Just in case you forgot the nursery story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the moral is, “Don’t fuck with other people’s belongings or they’ll kill you.” In a more modern version, Grandpa Joe and Charlie sully Willy Wonka’s sterile Fizzy Lifting Drink room, causing, presumably, a halt in production and research. Thus, Charlie forfeits any forthcoming prizes and looks like an asshole in the process.

Well, similarly, critical language is far from perfect (i.e., hot/cold porridge), so don’t mess with the cinnamon (spices) right away, or the Detritus Review will kill you, or lambaste you, or make you take a bath, or refuse to have Oompa-Loompas sing you a parting song—I forget which.

Well, it was a very hot night — the hottest this summer — so maybe that's why I felt like...

a) a melting popsicle.
b) a plump portabella on the grill.
c) a temperature-sensitive Goldilocks tasting her three bowls of porridge.


The first try, Vitezslav Novák's Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano in D minor, was too hot.

Is hot inherently bad? I know some very astute Riftia pachyptila who would argue the opposite.

Novák piles on the Eastern European folk-angst, much in the manner of his compatriots Dvorák (who was far better at it)...

That’s hard thing to substantiate: Novák’s folk-angst is lesser than Dvorák’s. Though, I’m still not sure that constitutes a “hot” piece.

...and Smetana, whose Trio in G minor was performed to a standing ovation the Wednesday night prior.

Now, the Smetana, on the other hand, definitely sounds “hot.” Right? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t “hot,” when used to describe a piece or performance, usually a positive thing?

What a weird construction, so far. Not receiving a standing ovation and having less folk-angst means “hot.”

In fact, Novák's Trio sounds like a lesser version of Smetana's — a resemblance that was further underscored by two of the players being the same, violinist Scott Yoo and pianist Andrew Armstrong.

See? Talking about music is already a difficult thing. Why mess it up with a lame simile?

“The players being the same?” That could just about mean anything. Or nothing. Nothing sounds cold to me. It also sounds like a lack of vocabulary. But whatever.

The second try, Beethoven's Quintet in C Major, was too cold — at least for the first half.

This ought to be good.

Violinists Erin Keefe and Joseph Lin, violists Che-Yen Chen and Richard O'Neill, and cellist Amit Peled seemed to be keeping the music at arm's length during the first and second movements, being careful but never really coalescing in spirit. Fortunately, Beethoven's intellectualizing falls away in the rollicking third movement, and the players began to have more fun.

I have heard, roundabout, that intellectualism is cold. So, in some strange intuitive world, one where reason has been long abandoned in favor of feelings that have no descriptors, the “cold” simile is apt.

What I find untenable, is that Beethoven’s Quintet was described as “too cold,” when the thrid movement was, according to the normal usage of “hot,” hot. Combine the three movements and you get what? That’s right! Tepid!

Tepid is not cold, nor hot.

...after [the opening of the finale], all the players seemed to come alive, joyfully weaving in and out of each other in kaleidoscopic patterns.

Here’s three pictures of kaleidoscopic patterns. I’ll leave it to you to imagine them weaving in and out of each other joyfully.

That must mean, OMG, that the last piece was juuuust riiiiight. Right?

The piece that was just right — Brahms' Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano in B Major — is such a ravishingly gorgeous work that it seems impossible to play badly.

Reflexive translation: Goldilocks borrows someone else’s porridge without asking.


The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Aside from the rather threadbare simile between the concert and Goldilocks, Sumi Hahn wrote a nice review. Only, the language Sumi used was lazily appropriated from almost every review ever. It was over-inflated to the point where it lost its effectiveness.

Case in point:

Brahms' Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano in B Major [...] is such a ravishingly gorgeous work that it seems impossible to play badly.

Any lawyers out there? It’s my guess that this statement would not hold up in a court of law. It’s pure exaggeration. Hyperbole. It says nothing about the piece. It just inflates it like a balloon.

From the languid opening caress of the piano and cello...


...the hushed cathedral majesty of the Adagio...


...and the anxiously attractive finale, this piece swells with the very best kind of Romantic fervor.

Instead of wasting time with the Goldilocks simile, it might have been in Sumi’s best interest to explain what the best kind of romanticism might look like, then prove it without the gaudy descriptors. That would be interesting, to me. And informative. Also, if done well, it could have been just as colorful.

The point being, poetry got in the way of the tasks at hand: reviewing, appraising and describing. Not that there isn’t room for style; it can be done. Just check out the handful of critics we don’t review here.

[...] the music bloomed rapturously on that hot night.

The review ballooned rapturously, too. Is this a concert or an orgasm?

That memory might be enough to keep me going until next summer's festival.

Obviously, I’m not going to take this literally. But, since Sumi isn’t talking about the number of calories in fast food, I don’t believe it. Not in the least. Look. If you, someone who loves music, can go an entire year without listening to another piece, going to another concert or simply humming a tune other than what you heard at this particular festival’s concert and still be musically satisfied, then damn, it must have been that good. Unfortunately, no, you can’t. And no, it wasn’t.

So I’ll just call it gross exaggeration.

I mean, I can understand the “whole being greater than the sum of its parts” sort of Gestalt, but I’ve never understood the “whole being three-hundred and sixty-five times greater than one of its parts, which happened to be the only part that I really liked, because I went through an entire Goldilocks simile to arrive at this conclusion” type of unnecessarily grandiose overstatement. Barf.

Look. Based on the review, this is what I could expect if I were to go to a repeat performance of this concert:

1) A concert “studded with star turns.”
2) Lots of “luster.”
3) “A ravishingly gorgeous work that [...] seems impossible to play badly.
4) A “languid opening caress of the piano and cello.”
5) Some “hushed cathedral majesty.”
6) An “anxiously attractive finale.”
7) “The very best kind of Romantic fervor.”
8) “Music [blooming] rapturously.
9) And a memory that “might be enough to keep me going until next summer's festival.”

Really. If these concerts are all so goddamned, unbelievably good—better than multiple orgasms while feasting on chocolate-dipped fried chicken with an I.V. of fifteen year-old Laphroaig—then why haven’t more people caught on by now? Because they’re only concerts, for crying out loud! And if they’re only concerts, then why must the language always, always suggest so much luxuriant and rich other-worldly experiences?

Won’t it always be a disappointment for the reader who then goes to see and hear these pieces/concerts/performers?

Here’s some food for thought:

A shepherd-boy, who watched a flock of sheep near a village, brought out the villagers three or four times by crying out, "Wolf! Wolf!" and when his neighbors came to help him, laughed at them for their pains.

The Wolf, however, did truly come at last. The Shepherd-boy, now really alarmed, shouted in an agony of terror: "Pray, do come and help me; the Wolf is killing the sheep"; but no one paid any heed to his cries, nor rendered any assistance. The Wolf, having no cause of fear, at his leisure lacerated or destroyed the whole flock.

There is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth.

Call me skeptical, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the whole “elitist” or “anti-elitist” problem (or call it whatever you want—our culture’s negative perception of classical music) stems from this kind of disproportionate language that’s been floating around for ages. In a time that arguably has been breaking-down hierarchies of all kinds, our description of classical music is dependent upon these very cries of “Wolf!” because that’s all we know. But still, they’re only concerts and it’s only music, after all.


Anonymous said...

Oh my this is long...I'll have to finish reading this tomorrow morning. Here's hoping there's a real sport on the Olympics coverage tonight.

Aaron said...

Here’s three pictures of kaleidoscopic patterns. I’ll leave it to you to imagine them weaving in and out of each other joyfully.


Anonymous said...

Wow! A tour de force post, E. I laughed out loud many times!

In any case, I believe that you're analogy of concert reviews to "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" is dead-on. Gross hyperbole in every review becomes background noise...kind of like those quotables you see on movie posters...

BioDome -- "...one of the great cinematic acheivements of our generation..." Les Nessman, WKRP in Cincinnati

...The result of which is the lack of credibility. Education and honesty should be a primary goal of any self-respected review.

But I suppose the problem lies in the audience who is already "tepid" about even attending a classical music concert. A negative review from an earlier concert might be enough for someone to say, "I don't really feel like it, I've heard bad things in the past." Of course, there will be no nuance to what those bad things were, but instead, a general souring on what the experience might be. Unfortunately, classical music doesn't have the mass appeal of a Pauly Shore or Stephen Baldwin to draw a crowd despite a negative perception in the media.

Tom Strini said...

I very much agree with the point of Empiricus' response to this review: Proponents of (small-c) classical music tend to oversell it way too zealously. Mozart makes your baby smarter! Bach puts you face to face with God Almighty! Beethoven broadens and deepens your very soul!
Then people listen, and it's just music, and suddenly music is just not enough. They feel like they're missing something, they're too stupid to really get it, so they go away. Forever.--Strini

Empiricus said...

I felt I was a little ranty. So, I'm glad some of you were able to parse my terrible jokes and stuff.

But really, am I that far off the mark? It's certainly not a new phenomenon--bloating language to make it more attractive. But, could this be THE problem?

Has classical music become a victim of those who write about it? I'm also including musicologists, theorists, composers and performers, as well as critics, patrons, etc. The language isn't...real. It seems to be a mirror of how we "feel" about it, a momentary ecstasy, perhaps. But not an accurate enough description of what it IS. People plodding onto the stage, maybe saying a little about what they'll play, then an incomprehensible mess of notes (for the most part). Intriguing, at least.

Again, sorry for ranty nature of this one.

Sator Arepo said...

What? No! There is no apologizing in baseball!

Erm. I mean, the DR.

Anonymous said...

I think you've hit on something here. There's nothing more likely to put people off than going berserk over something that they might not necessarily get first time around themselves. It sets up a barrier: "we get it, we're in the club; you don't so you're not".

Somehow it's different from the sort of hyperbole you get on film posters though - I think people are, in general, able to see those for the hype that they are. (Greater familiarity with the style maybe?)

Anonymous said...

oh whoops, i totally do this all the time. sorry guys!