Oh, was this ever an interesting reviewing assignment.
A new violin concerto.
Played as soloist by the composer.
Who's 12 years old.
It's not as bizarre a circumstance as it may seem. As I noted in the review, I hear equally proficient young performers every year, and while juvenile genius composers are not common, they're not unknown, even now. For a recent example, I didn't even mention Jay Greenberg, who caused a flurry over a decade ago, but has been less heard of since he reached adulthood.
But I was determined to give full and honest consideration to Alma Deutscher the composer, and not to coo over the child prodigy. I was encouraged in this by her own attitude towards her composing abilities as expressed in her 60 Minutes segment, in which she also declared a belief in the purpose of music that I'd heard before.
Oscar Wilde expressed the credo, "The artist is the creator of beautiful things." I've read similar principles expressed in music by people like the composer Alan Hovhaness and the critic Bernard Levin. Levin once wrote that music is centripetal, a term I thought of using in the review and then thought better of.
Then I got to the music. What do I say? Some people seem to hold that music written in what we generally consider a 19th-century style is all right for those old buffers from the 19th century but is anathema if anyone tries doing it today. I cannot accept that attitude. While I believe that to understand a work one must consider the circumstances of its creation and the intent of the creator (as context, not as the end-all answer to its meaning), I also believe that, in measuring quality, the work stands on its own, and is good or bad regardless of its date stamp or other circumstances of its creation. If we're going to criticize Alma Deutscher for writing 19th-century-style music, we have to find reasons for that criticism in the work itself.
Some would say that latter-day epigones will never be as good because the style isn't native to the creator. That's true in some cases: contrast Tolkien, steeped in his medieval inspirations, with his imitators who are not. And that may be the case here. As I listened to the concerto, the word that crept into my mind was "anodyne," and that I did put in the review. When I listen to really bad genuine 19th-century music, that's not how it sounds. What I think then is "full of hot air." Alma Deutscher is not full of hot air: her music is concise and well-, if simply, shaped. She may be more anodyne than the writers of 19th-century hot air, but she is also a better composer than they are. I hope I made it clear: if I wasn't bowled over by simple precocity, I'm also not saying this is bad music. I said in the review that it was pleasant and agreeable, and that's praise as far as it goes. I can still remember themes from it, which is more than I was expecting.
But what about her native style? Well, what is her native style? She's 12 years old! She may not even have one yet. I've noticed before that even Mozart was only a child prodigy, and not an immortal genius, until he was 18 - and that's early; most non-prodigy composers didn't write anything immortal until their mid-20s. I'd like to hear if this one grows into her shoes as she reaches maturity.
But I may not get much of a chance to find out. Because a child prodigy is a child prodigy, but a former child prodigy is merely an adult. I'm well aware that, no matter what I think of her music, or whether it's actually up to the quality of its 19th century models, no self-respecting orchestra of any reputation would play a new work that sounds like this if it weren't by a child prodigy. I've heard new music in antique styles before, music that was as good as this, written by adults. It was self-published and lingered in obscurity. So does much else that isn't atavistic, for that matter; getting on stage is not simply a matter of pure quality and never has been.
All of this was playing around my mind as I kept the review succinct, by word count limits, and as focused as I could.