Saturday, September 6, 2014

Wars Between the Critics

I just noticed a bit of a spat between music critics in Dallas. Here is the link. The whole tempest in a teapot seems to have been provoked by this very brief post:
Can we give the much overworked word “maestro” a rest?
It probably shouldn’t be applied to any musician under age 50, and then only to the most distinguished ones. Calling virtually anyone with a baton in hand a “maestro” cheapens the honorific pretty much as automatic standing ovations have rendered that formerly rare accolade meaningless.
Huh? There is some context, of course. The critic, Catherine Womack at D Magazine, links this to the immediately preceding announcement of the appointment of Nicole Paiement to the position of Principal Guest Conductor at the Dallas Opera. Here is how one press release read:
The Dallas Opera is delighted to announce Maestra Nicole Paiement to assume the role of ‘Principal Guest Conductor’ effective immediately.
Ms. Womack asserts that it was the use of the word "maestra" in that press release that prompted the subsequent blogpost which she accuses of being "insulting and condescending." That's a nice trick, accuse anyone you disagree with of just being a nasty person. Read the whole essay. It seems to me an absurd over-reaction. But there is a lot of stuff in the essay that reveals the mindset of the writer. Let's have a look, shall we? Here is one interesting paragraph:
It’s no secret that classical music suffers from a misperception as elitist and inaccessible. This is due in part to a stiff, inflexible attitude towards concert etiquette that dominated the genre in the 20th century. By now it has been well documented that this uptight approach wasn’t the norm when much of classical music was originally composed, and there seems to be a growing consensus that, moving forward, we could stand to lighten up a bit when it comes to who claps when or who wears what.
What's wrong with that? Just about every word of it is either an exaggeration, an oversimplification, a grammatical error or a cliché. Starting with the tired phrase "it's no secret that..." we go from one misapprehension to another. Also, the sentence implies that the music is suffering from a misperception, when the writer means it is the audience. A LOT of classical music IS elitist and inaccessible to most people. I found that out when I played the Grosse Fuge for some friends when I was in my early 20s. I think they still bear the scars. The "stiff, inflexible attitude towards concert etiquette" developed because public concerts were more and more being given in fairly large halls and if everyone were chatting, then the music couldn't be heard. The fundamental reason was a growing respect for the music, something that is draining away in recent decades. Yes, it was the case that 18th century performances were boisterous, but the development of a concert etiquette was not just a case of being "uptight", it reflected the seriousness with which music concerts were regarded. If Ms. Womack is arguing that we should be delighted that people clap, or chat, or take phone calls, or come and go any time they like during concerts, then I beg to differ. The clichés and misapprehensions continue in the next paragraph:
Another factor that contributes to classical music’s image problem is a lack of diversity in concert halls. Compared to the visual and theatrical arts, classical music has been slow to evolve in terms of both gender and ethnic diversity. Between stuffy rules about how to act at concerts and a persistently older, sparingly diverse, male-dominated presence on stage and in print—the vast majority of classical critics at major newspapers in the U.S. are men, too—it’s no wonder that younger audiences often feel intimidated by classical music.
I think that the main source of classical music's "image" problem is actually writers like Ms. Womack, who does her level best to inject every shibboleth of our time into the discussion. If I hear the word "diversity" trotted out one more time as a simple unalloyed virtue, I will start screaming. If classical music has dragged its heels in putting in gender and ethnic quotas, that is probably because we have higher ideals, like musical quality. Ms. Womack ends her essay with this:
In order for classical music to thrive in our city in the future, we need the conversation surrounding it to evolve past a dogged adherence to out-dated, old-world views. There has to be a way to maintain high standards for musical excellence without infusing criticism with undue elitism. Let’s leave 20th-century ideals about classical music terminology and etiquette where they belong: in the past.
This is the siren call of mindless progressivism, the result of the "long march" of cultural Marxism through all of our institutions. The way to maintain high standards of musical excellence is precisely through the use of informed criticism. Informed criticism is by definition elitist because it can only be done by those with a deep and thorough musical education, profound knowledge of the repertoire, superb taste and complete blindness towards everything connected with concerns about gender and ethnic diversity. We can only imagine how debased musical quality would be in the Brave New World imagined by Ms. Womack. Once again, classical music needs to be rescued from its so-called supporters.

Let's end by listening to some unashamedly elitist music composed by a Dead White Male. The organist is Herbert Tachezi.


Susan Pagenkopf said...

Thank you for this, and especially for your last comment - I needed a good laugh today, and personally, I love those dead white men passionately.

I absolutely agree that diversity for diversity's sake in the classical music arena would be damaging to keeping the standards high. Perhaps a way to keep up the numbers and fit in with current culture would be to start a 'Maury' series of classical concerts where we start bringing in damaged people with horrible life stories to perform, in order to entertain the modern audience. It's apparently not about the music, after all.

Regarding Ms. Womack's reference to gender prejudice in the concert hall, I am wondering where she is getting her stats. I have not been to a single symphonic performance in Canada where the women did not almost outnumber the men in the orchestra. And I can name countless female soloists who have thriving careers throughout the world.

Altogether, a very entertaining blog, and I appreciate your perception and scrutiny.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the kind comment!!

I think that if you follow the links in Ms. Womack's essay you will find that they go to similar sorts of essays--heavy on the assertions, but light on the evidence. I know that the Guardian, the Globe and Mail and NPR have all had recent pieces bemoaning that we don't have enough women composers and conductors. Actually, I suspect that the one remaining niche where women are underrepresented is as conductors because, as you say, there are equal or better numbers of women in most orchestras and there are certainly a lot of women composers and soloists on the scene. I think that almost half of the composers in graduate school when I was there were women.