Why music critics are important (IMHO)

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

 

A friend of mine who is a regular reader of my Blogs and
print articles was curious as to what I thought of the Los Angeles
Philharmonic’s season-opening concerts last weekend. He hadn’t attended the
concerts but asked because he had read several widely divergent reviews of the
program over the past few days.

 

Since I was busy performing, I didn’t attend any of the Phil
performances either, but my friend’s question (coming at the beginning of
another indoor concert season) prodded me to write a bit about what you read
when I and/or my fellow critics review a concert.

 

The first thing to know is that a review is one person’s
opinion. It’s not a poll of other people’s views.. Each reviewer — and, indeed,
each listener — brings to a performance his or her body of personal historical
and musical knowledge, as well as other psychological and even physical
elements (how you feel physically when you listen to music affects your
perception of the performance). Every person who attends a concert is a
“critic.” Even a phrase as simple as, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” is a
critical opinion, however superficial.

 

A second important thing to note is when the reviewer heard
the performance. Of the four reviews I read of last weekend’s concerts, Mark
Swed
of the Los Angeles Times
attended Friday; Timothy Mangan of the Orange
County Register
reviewed Saturday’s performance; Brian, who writes a Blog
entitled Out West Arts, attended on
Sunday; and CK Dexter Haven, who writes All
is Yar,
was so enthralled that he he trekked to Walt Disney Concert Hall on
both Friday and Sunday. (If you haven’t read the reviews, they are linked to
the writers’ names above.)

 

Even for a group as top-notch as the L.A. Phil, differences
– sometimes substantial, sometimes subtle — show up in performances even a day apart,
so bear that in mind when you read reviews of different performances.

 

Moreover, there really is no pattern. Sometimes the
excitement of a first night produces an unparalleled performance; on other
occasions, concerts improve from one performance to another. CK Dexter Haven,
who, as noted above saw the Friday and Sunday concerts, wrote: “Friday’s
opening night concert was very good, but Sunday’s was noticeably better … In
fact, Sunday was the best concert I’ve ever heard Mr. Dudamel and the LA Phil have
together.”

 

A third point to bear in mind is the reviewer’s background
and experience. These aren’t always easy to find. Mark Swed’s BIO can be found
online at the Times (albeit with some
difficulty). Timothy Mangan’s BIO is on his Web site, Classical Life. Mine — a short version, I confess — is on my site,
as well — LINK. CK Dexter Haven’s bio information is HERE. Brian at Out West Arts (LINK) says even less, not
even his last name. You may not care about this information but it could affect
how you evaluate a review.

Throughout the course of a season, you occasionally get
widely divergent reviews; all critics have received their share of “Were you
and I at the same concert?” emails. That this divergence of opinion occurred in
this concert, where two of the pieces played — Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante dfunte and Stravinsky’s La Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)
– are pretty mainstream, made the spread of opinion interesting but certainly
not unprecedented (the middle work on the program was the world premiere of
Steven Stucky’s Symphony).

 

Digging a little deeper:

 

Each of the reviewers commented on the LAPO’s history with
The Rite of Spring; many of us
considered the work to be a signature piece of Dudamel’s predecessor, Esa-Pekka
Salonen and that note appeared in each review. Such information does count as
one difference between the casual concertgoer and the professional music
critic. Many critics have seen many performances of many works and are able to
remember and articulate the differences. That has its plusses and minuses for
you, the reader, but it’s worth bearing in mind. Moreover, reading each of the
reviews gives you a different perspective on this aspect and I, for one, find
that illuminating.

 

Everyone brings their own prejudices (i.e., likes and
dislikes) to any performance. When you read the concluding sentence of the
first paragraph of Brian’s post on the concert in question in Out West Arts, you certainly know where
he stands about Dudamel: “In fact, this weekend’s show, which I caught on Sunday,
may have been the worst single performance I’ve heard him and the orchestra
give together over his musically erratic, artistically lackluster tenure as
music director here in L.A.” You may agree or disagree with that sentiment but
it certainly colors his reviews about the Venezuelan maestro and, perhaps, your
reading of it.

 

By contrast, you usually get the reverse sentiment from a
Mark Swed review and from me because we believe that Dudamel’s leadership has
been galvanizing for the Phil. It doesn’t mean that Brian is totally incapable
of writing a positive review about a Dudamel concert or that Mark or I can’t
write a negative one.  It’s just
part of the process and is worth keeping at least in the back of your mind as
you read.

 

In most cases, there’s more to a writer’s output than
reviews. For example, Brian in Out West
Arts
has just posted one of his almost-always-interesting “10 Questions”
series — this one is about Andrew Norman, the new composer–in-residence of the
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Even if you’re not going to the LACO concerts
this weekend (Saturday at 8 p.m. in Glendale’s Alex Theatre and Sunday at 7
p.m. in UCLA’s Royce Hall) where Norman will have one of his pieces performed,
this POST is worth your time.

So, why should you read reviews? I can think of three good
reasons. You may have others — if so, chime in by commenting:

 

1. Many critics and Bloggers — not all, I grant you — write
well. Moreover, we’re writing about a subject that we love, often with great
passion. The list of critics/writers/bloggers that I read runs into the many
dozens. Even if you don’t agree with everything (or, indeed, anything) a critic
has written (and I don’t), take the time to read, ponder and savor what he or
she has written.

 

2. You may learn something new. All four of the reviews
above had interesting pieces of information about the music, past performance
practices, and other elements. Both CK Dexter Haven and I like to add little
taglines to our reviews (he calls them “Random other thoughts” and I call them
“hemidemisemiquavers”) that we think are worth mentioning.  Some you may know; others you may not.
They add to the spice of life in our musical universe.

 

3. You may, after reading someone else’s review, rethink
your feelings about a particular performance you attended. What I (and others)
wrote may reinforce what you felt or challenge your reactions. The late, great
music critic, Alan Rich, believed fervently that the job of a critic was to
write critically, in every sense of that word. The purpose of a critic, he
wrote in his book, So I’ ve Heard,,
is “not to lead his readers into blindly accepting his truths, but to stimulate
them, delight them, even irritate them into formulating truths which are
completely their own.” (Few people did that as well as Alan). Or can just savor
the review for its craft alone.

 

I’m going to review both the Pasadena Symphony concert
Saturday night (LINK) and the LACO concert Sunday night (LINK). I hope you find
my reviews worth your time whether or not you attended. As we move into a very
busy indoor season, I also hope you’ll attend as many performances as possible
and read not only about those performances but other classical music items as
well. That reading will become part of your overall enjoyment. And don’t be
afraid to comment; we all read what you write either in comments or via email –
the interplay is part of the fun.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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