The Critic[s] and The[ir] Audience[s]

I was thinking upon a point addressed by Gustav here (also by me here and here, and, well, in much of this blog) about the role of the critic.

Gustav's piece highlighted an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, in which a reader wrote the editors to complain about a review.

Her complaint:

"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.

Obviously, the reader's complaint is that the critic's opinion about the music per se was not within the parameters of her job as critic. The contention is that her job, explicitly, extends only to reporting how well the orchestra plays, not musing about the quality of the programming or the music performed.

The disconnect between the critic and audience is apparent, here, and the problem gets more thorny. Discussions about the role of the critic must take into account the audience who reads the criticism. More poignantly, there are different types of audiences to whom various criticisms are addressed, whose sets of expectations and experiences may differ widely. Furthermore, the assumptions and expectations of the critic about the audience(s) they are addressing may be more or less accurate.

That is to say: not all criticism is addressed to the same audience. The venue (type of publication), event (type of concert), and specialization of the critic all play into the dialectic between critic and audience.

How, then, is one to proceed? Who is the mythical, imaginary, abstract audience of the "classical" music critic?

Figure 1: The annual meeting of the Conference for Investigating Notational Problems in 17th Century Thoroughbass Music drew a record crowd this year.

Figure 2: Terry Riley's all-night concert is eagerly awaited by experimental music enthusiasts, no doubt leading to a counter-cultural "happening" during which these so-called "hippies" dabble in psychedelic drugs and other ungentlemanly pursuits.

Figure 2a: Terry Riley being awesome.

Furthermore and conversely, what can we infer about an audience from a review? Or, perhaps less concretely, but more accurately: what can we infer about a critic's assumed or intended audience?

Consider the following:

Milton Moore, The Day (New London Connecticut), 1/25/2010

Shimada knows the score with ECSO

(Snarky admonishment of title-writer for lame music pun.)


At the start of Saturday's Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra concert, the fourth under new Music Director Toshi Shimada, the conductor asked the audience at the Garde Arts Center for a mid-term grade.

In the audience's programs, Shimada said, there's a questionnaire, one that focused on audience response to his programming of music new to this audience. "I'm wondering what you're thinking," Shimada said.

The writing is casual, almost, and introduces basic information; the conductor's name, for instance, and how many years he's held the post, is not taken for granted as common knowledge. (The first sentence in that last paragraph needs some tweaking, tense-wise, but it works.)

The location and prestige of the paper and symphony (eastern Connecticut) surely call for a different tone, than, say, the New York Times reviewing the New York Philharmonic.

However, while the critic absolutely addresses and assesses the performance of the orchestra on this particular occasion, he does not shy away from discussing the music itself.

The concluding Stravinsky suite, for all of its sizzle, is woven of thin cloth, with a handful of motifs that reappear again and again. It succeeds on its rhythmic energy and on the musicians' virtuosity as the score's spotlight moves from section to section - and Saturday, it was a success indeed.

Also, the audience is assumed to know, or at least be comfortable with, some technical music jargon-y terms.

Shimada kept the polyrhythms brewing, creating a sense of ostinato as its unifying character. He drew on all of its sonic power, especially the nearly sub-sonic rumblings from the large bass section, the contrabassoon and that most Russian basso profundo of instruments, the bass clarinet.

This implies an audience who doesn't feel intimidated or insulted (as ignorant) by the mention of basso profundo, which is not always the case. The feeling is that the audience has some familiarity with classical music and its attendant trappings; there's no need to explain what a "chord" is.

Figure 3: A wizard.


Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News, 1/23/2010

Chamber Music International concert's lineup is first-class, with a few rough spots


In Friday's concert, the first of two, it was clear that skilled and savvy musicians were at work. But none of the performances, at Southern Methodist University's Caruth Auditorium, entirely escaped reservations.

The most satisfying, bringing all the players together, was of "the" Dvorák Piano Quintet, the Op. 81 A major. There was certainly plenty of spirit, and Lee and Lim Lewis lent particularly big-hearted and warm-toned solos.

But tempos in the scherzo and finale were pushed just over the line between exhilarating and frantic. Both movements should dance, not scramble.

In this excerpt, as throughout the review, Mr. Cantrell is keenly aware of subtle and specific musical details. It's clear that he both knows the literature and is sensitive to performance distinctions, as well as difficulties. In a major metropolitan area (Dallas) with a sizeable arts scene, this type of criticism is common as well as logical. Is it, therefore, suitable?

The tone and style are crisper and less casual than the New London review, which one might expect. Of course, this type of review is very suitable for Mr. Cantrell's ear and musical concerns, since it does deal with familiar repertoire (Mozart, Dvorák, and Prokofiev).

In turn, it assumes an audience that is looking for pretty fine distinctions, well beyond "they done played purty".

Figure 4: Dallas, with its brand-new opera house, is widely regarded as a rising cultural force.


Sherli Leonard, San Bernardino Press-Enterprise, 1/26/2010

San Bernardino Symphony opens with Michael Jackson songs

Awww, yeah.

Just kidding, I don't even want to talk about that.


The San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra continues to prove itself to be more than a fine professional orchestra. Under the leadership of conductor Carlo Ponti, the staff and volunteers, it has become a gem for the community.

Praise--superlative, almost hyperbolic praise--is the unifying feature of this review.

With almost no tonality, the piece told a story as compelling as any told by a tune, mystical, alluring, with many textures, and never boring, and obviously a real and nicely handled counting challenge for the musicians.

Wow! As compelling as any told by a tune?

Ralph Vaughan-Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" featured strings only. Ten years ago, this piece would have severely challenged the string section, but not now. This orchestra's performance illuminated Vaughan-Williams' wonderful magical modulations, which seem to open up like the sun bursting through dark clouds.

The writing is interesting and descriptive, even impressionistic. And never really critical.

After the third lumpy-but-necessary change of chairs and instruments, the orchestra came back to the stage and pianist Eldred Marshall, a graduate of Rialto's Eisenhower High School, delivered a capable performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9.

I guess it should be noted, in light of my meta-critique, that the staging changes were...lumpy. Oh, snap!

But: High school soloist, eh? How was that? Was it...awesome?

Matching the orchestra's perky, tidy approach, Marshall played with expression, sharp contrasts and attention to detail, all with a technique that developed more lightness as the piece progressed and reflected Mozart's playfulness.

That sounds pretty awesome, actually.

The achingly beautiful slow Andantino allowed for an exquisite interaction between piano and first violins, but the piano just would not sing for Marshall.

Ah, not totally awesome, then, but it wasn't his fault. The piano had a sore throat.

Marshall exploded into the Rondo/Presto movement, setting a pace even he couldn't keep up with. However, in spite of serious train wrecks on the descending runs in particular, he delivered a dazzling show of virtuosity.

I understand that it's a kid playing a piano concerto, and there's no reason to be super-critical (as it were) of him. But it was totally dazzling and awesome and stunning...with a few train wrecks.

The point isn't that it is or isn't a bad review, of course. The audience's expectations of the critic appear rather like those demanded by the complaining letter-writer from Salt Lake. There was a concert, it was good, here is some stuff that happened, and some praise. You should totally go see it!

Which is fine. But an audience expecting a nuanced performance critique (like the Cantrell) or a more thorough consideration of the program (Moore) would probably be disappointed.

Figure 5: Co-opting the stylistic hallmarks of the disenfranchised for mass consumption is a great way to render them powerless. Er, more powerless.
Gotta represent the 909.


Allan Kozinn, New York Times, 12/30/2009

Gilbert Braces Listeners for Webern

Okay, look: I'm not holding up the Times as the epitome of criticism, of music or otherwise. In fact, their integrity and reliability in general are probably more fragile, or at least precariously situated, than at any time in my memory.

[See: Cheerleading for the Run-Up to Unjustified War, The]

In fact, and in the interest of full disclosure, I've addressed my issues this review here.

However...well, let's go to the review.

The stage of Avery Fisher Hall was decked out with flowing blue curtains and floral arrangements on Tuesday evening in preparation for the New York Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve concert. But Alan Gilbert’s more pressing business was the orchestra’s final subscription program for 2009, an inventive juxtaposition of works by Webern, Mozart and Schumann.

Mr. Gilbert built this program with what appeared to have been the modest but telling goal of getting the Philharmonic audience to warm to Webern’s concise, focused 12-tone music, by way of the Symphony (Op. 21), which he conducted (and spoke about) in the second half. And he surrounded the symphony with very different works, all meant to undercut what some listeners still regard as its abstruse harshness.

In fairness, Mr. Kozinn has the luxury of reviewing the NY Phil, so although not all performances are stellar, it's a world-class orchestra. Also, and pretty clearly, the sort of influence and gravitas that comes with writing for the Times lends an automatic authority to the criticism.

Second, the audience (Times readers), although vast and global, is accustomed to levels of detail and thoughtfulness in its arts reporting not expected of smaller outlets. Contrariwise, the critic must live up to these expectations.

Though this is not always the case, Mr. Kozinn immediately sets a narrative in motion, following higher-order concepts and concerns (the inventive programming, the reaction of the audience, contextualizing modernism) than the three previous articles. And, by most measures, the writing is really good.

That said, this type of review is probably not appropriate for every newspaper. Especially in smaller markets where the level of musical background--and, importantly, tolerance for assuming any--is not as sophisticated as (and this is crucial) it seems to be in the New York Times's readership.

Figure 6: Not everything about New York is sophisticated and intelligent.
(Yes, damn it, I hate the Yankees. Bite me.)

I've scratched the surface, here, of sort of backwards-engineering audiences based upon the reviews I chose more-or-less ad hoc from recent newspapers across the country. I don't think it takes a double-blind study to elucidate my examples.

Instead, I wanted to address how the often- and recently-discussed Role of the Critic is contingent to a large extent on for whom any particular critic is writing. That Role is not just one role, however much I'd like all of the reviews I read to be addressed to me.

Your comments are appreciated.

(I promise more snark and swearing next post.)


AnthonyS said...

I like this conversation and emphasis in the latest blog posts a lot-- I think it is really useful.

Weird point of information: w/r/t the San Bernardino Symphony... the soloist, Eldred Marshall, is not a high school student-- he is an alum of Rialto High (the article didn't make that abundantly clear). He is a fine young pianist that went to UCSD (I think). One of my students wrote a piano piece for him, which he has performed several times in the SD and LA areas. He is a really nice young man and has a keen interest in new music. Anyway, interesting coincidence that you picked up that review.

Anonymous said...

Interesting book review for the D-Team:

"Making Sense of Sound"

Penrose reviews A Language of Its Own by Ruth Katz.

Gustav said...

Wonderful elaboration on this subject, SA. The compare and contrast is quite illustrative, and I think belies the difficulty that many critics face with such a varied and sometimes demanding audience.

I think now the question stands is which models are the most appropriate? Are these all equally valid approaches, or are there better/worse approaches.

This is really a question of the status quo in classical music. Are we satisfied with the level of knowledge, attendance and accessibility of classical music concerts. If some communities are given nothing but mozart piano concertos and reviews that praise rather than critique, is this any acceptable state of affairs?

And conversely, should papers like the Times be satisfied writing purely for those already in the know, given the fact that that audience is becoming in general rather old and not being replaced by new, younger breed of classical music lover?

Because any art form that isn't forced to acknowledge its shortcomings, and reinvent itself for the needs of the ever-changing audience will likely make itself obsolete. And with music criticism, that would be major blow to the cause of advocating and expanding the audiences of classical music.

Sator Arepo said...

Of course, as I said, I'd like all criticism to assume that I have graduate-level knowledge of music, and not to have to (say, as in your Pittsburgh Post-Gazette post a few weeks ago) let me know that: hey! sometimes composers write for chamber ensembles that aren't string quartets!

But clearly that's unreasonable, and unhelpful to non-specialists. It's interesting, though, to note what level of knowledge and second-order-type issues can be safely assumed without alienating or pissing off the audience (by making them feel ignorant).

So my claim, actually, isn't true (that I'd like all criticism addressed to me) because I care more about the proliferation of and dialogue about music more than I care about wading through some pedantic information to which I'm already privy.

On the other hand, all-too often it seems like the local news, which assumes that the audience just now sprang into being: "It's raining, so you should drive carefully!" Really? Wow. I. Did. Not. Know. That.

Unknown said...

You can tell right away when a critic knows what they are talking about. It can be apparent when their arguments extend into weird things about the venue set up etc. I try to pay no attention to those critics.

James | http://www.OasisOrtho.com