Sunday, April 8, 2012

Critical Judgment!

Now here is something I wish I had written:
After many discussions in the past year about what makes a good music critic, change is afoot. A consortium of directors drawn from the ranks of arts editors, conservatoire heads and senior figures from the highest echelons of the musical profession is preparing a new scheme whereby every music critic is to be vetted for his or her abilities - as a musician. The panel will be headed by the principal conductor of the UK's top orchestra: Valery Gergiev (right), who has made time in his busy schedule to undertake this vital task. Each critic will be required to perform three contrasting pieces of music in front of Maestro Gergiev and his colleagues.
 Heh. Read the whole thing here and don't fail to notice the date...

Musicians, i.e. performers and, I suppose, composers, are always going onstage to be judged. So it is enormously amusing to them to imagine their tormentors, i.e. critics, being put to the test as well. Frankly, as a guy who wears three or four hats himself, this doesn't sound too crazy. I would be very interested to hear what critics sound like when they try to play music. Or are there music critics who do not, in fact, play any instrument at all? That would be interesting too! But I imagine most critics play a bit. As do composers, of course. If we set aside the expectation of virtuosity, which is a full-time job to maintain, then I think it would be lovely to hear what sort of musicians writers on music might be. After all, we often hear how verbally articulate performers and composers are when they are interviewed in the media. Some of them even write things occasionally.

On far too many occasions I have been in the position of being a professional judge of music students at varying levels. Music festivals, competitions, graduating recitals and year-end exams in performance all involve students performing and teachers judging. This is actually a very healthy thing as long as we all understand the roles and what is supposed to be going on. Judging a performance is exactly like teaching a music lesson because a part of the latter is exactly the former. After years of going to play for your teacher and hearing his or her comments, how much more worrisome could it be to play a concert and have a music critic comment? True, the comments are going to be very public, but on the other hand also likely to be far less detailed and penetrating.

Let me give you an example. When I was an undergraduate in performance in guitar my girlfriend was an undergraduate in performance in harpsichord. One of the judges on her graduate recital (there were three, two from within the department and one from outside) was a Dominican monk whose vocation was playing the harpsichord. Afterwards we had a fascinating conversation with him. His knowledge of the repertoire was prodigious. I remember him saying things like "in measure 14 of the allemande to the Ordre by Couperin, perhaps you should do more inegale--oh yes, and in the final cadence, it would be very nice to fill in the third." And on and on. He went over much of the program with my girlfriend in that kind of detail. Oh, and he was citing those measure numbers from memory! Now you might think this was a freak occurrence, but no. Years later I had the great privilege of working with one of the great masters of the violin, Paul Kling (whom I blogged about here). We did a number of concerts together and every rehearsal was a treat. After we played each movement he might comment "what happened in measure 53?" What happened was that I had missed a note or something. I have never had this kind of incredible memory and I can see how it is part of being a superb musician. On the other hand, I have different skills such as the ability to create music--I think it is called composition!

We seem to have a  bit of a pathological fear of judgment these days. But I have never minded it that much. Once I got used to thinking of myself as a musical professional, I figured it just came with the territory. Good critical comment I receive willingly, even happily. And I can recognize when the comments veer into the non-useful. I spent a summer studying with a very fine teacher once, but one who was a tad moody. He also hated Argentinian music. Not knowing this I went up to play a suite by a young Argentinian composer one morning (this was in a master-class with perhaps twenty students). Afterwards the maestro just started making bad jokes about Argentinians. Recognizing this was not useful, I just sat there waiting for him to get it out of his system. Finally he stopped, looked at me and said, "you're not listening to this, are you?" I just replied, "nope." After that, we were friends... Here is one of the pieces I played in a performance by Grant Hooper:

Nice piece, but I think he messes up the rhythms in the middle section.   ;-)

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