Questions on Criticism

I am not much of a concertgoer, 40 years of my life were spent on stage involved in the performance of symphonic music and although I love much of the orchestra repertoire deeply, it's very difficult and sometimes painful for me to enter a hall, take a seat and listen to a concert. Almost everything being performed I've probably played hundreds of times and with every note I hear I have simtainious memories ranging from the greatest heights of accomplishment to the deepest shame; music is powerful!

With my newfound enjoyment of writing and my history and experience with music it seems only natural that my thoughts entertain the possibility of music criticism. But the question is will I be able to bypass this vast complex of memories and emotions and clearly and rationally write a critique?

In the past two months I found myself attending more concerts than I have over the last eighteen years combined; one was in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Maris Jansons:

Debussy …. Image
Sibelius …. Symphony No 2

And the other two were in Tokyo with the Bavarian Opera Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta.

Strauss …. Don Juan, Til Eulenspiegel and Ein Heldenleben
Mahler …. Symphony No 3

The facts: In 1962-1964 I was a member of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and still have powerful memories from that period.

Zubin Mehta, a personal favorite of mine, was the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for my first 16 years in that orchestra and a frequent conductor there through the following years, plus; I have performed the repertoire of these two concerts with him literally hundreds of times.

Maris Jansons, was a conductor that I simply didn't like twenty years ago when he was a guest conductor in Los Angeles.

All these are all part of a complex of many things and I fear may be an influence if I were to try and write critiques on these concerts. But as an exercise in clear thinking I decided to see if I could do a rational and unbiased critique.

Just walking into the Concertgebouw was emotional for me; I smelled the same smells that I did in 1962, heard the same acoustics, felt the same excitement and remembered all the personal experiences and music making I had in that building. Could I ignore that or should I ignore that to make a valid critique?

Could I ignore the fact that I once had a very unfavorable opinion of Maris Jansons?

And in Tokyo with Zubin Mehta conducting the Bavarian Opera Orchestra: Could I ignore my affection and admiration for him and accurately write on those concerts?

And should I keep the two orchestras separate or succumb to the temptation to make comparisons?

It seems the answers to all the questions are a clear; the experience to make comparisons may be one of the strategic factures that could give my critiques creditability. The only point left to deal with is to be sure that in the critiques never are used vindictively.

Both of these orchestras complained of not having enough rehearsal time and having heard the concerts it seemed clear that was the case. Both orchestras showed serious ensemble problems, the Concertgebouw, for example, had balance problems within the sections and between the sections. There were, however, some stunning exceptions; the trombones and tuba were as together, balanced and simply as beautiful in every way as I have ever heard and the woodwinds were the same plus the added beauty of the elegant solo playing; these solo woodwind players were not only crafty and technically able players, they were creative individuals who enhanced the orchestra with their unique and expressive personalities.

Maris Jansons on the other hand was not beautiful, was not charismatic but one has to admit that other that the obvious lack of rehearsal time and balance problems it was a great concert.

Zubin Mehta by contrast was a beautiful conductor to watch and as usual he radiated intense charisma but the orchestra did not. The balance in the brass was very poor; there was not one entrance in the trombones and tuba that were together and the balance was never adjusted. Particularly problematic was both the balance and blend in the horns. It was very noticeable that the low horns produced a very edgy, thin and unstable sound compared to the high horns, which sounded quite good. Also noticeable was that the strings, especially high strings, were frequently not together; this was particularly evident in pizzicato passages. I would watch Mehta during these problematic passages and found it very difficult, with such clear and easily readable baton technique, to understand how these pizzicatti could possibly be so messy.

Now we must ask the question; whose fault is it when the orchestra is not together and balance not adjusted?

The blame could go two ways, first the high-speed music business that often forces orchestras to play too much music with too little rehearsal. I have to ask this: Isn't excellence important any more? Is it absolutely fiscally necessary that orchestras be put into a position in order to produce more concerts and play more repertoire with less rehearsal? If so that's sad and may be in some way a part of the equation that puts the future of orchestras into question.

Of course, the blame could also go to the performers; it could be that chronic omni present problem of complacency on the parts of the orchestra members or the conductors. Quite simply, it's hard to keep the same attention to detail year after year without showing any tendencies toward carelessness.

I rather enjoyed those concerts this summer and I may change my proclivity to avoid concerts in the future. I've never respected critics much, whether the critiques they wrote were good or bad, they always fell under the category of “it's just another critic”. But still, why not give criticism a try, I have nothing to loose and it could be interesting and even fun. It's sort of like conducting; there are so many conductors and critics whose competence is questionable that the temptation to venture in to those worlds is compelling.

Perhaps it would be very interesting if a symphony orchestra would have forums like TubaNews and concertgoers could express their opinions of the concerts. I wonder if any orchestra has the courage to try that.

Tokyo, November 2005

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