Guess You Had To Be There
Earlier this week, Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette posted links to two different reviews (both written on assignment for the Post) of the same concert. One review is here on her blog, and the other can be read here. The he said/she said situation was not a new trend in classical music coverage at the Post but simply the result of a clerical error. Still, Midgette points to the contrasting reviews and asks readers to comment on the pros and cons of each, as well as for additional thoughts from audience members at the performance.
Although I normally attend concerts of the Verge Ensemble—they have been friends and colleagues for years—my travel schedule caused me to miss this one, so naturally I was interested to read about how the concert went. After reading both of these reviews, I still didn’t know how it went! The articles are for the most part descriptive, and share few actual opinions or insights.
Nevertheless, here is what I learned:
- The program, entitled “When Kandinsky Met Schoenberg,” was carefully thought out. The word “challenging” was used, so do with that what you will.
- Pianist Jenny Lin is awesome. Duh!
- Pianist Audrey Andrist is also pretty awesome. Again, we know this.
- There were percussionists!!! Apparently they played some percussion! Not a clue who they were or what exactly they did.
- The music of John Luther Adams evokes its characteristic sense of Arctic vastness by being both “seismic” (according to one reviewer) and “too long” (according to the other).
In the interest of encouraging the sharing of opinions here, I will say that I found one of these reviews to be better written than the other, in that it offered a bit more information overall, and demonstrated a greater knowledge of contemporary music. However, as a composer, I find reviews like both of these to be wildy frustrating. Who wants to read an adjective-filled rundown of the program? Of course some description is necessary, but when there is no real viewpoint (whatever it may be) offered or commentary on issues such as audience reaction, performer interaction, or how the different compositions did or did not hold up against one another—this program was extremely varied, so did the pieces work together?—the whole endeavor seems futile. And this is not only the case for music—these sorts of reviews are published all the time about dance, theater, visual art, books, etc. Although obviously being a critic of anything has got to be an incredibly difficult job, which is made more so by conflicts of time and financial resources, when reviewers do not for whatever reason offer some insights into what they are writing about, it devalues the art form by implying that it isn’t important enough to warrant an opinion. A work of criticism, be it positive or negative, can actively engage and challenge the reader, the performers, and the composers! Whether or not we agree with the viewpoints, it is presenting them for public discussion that stimulates conversation, generates interest in the field, and as Midgette states, keeps it vital.