Aug 182012

What is the value of a classical music review?

In May of this year I opened the Los Angeles Times to a review of a concert by the New York Philharmonic I had just attended and was pleased that my very positive impression lined up with that of Mark Swed, the newspaper’s unquestionably professional music critic.

Reviews certainly have a public function: they’re one of the rituals that are part of concert-going – the glossy brochures that come out at the beginning of the season, the persistent yet polite phone calls from the LA Philharmonic, the actual events with their varying levels of decorum, the now obligatory standing ovations, and then the evaluations by one of our local reviewers. When I agree I can enjoy the public validation of my judgment by a voice of authority.

What exactly does it mean to agree?

Primarily it means that I have to buy into the highly metaphorical language that is characteristic of the genre of music reviews.  For example,

“. . . the New York Philharmonic also brought along its own staggering sound.”

“What the orchestra really packed for Disney . . . was its capacity to deliver a considerable punch.”

“The New York press has taken to Gilbert, pleased that clarity and substance, not flash, have been given priority at the orchestra.”

I might use metaphors like these myself, or, because Mark Swed is a professional writer, his may be more apt or eloquent than mine. That’s part of the pleasure of agreeing with a review – it’s akin to the feeling you get when you read a novel set in your home town, especially when you feel the author got the details right – you admire the author’s skillful evocation of the familiar.

Sometimes with a wince I accept extended and fanciful metaphors as long as they don’t detract from the general feeling of concord:

“He’s got a thoroughbred orchestra at his disposal, and he’s learned to ride it magnificently. He jumped on the Dvorak and took off. Tchaikovsky’s morose symphonic fracas with fate became all blazing saddles.”

“. . . It has a steely sound that does indeed conjure up skyscrapers. It’s got a power and ferocity epitomizing pushy urban energy.”

With respect to this particular concert I even agreed when Mark Swed implied a lack of subtlety on the part Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, although I had to set aside the clichéd reference to the baring of Tchaikovsky’s soul:

“There was certainly excitement in the air. It was fun to follow darting instrumental lines in the Tchaikovsky. The scores didn’t sound particularly new or fresh, just brilliant. Tchaikovsky’s soul was not bared. Everything felt kept at arms’ length.”

But what happens if we don’t agree?

Here’s an excerpt from Mark Swed’s review of a recital by the pianist Andras Schiff:

“As a Beethovenian mountaineer, Schiff overcame obstacles with assurance. His balance was unshakable. Beethoven wrote nothing this pianist’s fingers couldn’t negotiate with grace and force. He climbed not only as athlete but also as poet and scientist. He had microscope in hand to savor details. He had with him the highest-pixel camera on the market with the best wide- angle lens, and he knew how to use it for capturing a sweeping landscape.

When the peaks were high and the terrain rough, he raced up cliffs like Spider-Man, without stopping for oxygen. When the atmosphere became too rarefied for human lungs, as it did in the last three sonatas Wednesday, Schiff did not become lightheaded. But he did levitate.

And yet, this cycle was less a physical journey than a growing process. The landscape didn’t change as much as the listener’s psyche. None of us — and that includes Schiff — was the same person before and after.”

I’d like to make it clear in discussing this review that I have no intention of denigrating Mark Swed’s ability to hear perceptively and write as a professional critic. I’m interested in whether metaphors like these can be used as tools of persuasion. In this particular case, since I got nothing at all out of Schiff’s Beethoven, the question is: can the kind of language Mark Swed deployed in the review convince me otherwise?

I would argue that it’s not possible, that the language of music reviews is inherently incapable of altering our judgments. Certainly from experience I can say that no critic has every changed my mind by the metaphors he has packed into a review.

I believe the absence of an effective rhetorical arsenal cripples music reviews. Maybe I can explain this by way of contrast since I’ve often changed my mind after reading a review of a novel.  I suspect the reason has to do with the implied relationships that exist in a novel between characters, events, and settings and between the book itself and other works of fiction. The job of the critic is to make these implications explicit. Through inattention, insufficient background, lack of insight, general sloth I miss the implications of a great deal of what I read but the critic comes to my aid and convinces me of the value of the work.

With music, however, the question of meaning and implication is profoundly murky and best left to someone like the philosopher Roger Scruton in his formidable but readable Aesthetics of Music. A newspaper review simply cannot take on this burden. Further, when we read a music review we can’t retrieve the primary experience of actually listening – there’s no equivalent of looking into a novel to check a critic’s assertions.

So what are we left with? Is there any predictive value to music reviews? There may be: if I agree with my local reviewer (or any reviewer) a large percentage of the time then I can be reasonably certain that I can accept his recommendation of a performer I’ve never heard. But of course it’s the “large percentage” that is problematical; for me it represents a consistency of agreement I have never experienced.

All we can do is give up on authority and turn to the great leveler – YouTube, where we can listen side-by-side to different performances of the same piece – say, Rossini’s overture to The Thieving Magpie as conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and Claudio Abbado – and make up our own minds.


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