When critics do battle
Following up on a previous post about differing critical perspectives, I want to take you down memory lane. All the way to March, 2005. Before we had this swell blog, which is why I'm just getting to it now. And to a critical clash that rocked Boston's classical scene. All right, perhaps as Hub hubbubs go, it wasn't quite Whitey on the lam or chicken wings and beer in the Fenway clubhouse. But by classical standards, 'twas an out-and-out donnybrook!
To set the scene: James Levine was just wrapping up his long-awaited first season as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Olde Towne was abuzz with BSO fever, as Levine had energized the orchestra with its most demanding and challenging programming since his distant predecessor Serge Koussevitzky. In particular, Levine's penchant for musical modernism was beginning to emerge, and his plans for the following season promised even more.
Time to define a term. "Musical modernism" does not refer to the prevailing "isms" of our time, e.g., minimalism, post-modernism, neo-romanticism. Rather, it usually refers to the progressive styles developed in the early to mid-20th century, represented by composers as Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter. You've heard of atonal music, or 12-tone music, or serial music? They all fit under the modernist umbrella.
Not for nothing did I put Arnold Schoenberg first on the list of typical modernists. It was he who deserves the most credit, or blame, for unleashing a century of modernism, especially modernism of the most dissonant sort. Without for a second questioning his brilliance or immense influence as a composer, one can certainly question whether classical audiences like his works as much as musicians and critics do. Actually, let me correct myself: There's no question about it. To generalize, and with some exceptions, audiences hate the stuff. Always have. And I bet they always will.
Nonetheless, James Levine decided that, starting in his second season, he would focus on Schoenberg's works, pairing them with works by a composer in whose lineage Schoenberg, with characteristic immodesty, placed himself: Beethoven. Not that this idea was new with Levine. For as long as I've been observing the classical scene, musicians have been thusly programming works by the "Second Vienna School" (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) with those in the "First Vienna School" (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven). And for just as long a time, critics have been praising such programming as innovative. What's wrong with this picture?
So back to the donnybroook: On March 6, 2005, on the front page of its Sunday arts section, the Boston Globe published an article titled "Getting an Earful" written by critic-at-large (and former Globe theater & TV critic) Ed Siegel. You can read it yourself if you want to fork over $4.95 for the privilege, or subscribe to the Globe on-line for the low, low price of about $200/year. To save you the expense, Siegel, while praising Levine to the hilt, took issue with his audience-unfriendly programming. It's not that Siegel didn't want new pieces; on the contrary, he cited such living luminaries as Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon and Thomas Adès as composers Levine does not do but should. What bothered Siegel "most about Levine's aesthetic when it comes to modern music is its narrowness. Even [modernist avatar Pierre] Boulez, talking about his days leading the New York Philharmonic, warned, 'If one specializes too narrowly, one fails to do justice to the sort of music one wishes to promote; that very music even loses its credibility.'"
Well! This was too much for Lloyd Schwartz, Pulitzer Prize-winning classical critic of The Phoenix (and of NPR's Fresh Air). His stern rebuttal took the Globe to task for providing such valuable newspaper real estate to Siegel, rather than classical critic Richard Dyer (whose critical stance generally agreed with Schwartz's), and chided Siegel for his old-fashioned and narrow attitude. "Anyone is entitled to a prejudice, even an old one," permitted the magnanimous Schwartz.
And you know, I don't blame Schwartz one bit for his position. After all, if the Globe was going to open up its pages to mere critical commoners like Ed Siegel, it might threaten Schwartz's near-monopoly, especially since Dyer's retirement, over determining the critical stance on Boston's classical scene. Not only that, the news might get out that culturally aware, generally knowledgeable BSO fans like Siegel, who probably respresents the typical classical patron far better than any classical critic, might have different desires when sitting in Symphony Hall than Schwartz and his colleagues do. For those who don't read him regularly, Schwartz (a superb reviewer) is quite the fan of modernist icons like Boulez and Carter, suggesting not long ago that the latter might be America's all-time greatest classical composer. This is despite Carter never having composed a single piece that has penetrated the general American consciousness, not that that troubles Schwartz's refined sensibilities.
But, dear listener, the question I asked last time, and ask again, is: Which view of this issue more resembles your own, Siegel's or Schwartz's? And which critic is more on your side? I know whose side I'm on: the side of the one who could write this:
"It took awhile for the public to catch up to Beethoven's late quartets or Herman Melville's 'Moby-Dick,' but has it taken anyone 100 years to break through? We're now celebrating the centenary of when Schoenberg's music began to drive audiences away from contemporary music, and it is no more popular today."
And his name isn't Lloyd Schwartz.