7/16/08

Pianist Stabbed in the Bach

Every day at the Detritus we get to observe what happens to a review when the critic is confronted with the unfamiliar, i.e. new music. Since new music doesn’t come with a pre-established descriptive vocabulary, critics are left to their own devices, often exposing tiny inadequacies, more so than usual. Arnold Schoenberg’s music becomes “thorny.” Xenakis’ music becomes “caucophonous.” And in another case, John Corigliano’s music becomes the sum of the program notes. Or John Adams’ music is either more or less similar to Nixon in China. This is understandable, to a degree, and often hard to fault.

But what happens when the critic is charged with reviewing something terribly unfamiliar in a familiar context? Or more precisely, what happens when the familiar piece of music is interpreted in an unfamiliar way?

Let’s take a look at how Vivien Schweitzer handled a different interpretation of the “Goldberg” Variations.

A Pianist Offers Bold Ideas About a Standard by Bach

Since I feel like being lazy, here’s the background to the performance in Schweitzer’s words, which also happens to be 40% of the total number of words in the review:

According to Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who wrote the first biography of Bach, that composer’s “Goldberg” Variations were commissioned by the Russian diplomat Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk. An insomniac, the count reportedly wanted Bach to write a musical sedative that Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (a talented young harpsichordist who lived with Keyserlingk) could play to soothe his restless nights.

The legend has been discredited, and Bach’s monumental work is so gripping in any case that it would doubtless have fueled the count’s insomnia.


Objection, your honor! Hearsay.

But there was unfortunately something soporific about the pianist Beth Levin’s performance at the Bechstein Piano Center on Friday. The concert, held in an intimate space at the back of the showroom, was a benefit for the Children’s Orchestra Society, a training organization founded in 1962 by H. T. Ma (the father of the cellist Yo-Yo Ma). It presents children and teenagers in orchestral and chamber concerts with their peers and established artists.

Got it? The piece was once thought to be a sedative, but that’s not the case. And Beth Levin’s interpretation was tediously boring or monotonous as to cause sleep. Clever tie-in. Whoop-dee-doo.

But this is where Vivien gets into the nitty gritty. And so do I.

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The “Goldberg” Variations (like much of Bach’s music) offer pianists a chance to make a personal statement...

Like Major League Baseball and Visa: “Express your fanhood through your credit card!” Or Random Phone Company: “Express yourself with a new ring-tone for only $5.99!” Yuck.

The “Goldberg” Variations (like much of Bach’s music) offer pianists a chance to make a personal statement and can withstand a wide variety of interpretations.

What exactly is the width of the variety of interpretations that a piece of music can withstand? But more importantly, what is it withstanding?

It seemed to be more about her than about Bach...

See, two things I don’t subscribe to are 1) the New York Times—I just get the Sunday paper for the crossword puzzle—and 2) the notion that black dots on a page, written at a time when improvisation flourished, are owned more by a composer than a performer, or vice versa. I prefer to think of those black dots more as the composer’s architectural blueprint and the performer the craftsman—one is no more important than the other—the final result being a collaboration. Maybe I’m a Communist.

...and her idiosyncratic decisions sounded jarring and unnatural.

Another thing I don’t subscribe to is the notion that “jarring” and “unnatural” (whatever that means) are inherently bad things.

Harshly attacked accents, as in Variation No. 3...

By definition (I’m guessing here, so I leave it to you to look it up) notes that are accented are more harshly attacked than notes that are unaccented. So, “harshly attacked accents” is redundant.

Harshly attacked accents, as in Variation No. 3, gave the listener musical whiplash...

Remember a long time ago when Schweitzer said that the performance was soporific? Yeah. Me too. You know, I usually sleep through whiplash. How about you?

Besides, I think “musical whiplash” is synonymous with “something that takes you in a different direction.” We can’t have any of that in our music!

...and slow tempos and exaggerated phrasing rendered many variations awkwardly stilted.

Since “exaggerated phrasing” means nothing to me, Vivien, I’ll ask this: what is the slowest tempo that the Goldberg’s can withstand and still be natural? Keep in mind that Bach didn’t indicate the tempos for the variations. Ready?........Go!

Variations Nos. 4 and 29, for example, were so ponderous and stretched out, particularly in the opening measures, that the music sounded distorted.

Ugh.

The performance lacked an overall cohesion and architecture, partly because the vital sense of a dance pulse was lost.

Ugh. Dance rhythm, not “dance pulse.” Very different things.

Vivacious, sparkling variations like No. 5 sounded lackluster.


Geez. Don’t hold back, Vivien.

Had the livelier numbers been more energetic, Ms. Levin might have made her point better when playing the slower variations.

Ugh.

But there was sometimes a strange sameness in a work that should be full of contrast, veering from merry wit to profundity.

Ugh. The work should be...

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So how did Vivien handle the unfamiliar familiar? By comparing and contrasting it with the billions of previous recordings and performances of the Goldbergs she already knew and loved. Awesome, because that’s how we do it. That's how we make judgments. That is, if it leads to a better understanding of what is being compared and contrasted.

Granted, Beth’s interpretation might have been boring. I wasn’t there. But...

Unlike reviews of new music, the Goldbergs are accompanied by a mountain of pre-established descriptive vocabulary, as well as performed or recorded models with which to compare. It’s no surprise, then, that Vivien was already influenced (Heck, I would be, too). But, here’s the difference, as I see it. It seems that Vivien used previous models to demonstrate why she found the performance stilted, rather than attempting to use previous models to understand why Beth Levin made the performance choices she made. Vivien, instead, entered the concert hall with her ideal model already formulated and any deviation, any different or unfamiliar interpretation, outside a narrow range of varied possibilities, was doomed before it began. Hence, we get statements like:

  • “idiosyncratic decisions sounded jarring and unnatural” To whom? Vivien.
  • “slow tempos and exaggerated phrasing rendered many variations awkwardly stilted” To whom? Vivien.
  • “Variations Nos. 4 and 29 [...] were so ponderous and stretched out [...] that the music sounded distorted.” To whom? Vivien.
  • “The performance lacked an overall cohesion and architecture, partly because the vital sense of a dance pulse was lost.” Vital to whom? Vivien.
  • “But there was sometimes a strange sameness in a work that should be full of contrast” It should be what to whom? Full of contrast to Vivien.
There was no attempt to understand, let alone appreciate, Beth’s interpretation. And before y’all chime in, I understand that Vivien is entitled to an opinion. It’s just that her opinion was made up before the concert began. And that's not cool.

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It often sounded as if Ms. Levin, who took some repeats and read from the score, were playing Beethoven, Schumann or Prokofiev.

Ugh. Is that a jab at Beth for taking repeats and reading from a score? Because that has nothing to do with anything, ever. On the bright side, good news for Schenkerites: all good music does sound the same!

Bach’s spirit rarely shone through.

Ugh. I challenge anyone to write an essay that expresses your interpretation of Bach’s spirit and how it shines through things, without waxing too poetic. Oh, and make sure it can withstand a variety of interpretations, within reason, of course.
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15 comments:

A.C. Douglas said...

I prefer to think of those black dots more as the composer’s architectural blueprint and the performer the craftsman—one is no more important than the other—the final result being a collaboration. Maybe I’m a Communist.

No, infinitely worse. Judging by your above, you're clearly a postmodernist. (No, don't get me started or I'll resort to a scathing blog post rather than responding in this comments section.)

ACD

Empiricus said...

Clearly.

anzu said...

I don't read too many reviews, so maybe I'm not qualified to comment or form an opinion on this, but I'll do so anyway. . ..

First, I sortof understand your point about this woman coming in with preconcieved biases, but I'm not sure where exactly your objection lies.

Granted, I mostly read reviews for the writing, and I don't know if that's the norm or whether people actually expect to get some "objective" insight about the concert, etc., but I would expect a reviewer to go in with certain biases.

Heck, if I were listening to Bach, I'd go in with biases, and based on what this reviewer wrote, I suspect my biases would be very similar.

It's not that I'm closed to new interpretations, but in my case, for Bach, I want unadorned, honest sound, and nothing too showy. (It's kindof hard to explain the quality, so bear w/ me here. . ..)

And while maybe to some extent, music is a collaboration between artist and composer, I feel like for someone like Bach, I'd want it to be like an 80/20 split (Bach taking the 80 percent), which is to say, I don't want too "heavy" of a filter to mediate my Bach experience.

Which is why I'd never go see Clang Clang play Bach. Rachmaninoff, Liszt, maybe but not Bach. But back to this reviewer.

Based on her description, (which admittedly, has some contradictory parts that are puzzling) I think she's saying that this particular performer provided too much of a filter, which I think is a perfectly valid opinion.

As for her contradictory words, I can't explain that (e.g. too much contrast, but same and dull), but maybe it was so contrast-y that it got ho-hum? I dunno.

Finally, wrt. your point about having preconceived notions and how that shouldn't affect one's review of a performer-- the thing with concerts is that you get one shot at listening. It's not like reviewing a CD where you have the luxury of time and several relistens, if you so chose. So I'd almost want my reviewers to have some sort of bias.

Now if I were listening to a CD of this, it would be an entirely different story. I'd still have the same biases going in, yes, but now I have the luxury of time and the ability to listen multiple times, compare with other recordings, leave it, revisit it, etc. It's much easier to have the sort of "open" mind you seem to be demanding of this critic.

I didn't care for her writing style much, and yes, the review was a bit scathing, but given that she supported her negative reviews with examples, I didn't find the review too unfair.

Am I completely off-base?

By your logic, would anyone who writes a negative review b/c they didn't like the interpretation make it to the Detritus Hall of Shame?

I'm clearly not understanding either this review or your argument. . ..

Gustav said...

Perhaps this is a question of authority--if we respect the reviewers credentials and judgement then I think that we would find the critiques insightful and valid, but if we assume (as I do) that she is a musical novice, at best, who knows repetoire but has no musical vocabulary, then it's easy to lampoon the review as marred by simpleton biases.

It's tough to distinguish which this is over the course of 400 words.

Empiricus said...

Listen y'all,

99% of the time I dig Vivien's writing. She's good. Very good.

In this one instance, I think I brought up a decent point: how fair was Vivien to the pianist's interpretation? There are, as I've mentioned, a billion-million recordings and performances of the Goldbergs; there is no shortage of external references. It's easy, then, to become saturated with the pre-established rhetoric surrounding the Goldbergs. I expect no less. However, this is why I took her review to be a bit too married to the/an ideal image, formed by this saturation. Once that image was contradicted, the review, in my opinion, failed to come to terms with the interpretation on its won merits (it sounded interesting to me; but that's niether here nor there).

It's not that I think every reviewer should come into a performance objectively--that's impossible. Besides, that would be an admission that I have a preconcieved notion of what every review SHOULD be (hopefully, I've demonstrated that's not the case). To the contrary, if Vivien didn't like it, then fine. She could have said, "I prefer this to that, and here is what what Beth did differently." Or, "I didn't get what Beth was trying to do. This is what she did. I thought she used poor judgment." Instead Vivien said something to this effect: "This is what the Goldbergs SHOULD be, so Beth's interpretation was bad." Big difference. Such a big difference that I think it merits a post discussing this review's "review philosophy/method." No?

A.C. Douglas said...

Instead Vivien said something to this effect: "This is what the Goldbergs SHOULD be, so Beth's interpretation was bad."

And as an informed critic, that's precisely the kind of assertion required in the critique of any performance — of a canonical work such as the Goldberg most particularly.

Ms. Schweitzer knows that score as well as she knows her own name, I assure you, and as an informed critic, she knows as well the interpretive boundaries of both the score, the period, and most importantly, the music itself. If Ms. Schweitzer's description of this performance was accurate — and I've not the slightest doubt it was — then the performance was grotesque beyond toleration, and one ought to praise rather than condemn Ms. Schweitzer for her admirable restraint and temperance in her review of it. Had I been present at such a performance, and afterward written a review, I would have savaged the grotesquely self-involved, self-indulgent performer within an inch of her professional life.

ACD

anzu said...

"I would have savaged the grotesquely self-involved, self-indulgent performer within an inch of her professional life."

Ouch.

E, you're entitled to your own opinions (and for heaven's sake, it's your blog!), but I'm still not following the logic. Which is not to say it's invalid, since you clearly read more reviews than I do.

I thought the whole point of paying a reviewer (as opposed to many of us who freely dispense opinions, amateur, professional or otherwise, that are evidently "ghettoizing" real critics) was that they have enough of a background knowledge of this genre (or in the case of Bach, have heard it a gazillion times), that they do actually have a framework (i.e. "this is how it should sound") on which to judge a performance. (good, bad, over-interpreted, vapid, etc.)

Btw, on a separate note, I just noticed that your name has two ts. I have been misspelling your name all along. (Detrius being easier to say than Detritus.) And you didn't even correct me! Humph.

Empiricus said...

I'm not doubting Vivien's knowledge. Not at all. Since I first read the review, it's even crossed my mind that this entire mess was a cover for her total distgust toward Beth's interpretation; it may be extremely tempered--I don't know.

What I am doubting, ACD, is the critic's role as...ugh (this might not be the right expression)...cultural taste police. I think that our critics are, in general, very knowledgable folk and they know their stuff backward and forward. But, whether or not they come to the correct conclusion concerning a performance, how they get to the conclusion is what we all get read. Their thought processes, however distilled, is in plain view. As such, when I read a review and certain things begin to "smell" funny, it's usually because this thought process wasn't clear.

Vivien's review, as you pointed out, might be very accurate. It might even be extremely restrained. But, what I read is what I get. And this review didn't argue the good case. It dismissed what could have been an interesting departure from the norm without supporting evidence, other than her presumtuous assertion that "this isn't the way it should be."

Maybe it's due to the short word count. Maybe it's due to...anything mentioned above. Either way, I think the review was unsuccessful, whatever Vivien's intents.

cereal_music said...

I imagine everybody here has favorite pieces. And I'm sure that at one time we've all heard a piece played in a way that, well, sucked. We might have even agreed with several concert goers that, well, yes, the performance sucked. How to put that into words? No one can.

I think it is it virtually impossible to review a review of a concert if you weren't there to hear it. Vivien's descriptive words- "slow tempos and exaggerated phrasing rendered many variations awkwardly stilted"- could be very technical words depending on how the pianist sounded. Empiricus, your challenge- "what is the slowest tempo that the Goldberg’s can withstand and still be natural?"- I accept it with a challenge question- do the goldberg variations work at sixteenth note=40? And for whom?

Also, I wonder if Vivien is related to the great Albert Schweitzer- organist, Bach editor, and missionary doctor to boot. That might get her loads of street cred in my book!

A.C. Douglas said...

[T]his review didn't argue the good case. It dismissed what could have been an interesting departure from the norm without supporting evidence, other than her presumtuous assertion that "this isn't the way it should be."

"Good case"? What "good case"? If Ms. Schweitzer's description of this reading of the Goldberg is accurate (and, again, I've no doubt whatsoever that it is), there's NO good case involved here. The performer's reading was grotesque — dead wrong — from top to bottom.

And why would you consider such a judgment by an informed critic to be "presumptuous"? Making such informed judgments is what she's required — and paid — to do. We as readers should demand it of any qualified critic, and roundly castigate any who haven't the balls to make such judgments — in print. We read qualified critics precisely to read such informed judgments. Otherwise, we could just read what any unqualified schmuck with a blog who was at the recital has to say about his personal response to the performance. Who gives a shit about his personal response or should? It's worthless to anyone other than himself.

ACD

cereal_music said...

Well said ACD! My I continue that the conflict between Schweitzer and Empiricus is one of style. In the baroque/classical periods negative criticism is a necessary part of music- for better or worse, classical music assumes a right and wrong. The language Ms. Schweitzer uses in her review is exactly the language one might hear from a good piano teacher. "Don't rust, don't over-accent." Whereas modern criticism is void of negativity (unless it sounds like older music) because there is no right and wrong. You can't come to the music of Bach with a modern "criticism" technique you would use with Stockhausen, plain and simple.

Here's some of the classic criticism I have come to love (courtesy of wikipedia):
"[Rachmaninoff's First Symphony (Op. 13, 1896) premiered on 27 March 1897 in one of a long-running series of "Russian Symphony Concerts," but was likened by nationalist composer and critic C├ęsar Cui to a depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt, suggesting it would be admired by the "inmates" of a music conservatory in hell."

Marc said...

Vivien's a friend of mine, so it's hard to see her work dragged through the wringer like this, but I think you make some interesting points, and yes, word counts do make things more difficult. It's difficult for critics trained as performers to separate out their personal biases on "how something should go" when they sit down to write, in order to accurately describe what happened, but it can be done.

I don't know how any of us who weren't there can claim to believe that she's right in her descriptions, ACD, but maybe you have some sort of advanced mental power I'm unaware of.

One more thing: This was a recital in the back room of a piano showroom, right? Beth Levin doesn't have a huge career, so what possible purpose would have been served by having a newspaper with over EIGHT MILLION online readers a day condemn her as a terrible performer? Absolutely none. Reviews like this allow the city and the world to view the cultural life of that city, no more, and no less. It's too bad the recital wasn't "better," whatever that means, but a bodyslam would've been foolish in the extreme.

Sator Arepo said...

This has been an interestingly contentious thread.

Don't get us wrong: we like Vivien and her work.

E's take, I think, was that there is not ONE CORRECT WAY to play a piece.

Accusations of postmodernism (as pejoratives) don't fly. More than one interpretation is possible. Texts are in flux.

To disagree or not like one is fine; to have preconceived notions is *perhaps* problematic. Critics are free to like or not like, as are we.

I've been thinking about this for a while.

That is all for now.

SA

A.C. Douglas said...

E's take, I think, was that there is not ONE CORRECT WAY to play a piece.

As was Ms. Schweitzer's "take" as well.

Accusations of postmodernism (as pejoratives) don't fly.

Of course they do -- when appropriately applied.

ACD

A.C. Douglas said...

Oops

My,

As was Ms. Schweitzer's "take" as well.

should have read:

"As was Ms. Schweitzer's 'take' as well as mine."

ACD