Sunday, November 9, 2014

critical mass, day 3

I don't know why I didn't think of this form of title earlier.

Same six distinguished panelists as Thursday, this time accompanied by the (anonymous) reviews that the student fellows had written of the concerts that the institute members (but not me) had been attending the previous two evenings. Three reviews judged as particularly discussion-worthy (and also good) were read aloud and projected on screen, and the prose and description analyzed. Over the session, the discussion devolved from analysis into anecdotage, particularly of awful concerts in the critics' past, but at least it was entertaining.

Topics discussed included:
*Strong language, and whether it's appropriate (John Rockwell, I think: "at least it's fresh"). I'm reminded on how far things have changed from the 1940s, when Virgil Thomson said of a new work, "It's a beaut," and his editors popped in fury and said it would be a firing offense if he put such slang into the New York Herald Tribune ever again.
*Body language of the performers, and whether it's appropriate to spend much of the review describing it. Anne Midgette said there's no quotas, and that if the performer is physically expressive that's part of the show, so sure. Though the review in question wasn't of the SFS concert, much discussion of how guest violinist Gil Shaham smiles a lot, and whether one should mention that he looks like he's enjoying himself. [I certainly have.] An audience member cautioned that physical description shouldn't be used as a crutch for not having anything to say about the music.
*Bringing oneself - your experience attending or your feelings about attending the concert or reviewing it - into the review. Tim Page: You can do this, but it's rarely necessary.
*Discussing encores. John Rockwell: Old-time critics on tight deadlines used to leave before the encore was played. Heidi Waleson: If you're going to mention the encore, at least say what it was; your readership might be attendees who'd like to know.
*Getting as much information as possible into a short space. These reviews were limited to 400 words. Heidi Waleson: If the concert has a lot of works, you need not mention them all. [I'm proud of getting something about all 19 items on the program into this review, though it took me 950 words to do it.] Anne Midgette: The art is to conceal the tightness of your word-count limitation.
*Terminology for identifying performers. Alex Ross: Don't pile up position titles before the person's name like the adjectives in the old Time magazine style. [Which arose, by the way, because Time's founding editor Briton Hadden - there, I did it too - had read the Iliad at an impressionable age.] Tim Page: Don't use "MTT"; it sounds like the name of a gasoline company. Page subsided on being told that everyone calls him that around here, even his own publicity people, and that at least it sidesteps arguments over whether his surname is "Thomas" or "Tilson Thomas". (SFCV's house rules call for the latter.)
*Leads and "kicker" endings. Anne Midgette praised clever endings. Tim Page: Always provide a "kicker"; it's what I glance for first, right after reading the opening.
*A reviewer's comment, "You could hear Mozart smile." John Rockwell: "Hear" instead of "see" is a nice touch. Audience member: Some people make unpleasant noises when they smile; "Mozart's smile" would have been better. I tied this in to Gil Shaham's smile, since he was playing the Mozart, though this reviewer didn't mention his smile.
*Reviewing new music. Tim Page: Do research and listen to the piece or the composer's other works beforehand, but at the concert put that on hold and just have an aesthetic experience.
*Quotability. Everyone: Never either try to be quotable nor try to avoid it.
*Mentioning if a performer is ill. Not if it doesn't affect the performance.

This led to anecdotage on interrupting and stopping performances. Heidi Waleson told of a singer who omitted a song from her recital because she had a cold, and then sang it anyway. Anne Midgette told of a conductor who stopped a piece when a cell phone rang: the phone was on the stage, so he had particular cause for fury. John Rockwell suggested that concert-goers should change their ring-tone to a cough. Tim Page, I think, told a story of a nervous student pianist making her debut who lifted her hands to begin the challenging opening work and then vomited all over the keyboard. He didn't submit a review of that one.

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