Tell the Truth, But Tell It Slant

Objective criticism is a myth, but every worthwhile critic strives to be objective in his or her criticism. It’s a worthy effort even if you’ll never succeed. Being open to things outside one’s favorites and familiars, whether it’s electronically enhanced scrapes and dings cohering into a soundscape or a soprano employing wide vibrato in a Bach cantata, makes one’s brain and, consequently, one’s writing more complicated and more interesting.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to come at the task of writing about whether a concert was good without some sort of measuring stick, except that the measurements on that stick are shaped by experience and not by something cool like how far light travels in 1/299,792,458 of a second. Since all of us have different experiences, our measurements differ.

In anticipation of DMV classical concertizing (and thus my classical reviewing) once again beginning in earnest this month, I list here some of my more noteworthy biases. Being on the “favored” side of a bias is no guarantee of a good review, but I probably start out more likely to give one in that case. I’m not happy about it, but the alternative is blanking out all my concertgoing experience through a memory-wiper service, which (although key to a good movie) does not appear to actually be available. (Plus what would Nietzsche say?)

  • If there is one thing that turns me off in classical music, it is the grandiose style. We look to Bruckner for a wonderful example of this. I absolutely cannot stand Bruckner, although I try out his music every so often just to make sure. Mahler is another one; I have actually begun to like certain Mahler works, particularly the songs, which seem to be more human-scale due to the voice, but the symphonies continue to speak not much to me. Ravel’s La Valse, as already discussed.
  • This extends to my surroundings at the classical concert, as well. The Kennedy Center, for reasons that I’ll write more about in another post, turns me off before I even walk in the door (although the performers therein routinely turn me back on). The Music Center at Strathmore, which is less concerned with shoving in your face how impressive it is, feels much more welcoming for that reason. My ideal is a chamber music concert in a small hall or a church, up close, with players wearing the classical business-casual outfits (nice, but not stiltedly so).
  • Also, I tend to think of opera as the most self-serious, self-impressed, and ostentatiously massive sector of classical music, an impression of which I am going to try to disabuse myself this year. I’ll write more about this later also.
  • Composers I like more than anyone else I know: Haydn (I would take Haydn over Mozart if forced to choose…this probably has to do with the opera thing), Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov (if I ever get a dog, it will be named after Rimsky-Korsakov. “Here, Rimsky!” I will say. “Who’s a good dog?”), Rachmaninov, Reger.
  • Composers whose output I tend to dislike more than most people do: The aforementioned Mahler and Bruckner, Wagner, Chopin, Ravel (though this varies widely by the work), Debussy (though I am getting into some of his stuff).
  • If a piece has a sense of fun, I tend to like it, even if it is lacking in some other areas. It is easy to make me think a piece is fun: include a dance rhythm somewhere in there, quote something familiar in a new context, include snatches of some musical genre other than classical, make virtually any humorous-type gesture. (For the last, it doesn’t matter all that much whether it’s actually funny; you get points for trying. I am a sucker.)
  • Programs: I like programs that have an idea driving the music played and its sequence; balanced programs; programs developed with the idea that there is an audience, of varying attention spans, levels of knowledge, and interests, that will be sitting there listening to the music. I don’t like most programs that are called something like “Romantic Spectacular.” I once went to a very fine concert at which string quartets by Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann were played, and I left feeling as bloated as if I had eaten an entire pound cake. An example of a program I really like is the one on the Daedalus Quartet’s CD. (Disclosure regarding the Daedalus: I am friends with the violist and on a first-name basis with the rest of them. I maintain that I would still think they are awesome even if that wasn’t true. But, then, how would I know?)
  • Performances: I tend to focus most on how the performer tells some sort of story through the music. I have a much higher tolerance for technical mistakes, occasional infelicities of tone, and general sloppiness than most other critics I’ve known, as long as the narrative arc of the performance has grabbed me somehow. It does not necessarily have to be a narrative, I suppose; it could be an exploration of tones, or even an improvisation. But, in general, if I’m “in” the performance, I don’t much care what else is happening. I’ve only done a couple reviews in which I really criticized the technical capacity of the performer(s), and in those performances the technical problems had blurred the overall argument of the music beyond recognition.
  • Fun can also crop up in performances, and I tend to go all googly-eyed with delight when it does. The iconic image for me is a string quartet whose members smile when Haydn does something witty in a minuet — showing that they’re also enjoying what I’m enjoying. Lang Lang leaning back and beseeching the heavens to impart the last measure of poetry in his Chopin playing is not fun (though some other stuff he does is kind of fun, I must admit). Playing rhythms with the proper amount of emphasis tends to be fun; I don’t think I’ve ever criticized a performer for overemphasizing rhythms, although I’ve criticized many for soft-pedaling them or wandering about rhythmically. This must be the pop fan in me.
  • I enjoy it when a performer says a few words before a piece or pieces on the program, describing what it does or why it means something to the performer. Emphasis on “a few.” It helps if the info provided is not in the program notes, which I read. I don’t typically attend pre-performance lectures because I go to work during the day and need to eat dinner before I go to a performance. (You do not want to read my review of a show during which I am hungry. I strategize to make sure my stomach won’t distract me during concerts with calls for food.) I sigh and check my watch during interminable pre-performance. announcements about how great everyone on stage is and which sponsor we should thank. (I give about a three-minute grace period on these, because I know they are necessary, but still.) I stay after the performance for discussions with the performers if I can.

That’s most of them. I’ll try to be up front as more come up.

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5 Comments on “Tell the Truth, But Tell It Slant”

  1. DeaconScholar Says:

    Well, quite easiy and convincingly, this column reminds us why the arts – in this case music – appeal to something deep inside and in so many different ways. Despite the unique experiences of each member of the audience, we are drawn into a world that is beyond any one person.

    I am 65 years of age. This year marks the 50th anniversary of my first symphony concert and opera performance – the Shreveport Symphony and Shreveport Opera, both local organizations with local talent, at least back then. It was the Beethoven 5th and Carmen. As a music major in college I became a fan of Anton Bruckner (over 10 recordings of the 7th, 8th, and 9th symphonies). Wagner? Much, much later. Last year, to be honest. While I often wish that I had had a lifetime to enjoy all this music, I am truly grateful that at my age I can continue to discover and enjoy new music and art.

    There’s a reason many conductors wait until mid or late career to tackle Bruckner – the same reason I expect that you will. There’s a lot to be said for age.

  2. punkyjunk Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your final three bullet points. It’s wonderful to be given the impression that the performers are enjoying what they’re doing, especially if they [briefly] speak to it – and it clearly has some sort of overall theme or story, not just a display of technical prowess.

    Coming from a background of mostly working with jazz presenters, I’ve seen both sides of the coin here. Some make it fun, and others are the aural equivalent of watching paint dry.

    Great commentary!

  3. Maura Says:

    You make some really great points that any good artistic administrator should take into consideration. Maybe you should get a job as a consultant/advisor!

  4. Gunnar Says:

    Sense of fun: occasional dance rhythms; quotations given new context; snatches of other genres; humorous gestures.

    Soooo, Ives?
    (in jazz: Paul Desmond?)


  5. […] on record as not enjoying Bruckner’s music, but before Thursday, the last time I had heard a Bruckner […]


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