Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Former Chief Critic of the Times

Marcus Maroney writes about a wholly inadequate Bernard Holland review of this week's Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert. I've been toting up my own list of Holland horrors for a few years now. I don't understand why he still has a job. Everyone reviewing for the Times is more competent than he is. And I consider it an utter mystery that there's more frothing in the blogosphere about Anthony Tommasini's reviews than about Holland's, which can be so astonishingly unprofessional and damaging.

By me, Holland's sins are:
  • Unnecessary cruelty, also known as misplaced nastiness.

    I'll never forget his review of the Westminster Choir's 1996 Christmas Concert. Note the condescending tone, the sneering suggestion that serious listeners need not attend, the slap at the chorus for attempting Schoenberg's difficult "Friede auf Erden."

    I don't review the Oakland Symphony with the expectation that it will perform with the precision of the San Francisco Symphony. That's not a hard lesson for most reviewers to learn - and any amateur chorus taking a shot at "Friede auf Erden" deserves praise. I would certainly never sneer at any audience attending a classical music concert, though I've commented at least once on how different an audience's reaction was from mine.
  • Disdain for the work under review.

    In 1998, the Met opened with Samson et Dalila, a work Holland simply can't abide. My solution? Don't review works you hate! If you must, say it once at most, then review the performance. Believe it or not, even the former chief critic of the Times hasn't got enough power to chase Samson out of the repertory at this late date.

    Better yet, relax and have a good time. I've only seen Samson once, thought it a hoot, but maybe I have more tolerance for well-constructed camp with great tunes than Bernard Holland does.
  • Relying too heavily on the program notes.

    In 2002, the San Francisco Symphony put on a semi-staged version of Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada. I attended a performance and enjoyed it very much, excepting the acid-toned soprano singing the villain of the piece. Holland came out to review it; when I saw his review a few days later, I was surprised at how closely his remarks on the work and its history tracked with the program notes. I would have at least read the New Grove articles on Rimsky and the opera! (Re-reading the review, I'm surprised he didn't comment on the "Egyptian" music, so Hollywood-campy as to make Samson sound positively noble by comparison. And he's wrong about an opera company taking the thing on. The music is wonderful, and it would certainly be nice to give the lead dancer room to spread out, but nothing happens. The opera is completely unstageworthy.)
  • Barely making the effort

    Okay, I admit that I read and admire Think Denk, pianist Jeremy Denk's blog. Don't hold it against me when I say that I was very sorry the Times sent Holland to review the Joshua Bell/Jeremy Denk recital a few weeks back. I get that they're young and peppy and accurate, but he says absolutely nothing else about the performance. Couldn't he have tried??

Updated, April 6. ACD replies, without actually discussing any specific points I make or any of Holland's reviews (and guess what? calling Holland the only Times critic worthy of the name is a defense of Holland). Marcus comments further on Holland. Steve Hicken takes note of the ongoing discussion; do read the very entertaining comments.


Anonymous said...

This week (May 15, 2008) Holland accepts a buyout from the Times as it slashes its arts critics. Many New York arts writers had written to the Times complaining of Holland's recent sloppy reviews and inaccuracies.

Lisa Hirsch said...

And that's over and above the complaints in the blogosphere, I bet.

Unknown said...

Holland reviews Glenn Gould in his typical manner:,0,2185641.story

Lisa Hirsch said...

A-yup. That was six months ago, though!