Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Reviewers' Dislikes

A review in the NY Times by Vivien Schweitzer has gotten some discussion on Facebook. She's not a fan of Morton Feldman's music, but got sent to review a performance of the composer's monumental, six-hour String Quartet No. 2. She didn't enjoy it, no surprise, and doesn't hear the virtues of the piece (and other Feldman works) that others hear.

I've been trying to figure out why this review bugged me so much. Is it any different from my own feelings about the Tchaikowsky symphonies, or Joshua Kosman's about just about everything by Saint-Saens?

It's just inevitable that critics will be sent to review works and composers they don't luv. It's especially inevitable in San Francisco, where the Chronicle and Mercury News have one classical music critic each. I understand a reviewer accepting a review in hopes of an epiphany, considering how Herbert Blomstedt turned me around on that Schubert symphony a few week ago. I believe that I've done a fair job with my own reviews of various works by Philip Glass, a composer of whom I have a highly mixed opinion. (There's a lot of dross surrounding the gold, briefly.) I am in the position of being able to turn down any review I don't want to write - and there's a list of works I won't touch, too.

In this case, though...Feldman is such an idiosyncratic composer that were I an assignments editor, I'd very likely send someone with more sympathy toward the composer than Schweitzer. And if I were writing a review of a major work by a composer I don't like, I would try to focus on reviewing the performance, with fewer sideswipes at the composer.

But I am not such an editor and I didn't write the review. I'm curious about anyone else's thoughts on this subject, since my own thinking looks a little muddled to me.


Tom DePlonty said...

I think it's simple: if you don't have at least some sympathy for a piece, you'll likely have little interesting to say about it. People tend to know much less about the things they don't like, than the things they do.

Joshua Kosman said...

I thought it was a terrific review, one of the best VS has ever written. None of it came from the program notes or Wikipedia; it was an honest, forthright and highly personal account of one person's struggle to appreciate music that some others love (me, FWIW) and some don't. I can't imagine any other way she could've handled the assignment, and frankly I thought she did it with grace and humility.

Nor would I necessarily fault the editor. I mean, what does a reader actually want from a review like this? It's not as though you want a report on how this performance compared to others of the same piece. If you have a young up-and-coming pianist who's making a name for himself as a Liszt specialist giving an all-Liszt recital and you send a critic who can't stand Liszt, now you've got assigning-editor malfeasance. (Those of us with longish memories will recall the time that Bernard Holland went to Chicago to review someone's first Otello and wrote about his views on the weakness of the opera.) But this was supposed to be about one listener's encounter with a very distinctive piece. She didn't like it, she told us why, good on her. I wish she would, y'know, do this more often.

Anonymous said...

For my part, there's a lot of music that, while I don't like it, I can understand and appreciate what the composer is trying to do. That includes my bete noire, Mahler. I can review such works fairly and appreciatively, though sometimes I will demur because I just don't want to have to sit through the thing again.

Only a few composers do I find so utterly opaque that, if they formed a major part of the program, I'd turn the assignment down. I did turn down an Elliott Carter once; I suggested they send you instead.

That leaves out composers with whom one is insufficiently familiar, usually living ones, in which case one just crosses fingers and hopes for the best. Surprisingly often that's what I get.

I'd have queried the wisdom of sending such an anti-Feldman reviewer to this concert until I saw the result. I agree with Joshua; I think it's remarkably good, and remarkably fair. She states what she likes in Feldman and why this piece doesn't cut it for her; she makes clear hers is a minority opinion; she's evocatively descriptive and cogently analytical; and she writes well.

Unknown said...

The interesting thing about this story to me is that the NY Times elected to send a reviewer to a concert where 50 people attended. Throughout the Times’ region there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of concerts each day or weekend, many by artists or groups with much larger audiences that would have been thrilled to have a NYT reviewer in attendance. I realize that attendance is not the only qualification for a decision to review a concert or recital but 50 people? Perhaps the novelty of the piece and the notoriety (?) of the composer was enough to justify her attendance but I for one certainly question that decision.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The thinking might be "important composer, rarely-performed work, must review."

Torture Artist said...

In case you might be interested in an alternative view of the same event: http://newyorkclassicalreview.com/2014/04/flux-quartets-artistry-makes-feldmans-six-hour-opus-an-engrossing-experience/

Torture Artist said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lisa Hirsch said...

Torture Artist, that NY Classical Review piece is terrific, thank you for pointing it out.

Joshua, have you read it? I would say that Schweitzer's review is mostly about her response to the piece, while the NYCR review is mostly about the piece itself. In this case, I'm finding the latter more informative.