Corrections or additions?
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.
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."
appears in Richardson Auditorium. The kids are dynamite. They play
again in May.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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