Saturday, May 22, 2010

music critics: getting it (mostly) right

One of the more interesting aspects of the L.A. Phil's recent tour with The Dude has been his critical reception. The L.A. Times seems obsessed with this in a way that's borderline unprofessional, but for the rest of us it's great insight into how a mostly-the-same concert line-up (Tchaikovsky's Sixth or Mahler 1 plus either Adams' City Noir or Berstein's Age of Anxiety) can garner such different feedback. It's very easy to tell who's doing a good job either addressing the musical issues of the performance, or focusing more on the hype factor.

I wonder if it was a mistake for Dudamel to go in the road with an orchestra that he is (hopefully) still building, but you can't really turn down a demand that huge. When was the last time an American orchestra sold out every city it went to? And let's remember that for a long time before Salonen revived it (even during Zubin Mehta's tenure), the L.A. Phil was mostly considered a provincial nobody. Obviously everyone's here to see Dudamel (if you interchanged L.A. with Simon Bolivar, you'd probably have the same sales and reception), but it's refreshing to see an American orchestra outside the big 5 galvanizing concert-goers.

And the reviews. The L.A. Times' appropriately named Culture Monster has been amalgamating them. Mark Swed's "reviewing the audience" New York review makes me a bit uncomfortable. I really react negatively when critics use their own cities and orchestras as a giant stick with which to beat on other cities and orchestras---it always seems that anecdotal evidence leads to some conclusion about the coldness/rudeness/inattentiveness of New York audiences or whatever. I'm not saying that these conclusions are wrong, but there's a tendency to generalize, and then suddenly your own regional orchestra becomes the savior to classical music.

And this is just embarrassing for a national newspaper. Instead of reviewing the Phil's San Francisco performance, the writer reviewed the Phil's San Francisco reception. This includes quoting Josh Kosman and then watching him as the concert concluded:

"When Dudamel hammered home the final chords of the Mahler, causing deafening applause to fill the concert hall and bringing many people to their feet, Kosman clapped quietly and remained in his seat. He shrugged emphatically. And then he was gone."

Luckily that's the end of the article and she doesn't go ahead and "speculate" as to what his emphatic shrug "meant." Now, it turns out Kosman didn't really like it, but coming close to judging his opinion of the concert based on how a reviewer applauded is just voyeuristic and a little creepy.

As for the rest of the reviews, it's refreshing to see that we have a ton of intelligent critics with a wide variety of opinions. Even if each concert goes differently, we can get a sense of what critics value in a performance, how they deal with the issue of Dudamania, etc. Of the Tchaikovsky/Bernstein program, weirdly enough some found the Bernstein to be the better half, and some the Tchaik. Anne Midgette didn't really like Age of Anxiety and loved the Pathetique; Tommassini flipped that. What's great about almost all the reviews is that they touch on how Dudamel might not live up to the hype--and then they give really specific examples in each piece of what's he's doing right or wrong. Tommassini's review is the most impressive in this regard, and shows why he's the Big Dog in New York: when he's reviewing symphony orchestras (even though he's the chief opera critic, I really think his best writing is for orchestras) he can just get down to business. Each movement of the Tchaikovsky gets a couple sentences with general observations and specifics. Because there's such a wide swath of reviews and the hype is so immense, it seems like everyone decide to bring his or her A-game.

Nearly everyone agrees that Dudamel needs to spend more time with the music, both expanding from his somewhat-limited 19th/20th-century "big piece" repertoire and re-immersing himself in those scores as well. And although people tend to want to knock him off his pedestal (podium?), no one was completely turned off: all agree that this is a conductor with an immense musical vision and that Dudamania is not unfounded. When I interviewed John Adams in the winter, we were talking about his feelings about younger composers and hype, and I brought up Dudamel. He told me (and this was a candid observation) that he believed Dudamel had such a purely musical core that marketing and hype were essentially irrelevant.

Contrast this with, say, Lang Lang. He's got a trademarked name, a gigantic cult following around the globe, and sells out just about every concert hall. He's a national icon for his home country and has a rags-to-riches background story that would make anyone cry. He got a New Yorker profile from David Remnick himself! But, but, but. He's just not very good. He's got technical chops up the wazoo, and even though his reviews have gotten better over the past couple years (recent reviews seem almost apologetic, attempting to find reasons why people like him so much), he lacks that strong musical core. The way he manipulates phrases and plays with rubato speak to a musical ego rather than a vision--Dudamel's a crowd-pleaser too, but his showmanship serves a purpose.

This is a long winded way of saying that, despite the impending death of all print media as we know it, most classical critics are doing a pretty good job. La Cieca's commenters have a tendency to see Tommassini and the Times as lapdogs for the big New York institutions like the Met and the New York Phil, but in reality they're writing honest reviews (whether or not they're all good reviews is another story). Even Mark Swed judges Dudamel mostly on his own merits, even if his newspaper is being swept away by the marketing machine. So a round of applause for all you critics out there.

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