Looking at any concert season calendar for your typical orchestra (let’ say the CSO’s 08-09 season), you see concerts like “Shostakovich 5″ with an MTT piece for the brass section, Sibelius 4 and Shostakovich ‘s 5th. This kind of programing is typical. If we take the artistic product (the concert) as a whole, I can’t really think of a reason why those three pieces belong together on a performance. Maybe MTT can find a connection between all three pieces (a motivic or thematic connection between the pieces? Or a common harmonic progression? Or a common time period? Or may ‘they all use the chaconne?’) If there IS such a connection, I guarantee you that most of the audience including myself can care less about it, and more likely, there IS no connection at all. It’s simply a random three-course meal.

    Now, I’m also not advocating for the ‘thematic’ concert, esp if this is what we get: “Echoes of Russia” with Glinka, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. Really? Am I in the 3rd grade doing a ‘multicultural’ project? Truly pathetic. Is this remotely artistically daring? Once in a while that’s ok, but when every season, at every orchestra, there’s a similar “Russian” program, that’s just pathetic.

    Perhaps part of the problem is the conservatory model. The student is taught that a balanced recital usually includes a baroque piece, a Classical sonata, a Romantic character piece and a ‘contemporary piece’ (usually Debussy or some safe neo-tonal composer). I’m waiting for the day when some violinist plays the Cage Freeman Etudes next to Beethoven and Brahms. Now that I’d go to. So the ‘theme’ of every ‘ideal’ recital? “Let’s travel through history!” How refreshing and not juvenile!

    When authors like Dave Eggers are dealing with topics like the Sudanese refuges in novels and when establishment museums like the Met have exhibits that engage in themes like bio-ethics and superhero/comic inspired costumes, what can we say about the ‘tour through history’ at nearly every classical concert? I’d rather read Ishiguro or watch The Dark Knight than pay $25 (or soon to be more after I graduate and can no longer buy rush tix) to an orchestra that treats me like a kid with their programming.

    Thank God for people like you, Alex Ross, Ronen Givony and Marin Alsop…a whole range of people from administrators and critics to composers and musicians doing and advocating for something interesting. Otherwise, I’d have given up a longtime ago.

    Anyway, the point is, if I’m Tony Tommasini and I had have to review concerts like ‘Echoes of Russia,’ I don’t think I really would have much to write about other than how ‘the balances weren’t ideal’ or ‘the brass played out of tune’ either.

    Unfortunately, the ‘interesting’ in Classical is still very much in the fringe, while in other art forms (though not perfect), the interesting is either already the mainstream or is quickly becoming the mainstream.

    P.S. It was great running finally meeting you last Friday!

    P.P.S. I think what MTT does is usually interesting…but this particular concert isn’t particularly inspiring.

  7. oehlenschläger says

    “I’d read all this, and decide that pop music is serious, and classical music is light entertainment”

    This is because pop music writers have a chip on their shoulder, maybe?? I recently received a free subscription to SPIN magazine (why not, I thought. It’s FREE.) It’s the funniest, most absurd thing I’ve ever read in my entire life. Cringe-worthy, to say the least. The July edition had a feature about Coldplay – five or six pages long with corny photos – and the writer, in all seriousness, describes Coldplay’s struggles to design appropriate concert t-shirts. The rest of the article goes on and on about how their previous album didn’t sell enough. Pathetic. What choice did he have, though? It’s not like their music (or pop music in general) is worth writing about. I’d shoot myself if I had to write about such thin material.

    I haven’t read Spin in years, so I can’t comment on what’s in it. But have you read any good rock criticism? I’d recommend The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, the pop critics in the New York Times, Stranded (an anthology in which rock critics pick an album to take to a desert island), almost anything by Lester Bangs or Greil Marcus (but maybe above all Greil’s most recent book, about Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”), Robert Christgau’s website (Google it, and read his compressed and powerful reviews of every important album since the ’70s), Dave Marsh’s recent book called The Second Beatles Album (and much else by Dave), and almost anything in the 33 1/3 series. (Google that, too. I think I’m revealing my age with these recommendations — there’s got to be more good stuff by younger people.)

    I’d be curious to ask — without meaning to be harsh — what rock criticism the poeple who’ve objected to this post have read. It’s not their fault if I couldn’t convince them simply by what I said. I never stated that I required any background reading. Still, I think that people who’ve read a lot of good pop reviews would find what I’m saying plausible.

  8. oehlenschläger says

    Thank you so much for replying to my post.

    “But have you read any good rock criticism? I’d recommend The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, the pop critics in the New York Times, Stranded…”

    I guess I’m not really qualified to comment on rock criticism. Besides SPIN, I’ve only read one issue of Rolling Stone, and I almost tossed my cookies. It was so pretentious & I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes (ex. “nü metal” –yeah. sure. spelling it with an umlaut makes it SO much better…*barf*)

    The only pop music I have listened to includes: the Beatles (boring), the Pet Shop Boys, and Kajagoogoo (yes, I grew up in the 80s. I’m 30.) I’d rather die a violent messy death than read articles about these groups, and I don’t even hate their music. Go figure!

    I am obviously not the intended audience for rock/pop criticism. They can continue to wax poetic about repetitive bass beats, and I’ll continue to wonder what all the fuss is about. :o)

    Or, to put it a little differently, you’ll continue to imagine (and not correctly) what’s said in all these things you haven’t read. And won’t read.

    Which could be a fun way to live! (I could have a lot of fun imagining what your comments say, without actually reading them. That thing you said about the rhinoceros — bogus!) But I do think you’ve disqualified yourself from being taken seriously.

  9. oehlenschläger says

    Well, you were the one who wrote about the hypothetical of a martian preferring rock over classical criticism. I am almost like that martian. Having read some rock criticism, it does not inspire me to seek out that music. But, whatever. I shouldn’t have commented in the first place.

    Hey, you’ve got something there. If you’re a Martian, you’re a Martian, and I can’t command you (or any other Martian) to have the Martian reactions I expect.

    I guess I was talking about the particular reviews I quoted, but you’ve still got a point.

  10. says

    Greg: You asked — or, rather, challenged — me to provide an explanation of the reasons for my above posted two-line comment. I would have thought my reasons obvious, and I wish you hadn’t asked. But as you have, you leave me small choice. So…

    You wrote:

    Please note: I’m friendly with both Tony and Steve, and I’m absolutely not saying that either is a bad critic, or that Ben Ratliff (whom I also know) is better than they are.

    But that’s precisely what you’re saying in your above post, your above transparently disingenuous disclaimer notwithstanding. You then compound that indecorous public comparison of the work of your friends and colleagues by coming to the absurd conclusion (i.e., absurd as a conclusion drawn from what preceded it) that Mr. Ratliff made a better job of it because “pop music gives Ben more ideas — more substance — to work with,” which absurd conclusion betrays the real agenda and raison d’être underlying your post: viz., to provide you yet another opportunity to hawk and cheerlead for your idée fixe: pop culture and everything pop-culture related.

    There’s nothing per se amiss with hawking pop culture, shallow and largely squalid though it may be. There is, however, something very much amiss with hawking pop culture under the guise of acting in the best interests of the highest of high culture: classical music.


    I trust the above answers your question and satisfies your challenge.


    ACD the porcupine, quills out and bristling. I’d love to meet you some time. Maybe in person you’re not as angry, and we could have a reasonable discussion.

    All this, because I asked you to tell me why you disagreed with me. Seems like a reasonable request. I can imagine many reasons why people think I’m wrong, or even ridicule me, but you didn’t say what yours were. Maybe you had something to say I’d never heard before. I’ve learned a lot from people who don’t think what I think.

  11. DieterK says

    Yes, there are some „serious“ pop (rock?)critics. But are there many more than the few you mentioned? And did you notice, that they all started out in the 60s? Which brings me to my point:

    Critics of “classical” music had some build in credibility because their subject was regarded as worthwile. When pop critics entered the field, pop music had no credibility at all. See Adorno. So writers like Christgau, Bangs, Frith and Marcus had to proof their (and their subject’s) worth by “inventing” theories to analyze pop music.

    Conclusion: Pop critics have to work extra hard, because pop music has / seems to have so little substance (compared to “classical” music).

    For anyone interested in the critical analysis of pop music journalism see Steve Jones (Editor), Pop music and the press, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.

    I said I was an old fogy, or looked like one. There certainly are good pop critics younger than the ones I cited, many of whom I hired when I was music editor at Entertainment Weekly.

    Nice theory, about pop critics having to work extra hard to prove pop’s legitimacy. But is that borne out by what those critics write? I don’t see much defensiveness, for instance, in classic rock criticism. It’s more like a celebration.

  12. David Kulma says

    The point I would make, which others seem to miss from your post, is that much classical music criticism does not allow an outsider to become the slightest bit acquainted with the music by reading a review in the paper. That is whole point of a review of pop music.

    Classical music reviews that I read do not discuss the music’s sound and character and the feelings invoked in the reviewer. It is as if they expect the reader to know what the music sounds like without having been at the concert. Then they move onto whether or not it was as good as previous performances. Whereas in pop music reviews, they discuss those ramifications.

    I must say that some classical music critics do write in such a way to make the uninformed (and the informed) want to run out and hear the music. For example, Alex Ross’s book. That was a great impulse buy.

    Thanks, David. That’s exactly my point.

    And good call, to praise Alex!

    But I also want to say that this problem isn’t the classical critics’ fault. In my view, if we have pop and classical critics of equal ability, the pop critics will have more to say that’s accessible to general-interest readers, because pop connects more readily with the general-interest world. Classical critics can’t be blamed for writing what comes naturally to classical music insiders — which, as David points out, simply isn’t accessible to outsiders. To fix this, the enterprise of classical music would have to change, and though this needs to happen, it’s also more than any critic should reasonably be asked to take on. They didn’t become critics, after all, to take part in a revolution. They just love classical music, and write about it in ways that the field has always encouraged.

  13. Suzanne Derringer says

    Hi, Greg –

    Points well taken, as usual. This especially caught my attention:

    “Classical music here seems like a technical exercise. The pieces are known. So how were they played? Badly or well?”

    That’s my great objection to song recitals (forgive my obsession) – the very term “recital” to me has always suggested an academic test: stand up in front of the room and recite a memorized assignment. You will be graded on the accuracy of your “recital”. And so often, the “student” being graded looks and acts as though it were an academic test, upon which his entrance to – what form of higher education? – depends. Classical performers don’t seem to be enjoying themselves: they’re so earnest, trying to get through their assignment correctly. Worse, they sometimes indulge in stagey grimaces that are meant to be smiles of delight. Happy to be here? Usually, they don’t seem to be happy to be here…

    And yes, “popular” music often has real intellectual content, or at least has some reference to life in today’s world; whereas most “classical” music reflects, at best, a world which has vanished.

    Thanks, Suzanne. Interesting about the word “recital” — originally it was meant to have a literary connotation. Back when recitals first were given, by Liszt especially, it was highly unusual to have an entire concert played by a single musician. Plus, in those days, almost all concerts of what we now call classical music were given for entertainment, and largely featured undemanding music. Hence Liszt’s opera transcriptions, a chance for him to show off his playing, taking off from tunes his audience would know. When Liszt and others began to give solo concerts, the term “recital” was coined to make them seem special, artistic, on a literary model. Now, of course, we have to find our own meaning in the word, and the connotations Suzanne talks about are all too often all too accurate.

  14. says

    All this, because I asked you to tell me why you disagreed with me. Seems like a reasonable request. I can imagine many reasons why people think I’m wrong, or even ridicule me, but you didn’t say what yours were.

    Had you asked me to tell you why I disagreed with you, I would have been more than pleased to do so. But that’s not what you asked. What you asked — or, rather, challenged — me to tell you was what was wrong with your post that provoked my, “Wrote that with a perfectly straight face, did you?” to which you replied, “Perhaps you’d care to say what was wrong with it,” which is precisely what I did in my last comment.


  15. says

    A fascinating and provocative post, Greg, and I’ll bow to absolutely no one in my admiration for Ben Ratliff’s writing.

    Let me ask you this one thing, though: You’re assigned to review the Brooklyn Philharmonic event I describe, under the conditions I describe, in exactly 350 words or fewer.

    Would you spend time contextualizing the role Robert Woods Bliss played in Stravinsky’s life and era, or why Beethoven’s Fourth is arguably grossly underrated among the works of his overall oeuvre? Or would you use the space to describe, as best you could, what you were presented with in the moment, assuming out of necessity that most non-Martian denizens of New York City might be at least cursorily aware of Mozart and Beethoven, maybe even Stravinsky?

    You know I’m not challenging you here; I’m genuinely curious. God knows I’m always trying to improve what I put out there into the world.

    Steve, thanks first for your companionable tone. I always want to make things better, without confrontations. Glad you saw it that way!

    You raise very good questions. I’ve been thinking about the answers myself. Of course I’ve been in the same place, in my own days as a critic.

    I think, first, that everyone should cut daily critics a good amount of slack, whatever they’re writing about. It’s not easy to churn it out every day. Sometimes you’re presented with something there’s not much to say about. Sometimes you, me, or any critic — we’re just not at our best. All we can do, in the end, is do the best we can. This is why — though maybe I didn’t make this clear — I’d want to compare pop and classical critics daily for a reasonable period, not just descend on a single day, and slash and burn.

    That said, I think we might look at Roland Barthes’s famous essay, “The Grain of the Voice” (maybe the only time a major cultural theorist wrote about classical music criticism). Barthes says that critics — and I wouldn’t exclude myself from this — tend in effect to sit back and pin labels on performances, not allowing ourselves to show that we’re touched or changed. (He’s especially down on the use of adjectives.) I think he’s right. I also think part of the problem comes from so many repetitions of the same repertory pieces, which discourages intense involvement, and encourages a kind of scorecard approach. I think the problem also comes from what the field considers serious classical music writing. Talking about the history or structure of a piece, or its place in its composer’s oeuvre — that stuff is serious. Talking about how the music feels hasn’t, in the last two generations, been much favored. I find my students are all infected with this. They have to take a deep breath to free themselves from it. (But when they free themselves, they say wonderful things!) You’re a serious person when it comes to music; I mean that as a compliment. So you mention “the role Robert Woods Bliss played in Stravinsky’s life and era, or why Beethoven’s Fourth is arguably grossly underrated among the works of his overall oeuvre.” These certainly would be serious things to talk about, but — as you rightly say — hard to put into a short review.

    My own approach is anti-scholarly, not because that’s my personal position — I love a lot of scholarly writing on music, and especially about music theory — but because I think a music review (especially a short one) is most compelling if it’s about the critic’s own experience. Not an account of how the music fared at the concert, but about the critic’s experience of being there. That doesn’t preclude talking about how the music went (in fact, I think a critic ought to do that), but the critic might try to make this matter, by showing how it affected his/her own experience. For instance (and of course I’m only talking about what I respond to, Steve; you and others might have different taste): “The orchestra played without much precision, at times obscuring crucial details.” I don’t find that very interesting. When I wrote that sentence, I was thinking of a particular concert (the National Symphony accompanying Hilary Hahn in a Paganini concerto). So I might instead try to describe what I really thought and felt when I was there: “I could barely believe my ears. The first long chord of the orchestral introduction was played very carelessly — so carelessly, in fact, that at first I couldn’t tell if it was a major or a minor chord. At first this annoyed me, but then I just about began to laugh. I hadn’t heard anything that sloppy from a major orchestra in years.”

    You had a wonderful bit in your review about the “Ivesian jangle” (if I’m remembering that right) created when the Philharmonic concert wafted into the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s space. That, at least for me, was a taste of your experience, and (again for me) it gave the review some extra life.

  16. says

    Hi Greg,

    I think one of the problems here is that you’re comparing apples and oranges–but it’s not your problem, it’s a problem with the industry. The bulk of rock criticism is focused on reviewing new material and its creators, which means focusing on explaining the music itself and the relationship between the artist and his or her creation. The bulk of classical criticism is focused on reviewing the umpteenth performance of music in the standard repertoire, and that’s even more the case with summer pops concerts. The reivewers of the classical concerts you cite can’t review the pieces themselves–who needs yet another review of the actual music of the 1812 Overture? As a result, the classical reviews end up being reviews not of the music but of the audience experience–how was the performance, how was the environment, who was there, what were the highlights, etc. This sort of classical review is intended for insiders who either already know the rep or are willing to presume that because it’s “classical” music performed by important ensembles it must be good. So no, it’s not going to win any converts, and maybe that’s a problem.

    But if we’re going to compare pop and classical criticism and draw conclusions like “pop music gives Ben more ideas — more substance — to work with” we need to also make apples to apples comparisons. For example, in today’s Times Steve Smith reviewed a concert of music by contemporary women composers:

    Here, because the music is new to the readership, he has to set the stage and describe the music, much in the way Ratliff had to do for the review you quote. Smith first dispenses with the “women composers” business, observing that parity is a serious problem but that working toward parity doesn’t mean sacrificing standards or engaging in the kind of “corrective polemic” that turns people off. He also deals with questions of ethnicity in much the way Ratliff does: “Two sections from “Cuatro Bosquejos Pre-Incaicos” by Gabriela Lena Frank, whose roots are Lithuanian, Chinese and Peruvian, vividly imagined the throbbing flute and gusty panpipes of Peru’s pre-Incan cultures.” And he describes the music in terms that make me wish I had heard the music: “In ‘Cover,’ by Belinda Reynolds, vaporous tendrils of melody slowly curled over constantly shifting rhythms.” and “Ms. du Bois commented from the stage that ‘The Storm,’ her sonata for cello and piano (originally for violin and piano), recast the turbulent emotions she felt at 18 as a roiling tempest. Romantics might have deemed this sturm und drang; nowadays, to borrow a term from rock, it was pure emo.”

    I didn’t have to go hunting for this review, it was the first review I saw of contemporary music when I went to the Times’s website a few minutes ago.

    I liked that review myself, Galen, especially the emo line. Thanks for quoting it. In fact, when I read your comment I’d just downloaded it, so I could quote it myself.

    But if we keep hearing the same pieces at classical concerts, that’s a problem classical music has. So I wonder if the proper fruit comparison might not be apples and prunes. Classical concerts don’t offer all that much that’s fresh, and if the reviews end up reflecting that, then they’re actually doing a very honest job.

  17. says


    Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony has been called his “bleakest, most dissonant” symphony by Paul Griffiths, so it seems to me to be a nice foil to Shostakovich’s Fifth, which followed what I think is Shostakovich’s bleakest and most dissonant. The pairing opens up a whole series of important questions about the creative process and how composers end up writing the music they write.

    If those are questions that only insiders will ask, there’s still the fact that audiences will hear a questioning symphony that’s immediately followed by a hearty, affirmative Russian one that blazes out in D major, right? Except that it’s not that easy, and, in the right hands, Shostakovich 5 may end up being even bleaker than the Sibelius.

    All true, Marc. But then the question might be why we’re hearing a bleak symphony followed by a triumphant one. Is any moral being drawn? Is there any point of view about the larger questions of life implied by putting these pieces together?

    It seems to me — forgive my honesty — that this isn’t very interesting. Of course composers make particular choices when they write their music, so you could choose works for a program completely at random, and almost every time end up with contrasts which somebody could explicate. But would we know any more at the end of the program than we knew going into it? The contrasts between the Sibelius and Shostakovich symphonies are known before the music starts.

    A program of the Shostakovich Fourth and Fifth, though, might be illuminating. I’d do them in reverse order, the Fifth before the Fourth. In the Fifth, we’d hear the standard happy ending, not just standard because the Communist Party ordered S. to write it, but because it’s found in almost every symphony in the repertoire. And then in the Fourth we’d hear something that strikes me as much more true to Shostakovich’s experiences, living under Stalin — an attempt at a happy ending, which falls apart and dies. Or in other words what Shostakovich was forced to do, compared to how he really felt. Which then could get us thinking much more deeply about what the real meaning of the ending of the Fifth might be, and whether we were conned by cheering for it (as audiences always do, even if the conductor plays the ending, Testimony-style, as horror).

  18. David says

    Isn’t this a bit less black-and-white than is being presented?

    You write “There’s no better way to understand why classical music doesn’t speak to many people these days. . .” but, first of all, there were 61,000 people at the Philharmonic concert vs. about 2,000 for Gilberto Gil. Which was the more relevant and meaningful event to more people?

    Secondly, Tommasini reports that “there was a refreshingly straightforward performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture. . . Mr. Tovey and the orchestra treated it as a respectable score with a knockout finale. . . The concert ended with three marches by Sousa that had the crowd clapping and children marching up and down the grassy aisles.” So, at least on this occasion classical music was speaking to a whole bunch of people, and a younger audience to boot!

    And what of the music @ Gil? Ratliff writes “Through much of the set, the curiosity and generosity in Mr. Gil’s words and ideas didn’t get into the music. . . The band was doing a Brazilian version of foursquare rhythmic professionalism. . . The show included uninspired reggae versions of the bossa nova standard “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl From Ipanema”) and George Harrison’s “Something,” as well as pickings from Mr. Gil’s own work since the late ’70s, mostly not his best. . .So much of the show seemed to separate theory from practice.”

    Now, is Gil playing “Girl from Impanema” and The Beatles really all that different from the Philharmonic playing 1812?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Gilberto Gil fan; I’ll be forever in debt to David Byrne’s “Beleza Tropical” for turning me on to him, which leads me to my last point: citing Gilberto Gil as an example of pop music in general is paying quite a compliment to the Britney Spears and Mariah Careys of the world, dontcha think?

    My point is, there are substantial and powerful artists as well as shallow and schlocky ones in both pop and classical music. One does not hold a birthright over the other in this regard. Yes, pop is more popular, and classical is less contemporary, but then I look at 61,000 for the Philharmonic vs. 2,000 for Gilberto and I find myself just wishing these labels would go away and we’d all just look for music of substance and power wherever we can find it and regardless of what we call it.

    p.s. Yes, I’m affiliated with the Philharmonic but I hope that doesn’t disqualify me from having an opinion on the matter.

    Doesn’t disqualify you at all, David, as anyone can see from how cogent each of your points is.

    I might reply that I didn’t mean to say that Gil’s concert was better than the Philharmonic concert. Or that pop music is better than classical music. Maybe I didn’t make that clear enough. (I’ll add that I’m learning a lot from the many comments that I’m getting.) My point was simply that what’s said in the review gives a smart and culturally curious person more to think about than what’s said in the two classical reviews I quoted.

    I mean, it lead you to ask whether Gil covering a Beatles song is any different from the Philharmonic “covering” the 1812 Overture. My answer would be that, yes, it really is different, because (1) not everyone in pop music, and certainly not every singer in Brazil, covers “Something,” and (2) because covers are, compared to original material, relatively rare, we expect something interesting to happen. If it didn’t in this case, especially with somebody as good as Gil, that’s news worth reporting. Here I want to repeat something I said in other comments, which is that this thought of mine isn’t theoretical. It’s based on my experience going to four or five pop performances a week when I was a pop music critic. If someone serious covered some well-known song, I’d sit up and say, “Hey, that’s interesting. What’s she going to do with it?”

    As for the number of people at the Philharmonic concert — I’m not going there. You and I both know, David, that popularity isn’t any reliable measure of quality. Which doesn’t mean that the Philharmonic concert was bad (because popularity also doesn’t preclude quality). But if we’re talking about serious, thoughtful people, and what music (and what writing about music) they might be drawn to, the number of people in the audience doesn’t matter. I mean, you and I didn’t, in the old days, run off to Vegas to hear Wayne Newton, just because he was a perennial there.

    It’s also no surprise that undemanding classical performances can draw large outdoor audiences in the summer. We’ve seen that year after year in Central Park.

    And I’ll call a foul on your reference to Mariah Carey and poor Britney. It’s possible — in fact, quite easy — to have a fulfilling life in pop music without ever (or at least very often) listening to those two, or others like them. I did it. I don’t mean to whip this thought to death, but I really did go to shows many times a week, and didn’t hear much utter crap. (And would have heard less, I think, if the dominant style in LA when I was doing this hadn’t been hard rock played by hair bands. Which I could have avoided, but I got a strange, perverse kick out of them.)

    And the NY Times pop critics do it. Read them day by day, and see who they’re writing about, and how interesting so many of the artists seem.

  19. says

    Wow, I am amazed at how many stuffed shirts there are talking about Classical Music as if it has some lofty purpose while pop music is hardly worth the effort it took them to write the word “pop”…

    1 – There is a lot of great pop music out there, music that is a great deal more than just pop. (There is a lot of c*** too, but that doesn’t take away from the great artists – we have millions of paint by number works hanging in people’s living rooms, but that doesn’t mean Monet is worthless).

    2 – There are a number of good critical reviews of pop music. Not all artists get good reviews, and not all reviews are good (well done).

    3 – As you mention in your last rebuttal, a lot of Classical music used to be popular music in its day, so the idea that classical is somehow more elevated is just incorrect. It’s only been the last 60-70 years that we’ve separated the forms – and it’s a huge mistake (IMHO).

    While you only comment on 2 reviews, I personally think it shows a trend in our view of classical music verse pop music that really needs to change. Attempting to affect a change is just what a good portion of my own blog is about.

  20. Suzanne Derringer says

    Thanks for responding, Greg. You’re totally right: if you look at old programs – from, say, Patti’s time – there’d be a mixed bag: maybe a movement from a string quartet, a flute solo, an aria, an operatic duet or maybe the Sextet from Lucia or something, a piano solo, perhaps a couple of the better-known songs of Schubert or Brahms, and popular or traditional songs like “Home Sweet Home” or “Comin’ Through the Rye”. Solo recitals were uncommon before the last years of the 19th century. And they were indeed entertainment: featuring the more popular arias from contemporary operas etc. And they were intended to entertain their audiences, not bore them to death with High Art.

    As for “recital” – again you’re right, I only want to add that it was a common part of education, certainly in the US and Canada, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, for students to be given dramatic scenes or poems to memorize and recite to their class; these were a feature of private parties also, and some people actually made a living on the touring circuit, just doing these literary recitals. A dramatic recitation of “The Wreck of the Hesperus”, that sort of thing. Those were the days, before television – even predating silent films. So this was salon entertainment, and why not use the term for a musical salon program as well?

  21. says

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I suspect the prevalence of shallow classical music criticism is more than ever a reflection of what’s happening on stage, or not happening.

    Classical musicians (I speak as one) often deride pop and rock artists as technically unskilled and unadventurous harmonically and rhythmically, but in my experience the reverse is just as true. I recently did a stint as a guest teacher at a piano festival, and was reminded of how limited in scope young classical musicians are allowed and even encouraged to be: one Chopin chestnut after another, four Pathetique sonatas. I performed some modestly contemporary works for an evening concert, including the Elliott Carter Sonata, and you would have thought I was on the cutting edge of modernity from their curious responses.

    I also agree that too many classical reviews devolve into simple comparison-this or that Transcendental Etude not as flawless or gripping as last season’s-without telling us anything of the artistry involved, or the emotional quality of the experience. I recently re-read James Huneker’s brilliant introduction to Joseffy’s 1915 edition of Chopin’s Preludes, and was reminded of how much of the spirit-connection in music writing and performance has been lost or suppressed over the decades. When he describes the last three notes of the 24th Prelude as “the final clangor of overthrown reason”, you KNOW you’ve been told the real story.

    The musical education system still continues to support the notion of the recital as technical proving ground, the ultimate reality competition show for classical musicians. Anyone who has listened to “From the Top” on NPR (a sobering, nauseating experience for me) has heard this dog-and-pony show approach in full swing. Classical music can be about so much more, both in content and performance. I applaud your efforts to turn things around, and I’m inspired by your online book.

    Thanks, Martin, and not least for putting so many things better than I ever have.

    And God, I love that Huneker line! It shows how much more could be done when we write about classical music. Quoting it would certainly have improved my ponderous reply to the honest question Steve Smith asked. If I thought the prelude had that meaning, or the end of it did, I could review a performance with that not just in my mind, but in my heart. I might even find that a pianist found a very different meaning, which abruptly struck me as just as true. Now I’d be engaged with something real, which almost anyone reading me could get drawn into.

  22. David says


    Many apologies if I came across as suggesting quantity = quality, I intended no such thing! I was simply saying that, on this occasion, there were quantitatively more people for whom the supposedly ‘classical’ event was relevant and meaningful than there were for the ‘pop’ event, which to me shows why drawing a line in the sand between the two is problematic.

    Re. Ms. Carey & Spears, I was considering the statement “pop music gives [writers] more substance to work with.” I guess it has to do with what the meaning of ‘pop’ is. If I was to try to find a representative pop act, I’d probably consult Billboard or Pollstar, and there I bet I would find Mariah Carey more emblematic of the pop music norm than Gilberto Gil. In fact he might not even been considered a pop act at all — he might be world music. And, if I were to look at the Philharmonic’s schedule for a representative classical concert, Central Park it would not be.

    I certainly agree that there is substantial pop music, but there is substantial classical music too. It isn’t black-and-white, there’s a touch of grey (to quote a pop song).

    I’m starting to think that what I meant to say is getting lost here. So I’ll try rephrasing, hoping I now phrase it better than I did the first time. Given two critics of equal ability, and two shows, pop and classical, of equal depth (or even lack of depth), the pop review will bring in more and deeper connections to the outside world, and thus be more interesting to smart, culturally curious readers.

    What I wasn’t saying: that pop music is better or deeper than classical music.

    Of course classical music has the power to draw a crowd this large to Central Park. I didn’t mean to say that classical music had no relevance to anyone. What I probably didn’t make clear is that I was talking about smart, culturally curious listeners, who seek out music that’s smart and rewards their cultural curiosity. I don’t think there’s much doubt that mainstream classical music, in our generation, is failing to do that. If it were, we’d have the intellectual audience that Virgil Thomson wrote about in the 1940s and 1950s. I don’t mean that no smart, culturally curious people ever go to classical concerts. They do, but only if they’re classical music fans, which in my experience often occupies a part of their consciousness not involved with cultural curiosity. Certainly they’re not like Thomson’s intellectual audience, which was made up of people who never went to most mainstream classical events, but as a result of their intellectual interests would show up for an artist like Schnabel.

    About representative pop and classical shows. This gets determined by a throw of loaded dice. You or I could make the result come out any way we like. If you look at Pollstar, you’ll find out which pop tours drew the largest audience. If I wanted to apply that standard to classical music, I would ask which Philharmonic concerts had the largest audience, and that would be the concerts in the park. Or I could look at the Billboard classical charts, and find that the crossover recordings sell much more than the core classical stuff.

    My own loading-the-dice standard for what constitutes pop music is determined by what pop music I paid attention to when I was a pop critic. The top Pollstar tours were a small part of it. I’d probably go to them, but only a few times a year. Most nights I’d go to some interesting indie show. And I’d write about it. Which is exactly what the NY Times pop critics do. Read them day to day, and they’re covering — well, the pop music that the smart, culturally etc. people I keep mentioning care about. So for the Times pop critics, as for me when I was in that business, the smart indie stuff plays/played a gigantically larger part their/my my life than the largest selling pop tours. The same would be true for any reputable pop critic.

    Finally, something else I might have made clearer — that a single days’ comparison wouldn’t demonstrate what I was talking about nearly as well as a month’s worth of comparisons would. Do it for a month, and a lot of objections, I think, would vanish, especially the ones about what constitutes the pop music norm. Whatever some outside person might think the norm might be, the critics cover the serious stuff that interests them. And there’s a lot of it.

  23. David says

    p.s. Re. Gil’s ‘Girl from Impanema and ‘Something’ being different from 1812 because “not everyone in pop music covers “Something,” and covers are, compared to original material, relatively rare, we expect something interesting to happen.”

    What, then, of the Phil’s cover of “Purple Haze” as an encore at that Central Park concert?

    I’d be curious to hear it!

    The most famous classical cover of Purple Haze was probably the one by the Kronos Quartet, which they played as an encore piece, and put on their first Nonesuch album (which might have been their first recording for any label; I’ve forgotten). They did this at a time when very few classical groups covered rock songs, apart from Beatles medleys at pops concerts.

    Later, Kennedy’s Jimi Hendrix versions were pretty hot. Even hotter, I’m told, in live performance than they were on the CD.

    But of course classical cover versions of pop songs can vary a lot. Orfa Harnoy’s Beatles album was a snooze. Beach Boys covers by the King’s Singers are too clean for my taste, and too arch. The orchestral arrangements of Aphex Twin songs that John Adams conducted with the London Sinfonietta sounded too classical for me. I kept going back and forth between them and the Aphex Twin originals. Same notes, same rhythms, but the Sinfonietta sounded classical, and Aphex Twin didn’t.

    I think Alarm Will Sound’s versions of Aphex Twin are better, or anyhow they sound less classical. I’m not sure I thought so when they first came out, but last week, when I relistened, I liked them a lot. But the most amazing classical cover of a pop song I’ve ever heard was Alarm Will Sound’s arrangement of the Beatles’ Revolution No. 9, which they played at the Bang on a Can marathon. That was just astounding. A real feat of orchestration, at the very least, to recreate the details and effect of that track with acoustic instruments.

    With all this fermenting in my mind, I’d be very curious to hear the Philharmonic play Hendrix.

  24. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    I must admit that, even though I enjoy much classical music, I do seem to seek out good pop (and jazz) criticism while avoiding most mainstream writing on classical music. I especially like Wire magazine, where adventurous music of all stripes, including avant-garde jazz and modern classical, is intelligently reviewed on a monthly basis. I think the main reason for my avoidance of classical reviews is that, as has been amply discussed on this page, the culture of classical music seems on the whole far more sterile than its “rivals” pop, jazz, folk, etc. (by the way, I think of Ben Ratliff as a jazz critic who writes about pop when it interests him, and not at all a typical pop critic). I would, however, like to respond to an exchange that occurred in the comments here. You write in reply to an earlier post:

    “And I’ll call a foul on your reference to Mariah Carey and poor Britney. It’s possible — in fact, quite easy — to have a fulfilling life in pop music without ever (or at least very often) listening to those two, or others like them. I did it. I don’t mean to whip this thought to death, but I really did go to shows many times a week, and didn’t hear much utter crap. (And would have heard less, I think, if the dominant style in LA when I was doing this hadn’t been hard rock played by hair bands. Which I could have avoided, but I got a strange, perverse kick out of them.)

    Is this really a foul? I think that depends on where you are living. Yes, it is quite possible to have a fulfilling pop music life this way—but I would bet it is more possible in places like Los Angeles and New York than it is in my hometown of Cincinnati. I lived in Philadelphia for a short time, so I have experienced the difference between the cultural life of the Midwest (Chicago excepted) and that of the big city. Not only are good (and affordable) concerts scarcer out here, but the radio is wholly dominated by mainstream commercial pop. What this means is lots and lots of kids whose musical lives and point of reference tend to be narrow. I teach a music and culture course at a local college, so I do have some data on this. Occasionally I get a student who plays an instrument and knows some classical music, or an indie kid with an iPod full of intriguing sounds, but most of my students listen to new country, mainstream pop of the Mariah Carey/Britney and/or the same classic rock songs that were on the radio when I grew up. And good luck to you if you are looking for music criticism of the Ben Ratliff sort in the local paper. I guess my point is that the situation might look very different to you if you had tried your experiment with pop out here in the hinterland. It is still possible to find the good stuff, but it takes a bit of work.


    A good point, and an important thing for me to remember. Thanks!

  25. says

    Given that the apparatus surrounding classical music – the way it’s created, rehearsed, marketed, packaged, sold, and performed – is so different from pop, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me to compare reviews of it to reviews of pop. I’m moved in different ways by classical than I am by rock, whether it’s complex rock or not. It’s a different listening experience entirely. A better comparison may be to look at visual art or dance reviews and see how classical reviewers hold up against them. My 2 cents to this discussion.

    Getting back to the Sibelius/Shostakovich thread for a second, I’m not at all convinced that the “contrasts are known” in advance, as you put it. Audiences aren’t as familiar with these works as we are, and there’s been a serious drought in Sibelius in Chicago that’s only recently been altered. I can’t help it if you don’t think those are interesting, but it’s those contrasts that happen to make classical music interesting to me as I try to find logic in programs, and it’s a nice, straightforward exercise that beginning listeners can be brought into, and feel a sense of ownership and knowledge about the music, and right themselves on the vast sea of repertoire. Classical music is historical music, mostly, and if operas and orchestras can bring history to life, people are free to apply it to their lives any way the please.

    Lastly, the idea of placing the Fourth and Fifth symphonies together looks good on paper, but would be death for the overworked orchestra and beleaguered audience. We’ve had the Fourth here with two conductors the last couple seasons, so audiences are ready for the Fifth

    So much of this, like so much of life, is in the eye of the beholder!

    I might say in reply that readers can’t make most of these distinctions, and simply take the reviews at face value. But now I’m thinking that someone should do a study of this. Assemble a panel of readers, and have them read pop and classical reviews, and see how they react.

  26. says

    Hi Greg,

    Maybe I’m in a very small minority here and I’ll probably be misunderstood, but I’m not convinced this standard you’ve set up is fair. If I’m reading you correctly, what you miss in the typical classical concert is connections to external types of meaning that are socially/culturally relevant. For better or for worse, the classical music industry is better defined by the affection people have directly for the music, which often invites a wide range of responses that may or may not have anything to do with what the composer had in mind. Commenter Suzanne says “most ‘classical’ music reflects, at best, a world which has vanished.” Maybe that’s true. Who cares? I don’t listen to it because of the world it reflects, I listen to it because it’s worth listening to. The best of this music is as wondrously put together and aesthetically satisfying as anything humans have created. The fact that that’s not captured in most newspaper reviews is of trivial significance to me.

    Although I agree that music (with or without lyrics) can be about something external, it’s the music that drew me in to this career, made me want to practice hours a day, etc. The other stuff is secondary at best. Maybe I sound like a latter day Hanslick, but I don’t mean this in the caricatured way he’s often understood. (I’ve actually read very little of what he’s written, so I don’t really have an opinion about him.) I love Wagner and Scriabin, but I don’t buy much of what they say about their music, even if what they said helped inspire them to write. The music stands on its own. Yes, people like to wrap big, meaningful words around the experience. That’s fine if it’s what you’re looking for, but I often feel that when composers, critics, performers go about that, they’re spinning their own ideas around the music as much as anything.

    Spinning ideas can be a great thing, by the way, and I agree with you that music reviews would be better if critics were more openly subjective. I very much enjoy writing that helps catalyze my listening, and ideas about external meanings can do that, even if the ideas aren’t really embedded in the music. Jeremy Denk’s writing is extraordinary in this regard, going off on all sorts of wild flights of fancy, but generally with the purpose of exploring how he experiences the music, not so much about extramusical meanings in the music. In other words, I really like writing that points me back to the music; I’m less interested in music as a way to open up ideas about politics or whatever. The world offers plenty of ways to engage such ideas – frankly, I think music is overrated as a carrier of big ideas, often functioning in a “preaching to the choir” sort of way.

    Penderecki’s famous “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” no doubt gets a head start in engaging its listeners because of its “meaningful” title – but he only added the title after having written the piece. In other words, that music isn’t really “about” the victims of Hiroshima, but the association works well and probably helps people to find their way into its expressive world. Ben Zander tells people to think of a loved one who died while they listen to him hack through Chopin’s E Minor Prelude; it’s hokey, but it probably does help get some audience members to experience the tensions and longings in the music. Sure, many works were inspired by specific events/ideas and are meant to make us think about specific things, but the best music goes beyond. (Confession: I really get a kick out of the “1812 Overture,” but couldn’t care less about its historical context.) Think how many non-Christians find Bach’s sacred music to be profoundly moving, not because they necessarily believe what Bach was expressing, but because the music is so compelling in its own right. I love Mozart’s requiem, but I don’t find if very useful liturgically. It’s just, as Alex Ross might say, “awesome music.”

    I further suspect that a large percentage of pop/indie fans don’t care as much about “message” as you tend to suggest. I’ve talked about this a good deal with a student pianist who plays classical and jazz seriously and also loves indie music. She wrote a paper for me (with mix CD included!) describing dozens of the indie musicians she loves, and she talked about how this music serves as a sort of soundtrack for her and her peers; yet she also said she doesn’t really spend a lot of time thinking about the lyrics (often doesn’t know them), or what the songs are about. She’s an English major, extremely bright, socially conscious, etc. and probably likes that the music has an aura that fits her identity, but it was pretty clear to me that the attraction isn’t so much intellectual as – well, she likes the music. I’m not denying that this music doesn’t get some strength from “what it’s about,” but I’d guess it’s a minority of listeners who really think of that as paramount. People like music because they like music.

    None of this addresses the problem of how to get people to pay attention to classical music, but I’ve written enough for now. You wrote a little while back that, “the classical music business, as we know it today, is among much else a glorious basking pool. We can love that, if we want, but we shouldn’t confuse this with art.” Well, although I don’t thinking basking in the familiar should be all we do, I have confused it with art, and I guess that’s where we disagree.

    Michael, thanks so much for giving your views in such interesting detail. It’s a very helpful contribution to this discussion.

    I’d agree — and this is one of the many things I didn’t make very clear — that the main meaning of pop music (and all music) comes from the sound, rather than from lyrics, or any other extra-musical factor. With pop music, as I think your student confirms, people help define and explain their identities by preferring one kind of sound to another. The music becomes the soundtrack to their lives, and someone who has a soundtrack very different from yours can be presumed to have a very different kind of life (or inner life, in any case).

    What’s especially interesting to me is that this used to be true of classical music. I was just reading some reactions to Wagner in early 20th century America. You can bet that no one reacted to Brahms that way (by, for instance, confessing to thoughts and feelings that one might not dare to name). Or think of the life soundtracks in play when Liszt made his famous visit to Schumann, and insulted Schumann’s music (something Clara never forgave him for, even though he later helped Schumann by conducting the premiere of the Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. There were three kinds of music going on in Germany then — opera (especially Rossini), “classical music” (as it was actually called — Schumann, Mendelssohn, and performances of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven). And, finally, the avant-garde, Wagner and Liszt, and Berlioz.

    Dave Marsh, in his book The Second Beatles Album, talks about having music appreciation classes in high school in the early ’60s, and concluding from those classes that classical music — and then, from his experiences at home with his parents, also Broadway show tunes — was music for people who didn’t really know what their feelings were. This is more or less exactly what made Liszt insult Schumann. Schumann’s adherence to classical forms was, to Liszt, a way of keeping true feelings chained up — the true feelings that only the freeform music of the avant-garde could set free.

    Now we put all these three soundtracks together in the same classical pot. And classical music itself seems to be a soundtrack, identifying the life choices of the people who love it far more than would their preference for any particular classical works.

  27. Robert Berger says

    I agree with Galen Brown that we’re comparing apples and oranges here. The parks concert by the New York Phil. conducted by Bramwell Tovey was a pops concert with a lot

    of old chestnuts; nothing wrong with that, but

    it isn’t typical of the the Philharmonic

    plays during its subscription season.

    And if some Rock or Hip Hop fans had gone

    to that outdoor concert and just kept an open

    mind, they might have really enjoyed it.

    But unfortunately, many of them think that

    classical music is”uncool”, and would never

    give it a chance. This isn’t snobbery on my part; I don’t begrudge them their love for

    Rock etc.

    I don’t think there is a lack of good

    classical music criticism today. Tommasini

    is one of the most fair-minded and generous

    music critics I have ever known,and it’s so

    refreshing to have a classical music critic

    who isn’t always dismissing and disparaging

    today’s conductors,opera singers and instrumentalists, and longing for the “good old

    days” of Toscanini and Rose Ponselle etc.

    I also admire Alex Ross and Justin Davidson.

    It’s unfair to criticize orchestras for playing music from the past;we don’t have any Rock music from 200 years ago.

  28. Andy Buelow says


    Your point may be very valid, but I do question whether two outdoor summer orchestra concerts are the best source of reviews to make such a comparison.

    I met you in Seattle at that whatever-it-was-called arts conference last winter and enjoyed your thought-provoking comments.

    It was the Classical Music Summit, I think! Yes, I remember meeting you. Nice to see you here.

    And I agree — two outdoor summer concerts aren’t the best source of reviews. That’s why this comparison has to be continued for a number of days, which I hope I’ll find time to do. Right now, the comments are taking up all the blog time I have available!

  29. Nijyah says

    Pop and Classical Music all depends on the individual’s ideal on what they may like to hear.

  30. oehlenschläger says

    I assumed you wouldn’t post my previous reply!

    “Hey, you’ve got something there. If you’re a Martian, you’re a Martian, and I can’t command you (or any other Martian) to have the Martian reactions I expect.”

    Touché! Mr. Sandow, it tickles me that a professional critic can sink to my level of sarcasm & snarkiness, although my previous comments were never intended to attack you. Having a sense of humour about oneself isn’t a terrible thing, you know. Anyhow, it’s been a lot of fun! Cheers!