Criticising the critics: let's start at the top

Many of America’s best music critics are away this week, teaching a course in criticism for the new Stephen and Cynthia Rubin Institute at Oberlin Conservatory, in Ohio.

The tutors are New Yorker critic Alex Ross; Washington Post critic Anne Midgette; Wall Street Journal critic Heidi Waleson; former Washington Post critic Tim Page, currently on the faculty at the University of Southern California; and former New York Times critic John Rockwell. I hear the quality of students is absolutely stunning.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual on the Times. Reading this morning’s paper, I wondered what would happen if Anthony Tommasini review of a Lang Lang performance of the 2nd Bartok concerto was subjected to tutorial criticism. It might look something like this (Times text in italics):

 The superstar pianist Lang Lang may shamelessly cultivate a flamboyant persona.

May, or does, cultivate? And why ‘shamelessly’? Do we know he feels no shame? Personally, I’ve found him very sensitive to his faults. In any event, adverbs should be used sparingly, as a last resort. See me after class.

And he has been criticized widely for exaggerated expressivity.

Widely – another adverb. And by whom? What is meant by ‘exaggerated expressivity’ – when is expressivity, whatever that might be, considered excessive, and when tasteful? I have no idea what the sentence is trying to convey, other than a pejorative impression.

Still, no fair-minded person can deny that Mr. Lang has stupendous technique and keen musical instincts.

Still? What’s the time reference here? And why the denial? either Lang Lang has the qualities specified or he hasn’t. Far too equivocal.

There was no showing off on Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall when Mr. Lang played Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2…

Baffled, again. How can a soloist fail to show off? He’s there to be seen and heard. Check the picture.

Pianists consider it among the most technically demanding of all concertos. Mr. Lang gave a brilliant performance, not just glittering and incisive but joyous and smart.

I’m bothered by ‘pianists consider it’. It either is, or isn’t. State your case.

Mr. Lang, who can play anything easily, seemed intensely focused on this occasion. He performed reading from the score with a page turner to assist him: a sight his ardent fans rarely see.

‘Intensely focused’ – is that because he’s squinting at a score he ought to know by heart, or is some other intensity brought to bear? State which.

One  could continue. Every sentence so far of this Times review contains a semantic, stylistic or logical flaw. A harsh tutor might call the critic’s performance (unlike Lang Lang’s) lazy. What it suggests is that the Times needs to employ better night staff to read incoming reviews and that some of its critics could have benefited from being at Oberlin this weekend – on the students’ bench.

Lang Lang, by the way, is staying on in New York to lead Chinese New Year celebrations.

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  • Norman, thank you for this excellent roasting. I have found the New York Times unreadable for quite some time now and not just for their fey prose style. I don’t pay much attention to the music reviews and you give some good reasons why no-one should. Another reviewer I find very dull is Alex Ross. His first book was pretty good, but he seems to specialize in the conventional wisdom and the obvious. Never does he come to a surprising conclusion or provide some unexpected information. It is all drearily predictable.

    In my blog I try to do the other kind of criticism. If you want to drop by and roast some of my writing, consider yourself invited.

    Here are some posts on music criticism specifically:

    http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/12/now-this-is-music-criticism.html

    http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/09/applied-music-criticism.html

    http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/08/classical-music-criticism_7912.html

    http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/08/music-criticism.html

    http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/12/2011-in-music.html

  • It’s probably just me, but I wasn’t bothered by most of the terms you mention. “Shamelessly” doesn’t necessarily reflect what Lang feels, but what the viewer felt, which is a legitimate statement for a critic. “Widely” reflects the author’s assumptions about the artist’s critical reception, which might be true. In some contexts, it would be a weasel word, but squeaks by in a music review. In any case, saying Lang is generally seen as a bit hammy doesn’t seem so risky to me. I think most readers would understand what was meant by “exaggerated expressivity,” even if more specific terms might be used to describe the phenomenon. Perhaps all musical performance is “showing off,” but there are relative degrees, and I think people might understand what the author was trying to say. The term “intensely focused” is once again the author’s impression. A more exact analysis might be even be tedious. It’s not that I agree with Tomasini’s views in the review, which mostly I don’t. I enjoy Lang’s work. It’s just that Tomasini is known for a rather gentle, oblique writing style, and so I accept the passive-aggressive tone on its own terms. Something tells me Lang will survive.

    If I had a critical thought, it might be the Rubin Institute course taught by four pedigree whites teaching ten pedigree whites at a posh 40k a year private college. To use another questionable term, it’s more “honky myopia” that’s supposed to take us to new audiences. Classical music as usual. A little festival of elite whiteness. The article you link to from the institute is entitled “Where are tomorrow’s music critics?” I guess we have the answer.

    • I generally agree with William’s reading of the Tommasini review.

      Here are my pet peeves with music critics in general:
      – they review more genres, instruments, periods than anyone can possibly know well enough. Maybe not their fault, because there are so many critics a publication can employ. That’s where online magazine like http://classical-scene.com/ have an edge.
      – they present their own response as fact (not so much Tommasini), often also as the performers’ own interpretational agenda.

  • William Osborne wrote:

    “If I had a critical thought, it might be the Rubin Institute course taught by four pedigree whites teaching ten pedigree whites at a posh 40k a year private college.”

    More important than that — this is yet another course or institute or seminar in criticism, taught for too much money, supposed to prepare for a profession with no growth and next to no job prospects, in this case taught by about half of the present body of US critics with tenure today.

    It is a scandal close to fraud that almost every conservatory or music department in the US has, largely to increase enrollments, created courses or even majors in fields like criticism or music management even though (a) these fields are demonstrably losing numbers of positions and (b) there is absolutely no evidence that academic training in these fields leads to either jobs or success in such jobs.

    • GW—How right you are !!!!!!!!! — now watch for the apologists explain the good they do for the community
      for the children , for humanity , on and on .That Oberlin would lend itself to this speaks volumes .

  • The thought comes to mind , does anyone truly value the writings of Mr.Tommasini or for that matter Ross,
    Midgette, Rockwell – or Townsend — if one does – then we are indeed a pathetic excuse
    for rational thinking beings . A person sitting next to any of these so called “critics” listening and watching the same
    goings on may leave the hall with a totally valid different response ,the major difference being one opinion will be in print and the other not . Oberlin would better spend it resources in teaching the art of music and not spending
    valuable resources on how to put a sentence together when writing on the art of music no matter how ignorant of the art you may be .

  • I admit I’m a bit tired of people like Mr Tommasini, Alex Ross et al being held up as the arbiters of music criticism. Fair enough, they express their opinions, but theirs are not the only opinions. It is for this reason that I tend to read reviews on blogs rather than broadsheet providers, written by people who are not old hacks who think “if it’s Tuesday it must be Carnegie Hall”, but who offer spontaneous responses to what they’ve heard.

    The traditional music critic is, in my opinion, a dying beast in the digital age of tweets and immediate responses to concerts and performances.

    Having said that, as an amateur reviewer myself (http://www.bachtrack.com/reviews/list/4133), I cannot bear sloppy or lazy writing, or unnecessarily purple prose. Lang Lang offers enough ridiculous, OTT gestures of his own not to need a reviewer to add a whole lot more!

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