Wonderful students

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.

They also have to do a bit of writing. I tell them (and I mean it) that they’ll be judged not by their writing skills, but by what they say. They’re musicians, after all, and nobody told them they had to be writers, too.

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 there
When 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.

They asked me not to attach their names to the passages they wrote. So bravo to all of them: Hedi Gorton, Chris Houlihan, Grace Kang, Cameron O’Connor, Sho Omagari, Jason Stoll, and Chris Wolf. 

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Comments

  1. says

    Greg,

    I’m as delighted as you by the quality of your students’ writing – but not as surprised.

    At Bachtrack, our Young reviewer program has been publishing reviews by young people (as young as 11) for over two years now. In our experience, if you take articulate kids who are interested in music and make them write about it, they consistently come up with engaging and interesting ways of expressing what they heard. If you take a look at http://www.bachtrack.com/youngreviewer-reviewlist, I think you’ll be astonished by the quality of what these kids write.

    It’s made me question the whole purpose of professional music criticism. Many of the concert and opera reviews that I read in the large newspapers are clearly written by people who have been to too many concerts. It’s only natural that a highly knowledgeable critic will set the bar high as to what will delight them personally – but if that high bar shows up in their writing, or if they’ve been compelled to review music of a style that they fundamentally dislike, they will come across to their readers as fusty and nit-picking.

    We’ve now started publishing general reviews (you can see them on http://www.bachtrack.com/reviews), which we tag to the performers and works played to provide a permanent resource for future concertgoers. We encourage people to review music they’re enthusiastic about, and we get a mixture of reviewers – some experienced music writers, some not (personally, I mainly write about opera). My biggest delight is in seeing the concert-going or opera-going experience described vividly in a way that will enthuse the readers and bring them in to the classical music world, and the best writing seems to come from those who are fresh and excited by the experience.

    So all power to your students and their writing. But you have every right to expect them to do well!

    David Karlin

    bachtrack.com

  2. says

    Lovely post. Definite now I must hear Hunt Lieberson – The line-up of student comments, all saying the “same thing” in individuated ways made your point quite nicely.

    Thank you very much.

    Wayne

  3. Joan says

    I can recall a day when no matter what the concert I was performing in, I could open the paper the next day and read a review of it. I’ve been performing for over 20 years in a culturally sophisticated city in Canada, but the papers refuse to review shows. They write an extensive preview (advertise) for them. Without exception, I feel a loss, a kind of incompleted circle the next day. It’s our performers way of being spoken to by the people we perform to. I know it’s formal as opposed to the nice folks who come up afterwards and comment enthusiastically, but I always want to hear the time on stage analyzed, described, re-viewed in words. I really do feel there is an arts cycle and that our writers are as vital to a show as the stage crew, the managers, and the performers. What wonderful writers your students are, if one can go by just a phrase. The ability to take one’s heart out and look at how it was moved is rare, even in the best of writers, at the best of times. I wonder how your students would critique a difficult concert, a technically imperfect one? I think that job is more difficult and makes more of an impact on the arts community.

  4. Joan says

    I can recall a day when no matter what the concert I was performing in, I could open the paper the next day and read a review of it. I’ve been performing for over 20 years in a culturally sophisticated city in Canada, but the papers refuse to review shows. They write an extensive preview (advertise) for them. Without exception, I feel a loss, a kind of incompleted circle the next day. Being reviewed is a performer’s way of being spoken to by the people we perform to, by our city or community. I know it’s a formal way, as opposed to the nice folks who come up afterwards and comment enthusiastically in person, but I always want to hear the time on stage analyzed, described, re-viewed in words. I really do feel there is an arts cycle and that our writers are as vital to a show as the stage crew, the managers, and the performers. What wonderful writers your students are, if one can go by just a phrase. The ability to take one’s heart out and look at how it was moved is rare, even in the best of writers, at the best of times. I wonder how your students would critique a difficult concert, a technically imperfect one? I think that job is more difficult and makes more of an impact on the arts community.

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