Friday, November 28, 2008

Ecumenical Musical Thought

I'm amazed by some of the viciousness of musical opinions I've either read or heard recently. 'This recording is abysmally boring - this artist made all the wrong choices - this musician was completely unconnected - this composition just sounds like noise - this conductor has no idea what he/she is doing!' The art of criticism has long been a sore subject among both practitioners in the media and by artists themselves, so much so that even Jean Sibelius at one point quipped how you will never find a statue erected in honor of a critic!

It is obvious that critical thought and writing is absolutely central to music's success and I do see many articles these days written with tremendous clarity, precision, and yes, passion. For instance, Alex Ross's work in the New Yorker is to me, wonderful, and certainly his book on contemporary music (The Rest is Noise) is a terrific read whether you agree with him or not. He is but an example of how criticism can elevate one's understanding and appreciation of art and performance.

That said, I am seeing invective lining the pages of many publications and even in discourse between musicians. It's very easy to be drawn into a drawing and quartering of almost any artist's work at one point or another - let's face it - everyone has a bad day now and then! But I've always had deep respect for compositions, performances, and recordings including those that don't suit my taste, mostly because I have such deep respect for the composers who craft sound with magic in their pens, the musicians who perform in orchestras with amazing skill, and also the conductors who have helped to shape both recordings and performances.

My experience with critics in truth has been mixed. While some actually read and perform music and have a substantive appreciation for the complexity of a score, most rely on an intuitive sense of what makes music beautiful (in truth, this is incredibly important and valid since it is representative of audiences, whose opinions I believe are tremendously important). However, so many composers we know from history have suffered from the opinions of critics - from Beethoven to Strauss to Bartok to virtually any composer and performer at one time or another!

These composers have not just been bitten by prognosticating critics who write, but critics who play as well! A simple case comes from the Vienna Philharmonic's profoundly negative reaction to playing Mahler under Bernstein in the 1960's - and these are some of the world's greatest players! We're they right when they called Mahler's symphonies an expletive? This continues in so many conversations to which I've been a party!

Where I object to what is said and written both by critics and musicians is when folks pretend personal aesthetics make for objective judgements, which, when commenting on compositional value, performance effect, or programmatic sensibilities, can be dangerous. We must realize that our opinions are shaped by prejudices of all stripes. We must know that individual aesthetics may not jive with those around us - and this is OK as long as it is recognized as personal. From my own experience, I know that the thousands of rehearsals and performances that I've participated in as instrumentalist or conductor at this point, no matter how vast in shape, size, and quality, still render my opinions limited in scope (I discover this each time I come back to a score I've conducted and realize how much I have to rethink my previous ideas!). Therefore, I want to offer opinions that are qualified.

There are of course times when I hear that a performance is out of tune, not together, etc.... I've seen musicians yawn on a stage and that has an impact on me as a listener, or I can hear that a composer lacks craft because of very specific organizational problems in orchestration, form, or other pieces of a basic rubric that are intelligible. In these cases there is absolutely objective criteria with which to dissect things with precision if warranted.

However, even if a work is not to my taste, but has has craft, I must respect it. If a performance does not feel organic to me, but is performed with technical competence and emotional commitment, I must respect it, even if I don't feel moved. If I don't like the aural connections within a program no matter its thematic qualities, I must respect it. It doesn't mean I can't have a conversation about these things and offer an opinion, but I always want to frame my own polemics or comments in a framework of respect, because I know first hand the numerous decisions that have to be made in presenting a work of art. They are more deep than words can describe.

In my own case I'm going to conduct Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for the 2nd time in the Library of Congress in another week. When I first heard this work as a student it sounded like nonsense to me - albeit animated nonsense, and in talking to friends, I would castigate its artistic value as a listener. But when I studied the work and began to understand the language, my respect for it became enormous, not just on an intellectual level, but also on one that is purely musical - I enjoy listening to recordings of it now. This is so far from my experience as a student when I had the courage (or stupidity) to dismiss its musical meaning outright!

Even today I find my tastes shifting constantly. One day I don't like spinach, the next day it is the greatest food! One day I don't like John Zorn, the next I find his music and energy fascinating! We are all changing, and so when talking about the work of others, we should remember to treat it with the respect we wish to receive ourselves. Whether in the circles of musicians or of critics, discourse in response to what is happening around us in the classical world needs to be used meted out with care, and above all, it should remain appreciative of the depth of artistry involved, whether it fits our shifting sensibilities or not, while not losing it's critical balance.

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