Here's a letter, one of many. Its writer – whom I'll identify only by noting that we have the same initials – has been rendered morose by my words that suggest a negative reaction to music closer to his heart than to mine.
“There is no composition of any era . . . that deserves the words 'trash' or 'abomination,'” the writer claims. Ah, if only it were true; the post of music critic could then be abolished, and we professional listeners could spend our days eating lotus and wallowing in the trashy abominations of the Scharwenka Fourth Piano Concerto and the Rach 3 – whose self-appointed protector Mr. R. has become. He invokes the name of Eduard Hanslick, the well-known scourge of Wagner and Tchaikovsky, the defending angel of Brahms and Verdi, the role model of any God-fearing music critic who dreams of getting turned into a big operatic role, as Wagner transformed Hanslick into Die Meistersinger's Beckmesser. “Hanslick tried to dispose of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto . . . as 'odiously Russian,'” my correspondent goes on, “but aside from academics, who remembers Hanslick?” Gotcha that time, Mr. R.; everybody remembers Hanslick, who also wrote of Tchaikovsky's concerto, “It stinks in the ear.”
“Music is the most abstract of the arts,” proclaims Mr. R.; no problem there. “So writing about it must be painful,” he continues, on shakier ground. Sure, there are pains of the standard variety: long hours, meager pay, 405 freeway to Costa Mesa in a rush-hour cloudburst, or letters like this one. Mr. R. has only to check out his Freud to realize how close pleasure and pain can sometimes be. (Sometimes, I said.) I have the feeling that after Hanslick relieved himself on the matter of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, he tumbled into bed purged, proud and happy.
It's the very abstractness of music that warms the backsides of letter writers. Whether you listen for pleasure or pain, or for both plus a paycheck, music cuts you adrift to think and react for yourself. It comes with a few user's manuals, of course; Aaron Copland's What To Listen For in Music, first published in 1939, is (despite its grammatically clumsy title) an infallible guide for directing your ears toward the music itself, its chain of events, and the composer's skill in inserting a few surprising and thrilling links into that chain. What it tells you eventually, however, cannot be more than “This is the music, this is what happens in it, and this is how I react”: not a brainwasher, in other words, but a role model.
For Mr. R. – and his co-complainers by the hundreds – being cut loose to form your own musical opinions is frightening; finding opinions differing from your own in the exalted state of printed permanence is all the more terrifying. At the supermarket you find packages labeled with everything you need – calories, carbs, protein – to identify the quality of the product. If each of those packages also bore a label with dissenting facts and numbers, you might become confused and start writing hostile letters. That phenomenon, however, doesn't exist in supermarkets; it does in concert halls and record stores.
With deference to Aaron Copland – the hem of whose toga I am unworthy to touch – I gladly admit that role modeling is the most important aspect of setting down opinions about the experience of music, even more so (despite colleagues' howls of protest) than in writing about film and theater. “This is what I heard, where and by whom,” the rubrics of journalism ordain at the start. “This is what the music was like” – continuing our trek toward the heart of the matter – “what the performance was like. How does it match up with my personal vision of the music (in the case of a familiar work), and (in the case of a new work, and quoting the eternally crucial line of the worldly-wise composer/critic/curmudgeon Virgil Thomson) “is it merely a piece of clockwork or does it actually tell time?” And finally, “This is what I heard, this is what I thought about it, and these are the reasons I arrived at this opinion and the processes that got me there. Now go do it for yourself.”
Mr. R. does get into deep water at times. He has nursed a canker since last summer, when I objected to incongruous cadenzas inserted into Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. “A cadenza,” he reveals from his own podium, “is a tribute to the work performed,” and an opinion to the contrary is “a stupid insult to the performer . . .” Fine and dandy, provided the improv sounds as if it belongs to the piece itself, as last summer's pianist's did not. About the recent performance of John Williams' Violin Concerto, he is miffed that I should be miffed that Williams hasn't yet conquered the classical field as well as other fields. “That's called creative growth, Mr. Rich,” he glowers; so would it be if I took up bricklaying along with my modest talent as an answerer of letters. I know better, and tried to express the wistful wish that John Williams knew better as well.
Writers of letters to music critics have their own repertory of cliches. “I wonder if you and I heard the same concert . . .” is one of the most familiar. “You need a hearing aid, and I enclose a catalog” is another. Mr. R. falls back on one of the hoariest, the fact that such-and-such
a performance drew a standing ovation and, therefore, how dare I, etc. “Mr. Rich probably would react by thinking, 'So what?'” True enough. It would take only a few concerts to convince Mr. R. of the particularities of the Los Angeles standing ovation, which you can get just by showing up onstage in matching socks, and which has become the Music Center equivalent of the seventh-inning stretch.
The critic has the responsibility to develop a writing style – throbbing with passion, including such value-judgment words as “trash” and “abomination” – horny enough to attract potential converts. “Hey,” I like to think of myself as saying, “there's something going on out there, and I'm excited about it, and here's why, and maybe you should check it out, too.” The worst that can happen to a musical community is to be drained of curiosity about anything beyond the Top 50 Masterworks. Los Angeles at the moment is well-served symphonically, less well operatically, and terrifically within the thorny stalks of new music. I'm enough of an egotist to believe that the critical press – thanks to the improvements at the L.A. Times above all – has something to do with this.
“There will be 'wrong' critics only as long as there are lazy listeners,” wrote Virgil Thomson. “The critic cannot stop at merely handing out grades . . . but also to nag, wheedle, cajole and – if the occasion calls for it – pontificate. It is not the 'yes' or 'no' of a judgment that is valuable to other people. What other people profit from following is the activity itself, the spectacle of a mind at work . . . A musical judgment is of value to others less for conclusions reached than for the methods they have been, not even arrived at, but elaborated, defended and expressed.”
Fifty-plus years old, Thomson's brave new words say it all.
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