Thursday, November 6, 2014

criticism institute: day 1

The institute on classical music criticism began on Wednesday with an introductory lecture - or talk, really - by Anthony Tommasini, chief critic for the New York Times.

Tommasini is a mousy-looking man with mousy opinions. He said he would speak on the social and cultural responsibilities and influence of classical critics, but he doesn't think he has any influence. He described his work in a flailing manner as if he were an amateur at it. He doesn't like to speak his mind negatively forthrightly in his reviews because he's intimidated by carrying the megaphone of the New York Times. He favors fuller coverage of management and labor issues in classical ensembles and opera companies, but thinks that's a job better left to business reporters than to critics. He thinks that if the protesters against The Death of Klinghoffer would just go and see the opera, they'd like it and realize it isn't anti-Semitic,* and then we could have an honest debate. (On what? There's no debate if everyone agrees.) He says that Adams and Goodman, the opera's authors, aren't anti-Semitic "in their hearts," as if that excuses any offenses of that kind they did inadvertently commit.

However, he wasn't the only person being mousy. Tommasini remarked that he doesn't like to use technical terms in his reviews for fear that most of his readers won't understand them. His example was "chromatic". (Oh dear: I use that word in my reviews all the time.) As we were packing up to leave, I heard one of the institute's student fellows say scornfully to another, "How difficult can it be to look up 'chromatic' in a dictionary?"

So I did, just to see what you'd get. Chromatic: Of, pertaining to, or based on the chromatic scale. Great, so what's the ... Chromatic scale: A scale consisting of 12 semitones. Of course I understand this, and so would anyone with musical training, but an untrained reader might well think either a) "So what does that mean?" and set off on a wild-goose chase through the dictionary which, sure enough, leads you back to "chromatic" within two steps; or b) "I know what that means, but what does it sound like?" You see the problem?

On the entrance wall of the conservatory there are postings of upcoming performances. There was a piano recital that evening, so why not stick around? So I had dinner at Lers Ros around the corner - which is to Thai food roughly what Bartók is to music - and returned for the recital. Student pianists played a Bach partita as if Robert Moog had written it and an early Beethoven sonata as if mid-period Beethoven had written it. The latter made the most amazing facial expressions while playing, alternately popping her eyes out and retracting them into her head. I left after intermission, my interest in hearing the entirety of Brahms' Paganini Variations being outweighed by my desire to get home and see what my dictionary said about chromaticism.

*I've seen it, in the 1992 San Francisco Opera production. I wouldn't join a protest line against its performance - there was one then - but my opinion of the opera's political expressions was neither favorable nor forgiving. (I didn't like it as much musically as Nixon in China, either.) "Anti-Semitic" is a loaded word these days, and if you use it of someone they react as if you called them "genocidal", but the kind of subtle "oh, just shaft the Jews" kind of anti-Semitism - it's there. It's definitely there. You can only say it isn't by defining that out of the meaning of the word. On the other hand, the St. Matthew Passion is flagrantly and openly anti-Semitic, and we perform that. The issue isn't a dead letter, either: churches were still professing Biblically-based anti-Semitism just a few decades ago.

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