a cellist bends space

What Critics Want

“Criticism has been around since the first caveman howled at the moon, and his friend said, ‘You know, I don’t think you howl so good,’” the great pianist Abbey Simon once told me.

It was during an interview in 1978, and the discussion had turned to reviews and their effect on performers. Simon took them in his stride, noting that he couldn’t think of a single performer who had not been savaged at some point and dismissing the notion that poor reviews could stop a performer who was determined to persevere. What interested him more was what went on in critics’ minds when they hear a performance.

“When Harold C. Schonberg walks down the aisle of Carnegie Hall and takes his seat, what does he expect?” Simon asked, referring to the chief critic of The New York Times in those days.

As a callow young critic, then in my mid-20s, I had a hefty list of things that I thought critics expected. You want the right notes, for starters, and attention to the composer’s dynamic and expression markings. Also, on the list: sensible tempos and balances, clarity of texture and an interpretive sensibility that takes the composer’s era, intentions and personal style into account while finding something fresh to say about the piece at hand. Those things, I thought were obvious.

But I was there to interview Simon, not to provide my own answers, so I raised an eyebrow and awaited his. And he had something less quotidian in mind.

“He’s thinking, ‘OK,’” Simon suggested, spreading out his hands, “‘Move me.’”

Critics…want a performance to reach into our hearts, souls, or psyches…and grab us…

It was a clarifying moment for me, and I think of that conversation frequently. Critics, like virtually everyone else who attends concerts out of love and devotion to the art (that is, those who are not there for business, social or spouse-placating purposes) want a performance to reach into our hearts, souls or psyches – call it what you will – and grab us, shake us up, make us feel uplifted, amused, desolate or calmed. In crude terms, we want to be manipulated by a succession of tones and combinations of tones, tempos and dynamics. We want to feel an assurance that music has the power to do that in a master musician’s hands. So although the items on my scorecard are important – in the course of a two-hour concert, a critic measures a performance almost continuously against an internal list of such requirements – they are not necessarily the most important.

And yet, while Simon’s comment hit a chord, the asterisks and footnotes detailing exceptions stack up quickly. It’s easy to see why, for a musician like Simon, who grew up in the 1930s and was trained in the tradition of romantic pianism that thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, moving his listeners was the highest possible goal. But there are many other kinds of music, and a critic comes to them with different sets of expectations.

I find Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, Steve Reich’s Different Trains, George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, the Chaconne from Bach’s Second Solo Violin Partita and Pierre Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 2 deeply moving, but I would be lying if I said that they were moving in the same way that, say, the Mahler Ninth Symphony is. They weren’t meant to be, and one thing critics, like performers, must bear in mind is the composer’s intentions and expectations.

Wait a minute – here’s another asterisk. Composers fill their scores with details about tempos, articulation and phrasing, but are they the last word? In theory, yes. In practice, not so much. My favorite example of the allowable variance is Gustav Mahler’s admiration for the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg’s readings of his music. In 1904, after hearing Mengelberg conduct his Second and Fourth Symphonies, Mahler praised Mengelberg’s “exemplary performance of my most difficult work” in an effusive letter, and two years later, after Mengelberg sent Mahler his thoughts on the Sixth Symphony, Mahler responded, “It was very important to me, and a great consolation, finally to hear something so fully understanding and deeply perceptive.”

Yet if you listen to Mengelberg’s 1939 recording of the Mahler Fourth Symphony, you hear interpretive liberties that begin with the very first notes: Instead of beginning at the resolute tempo that most conductors take (Mahler’s direction is bedächtig, or deliberate), Mengelberg has the flutes and bells take half a bar to slide up to tempo, and from there – well, it would take a volume to catalogue Mengelberg’s departures from the directions printed in the score.

Have I mentioned that one thing a critic learns, over time, is that there is not a single Right Way to hear music?

Would a critic give Mengelberg demerits for these freedoms? There are no doubt literalist critics who regard his alterations as self-indulgent and excessive. But how can you ignore Mahler’s enthusiasm for Mengelberg as an interpreter of his music? One way is to argue that Mengelberg’s 1939 performance bore little resemblance to what Mahler heard in 1904, but I suspect that Mengelberg, even as a younger conductor, was not shy about personalizing his interpretations. That was the spirit of the day, and you can see it in Mahler’s own markings on the Beethoven symphony scores in the New York Philharmonic’s archives. You can also see the response to those markings left by a conductor from a more literalist time: “Vergona!” – “For shame!” – Arturo Toscanini scrawled over Mahler’s annotations.

Have I mentioned that one thing a critic learns, over time, is that there is not a single Right Way to hear music?

You may think, as a matter of principle, that the composer’s score is the final word. But once you allow Mengelberg’s freedoms, you become open to those of other conductors with grand personalities. Leonard Bernstein, for example. Harold C. Schonberg, who admired the great romantic pianists, scorned Bernstein’s excesses. But for my generation, Bernstein was The Man. It’s a matter of whether the performances speak to you – whether, as Abbey Simon would put it, they move you.

And that brings us to the slippery notion of taste. No matter what critics may assert, taste is both individual and fluid. Yes, there are rules and standards separating the tasteful from the crude, and in theory, there are absolutes and boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed.

But if you listen long enough, you’ll hear a good many of them crossed after all, sometimes simply for the sake of rejecting an earlier generation’s rules. And as a critic, you have to ask yourself a number of pertinent questions, not the least being, “At this time and place, and in the context the performer has created, does this performance, though questionably tasteful by earlier standards, make a coherent, useful, meaningful – perhaps even moving – statement?”

Life would be much simpler for both critics and musicians if there were a simple answer to Simon’s question about what critics expect. But there are too many variables, and the fluidity of today’s musical life creates new levels of complication.

No matter what critics may assert,
taste is both individual and fluid.

In the 21st century, after all, a classical music critic should come to the job with an overstuffed (conceptual) tool bag. It must include a familiarity with the great works of the historical canon, as well as a sense of their place in history, both general (political, social, etc.) and musical – and a familiarity with some of the more interesting outliers by so-called minor composers as well. The canon is sprawling now, taking in opera, symphonic music, chamber music, sacred works, art song and solo instrumental music from the last millennium.

But a critic who focuses only on the canon and who cannot respond to the wildly variegated contemporary canon is useless. And to respond properly, these days, a critic needs a functional knowledge not only of the formal styles and techniques – serialism and post-tonal approaches, minimalism and post-minimalism, not to mention the various neos (neoclassicism, neo-romanticism, et al.) – but also the vernacular ones: with so many new works drawing on jazz, rock and world music, a critic cannot afford not to know them. And really, it’s hard to imagine anyone growing up in the late 20th or early 21st centuries who hasn’t moved in all those worlds. Today’s composers do. Critics should as well – and not just out of a sense of duty but because this is our musical universe.

And that points to another thing critics want, perhaps the ultimate thing: We are looking, always, for a performance that gives us a sense of freshness, originality and discovery. It might be an uncommonly insightful account of a Bach lute work, a Beethoven symphony or a Schubert song, or it might be an entirely new work that ventures into new realms. If it makes us wonder, from moment to moment what’s coming next and leaves us surprised and excited by what does, then we’re in critics’ heaven. We may come to a concert with an internal scorecard, or a set of them, and a vague desire to be moved, but what we secretly hope for, night after night, is a concert that will make us want to remap our musical universe.

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Allan Kozinn

Allan Kozinn wrote about music and musicians for The New York Times from 1977 to 2012, the last 21 years of that tenure as a staff critic. …more 

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4 Responses

  1. Frederic Chiu says:

    Thank you for a wonderful reminder of our primary goal in making art and performing. And thank you for quoting my teacher, Abbey Simon.
    We should remember that the composer is also trying to achieve what Abbey Simon described. And by following their carefully chosen notes and indications, a performer has a better chance of getting there. But times change, tastes change, moods change, and those sometimes call for significant and even drastic deviations from the frozen moment in time and space that is a printed score. Our job as a performer is to bridge that gap between that moment and the present and move that person who is there now.

  2. Michael Redmond says:

    Bravo, Allan Kozinn. If there’s a more informed, sensitive and perceptive reflection on the music reviewer’s job out there in English, I’ve yet to run across it.

  3. Frederic Chiu is quite right: we composers are striving for these same things, right along with performers and audiences — and it is that shared striving, not details of performance directions — that get to the heart of our true intentions. I include the following note with all of my own scores:

    “The past century gave us a school of thought that musicians must ‘respect the intentions of the composer’ by treating scores with a reverential literalism, striving to play everything exactly as marked and to add nothing. As a composer, I want you to be free from that literalism. You have not only my permission, but my entreaty: please don’t treat my music that way! The score is only the skeleton of the music. The intention of this particular composer is for performers to _interpret_ the score: stretch the pulse; stretch the dynamics; shape every phrase; play expressions that aren’t on the page; contradict expressions that are; summon every color and nuance of your instrument in the service of musicality; take liberties; take risks!

    “That’s not to say you should ignore the score. I notate very carefully, and every mark on the page is there for a reason. That reason, however, is not pedantic literalism. Consider what’s written, internalize it, and let something new emerge that reaches beyond the score and into yourself. Make something poetic, passionate and personal. Make it your own.”

  4. As a music journalist and critic in my own little part of Colorado, I could not agree with you more. I have always thought of what a critic wants more or less from Simon’s point of view, possibly because I got my impression of what a critic does largely from Andrew Porter. And because I hear a lot of music, your last point is also, I think, vitally important: I want to hear a performance that gives a sense of discovery. I cover a lot of new music, not because I love all of it that I hear, but because I enjoy the adventure of discovering something new. If I hear something I hate, I still learn from hearing it, and while I may not ever want to hear it again, hearing it the one time is another form of discovery. The same is true of standard repertoire: I look for a sense of discovery in the performance much more than I seek out details that may or may not meet my expectations.

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