Critiquing the critic

It is always interesting to read the critics’ reviews of PSO concerts. The reviews I appreciate most are the ones that add context to works and help the reader gain a better understanding of what they’ve heard, and why it’s important. Writing that the principal clarinetist played a solo beautifully with an ethereal tone misses the point when audience members don’t know a clarinet from an oboe.  While that may be an exaggeration (only slightly), critics have to be a part of preserving classical music by helping audiences along. Critics shouldn’t offer academic treatises on concerts, but they need to vividly lay out composers’ arguments and what they’re doing and debate those ideas. Rather than supply readers with empty adjectives such as “fetching,” “sweeter,” and “radiant,” argue ideas about form and reveal the techniques composers are using to manipulate the audience.

By those criteria, I found Andrew Druckenbrod’s review of November 4 and 6’s PSO concerts lacking. It’s all very well and good that Randolph Kelly played beautifully in Walter Piston’s Viola Concerto, which Druckenbrod described as an odd programming choice. But the obvious and infinitely more intriguing question—and the one Druckenbrod teases at yet never addresses—is why on earth the PSO made such curious programming choices. And, speaking of curious choices, it’s no wonder audiences don’t know what to make of new music like Cindy McTee’s Double Play when the critics do not devote even a single word to it in their review!

The main rebuttal to my arguments is that preparing audiences for a concert is the duty of the concert preview.  Agreed, but reviews still should lead audiences to a greater appreciation of the music they heard, not simply describe whether it was performed beautifully or poorly. As a writer, I always considered writing concert previews the more noble pursuit. And in my blog posts here, you will mainly find reasons why you should go to a concert rather than after-the-fact reactions.

More troubling though are Druckenbrod’s comments on Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. He wrote: “On the other hand, this work has no place in a subscription concert. In an orchestra season consisting of just 21 programs, the PSO simply can’t afford to spend precious time with a piece designed to introduce audiences to an orchestra’s makeup.”

The PSO darn well better spend its precious time reaching out to audiences, not just in auxiliary programs like Fiddlesticks, but in the subscription weeks and at every opportunity possible. If the PSO doesn’t try to cultivate new audiences, no one will. Schools have been cutting music programs left and right for years now, and the present audience is, to be frank, shrinking as all of the septuagenarian subscribers die off. Like it or not, we have to seek out new audiences and make sure that we can retain first-time attendees (an issue I worked on for six months while an intern at the Cleveland Orchestra). A lot of critics and musicians haven’t yet bought into that idea, and they won’t be around much longer. They sit in their ivory tower and discuss esoteric subjects. It would be dangerous to drop those important critical discussions and debase the intellectual foundation of classical music, but critics certainly need to broaden their scope.

The recent Detroit Symphony strike was a fascinating case study in musicians reaching out to audience members. DSO musicians were asked to take a salary cut, though they could voluntarily participate in audience outreach programs to get back some of what was cut. Many musicians across the country, however, have signed up to practice their orchestral excerpts and play concerts—not worry about filling the hall. The Detroit Symphony management controversially but admirably tried to write a new sustainable job description for orchestral musicians, but were not successful. So, the orchestra musicians who earn over $100K and live apart from the audience have been bought more time. Musicians have to focus on musicmaking, but their seclusion is unusual. Think about it—many Nobel laureates do their research at universities, where they also teach hordes of graduate and undergraduate students. They go out and promote their work in peer-reviewed journals. Why not musicians? It does not make sense that audience involvement is solely in the purview of the marketing department, or worse, no one, and not that of the musicians.

Where Druckenbrod does have a point though is in debating how the PSO was reaching out, whether it was pandering, condescending to, or guiding the audience. Druckenbrod is absolutely right to question whether the PSO was spoon-feeding the audience with the narration. I was unfortunately unable to make the concerts, but my instinct would be to let Britten’s work speak for itself without narration. I am always skeptical of using extra-musical means—which often turn out to be gimmicks—being used to enrich the audience experience.

But Druckenbrod went farther, writing Britten’s educational work was not appropriate for the elite subscription weeks, when presumably orchestras are supposed to be catering to the knowledgeable audience and playing serious works. I don’t think many critics though would say that Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is the work of a hack or music that panders or condescends to the audience. Though it is a scourge that has afflicted contemporary composers, the misguided notion of dumbing it down for the audience is not a charge that can be leveled at Britten—the massive fugue that ends the work is exceptionally well crafted. Britten chose for his variations a theme by the great English composer Henry Purcell, so it’s not as if it’s a set of variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Britten’s piece is hardly Dora the Explorer. I would posit that most of the work’s intricacies will fly right over the heads of the audience. The audience would probably latch onto the work’s energy and excitement. And even if that is all this work accomplishes, getting an audience excited about what an orchestra can do is a noble and critical achievement in my book. And, though Britten’s piece has “Young Person” in its title, the work is equally appealing to adult novices, of which there are many. If Britten had written the piece today, surveying the state of classical music, he very well may have titled it “Your Guide to the Orchestra.” Just because an older person is sitting in Heinz Hall doesn’t mean they know anything more about music than a teenager or twentysomething.

So, I hope the PSO continues in its efforts to reach out to the audience while maintaining artistic excellence—such efforts are key to ensuring not only the survival of this orchestra, but of classical music as well.


2 thoughts on “Critiquing the critic”

  • Good post Matt. I find your criticism applicable to me as well, even though I’m just a blog critic. Yes: too many adjectives.

    wrt: Cindy McTee’s Double Play – This new music is intriguing to say the least. I must hear it again and again to form a more lasting impression. To say I like it, is probably not enough, because I have to say why I like it. I liked it for all the reasons why I would normally not like a piece with so much dissonance and modern style. The very fact that it was described well in the program gave me the opportunity to listen for those aspects described, and to appreciate the elements each in turn. It was daring and inventive, and as I say: I must hear it again.

  • “the massive fugue that ends the work is exceptionally well crafted”

    – indeed, in fact, I’ve heard Britten’s piece countless times on CD and radio because I like it so much, and for the first time, listening and watching in person, I was truly able to grasp the true ‘fugue’ aspect of the ending, the fact that at least 4 different threads were playing themselves simultaneously – just wow! Somehow, when you see and listen you can pick out the different threads. People should really catch these concerts in person to understand the subtleties.

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