First Words: A Panel Discussion About Reviewing Premieres

FRANK J. OTERI: I think it’s an interesting question to throw out for we who pass judgments on pieces of music–how often have you changed your mind about a piece of music that in print you have said one thing about? And I’d love to open this up to the audience. How many times…I’d love to hear some stories of changing your mind on pieces.

WILLIAM LITTLER: I’ve allowed myself to change my mind. For example, there was an opera with a libretto by Robertson Davies, our leading Canadian writer at the time, on The Golden Ass. And I was really quite unmoved by it and reflected that in my review, but I said, this is an important premiere, important people are involved, I’ve got to go back and take another listen. And I fully intended to write about it again and it turned out that I felt basically the same way the second time. This is a Harold Schonberg belief again, he said a piece generally for a sensitive listener makes its point and you can make a decision fairly quickly about it. And I know that there are pieces probably that I feel differently about–I remember writing as a child or in adolescence my opinions of certain compositions and with greater maturity I’ve understood those pieces better. I’m told John Cage said if you don’t like a piece of music, listen to it again. If you don’t like it then, listen to it again. Life quickly disappears under those circumstances, but you can understand his point.


JOHN KENNEDY: I’m not sure he followed his own advice, but…


BARBARA JEPSON: I’m not sure if I can think of an example. I probably will tonight, you know, at 2 in the morning.

DAVID STOCK: Don’t call us!

BARBARA JEPSON: I think what’s changed perhaps is my understanding of a certain context, of a certain idiom that maybe in the beginning I was less receptive to. The first minimalist composer that I ever heard was Philip Glass and this goes back many, many years and I didn’t like it. And he’s still not my favorite composer, but I actually do like some of his later works. Then I heard pieces by Steve Reich and John Adams and the list goes on and on and I liked them, so I think maybe, maybe more than one exposure to an example of a particular stylistic movement is helpful.

DON ROSENBERG: I wanted to talk about what you just said about your view of a piece changing. Sometimes I go to a dress rehearsal of a piece by the Cleveland Orchestra, a brand new piece, and I always sit there with a score at the rehearsal and that night I go to the premiere and I listen without a score. And I find that sometimes my impression of the piece changes remarkably from the rehearsal to the performance partly because in the rehearsal it’s a very visual process. You’re watching what the piece looks like, not just listening to it, and when you get to the performance without a score you’re not watching anymore. Your whole being is devoted to hearing how the piece works, not in details but as an overall, unified composition. So I find it sometimes, I write about this piece in a very different way than I would have if I had just gone to the rehearsal and then written about it. Now, of course, we have a problem with deadline writing. How do you write about a new piece in 20 minutes, which we have to do sometimes? We have to go to the performance. We have to assimilate the language. We have to try to put it into some language that the general reader is going to be able to absorb. We have to be able to describe what we heard and sometimes very quickly. This year the Cleveland Orchestra did a new piece by Matthias Pintscher, the young German composer, and I had requested a certain amount of space because I knew that it would require a little more space. Well, at 5 o’clock the editor said, “Well, I’m sorry but the Metro section can’t take your review, so we need to take it in another section and you’ll have to write so many inches.” Well, it turned out that the performance was very long and at intermission I called and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to get this to you on deadline, especially since this is a premiere and I have to write about a premiere.” Well, they said, “Well, don’t worry, we’ve got you 6 more inches. [laughter] That meant that I had to write this review in 20-25 minutes, including the premiere. So it can be very difficult to do this. But, as Bill said, you have the impression really once you’ve heard it. You can give that preliminary impression right away. It’s not going to be cast in stone and even as you listen to it in further performances or recordings, your idea will change. But I do think that we have the responsibility to try to convey the flavor of the piece and have even some kind of opinion about it. It’s not easy to do that, but you can tell the reader whether something was very striking or something was very ugly or something was enduring. You want to go back and hear that piece. Sometimes you say that you may never want to hear the piece again. And you can do it. You have to do it on the basis of what you hear, unfortunately.