In between our snarky witticisms and acerbic critiques, we here at the Detritus are faced daily with some fundamental questions. And I believe that these issues deserve some special consideration from time to time, both by the Detritus Review and by our readers. It's reviews such as this that discourage rather than encourage attendance at the symphony, especially when the Utah Symphony is struggling more than ever. The job of a critic is to comment on how well the orchestra plays, not to impose her narrow views on us. Kaye D. Murdock, Salt Lake City Needless to say that Ms. Murdock and I would likely not be friends, but let us first explore, without yet considering Ms. Newton's actually review, her suggestion as to the role of a critic.
The Issue: What is role of the music critic?
Despite using this blog as a platform to lampoon some critics, we hold the profession of music critic in high esteem. And while we wish to compel, through criticism, everyone in the profession to the highest standards, we still believe in the importance of the role that the music critic plays in the arts.
The role of the critic isn't easily determined since the critic serves so many masters, each wanting something different and personal. Some wish to be informed and some wish to have their opinions affirmed (or challenged). It's easy to force your expectations of what a good review should be onto a critique that doesn't necessarily agree or aims to please a different demographic. But one thing that I think cannot be mistaken is the relationship between critic and reader, and an understanding of the service being provided, as public recounting of our shared heritage and culture.
What prompted me to write about this issue was a review in the Salt Lake Tribune this past weekend. I read many (MANY) reviews, and this one was neither great nor terrible. It didn't really distinguish itself as typical fodder for the Detritus. However, the paper also published this letter to the editor response online.
I found the letter interesting in the way it attacks the critic for not understanding her role as critic. Good question,"what is the role of a critic?"
Okay, yes, I'd have to agree that this is part of the job of the critic. The orchestra sits as the cultural epicenter of most metropolitan areas' classical music offerings. They require enormous budgets that are often funded primarily by donation and municipal grants. An account of the performance by that orchestra does seem like an important part of accountability to the community.
...not to impose her narrow views on us.
And again, I would agree. Proper editorial journalism starts with the facts at hand before coming to a conclusion, not beginning with preconceived notions.
However, and I don't mean to pick on this one woman and her opinion too much, but it seems that it is she, and perhaps the majority of orchestra patrons and those who still read arts criticism in newspapers, that have the narrow views.
Let me go back a little bit here and start, in part, with what my feelings are on the subject.
I have always bought into the vision of the critic as a public expert, advocate, and to some extent, a teacher. In one famous text on the subject, Philip Weissman wrote that “the step from connoisseur to critic implies the progression from knowledge to judgment,” in his essay . It is that progression from knowledge to judgment that yields the critic an authority worthy of attention. Without that knowledge base the criticisms will ring hollow.
The problem is that most people view the critic as a person who "criticizes." And they view that sense of expertise as being arrogant and superior. And with subjective arts, such as music, people are not easily convinced by knowledge-based arguments, and so-called "theories". They, perhaps rightly, view music as instinctual and creative, and therefore, all opinions are essentially equal. Criticisms contrary to our own are then met with disdain. But good critics are not the snobs they are often accused of being, but those who hold their opinions to a higher standard. You see, it's not enough just to have an opinion, even when discussing purely subjective issues. You need to know why you like (or dislike) a piece of music. This is not a question of finding a correct answer. As many would rightly argue, there is no right and wrong. However, there is the ill-conceived and the uninformed. The ability to explain why you think what you think is a fundamental part of having an opinion. And the critic is, theoretically, someone who is best able to articulate his/her opinion in a manner both open and honest.
This issue of "right" and "wrong", "good" and "bad", seem to be the biggest stumbling blocks for most readers, and critics themselves. Many critics (especially the ones featured on this blog) are too afraid of offending those sensibilities and revert to half-statements and banal trivialities that don't reflect the sort knowledge I'm referencing here. I believe that good criticism is given with an awareness that these terms of definitive value do not apply. The critic doesn't have the answers, nor speaks for everyone. But guided by a strong grounding in the history, the theory, and a lifetime of listening, their criticism will serve as the starting point for our community discussion - serve as an example and model. The critic should be able to frame the debate clearly, noticing things that others may not notice, and provide a context that may otherwise be hidden. The critic can also offer up comparisons, both historical and contemporary, and provide a summary of the extra-musical circumstances.
It has clearly become an unpopular concept, but the music critic is, in essence, a public intellectual. (I'm not sure why the idea of scholars and experts, and the idea of learning rather than dismissing, have become so unpopular, but they have.)
Okay, returning to our letter to the editor, the primary contention was that Ms. Newton's word choice of "gooey" was just too much of an insult to the Rachmaninoff Symphony. Well, perhaps. But let us check the source first, shall we.
Utah Symphony Rachs on
We are not amused.
Minczuk's [the conductor] refreshingly light touch, coupled with decisive tempos, brought out the work's folk flavor much more than the heart-on-sleeve romanticism for which Rachmaninoff is beloved -- and reviled -- the world over.
An interesting, if somewhat banal, introduction to the Rachmaninoff. But it does touch upon the stylistic connotations with this work, and other works of the era. This seems like a perfectly acceptable line of criticism with which to proceed. Many people may not know this, but the over-the-top lushness of late romantic works such as this one, do induce hatred amongst some. This is highly affected music and is, therefore, somewhat polarizing. Point well taken, Ms. Newton.
And, in addition, Ms. Newton has already begun to offer up her opinion of this given performance by praising the conductor's "light touch" and "decisive tempos". And these are comments both germane to a discussion of the embracing of the "romanticism" inherent in the work, and to her specific enjoyment of the performance.
He even brought the orchestra through the third movement, which boasts one of the gooiest principal themes in the symphonic repertoire, with its dignity intact.
Oh. There's that word "gooey".
[For those of you unfamiliar with the work, you can listen to it here.]
It's reviews such as this that discourage rather than encourage attendance at the symphony, especially when the Utah Symphony is struggling more than ever. The job of a critic is to comment on how well the orchestra plays, not to impose her narrow views on us.
Kaye D. Murdock, Salt Lake City
Needless to say that Ms. Murdock and I would likely not be friends, but let us first explore, without yet considering Ms. Newton's actually review, her suggestion as to the role of a critic.
Now, to me, this is primarily a positive review. Ms. Newton obviously enjoyed the performance, which should have satisfied Ms. Murdock and her "The job of a critic is to comment on how well the orchestra plays." But yes, it does acknowledge a certain personal bias that the critic may have about lushly orchestrated music (she does not make her opinion explicit in the article other than to praise this "light" performance).
However, our critic of critics also basically accused Ms. Newton of not appreciating the "loveliness and sublime beauty" in the work. Well, I suppose that Ms. Newton doesn't categorically attribute her positive review to the inherent loveliness of the Rachmaninoff. But, obviously, there's more to like about the performance. Yes?
The brass section played with just the right degree of bluster, the woodwind solos were all spot on, the strings displayed a nice transparency and the percussionists delivered plenty of punch. Nearly as impressive, though, was the sleight of hand by which Minczuk produced his baton from within his jacket for the finale after conducting the third movement without it.
While I think that these sections from the original review make it clear that our letter to the editor probably didn't read the review very closely, that's sort of the point. She didn't really read the review, and doesn't really know how to digest music criticism. Ms. Murdock perceived a slight offense at what she held as the opinion on Rachmaninoff Symphony No.2 and anything that deviated from that opinion was viewed more as an attack than as, what it really is, analysis and interpretation. In other words, she doesn't like criticism.
So, why am I bothering to take on this meaningless letter to the editor? Clearly, I don't intend to simply criticize, because I think this is easily dismissed and ignored. But, she just doesn't get it. She doesn't understand what a music critic does, and as has been my experience, her opinion echoes that of many who, in their ignorance, have contributed to the diminishing and devaluing of the public intellectual/critic in our communities.
Her letter, while insignificant, requires a response, because I believe in the role of classical music in our society. And part of that is a public discourse led by experts, advocates and teachers.
As a quick aside, let me finish my argument with a quote from infamous food critic, Anton Ego,who you may remember from the film "Ratatouille":
"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends... Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere."