Kosman's Wang: Tonally Firm

In a review of the same concerts featuring pianist Yuja Wang (see previous post), Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle... well, I’m not quite sure what he does. Suffice it to say it’s awkward. There has to be a better way to say it.

In an otherwise exemplary review, he says this:

More striking, though, was the way she brought out the humor in the outer movements [...] and contrasted that with the radiant tonal colors of the slow movement.

Italics mine. Did she really contrast the humor with tonal colors? Aren’t they Mendelssohn’s colors? Tonal as opposed to atonal colors? Were the outer movements atonal? Was Mendelssohn’s tonal language ever in dispute? Radiant tonal colors are the opposite of humor?

I’m not entirely sure what is meant by this. Maybe just “colors” would be enough to make this intelligible. Though, even then, I’d want a little qualification, since “colors” isn’t exactly precise.

Later on, the same problem arises.

Perhaps that sense of haste was helpful in goosing the performers out of the unruffled sleekness that is the Academy's house style, or perhaps it was simply Wang's vivacious contributions. Whatever the reason, the concerts sounded rhythmically fresh and tonally firm.

“Goosing the performers” is fun. But...

Tonally firm? This could mean any number of things, including: “Since I believe that one of the priorities of music criticism is to educate the readers, I will do the opposite. I will confuse them to the point where things become ambiguous, or worse, meaningless.” Go MCANA!

Rhythmically fresh could use some qualification, too.

Seriously, does Joshua mean “tonal,” or does he really mean “intoned,” or “harmonic,” or “sonic,” or “winningly sardonic,” or “alluringly misplaced for prosaic effect?”

Either way, it’s confusing. It’s a good thing, too, because...

Mendelssohn's early String Symphony No. 10 in B Minor filled out the program alluringly.

Winningly sardonic italics mine.


Joshua Kosman said...

Oh come on now dude...you're not even trying today.

A secondary meaning of "tonal" does indeed denote "having a pitch center", or "aschoenbergesque" or "acceptable to Bernard Holland." But the word's primary meaning is simply "having to do with tone" — in any of the senses of that word, including muscular resiliency, speech affect, general mood, or — hey, check it out! — "musical sound".

Do you really need help figuring out which of those meanings applies in this context?

The sound colors, as it were — *koff* metaphor *koff* — of Wang's playing in the slow movement were radiant. The sounds the orchestra produced seemed firm as opposed to flabby — metaphor again, like so much writing about music.

I'll grant you "rhythmically fresh" is a little off, and the Mendelssohn contrast is certainly imprecise. So, well played on those two.

But if you're going to keep reading music reviews it's not too soon to add "tonal" to your working vocabulary. It'd be a winning addition. Alluring, even.

Anonymous said...

Man, "goosing" someone where I'm from means "grabbing their genatalia."

Maybe that's what he meant -- A good crotch grab got those stuffy panty-waists into action.

Joshua Kosman said...

Not a genitalia-grab, actually, but a butt-poke (Webster's backs me up on this). But the effect is the same, more or less.

Sator Arepo said...

Sorry, Empiricus.

He's right about "tonal".

However, I also was confused by the humor-colors opposition. How are colors contrasted with humor?


Good article, Mr Kosman.

Sorry so pithy: Gotta go back to see a lecture by a visiting professor. Great.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we're just ahead of the curve with our grabbing of body parts ;-).

I, too, enjoyed your article, Mr Kosman -- and appreciate your good nature where a blog like this one is concerned.

Sator Arepo said...


Why the hell are you a Braves fan? (Sorry, wrong post, but...)

I'd have pegged you for the M's.


Anonymous said...

"aschoenbergesque" is my new favorite word (supplanting "history-having" from a few weeks ago).

Well played.

Empiricus said...

Don’t get your panties in a bunch, JK and SA. The secondary definition wasn’t lost on me. Maybe, I was a little nitpicky, but it’s worth mentioning and bringing up. My original beef still stands.

The sentence in question, to paraphrase, states that Wang emphasized humor then contrasted that with “radiant tonal colors.” The problem isn’t that I misunderstood the context, quite to the contrary. It’s that presumably “humor” is also “having to do with sounds,” in which case it is unnecessary to qualify “colors” with “tonal.” By qualifying “colors” and not “humor” the meaning shifts, leading one to question whether “tonal” means “having to do with sounds” or “tonal harmony,” since “humor,” now, might not have anything to do with sounds.

It’s a pretty small distinction, but I think it needs to be made.

Still, I do hope, someday, to add “tonal” to my working vocabulary, but for now I’ll leave it be. I mean, why should I when I can endlessly entertain myself by taking it out of context, thereby highlighting the difficulties inherent in writing intelligently about music? Besides, there’s plenty of other words in my lexicon of which I’m proud to boast, like semi-combinatorial dodecophony, and Mompou.

Anonymous said...


I'm a braves fan through my mother's family who live in Atlanta. Dale Murphy, the home-run smackin' morman, everyday on the ol' SuperStation got me hooked.

Here's hoping for a Braves-Red Sox world series.

[Sorry for the sports talk, and being on the wrong post again.]

Joshua Kosman said...

I assure you, friend, my panties are as smooth and unruffled as the surface of Lake Como on a sunny day, and considerably starchier. Should they become bunched, you'll know.

Evidently this all stems from my maladroit attempt to contrast the outer movements of the Mendelssohn (glittery, funny, spirited) with the slow movement (serious, emotional, tonally radiant). I would've thought that the general sense of that contrast — which is, after all, a pretty standard one for a three-movement concerto — might be clear enough, even if I unfortunately singled out individual elements from each of those two contrasting constellations of attributes that didn't actually, y'know, contrast. But I did what I did, and of course I must bear the consequences. Mea culpa.

Still, here's a question for you, Sextus (may I call you Sextus?). I understand and accept that "tonal" was confusing in the regrettable Mendelssohn paragraph, but why later on? Does the Mendelssohnian taint extend to the entire article? To the next one? To quote Randy Newman, must I pay my whole life long for just one mistake?

As for Mompou, I take it that's a parlor game, like Botticelli or Fellini. Or a cheese.

Empiricus said...

The second one was a little tainted by the first, resulting in another tiny ambiguity. But again, it was certainly nitpicky.

And just so we're clear, we grade you more harshly only because we champion your work.

Keep it up, or else.

anzu said...

I was going to defend this review and say that I actually liked this review and thought it was better written than 90 percent of the reviews I've recently read, but it looks like he can stand up for himself perfectly fine, thank you very much!

So instead, I'll leave two comments.
1) Have you thought about changing the ink colors to increase the contrast between your commentary and the text that is being commented on? In the beginning, I can discern the color difference, but after a few minutes, I feel like I'm color-blind and have a hard time telling the light blue apart from the slightly darker blue. Surely there are better contrasting color options? (like the green you use for links)

2)Since you're in the business of nitpicking language. . . I know this is just in your comments, but I don't think "leave it be" is grammatically correct. I can't find any online references backing me up on this other than this (the very last example), but I have vague recollections of having the leave vs. let distinction hammered into me and being told that "leave it be" is incorrect.

Empiricus said...

RE: anzu

Good catch. Feel free to lambaste us when we screw up.

Also, your suggestion is well-taken. However, there is only one color blue (actually it's more periwinkle), with grey commentary and green links. Sometimes, when we reference two sources, the second is pink. If you're talking about the grey commentary, then I understand, completely. Unfortunately, there are no immediate solutions. I'm sure when we decide to redo/update this blog that will be one of the primary changes. Thanks.