Thinking Like a Critic
Here are three items that recently jumped out at me from the classicalsphere:
1. In a New York Times review, music critic Anthony Tommasini chided New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert for not devising a "daring" (Tommasini's word) enough program for the Philharmonic's opening gala. Says the critic, "there is no reason that a gala should not be a time for challenging fare."
2. In an item on his Slipped Disc blog, classical journalist Norman Lebrecht promises to shun London's West End (their equivalent to our Broadway) should a statue be erected there to honor composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. "His lordship may be a genius at selling a show," writes Lebrecht, "but he has trashed down the genre to a series of musical clichés and pop tunes. What was once a halfway house between grand opera and lowbrow music-hall has become, in Lloyd Webber’s proficient hands, a brand for safe entertainment and stage technology that barely engages the brain."
3. In a Washington Post article about orchestras' increasing employment of multimedia technology, critic Anne Midgette attempts a fair and balanced view of audience reaction to the trend. First, the con: "Yet even today, some audiences are put off by multimedia projects. For many, they are an example of pandering: yet another way orchestras are seeking to build up declining audiences by offering ever more populist fare. " Then, the pro: "For many others, however, multimedia presentations, whether they involve actors, dancers or video screens, are an important tool for orchestras to make use of as they move into the 21st century."
Three successful classical journalists, three different topics. What do they have in common to me? They all, in their own way, demonstrate what I describe as "thinking like a critic." By this, I don't mean "critical thinking," which can basically be defined as the use of one's critical faculties to determine whether a claim is true or false. I mean something quite different, perhaps not the exact opposite, but with what I regard as serious flaws. Let's take them one by one.
1. For Mr. Tommasini, having cellist Yo-Yo Ma on hand for the Philharmonic gala, to perform "Azul," a major recent work by Argentine-American composer Osvaldo Golijov was not "daring" or "challenging" enough for attendees. Better, says he, was the 2009 gala, Gilbert's first, which featured the premiere of "EXPO," a "bracing" work by Philharmonic composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg, as well as soprano Renée Fleming singing "Poèmes pour Mi," the "rapturous" but highly abstruse song cycle by French modernist Olivier Messiaen.
Listen for yourself to Golijov's "Azul," which starts 22 minutes into the archived broadcast of the NY Phil gala. Would this be "daring" and "challenging" enough for you, especially on a gala concert — or is being dared and challenged as much of a priority for you as it is for the critic? You can also listen to an excerpt of Magnus Lindberg's "EXPO," and the entirety of Fleming's '09 gala performance of Messiaen's "Poèmes pour Mi." If you were the programmer, and had to think of the entire audience, which work would you regard as most suitable for a festive gala? Do you think that critic Tommasini really had the gala audience in mind when he offered his judgment?
Then there's this from the NY Times review: "Clearly, from the committed performance of “Azul,” especially Mr. Ma’s intensely expressive playing, Mr. Gilbert and the cellist believe strongly in the piece. Still, placing it at the center of a Latin-themed program amid surefire crowd-pleasers like “Boléro” and Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso” (“Dawn Song of the Jester”), which opened the evening, actually lessened the impact of “Azul” as a distinctive and personal contemporary work." How on earth did programming the Golijov between the Ravel works lessen its impact? And who else but a critic or other classical insider would think that it did? And of course, since Mr. Tommasini is a critic, he needs to be at least slightly grudging about the appeal of Ravel's ever-popular “Boléro." But if you were in the gala audience, would you have smiled or cringed when “Boléro” started up?
2. Mr. Lebrecht is not alone among the critical establishment in his lusty disparagement of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals, favorite targets of self-styled highbrows worldwide. On the other hand, Lloyd Webber's musicals have sold a pretty large number of tickets, and pleased lots of people. That doesn't mean that a critic has to like them, but sometimes, as here, the invective goes a bit far, as if Mr. Lebrecht had to prove his critical bona fides by hating on Lloyd Webber — and, by extenstion, hating on anyone with the bad taste to enjoy his work. And was it really Lloyd Webber who "trashed down the genre to a series of musical clichés and pop tunes?" Or was it a matter of changing tastes, which Lloyd Webber in part sparked, in part reflected, and which likely would have occurred without him?
3. Let me quote here the comment I added to the Washington Post piece:
"Yet even today, some audiences are put off by multimedia projects." No doubt true, though it would really have been news if no one was put off by new ideas. But how many are "some?" Half? 1%? And if it's a tiny minority, why do they matter? Only when we know the numbers can we start to gauge audience acceptance, and even then, only over time. "Some" people will be against anything, and yet, as I have observed in my work in public radio, those against are far more motivated to speak than those who go along. Then this: "Virtually everyone who’s seriously involved with multimedia stresses that it’s not about pandering or dumbing down." Who says it is, and how many? My own unproven, unscientific view is that musicians, critics and other insiders worry about this much more than the audience as a whole, but because the insiders are in a position to get their views out, they tend to dominate the conversation. Much more important to me is what the "silent majority" of the audience thinks -- if only someone spoke for them.
Again, three critics, three topics. So what was it that jumped out at me? In each case, it strikes me that the critic is not writing as an advocate for the audience as a whole, but is addressing the matter at hand from the narrow, exclusive view of the classical insider. Yes, these insiders are the people who compose, perform, present, teach, critique, and sure, blog about classical music. They're also the people, as I said in the last quote, most able to get their views out. But they don't typify the audience as a whole, not by a long shot. That doesn't have to be a problem, as long as they at least listen for and respect the audience's tastes and desires — especially the critics. But not enough of them do. If they won't advocate for the classical audience who attends and pays for the music, who will? Would that the critical establishment would, when advising artists, surveying the field and assessing trends, do less "thinking like a critic," and more critical thinking.