Amanda is, as she says, the Blog Mistress, so I’m starting by responding to her latest post. (I’m also going to try to fold as many points as possible into this post as it may be my last – I don’t have any more transatlantic flights this week which will provide me with hours to write/a valid excuse not to practice.)
In answering Amanda’s question about where the responsibility for making concert presentations special lies, I’m going to return to one of my original points (fine, OK, Alex Ross’ point, which I seem to have unofficially co-opted): the presentation doesn’t have to be “special,” or different — it has to be musical, and in making that the case, there is responsibility on all sides, but the buck stops with the artist. This means thinking about many things. One (and this is Alex’s specific example – I hope we don’t get into a copyright situation) is lighting, which can create or destroy an atmosphere, and should not, to use an obvious example, be bright and clinical when the subject of the music is death (and perhaps transfiguration). Another is applause: it seems clear to me that there are certain pieces which are entered into more effectively from silence than from a room full of clapping, and other pieces which lead into silence, and should be concluded that way. One can make these requests of an audience, and at the very least, it will force them to listen differently, and just as importantly, think differently about what it means to listen — really listen.
The most important aspect of this, I think, is programming. A good program – a musical program – should be constructed in such a way that one’s hearing of each piece is — altered? enhanced? challenged, I think — by what came before it and what comes after. This doesn’t mean that every program has to be all over the map: to address Alex Benjamin’s comment, the last 3 Beethoven Sonatas make for an extraordinary listening experience, in part because of a certain uniformity of extraordinary language. But each of the last 3 Beethoven Sonatas threw down a kind of gauntlet for all piano music that came after it, and it is in fact extremely easy to find 19th/20th/21st century music of an inarguably high quality which makes for an arresting pairing with any one of the three. (And a serious fringe benefit is that the diversity serves the artist as well: playing new music will deepen your understanding of late Beethoven, and vice versa. Or: what’s good for the listener is good for the player.)
But before leaving this topic, I have to say, beating a dying horse, that I found it slightly dispiriting that Amanda’s LMO list included lighting, program books, artist appearance, and usher attire, but made no reference to the way the music sounded. Because my feeling is that while all of these issues are important, they are side issues. Or: If the playing was memorable, the concert was not LMO; If the playing was not memorable, none of the rest of this is going to be make the slightest bit of difference.
Switching gears, I’d like to turn my attention to Matthew’s excellent post. I share many of the same concerns, particularly about the many ways listeners’ expectations are manufactured. I think often about how to give an audience useful context for what they are going to hear, without telling them what they should think/feel about it. It’s a tightrope act, honestly.
So here are my questions: given your desire for each audience member to have an authentic, individual experience, for whom are you writing when you review concerts, and what do you hope your readers’ relationship to your writing is? I hope it doesn’t seem impertinent to ask. It’s just that I’ve always been fascinated by criticism — musical and otherwise — but I’ve never seen a discussion of its aims, and I think this could be a great forum for it.
James responds to this post, and then Jonathan responds to him, in the comments.