criticizing the critic

In today’s New York Times Anthony Tommasini reviewed pianist Stephen Hough’s recital at Carnegie Hall. A major component of Hough’s recital was a piece of his own invention, his Piano Sonata No. 2 “Notturno Luminoso”.

My problem with this review is that there seems to be no critic alive (with the possible exceptions of Steven Smith and Alex Ross) who is not afraid of praising a work or a performance without also giving some sort of sly, backhanded dressing down of same. Here is what I mean:

At 51, Mr. Hough has established himself as an extraordinary pianist, a thinking person’s virtuoso. Whether he is a towering composer is another question. Music history usually takes some time to make those calls. And, from this one hearing, I cannot claim that Mr. Hough’s Second Sonata is destined for a slot in the repertory.

But it is an exhilarating and inventive piece, brilliantly conceived for the piano. Mr. Hough, a polymath who also conducts, paints and writes poetry, is a lively writer on music who contributes a blog to The Daily Telegraph in London that is essential reading. Not surprisingly, he wrote a vividly detailed program note for his sonata.

The title “Notturno Luminoso” is meant to suggest the experience of a fantasy on a sleepless night in a brash city setting. As the piece, loosely organized in three parts, opens, we hear steely chords thick with clusters, like Messiaen’s harmonies but with a touch of bracing Copland or early Carter.

Now, what was wrong with saying it was an ‘exhilarating and inventive piece, brilliantly conceived’ without saying that it also might not be ‘destined for a slot in the repertory’? Is it too much to simply enjoy a piece without also downgrading its chances at entering the repertory? How many of Liszt’s piano works were criticized at their premieres because the critics were concerned with whether any other pianists might not be up to their virtuoso challenges? I would guess that contemporary critics of Liszt were more concerned with the performance of the great pianist/composer, and with the novel techniques he may have introduced in his compositions, rather than if pianists would be playing his works fifty years hence.

Does this seem strange to anyone else but me?

critical mass

There was a review of last night’s concert by James McQuillen, which you can find here at the Oregonian’s website.  I was interested to find that there was a pretty quick followup comment by “clarities” – I’ll quote the first paragraph here:

If it’s true that “Carlos Kalmar intends for the orchestra to pull its weight,” he’d better start by rehearsing his orchestra sufficiently and not antagonizing guests of such caliber as Joshua Bell. Kalmar and Bell were at odds through much of the Lalo — pretty absurd when you consider the nature of the work as a violin showpiece. The job of the conductor in this context is to do everything he can to support the soloist’s virtuosity. Bell’s frustration with Kalmar was evident both during the piece and between movements, when he could barely muster a half-smile in the conductor’s direction.

This bears a bit of clarification from someone who was involved in the rehearsal process and also sitting about five feet away from Bell and Kalmar during that process as well as the concert.  Josh has made no secret that he very much enjoys working with both the Oregon Symphony and Carlos Kalmar.  The Lalo was given an entire rehearsal the day of the concert, since Bell arrived the evening before.  There was quite a bit of give-and-take between Josh and Carlos during the rehearsal, and it seemed that they were working together with a good sense of what each other wanted out of the collaboration.  I remember and interview with Yo-Yo Ma where he said that the ideal relationship between soloist and orchestra is one where there is a healthy sense of tension, where the soloist had to push and pull against the current of the orchestra.  Carlos seems to provide this with every soloist that he works with.  Bell’s demeanor on stage didn’t strike me as being one iota different from any other time that he’s appeared with the Oregon Symphony, including when James DePriest was conducting. He’s not a touchy-feely soloist who is going to fawn all over a conductor or orchestra.  It’s not the way he rolls

As for whether or not the orchestra was rehearsed enough – sometimes an orchestra can have very little rehearsal time and pull off a great performance, at another time, the same orchestra and conductor might have exhaustive rehearsals and not everything gels in performance.

video screens @ symphony concerts – good or bad?

I came across an article from today’s Chicago Sun-Times which asserts the success of the jumbotron-style video screens at the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony.  As usual, this has engendered the tired arguments between the crusty old salts and the fresh-faced ingenues as to what a travesty/triumph these screens have turned out to be.  My question is, why does it have to be an old/young issue at all?  Can’t it be a more democratizing experience?  Those people in the cheap seats, at the back of the seating area, can actually see what’s going on as well or better than those who got the prime tickets.  And frankly, it would seem to be an obvious point that being able to see members of the orchestra, the conductor, and the soloist from a close up viewpoint would be a, in the parlance of Martha Stewart, ‘good thing’.

The other issue that bothers me is the assumption that younger people who go to see Beyoncé concerts (as chosen by the author of the article) are going to go to the symphony in droves now that there are giant video screens at the concerts.  I don’t see how the two are really related.  People don’t go to see Beyoncé because of the video screens, the go to see her perform, and the video screens simply help them to actually see her from the $50 seats.  Perhaps if they were going to see Beyoncé with the Chicago Symphony, then they’d be expecting screens.

In the end, it’s all about change.  Some people hate change with an undying (sorry for the word choice) intensity, and nothing is going to change their minds about new things happening in the concert hall.  Others assume that anything new is a panacea for what ails the symphony concert format, and that doing anything less than a sweeping revolutionary set of changes is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  How about the reasonable assumption that both camps are at best half correct?