Friday, June 25, 2010

Why I can't be a music critic

Excellent review by Matthew Guerrieri of the Charles Ives Trio, an underappreciated work, IMHO. Not fully mature Ives, but a great transitional piece, full of promise for the music to come. I don't think I could ever do what Matt does, or Steve Smith of the Times, or the great Andrew Porter, or any of the other big-time music critics. I can't generally tell a good performance from a bad one unless there are glaring mistakes. Everything goes by much too fast for me. My ear isn't sensitive enough to pick apart a live performance while it's happening, and I could never describe what I'm hearing with a phrase like "steering the debate toward sonorous verities." Sonorous verities? How do they come up with this stuff?

Anyway, I wish I had been there. I saw the America's Dream chamber group perform the work at Montgomery County (Pa.) Community College last April, with similarly impressive results, though we didn't have the ocean and the sky and the blue-gray wash.

Ives often gets ripped for his use of quotation, as though it somehow calls his originality into question. (The composer of Hanover Square North takes a backseat to no one in terms of originality.) I remember years ago a reviewer whose name I forget snarkily described the Trio as the "name-that-tune Trio." It was an ignorant thing to say, since the quotation in this work is concentrated almost entirely in the second movement, which may be thought of as a quodlibet — a form so respectable it has a name - and is mighty funny. The first movement uses no quotation at all, and there is none in the third until Toplady (aka Rock of Ages) shows up in the last minute or so.

Matthew has also posted an classic exchange with Elliott Carter on his blog, Soho the Dog. The bit about Reagan is priceless.

Speaking of ignorance, I also remember back in the '80s a reviewer for the Washington Post writing that Carter's Cello Sonata still sounds, after 40 years or so, like a sterile exercise in serialism, which struck me as weird, since the piece is not at all serial, and the second movement is the last thing he ever wrote with a key signature. It hardly sounds sterile to my ear, either, but that's a matter of taste.

Then there was the reviewer in the Philadelphia Inquirer who wrote about the time Robert Mann got lost during a performance Elliott Carter's Fourth String Quartet. He said something to the effect that restarting such a complex piece the middle raised questions fundamental to the continuity and perception of the music. Fair enough, I suppose, though it would have been helpful if he had articulated just what those questions were. More to the point, he seemed wholly unaware that the players had started the quartet over from the beginning.

Maybe I could be a reviewer, after all. I couldn't do worse than some people.

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