First Words: A Panel Discussion About Reviewing Premieres

First Words: A Panel Discussion About Reviewing Premieres

FRANK J. OTERI: This panel was put together with the help of Don Rosenberg, the new president of our Music Critics Association, to really reflect the diversity of sides to the issue of covering premieres. I think it’s going to be a very interesting discussion, but I don’t want people walking away thinking there’s a right or wrong answer here. I hope that everybody walks away asking themselves more questions than when they came in, because that’s the point of this discussion and we’ve put together quite an illustrious group of people: John Kennedy, a composer and a conductor based here in Santa Fe who also writes very eloquently about music and I should say, in an effort of full disclosure here, he was recently elected president of the board of directors at the American Music Center, the organization that publishes NewMusicBox…

JOHN KENNEDY: Does that make me your boss?

FRANK J. OTERI: Hmmm, well, you’re actually on deadline for me right now [laughs].

JOHN KENNEDY: Yes, I am [laughs].

FRANK J. OTERI: So it’s a very interesting situation. To his right, Barbara Jepson, who writes for the Wall Street Journal and has written for The New York Times, among other publications, is a freelance classical music journalist based in New York who covers a lot of premieres of new pieces. To her right, David Stock, another composer and conductor based in Pittsburgh who has done a great deal of work for a variety of composers for a very long time.

DAVID STOCK: A really long time!

FRANK J. OTERI: Since probably before I was born, I think. And to his immediate right we have the illustrious William Littler who is also on the board of directors of the Music Critics Association. He is also the classical music journalist for the Toronto Star in Canada and also covers a lot of premieres of new music, but from the perspective of somebody who is not a freelancer, who is a daily critic, which is another perspective entirely. I want to open this discussion with a couple of quotes that I am not going to identify and then I am going let everybody speak to issues and I have a bunch of questions, but I’d like to try to keep it open form…but these are the quotes I want to read because I came across them and I thought they were very apropos to this discussion:

“Must then always new pieces be played? Only worthless compositions should not be heard again and the preference of the concert giver for such works is the only reason for the ill-mannered craving for the new. An artwork is new as long as it offers nourishment to our mind and heart. Many will prove unhearing to the old.”

And the other quote:

“So shrill and complicated that only those who worship the failings and merits of this composer with equal fire–which at times borders on the ridiculous–could find pleasure in it.”

That was a review from the world premiere of Beethoven‘s Eroica in the Berlin Musikalische Zeitung. And the first quote was from Adolf Marx, “Some Words about Concert Life, Especially in Large Cities,” (Berlin 1824). And actually, one last one:

“…the clarinets–if I’m not mistaken!–miscount and enter at the same time.”

That was from a review of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung of 1809. I bring that third quote in because I love the humility of it “…the clarinets–if I’m not mistaken.” Now, bear in mind, this is a world premiere and I think that that raises the quintessential question of this discussion–what constitutes the approach one should have as somebody writing about a world premiere, a piece they’ve never heard? And I would like to first take it from the perspective of the two critics who are at the table and then open it up to the two people who frequently get “criticized.”

BARBARA JEPSON: I think what I am going to say is applicable even if it’s not a premiere, but it’s a relatively recent work that hasn’t been performed in New York City… I do whatever it takes to complete the assignment in the time I have available to me. But I think it’s the way I approach it that makes it work rather then any specific tools I use, like scores or rehearsals or recordings. And my primary objective in covering a piece I haven’t heard is to enter the composer’s world, no matter what that world is stylistically. I just want to try to immerse myself in this person’s music. And to try to understand it from the inside out, and that’s hard, and I don’t succeed in doing that, but I get a certain way into a journey and then that is the basis upon which I write. Now, in terms of how I actually do that, more specifically, I like to get a score ahead of time and I like to do something that might sound weird–I like to look at the score just as an artifact. I covered an exhibition of scores a number of years ago at The Drawing Center: there were wonderful things by Earle Brown. They were just presenting scores as works of visual art and it kind of changed the way I look at a score. And so I just first like to look at it visually and see what impressions come to me. And then I start to look at it in the way I’m sure all of you look at it, in terms of: what is the harmonic language; and is there an instrument that acts as a catalyst in the piece, introducing new material or acting in opposition to one of the other instruments; whatever… I look more at the details. In terms of how much more I do than that, that’s where the time factor comes in. I should talk a little bit about how the stories I do for the Journal might be different from what someone on staff at a daily newspaper does. If it’s a piece where I’m writing on a single composer, then I really do try to get to the rehearsal, or if there is a performance tape; if, for example, it’s a New York premiere and I can get a performance tape from the world premiere, I do that. I have even listened to MIDI realizations even though they’re awful. But they do give you some sense of the rhythm. I like to sit at the piano actually and play through little snippets of parts in the score. That’s what I do if it’s a piece by a single composer. If I’m covering a new music festival–and in thinking about this panel, I think that my record was covering about 25 to 30 new pieces in 8 concerts in 1200 words. [laughter] And I assure you that I did not go to any rehearsals and I didn’t have time to do all the things I just talked about, but I did look at those concerts and some of the works were by composers who are very familiar to me. And I knew their idiom. I know their work. Others were totally new to me, so I spent more of my time with the ones who were unfamiliar and that included a program on turntables. I had never heard of the X-ecutioners nor had I heard their music and I realized that this was a whole area of this festival that I really did not feel equipped to evaluate, so I called up someone on the Lincoln Center staff who’s young and hip and goes to dance clubs, and I said that I needed some more information and she sent me a video on this whole phenomenon of the turntablists and it was extremely helpful. Then I went out on the Web and I bought some recordings and I wound up actually loving that program and I thought I was going to hate it. But those are some of the things I do. Let’s see if I’ve missed anything…Oh, well, again if it’s–sometimes I’ve written about a work that’s been written for a specific performer. In that case, I like to telephone the performer and ask them, you know, “What are the technical challenges of this piece? How does it treat your instrument, in your opinion? How does it compare to other pieces that you’ve played?” All those things…and that all goes back to this objective of trying to understand what the composer has done.

WILLIAM LITTLER: I think I would have to subscribe to everything that Barbara has said. Conductors are expected to behave like gods; critics are virtually expected to be gods. We always appear as the official record for history and the unfortunate thing is, we’re offering the first word and it is assumed to be the last word. I don’t think enough attention is given to the fact that what we’re offering is preliminary responses to almost any new work of art and we can’t be expected to buy into definitive judgments. On the other hand, we’re expected to be forthright, frank, and honest in our observations and the result is that the record of history tends to be the record of initial impressions, which is rather unfortunate. Nicolas Slonimsky‘s Lexicon of Musical Invective is just full of those made by composers as often as non-composers with the same record of accuracy, which is not very good. So what can we do to confront the situation? I was once in an argument with Harold Schonberg on a panel, in which he accused me of splitting hairs over what I believe is a distinction between reviewing and criticism. And anyone can review by going to an event and having a response to it, but the critical act from my point of view involves fitting the particular into a larger picture. Knowing, as Barbara said, more of the composer’s music in which to make sense out of the specific piece you are reviewing, for example. All this takes time, it takes effort and it’s an almost an impossible task to perform by the daily reviewer because we have so much music to confront and we don’t have the opportunity to know it as well as we would like to. So it’s a difficult task of being called upon to offer a judgment when we really are only witnesses, at this stage, to the art rather than judicial judges of its merit. Nonetheless we’re called critics. If we go back to the old Greek, the word really means an active understanding, but we’ve come to make it an act of evaluation. I think that the problem with our credibility is we are making that act, we are performing it, before we really have sufficient information to make the judgment. But if we’re on a daily newspaper, we don’t have more time, alas. We always, if we can, get a hold of scores. And some of us go to rehearsals, some of us prefer not to. Just apropos to that issue–which I think is an important one–some critics feel, and I think fairly, that when you go to a rehearsal you are watching an attempt to solve problems and your consciousness of those problems might affect the way you actually listen to the first performance. Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic for The New York Times, said he wanted to see artists’ solutions. He did not want to see their attempts to confront problems. So there…but we feel differently about that and we feel differently about how much information we need in order to make our judgment. Some of us feel we have to be part of the milieu. Clement Greenberg was an authoritative interpreter of the art scene, not simply because he was a brilliant man but because he knew the artists and he knew their thinking because he knew something about them. The complete evidence of one piece, one performance, doesn’t tell you the full story of what went into that composition and exposure to the artist in many ways, through his scores, through his thinking, through knowing, through sleeping with him or her–all these are sources of information.


BARBARA JEPSON: Are you advocating that?

WILLIAM LITTLER: That we all have to evaluate on an individual basis as to what’s useful to us.

FRANK J. OTERI: John, can you follow that? [laughs]

DAVID STOCK: I’m glad I’m not next!

JOHN KENNEDY: You’d like our perspective on preparing a premiere?

FRANK J. OTERI: I’d like your reaction to what you’d want a critic to prepare for in a premiere and then we’ll open it up because I’ve got a bunch of questions that will emerge from what everyone says.

JOHN KENNEDY: Well, the way Barbara described preparing for a premiere is beautiful and one would hope that that kind of care is exhibited by everyone involved in the premiere as well, you know, because ideally when I prepare a work for a premiere I love to get into the music as deeply as possible and, of course, we don’t always have the time to find all the mistakes in a brand new score and that sort of thing. But it’s interesting, I’ve been sometimes interviewed by journalists in advance of a premiere or a new piece and I’ll find that someone has done their homework and knows aspects of a composer that I haven’t had time to learn or might point out resources that have been very valuable to me because I am so busy learning the notes and figuring out how to get the piece executed as well as possible. But something that’s interesting to me in the post-concert review situation is it seems that there’s a habit in musical criticism of when we’re hearing music that is known to us, we really focus on the quality of the performance and, you know, how the performers realized the work and the bulk of the review is so often about that. And when you see a review for a premiere, the focus is almost exclusively on the music, as it should be, but so rarely then is the quality of the performance discussed, in part because we’ve never had an opportunity to hear it and compare it to another performance. But it’s sometimes frustrating to performers of new music because they’re not getting the credit that they deserve; sometimes they’re not even mentioned in the article, you know. A cellist who’s learned a fantastic piece, devoted hours to, in fact much more time than learning a piece of standard repertoire. And so, I think that’s a balance that in an ideal review would start to come forth: that more attention would be paid to the nature of the performance and even if aspects of the accuracy are not known, that there’s some sense from the energy and the vitality of it and the sense of assurance that’s present on stage.

DAVID STOCK: I just have to start off what I’m going to say by following up briefly on what John said. Until three years ago I conducted a professional new music ensemble–the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble–and over the course of the 23 years that I did this, I conducted, I don’t know, several hundred premieres, a lot of second, third, whatever performances, hundreds of new works and in all that–now I’m speaking from the performers’ perspective rather than the composer’s, which I’ll switch to in a moment–and in all those years there was only one time that anybody actually mentioned the performances! You know, Don Rosenberg criticized my tempo in Schoenberg. That’s old music but I was so happy that somebody even noticed. [laughter] Anyway, I will now put my composer hat back on and put away the performer hat. The most important thing for us composers, what we really want from you and your journalistic colleagues is very simple, it’s to be taken very seriously. Look, we all know that the general public that goes to symphonic concerts or chamber music concerts, they want to read about how the blah blah quartet or the blah blah conductor did whatever. But, you know, they’re not going to be able to do all that much to Beethoven. They’re not even going to be able to do that much to Mahler or Rachmaninoff. They’ll play it faster. They’ll play it slower. They might get a little bit louder here. They might get a little bit softer there, but the music is there, the essence of the music is there. Sure, we all know there are terrible performances, but it isn’t really such a big deal how the performance went if you really think about it–and we’re talking about the long term, O.K.? Does anybody really care what X conductor really did in 1946 on such and such a piece, when you have to really delve back into the archives to even know that conductor X conducted such a piece. But, if an important work was premiered in 1946, that really means something because the works have a historical legacy. Even the ones that don’t stick around, they have resonance. So, just by taking it seriously, by putting it in the proper perspective we composers, except those who do electronic music of course, are totally dependent upon performers. We love performers. I’m not lowering the role of the performer. I’m just, I guess, advocating balance between “Yes, the Beethoven Fifth went pretty well,” and “Yes, this new piece has such and such qualities,” or “It stinks,” or whatever. The second thing is that unfortunately, which makes me very sad, most of what you and your colleagues say about composers makes almost no difference. It’s terrible! I’m sorry. Probably some of you sense this. I’ve never heard of a composer whose career was made or broken by a couple of good reviews or lousy reviews. I could quote you a few of my lousiest reviews, but I won’t. We’ll save that for later. It makes no difference! That’s the bad news. You see, now understand, it makes it very hard for you to take it very seriously. With performers it’s another story, you know, with young performers especially. A couple of good reviews in the right places and BAM! [claps hands], they’re off to the races. And you know sometimes it doesn’t actually do them any good, because sometimes their careers move much faster than they should just ’cause somebody said something nice about them in some important place. This doesn’t happen with composers. It just doesn’t. In the short run, I can’t think of anyone whose composer career went up or down because of it. It’s very sad. I hope that my saying that doesn’t discourage you from taking it seriously. I know that it seems like my second point contradicts my first point.

WILLIAM LITTLER: Yeah, it did.

DAVID STOCK: It did, but, yet again it has to do with balance, you know.

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