The kind of critic classical music could use
Having read him closely for over a dozen years, I can only recall Robert M. Parker, Jr. mentioning music a couple of times. But then, music is not Parker's beat. The creator and lead writer of The Wine Advocate, Parker, in the words of his Wikipedia entry, "continues to be the most widely-known wine critic in the world today" — not bad for a man described in a 2000 Atlantic Monthly profile as "not a snob or an obvious aesthete, as one might imagine, an ordinary American, a burly, awkward, hardworking guy from the backcountry of northern Maryland, about half a step removed from the farm." He also happens to be my favorite critic, not just of wine, but of anything. And he's just the kind of critic classical music could use more of.
What qualities would a such a classical critic demonstrate? Of course, there would be an incomparable ear, to match Parker's freakish powers of taste and smell. The critic would also possess an encyclopedic knowledge of music history and styles, with an uncanny ability to recall concerts and recordings heard long ago, as Parker can do with wines. Actually, we already have music critics like this, and should expect and demand nothing less. What would be different is what makes Parker special to me. Inspired in his youth by Ralph Nader's pioneering consumer reporting, Parker has made the consumer the focus of his reviews, valuing wine not primarily for its pedigree or prestige, but for the pleasure it provides the wine drinker. As he told William Langewiesche, the author of the Atlantic profile, "What I've brought is a democratic view. I don't give a [expletive] that your family goes back to pre-Revolution and you've got more wealth than I could imagine. If this wine's no good, I'm gonna say so."
This viewpoint has earned Parker his share of detractors, especially among those whom the wine world has dubbed the terroiristes. For these connoisseurs, a wine should smell and taste of its terroir — the soil out of which it came, the sun that ripened it, and other natural factors unique to the wine's microclimate. Like the word, the concept of terroir is French (especially Burgundian), and its adherents tend to look down on this American arriviste, questioning their wines' superiority as he touts richer, riper wines from the New World, especially — mon Dieu! — California. As one's detractors are wont to do, the anti-Parkers tend to exaggerate and distort his written record to place themselves above him. Here's an example that I could take down point-by-point if you wanted. In fact, Parker, an ardent Francophile, can taste terroir with the best of them, but can also taste the producer's hand in the wine, and doesn't mind separating the consistently excellent producers, especially the innovators, from the lazy underperformers coasting on their wines' reputation. If a wine tastes good, it is good. If it tastes bad, it is bad. Like him or not, we wine lovers have benefited greatly from Parker's unabashed and eloquently expressed hedonism.
Getting back to music, what would be different about a Robert Parker of classical music criticism? Such a critic would be less concerned with the pedigree or prestige of the music under review than with how much pleasure the music provides. Yes, the critic must consider style, technical proficiency and other matters that might not be readily apparent to the average listener. But if the music sounds bad, the critic would not call it good, no matter how smart it makes the critic sound. And if the music sounds good, the critic would praise it unreservedly, no matter how askance the music snobs would look at it. For a classical Parker, music is for pleasure, and if it doesn't provide pleasure, it's not worth hearing. I think classical criticism could use a lot more of both Parker's plain-spokenness and his hedonism, and can't think of a leading critic who exhibits as much as I'd like. Am I missing someone?