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Elaine Strauss: On Critics

This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 6, 1999. All rights reserved.

This newspaper has a bias against publishing stories

about concerts that have already taken place. "If the event is

over we’re really not interested in it," say the editors. Sometimes

I argue with them, but not about this. Their reluctance to publish

stories about past events dovetails nicely with some of my favorite

hobby horses: I’m skeptical about the usefulness of bald judgments

of the quality of a performance, and I harbor a certain reluctance

to criticize the fearless souls who, after years of preparation, have

the courage to expose their artistic endeavors to public scrutiny.

It’s not that I come to concerts ready to accept whatever happens

on the stage as wonderful. On the contrary, I’m a very fussy listener,

and have vivid reactions to what I hear. Opinionated is the word.

I love to compare notes about performances with other concertgoers

and to see whether our receiving mechanisms are calibrated the same

way. If it turns out that other listeners’ enthusiasm is matched by

my own level of dismay, I feel like an alien. We all hear things differently.

Some of us hear things that other people don’t even detect.

Take the recent Philomel concert in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium.

The Philadelphia-based baroque group, inaugurating a three-concert

series in Princeton, assigned solo parts to guest violinist Jaap Schroeder,

an internationally-known advocate of 17th and 18th-century music,

and to Philomel founding member Elissa Berardi, who performed on flute

and recorder. The reviewers for both the Newark Star Ledger and the

Trenton Times praised Schroeder, though the Star Ledger registered

some reservations. Yet the two critics were worlds apart when it came

to Berardi’s performance. The Times’ critic delivered movement-by-movement

comments on the Vivaldi flute concerto, pointing out "a jaunty

dance flavor" in the first movement, "a sweet Andante floating

over . . . warm cello work," and "intricate birdsong"

in the last movement. In contrast, the Star Ledger critic found that

"the combination of Vivaldi’s static unison lines and Berardi’s

wooden phrasing (and some evident disagreements about tempo) kept

the attention wandering."

Taking up the Telemann recorder concerto, the Times’ reviewer called

Berardi’s playing "a stunning performance." The Star Ledger

reviewer, however, calling the recorder "an instrument [Berardi]

seemed better able to play in time with the others [than the flute],"

compared her performance on the two instruments. "Although this

was certainly an improvement," he declared, "intonation was

a problem in the recorder’s upper register."

If anybody had asked, I would have given yet another account of the

concert, praising Schroeder’s leadership and Berardi’s virtuosity,

particularly on the recorder. For special comment I would have singled

out the ensemble’s continuo section consisting of Vivian Barton, cello;

Anne Trout, violone (a double-bass sized instrument); and Bruce Bekker,

harpsichord — a trio of big instruments. Their playing, to my

ears, was light, graceful, and precise, and its elegance provided

a background that gave the dance origins of baroque music a chance

to come to the fore.

In my opinion, these variations of opinion make interesting

conversation; and none of them should be taken as gospel. It’s a rare

music writer whose opinions are trustworthy or compatible a large

proportion of the time. For the distinction of reliability I would

nominate Paul Somers, who has moved on from writing for the Star Ledger

to publish a weekly newsletter, Classical New Jersey. Somers’ musical

background is encyclopedic. He knows concerts not only as a listener,

but, also as a keyboard performer. And he seems to have no particular

axes to grind.

Still, no matter how reliable a review is, there is no substitute

for attending a live performance. Even an excellent recording cannot

convey the vividness of the concert hall experience. Seeing the American

Boychoir in red and white cassocks walk into the Princeton University

Chapel for a holiday concert adds an extra dimension to their music;

observing those freshly-scrubbed 10 to 14-year-olds makes their professionalism

all the more remarkable. Similarly, seeing Anonymous Four, the a cappella

singers who appeared at Rutgers Summerfest in forest green gowns with

spaghetti straps, and moved choreographically, establishes a link

between the present and the 13th century. Their contemporary stage

manner joined with their medieval music conveys a warm sense of participating

in a long history — roots, made musical. Likewise, there is no

substitute for seeing unusual instruments on stage: the two-string

erhu and the 21-string zheng, both used in the "Music from China"

program presented by Princeton University Concerts in October, simply

must be seen to be believed.

In opera the visual is particularly important. Without seeing the

action (or having it explained), how could one get the full impact

of the moment in Darko Tresnjak’s "Marriage of Figaro" when

cast members point to the overhead "superscript" text to help

a bewildered Susannah understand why her betrothed had embraced his

supposed nemesis Marcellina, who is discovered to be his mother? Or

how to grasp the playful mood of Albert Takazauckas’ Opera Festival

production of the same work more directly than by seeing the characters

take their place on stage by parting the freshly laundered sheets

hung out to dry?

Then there are the performers whose stage bearing almost begs the

listener not to look in order to avoid being distracted by non-musical

antics. Two of my favorite pianists come to mind: Richard Goode, who

masticates as he performs; and Alfred Brendel, who grimaces and twitches,

his fingers wrapped in adhesive tape. Yet these diversions are part

of the picture.

So here’s the first part of a New Year’s resolution: Go to live concerts

and get the full impact. Here is an unsystematic list of upcoming

events in 1999 that I think are worthy of attention.

Catch the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra‘s only central

Jersey entry in their mini Wagner festival when the orchestra presents

orchestral excerpts from "Goetterdammerung" at New Brunswick’s

State Thursday, January 21. The entire three-concert series takes

place at Newark’s Performing Arts Center. A separate program book

for the festival has been prepared by Wagner historian Joseph Horowitz.

The orchestra periodically focuses on the work of a particular composer;

last year it was Brahms. Wagner is somewhat controversial, and when

the matter came up at a press conference, music director Zdenek Macal

handled an objection by tartly observing, "Nobody has to come

if they don’t want to."

On Sunday, February 14, the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra

appears in Richardson Auditorium. The kids are dynamite. They play

again in May.

Save March for investigating the gala re-opening of Trenton’s

magnificently renovated War Memorial. On Sunday, March 7, the Greater

Trenton Symphony Orchestra offers a program that includes Tchaikovsky’s

1812 Overture with choir, orchestra, carillon, and artillery; the

GTSO also plays concerts at the War Memorial in April and May.

On Wednesday, March 10, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra presents

its initial offering of a five-concert War Memorial series, featuring

soprano Frederica von Stade in a Richard Danielpour piece based on

letters of her father.

On Saturday, March 13, Boheme Opera performs in the grand re-opening

gala at the site. In addition, the company mounts Verdi’s "Rigoletto"

there in April.

McCarter Theater offers a spate of spring recitals. On

Tuesday, March 30, pianist Richard Goode plays Chopin and Beethoven.

Don’t look if you can’t stand it, and be prepared to hear a performer

of exceptional sensitivity, power, and interpretive skills. Expect

similar qualities on violin from Joshua Bell, who plays at McCarter

Monday, April 5. Peter Serkin turns up Monday, April 19, to play Beethoven

and Mozart. The eminent pianist Alfred Brendel joins baritone Matthias

Goerne Sunday, April 25; keep your eyes on Goerne.

Fans of the baroque have much to choose from with concerts by

Concert Royal, the Dryden Ensemble, Philomel, and

Le Triomphe de l’Amour scattered throughout the season. Fans

of the American Boychoir can catch the young choristers at Trenton’s

Church of the Blessed Sacrament on Sunday, April 25.

Westminster Choir College of Rider University has scheduled

its usual wide variety of programs featuring soloists and ensembles.

Outside the normal pattern is "The Wizard of Oz in Concert"

on Sunday, May 2. The Princeton University Chapel continues

its series of organ recitals every Wednesday at 12:30 p.m.; if you

listen from the balcony, you may bring your brown bag lunch. Princeton

Pro Musica couples work by Mozart with a world premiere of a Milton

Babbitt work on Friday, May 14, at Richardson.

Opera Festival of New Jersey opens its three-opera series

with Mozart’s Don Giovanni on Saturday, June 19, joined in repertory

by Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly" on Saturday, June 26, and

"Postcard From Morocco," a modern opera by Dominick Argento,

on Saturday, July 10. The festival runs through Sunday, July 18.

The richness of the musical offerings in central New Jersey

makes our area unique. In parts of the upper Midwest or the Rocky

Mountains, the aspiring concertgoer has to be satisfied with a performance

once a month or so. If you resolve to attend live performances, it

will be a resolution with plenty of opportunities for action.

But going to performances should be only the first part of a New Year’s

resolution. The second part should be: trust yourself to decide what

you like; don’t lean on the critics to evaluate a performance; your

own estimate of quality is as valid as the next person’s. Try telling

yourself: "I will frequent the concert halls and I will take the

music on my own terms." To review or not to review, that is the

question. And U.S. 1 and I agree on the answer.


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