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a couple good music articles on the web

First, violinist Holly Mulcahy over at The Partial Observer writes an amusing (but very serious) article about behaviors which musicians are apt to endulge in (but shouldn’t), entitled How to Alienate Your Audience in 10 Easy Steps: Musicians.

Here’s a teaser:

An engaged, enthusiastic, and diverse audience is one of the strongest measurements for justifying an orchestra’ value. During my years as a violinist in various orchestras around the country, I have witnessed audiences lose their enthusiasm for live concerts and turn their backs to orchestras as the result of behavior from those inside the ensemble.

Last month’s article showed how conductors alienate audiences through certain behaviors and this month is the musician’s turn. Of course, not every musician is guilty of the transgressions below but they happen often enough that they contribute to alienating an audience, so I’ve created this step-by-step guide to identify the problems along with some practical advice on how to avoid the traps.

1) Never smile.

You are a serious musician who has spent hours honing your craft. Indeed, most concertgoers aren’t likely to understand the full depth of your artistic understanding. In order to make sure they understand this, it is best to project a brooding manner at all times. This is best accomplished by maintaining stoic expressions at all time, even onstage or when the audience responds to a truly triumphant performance with enthusiastic applause.

Granted, it is impossible to maintain a smile at all times during periods of intense concentration but an appreciative audience likes to know you are not pissed at them for showing up and enjoying a concert when they are applauding. It never hurts to remember that no one likes a martyr and you should respond to sincere applause with affirmative body language (yes, even a smile).

Next, Pulizter Prize winning critic Justin Davidson engages in a point/counterpoint argument about the responsibilities of a classical music critic with Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Corigliano over at  They’re pretty evenly matched, but I give the edge to Corigliano, only because I know the damage that can be done by sloppy criticism despite good intentions.

Again, here’s a brief taste of the point and counterpoint:

From: John Corigliano
To: Justin Davidson

Dear Justin,

Reviewing a new work makes more stringent demands on a critic than reviewing familiar music does, and yet the stakes are considerably higher. A composer can puts months, or even years into the creation a work, the future of which is often influenced by the initial critical response.

There are at least two issues that arise when dealing with a new piece — one technical and one philosophical. Let me pose the technical one first:

Just as a masterpiece of the standard repertoire can be distorted by an indifferent or inept performance, so can a new work be mangled. It is relatively easy to separate a piece from its performance if one is well acquainted with a work. It is absolutely impossible to do so if it is a new work and the critic cannot refer to a score to clarify where a problem lies. Unless the performers stop playing or play noticeably out of tune, the blame for a bad performance is almost always shifted to the composer. I have had quite a few performances in which the music was primarily an improvisation by badly prepared artists (some of them quite prominent) and quite unrecognizable from my original work. I have never had a critic notice what has happened.

This is why it is essential for a critic both to be able to read a score, and to have listened to the work at least once with a score. This could be at a rehearsal so the writer could listen again to the work — this time without score — at the concert. Without this no accurate judgment of the worth of a new work is possible.

From: Justin Davidson
To: John Corigliano

Dear John,

Your words sting, especially since my favorite part of the job is to hear and react to new music — even new music I don’t particularly like. There’s something about the freshness of hearing a piece for the first time, the knowledge that there are no specialists in this work (well, maybe one: the composer) and that therefore every listener stands on the same ground. I see that as an exciting position for a critic to be in, and my hope is that I can relay something of that experience to readers who couldn’t be at the performance.

Now you tell me that such an experience is invalid: my first time through a piece should be nothing more than a dry run. I should withhold judgment until I really know what I am listening to. Whatever emotions — delight, revulsion or indifference — I may experience on first contact with a composition I should consider merely provisional. The real question, if I read you correctly, is: Am I getting it right? (Incidentally, it’s not true that critics can never tell the difference between the performance and the piece: When the New York Philharmonic gave the world premiere of a work by Thomas Adès two years ago, I wrote that the desperate performance made it impossible to judge the work.)

Granted, in an ideal world, all critics would read music fluently, just as all new pieces would receive as much rehearsal as they require. Actually, while the second will never happen, the first mostly has. I haven’t taken a scientific poll, but the critics I know mostly do read music — to the scorn of many professional musicians, the field is strewn with recovering pianists, musicologists and tuba players. (For the record, as you know, I was trained as a composer.) How well they read music, though — that’s another question. You’re not asking whether we critics have the chops to stumble through Für Elise, but whether we can make sense of, say, a 30-stave page of a transposed orchestral score in which pianissimo contrabassoons are meant to emerge from a wash of rippling, unmetered violin harmonics.

By Charles Noble

I'm the Assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony.

4 replies on “a couple good music articles on the web”

a brief comment on each of the excellent articles above:

1/ i saw Artur Rubenstein twice in concert and he NEVER smiled. i forgive him. then again, there are those that smile too much. well, “Lang-Langerace” DOES have great teeth.

2/ i hope John and Justin’s superb exchange gets wide circulation among music critics AND editors. personally, i believe that a glib and/or dismissive one-liner “review” from a music critic regarding a new piece is an actionable offense.

capital offense? nah, an hour or two of listening to Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” through a few Marshall stacks on “11” oughta clean the arrogance out of their pen’s ears.

as for non-smiling orchestral musicians, well, there certainly are a “few” of those. maybe a few more viola jokes would help? :)))

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