Critiquing Al Niente

It seems today that many so-called artists, performing organizations, and presenters are guilty of practicing their work as if they are doing no more than delivering a consumable product. Given Al Niente’s review of the Metro Philharmonic in last Thursday’s Daily Times, they are evidently joined in this charade by music journalists.

Mr. Niente’s review (which appeared six days after the concert, certainly too late to help draw an audience to the two performances subsequent to opening night) was buried in the newspaper amidst movie advertisements. This environment of vulgarity, violence, and assaulting commercialism was hardly conducive to reflection about music, and only served to remind the reader of the soulless, empty, nihilistic culture we live in, and that real art offers us little or no hope of rising above the detritus which surrounds us. This of course is no fault of Mr. Niente’s, but is unequivocally the responsibility of his newspaper’s publisher and editor.

Niente did nothing to elevate his work above the morass within which it was presented. His flat, bored tone never seemed to get off the ground, and while his English possessed clarity, he failed to achieve contrast and drama within his text. What might have had the luminosity of insight, or the surging musical excitement of passionate prose, was dimmed by the droll, dismissive, disinterested disposition of his discourse. Some writers are born to move the soul. Others are born to write police reports.

To be sure, Niente’s best moments came in his witty, apt criticism of the Philharmonic’s predictable choice of another mediocre European conductor: “When will orchestra managers stop being seduced by a funny accent—don’t they know it doesn’t make a person smarter?” Having been at most of the concert Mr. Niente reviewed, I would agree that nothing Maestro Schtinkendrunck brought to the evening was worth his hype.

Troubling, however, was Niente’s failure to accord the world premiere on the program the same critical point of view as the other works he commented on. In assessing the Philharmonic’s performance of two well-known 19th-century European works, Niente offered no perspective on the relevance of this music or its place in contemporary concert life. Rather, he focused exclusively on the quality of the performances, as if the concert had been a sporting event. And his cheap crack about “excellent except for some slips in the brass” is the most tired and predictable comment in music criticism. It’s as if the critic is acknowledging that the only wrong notes to be heard are the obvious ones but—bonJOUR!—there were plenty in the strings, too.

Yet the most compelling part of the concert, a new work by Grant Victor Young, was a wonderful opportunity for Mr. Niente to give his readers something new to read about and consider. Unfortunately, he chose instead to deliver only a vague and stale description of the sound of the work, summoning the hackneyed “Messiaen-like colors” and “minimalist influences”; phrases which also, coincidentally, appeared in his review of a premiere last year. Telling us “the orchestra played with conviction” failed to acknowledge the truly deep preparation by a number of principal players, so evident in the piece’s multitude of solo work. And please, Mr. Niente, for the love of Henry Cowell—learn the difference between a xylophone and a marimba.

Finally, Niente failed to divulge to his readers the audience response to this work—a standing ovation! He happily shared his response, however: the old dining metaphor, that it reminded him of a meal with too many different flavors. Testa di osso! Is it not his duty to report: to use the minimal space he is afforded by his employer to cover what is new in his field, while at the same time keeping it honest? And one must wonder, why did he elect to review this concert, when on the same evening five works were premiered by the innovative and deserving Newmusickos? Are his reviewing choices somehow related to who spends the most advertising dollars in his paper?

Heaven forbid that a critic with his wide readership would avail himself of the opportunity to communicate the uplifting and generous spirit of music, while also fulfilling his professional duty. Or to find a way, in these times, to use his position for genuine reflection and questioning, infused with contagious kindness and magnanimity, as a service to the music and the community. Wouldn’t that, in a sense, fulfill his inner longing and the need we all share—to join in making music?

After reading Mr. Niente’s review and putting down my coffee, I at least had the pleasure of putting the paper somewhere Niente could truly appreciate—in the recycling.

—President, AMC (Anonymous Music Critics)