Each fall, I teach a graduate course about music criticism, at Juilliard. As I’ve said here before, it ends up being a class in how to talk about music, more than a class about criticism itself. Though we do read my favorite classical critics (George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson), as well as current reviews from the New York Times, which the students pick, and bring into class.
This year, when they did their first written assignment, something wonderful happened. I often say that the best music reviews are the ones that bring a performance alive, no matter what point of view they take. So if someone hates a concert I’d love, but describes it so clearly that I can tell that I’d most likely love it, I think they’ve done a good job.
With that in mind, imagine my amazement — and my delight — when all of my students described a performance in similar ways. But also different ways! They’d all heard the same thing, but found evocative — and highly personal — ways to describe what they heard.
The assignment was to compare two recordings of the famous Handel aria “Ombra mai fu,” by Renee Fleming and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The students generally liked Hunt Lieberson better, though not all of them did. But they agreed on what I think is one crucial difference between the two performances — that Fleming is more extraverted, and Hunt Lieberson more inner.
But enough prelude. Here are excerpts from what the students wrote about Hunt Lieberson’s recording. As I said, they all heard the same thing. But look at how wonderfully they described it:
More simple and subtle.
She is one of the few singers today who knows how to sing piano.Stunningly humble.Her performance is masterfully understated.In some inexplicable way, I am brought to peace.I absolutely loved the way Lieberson truly ‘crept’ in on her first entrance and made such a perfectly gradated and controlled crescendo.Her initial entrance was remarkably quiet and captivating.As the aria begins, I was struck by the absolute serenity of this recording.In the beginning, Hunt’s subtle entrance, as her soft “A” warms up the sound of the string ensemble, embodies inner strength, as if it is a reflection of things past.From Lieberson’s first entrance I could feel the wind: a wind which always starts from nothing, but always thereWhen she first enters after the introduction, it’s as if she’s caressing your skin slowly as she crescendos to the peak of that phrase.
Note that they didn’t just agree on the general character of the performance. They all agreed that a particular moment was especially wonderful. They hear music clearly, and describe it quite wonderfully.