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In Praise of the Amateur (Part Two)

[This is a continuation of yesterday's post, excerpted from remarks I gave at the annual meeting of the Friday Morning Music Club.]

So where does my support of amateurism -- in the sense of loving music -- leave me as a critic, whose job appears to be less about loving music than tearing it down? Or, more simply: what does it mean for a critic to love music?

This is something that is often misunderstood about my job. Loving music, to a critic, cannot simply mean bestowing praise. In fact, I think one of the biggest problems in the classical music field is that there’s too much praise. There’s an idea that our field is so small and beleaguered that we have to band together and all like everything all the time.
(read more after the jump)

I wrote an article when I first started at the Post about how Brahms was not my favorite composer. I knew it would be provocative, but that was part of my point: why do we all have to like the same composers? I’m sure that we could find movies or books that we disagree about without it seeming quite so heretical. (Actually, my husband doesn’t care for Bruckner, and I love Bruckner, and we manage to continue a happy marriage regardless.) Anyway, I think we need to embrace these disagreements, because they help get classical music off its film-star pedestal and into an arena where we can interact with it, have opinions about it, dare not to like it.

I happen to think that tough love is especially important now. For one thing, because loving the music means caring enough to hear it done right, not just to hear it done adequately; and caring enough to have opinions about the way it is done. I remember an anecdote about Lukas Foss touring Germany with the Milwaukee Symphony and receiving, at the end of a Beethoven symphony, a chorus of boos. Backstage, Foss said, "At last, someone understands my music!" What he meant, even jokingly, is that he had chosen an interpretation, and they had heard that, and hadn’t liked it, and let him know. In a way that’s preferable to lukewarm, polite, non-comprehending applause.

For another, I think that strong opinions are a way to win new audiences. We talk a lot about how to reach new younger audiences: well, they’re not fooled by didactic lectures and hollow praise. I have a host of anecdotes about times I felt I reached someone who was new to classical music by giving them permission not to like it. I think of my friend who told me that she'd been to an orchestral concert and, afterwards, decided that classical music just wasn't for her. I, wondering what kind of orchestra she might have heard in the rural area where she lives, said that perhaps she hadn't seen a very good concert. And I saw her eyes light up. The simple idea that she was allowed not to like it, that her reaction had validity, changed her feeling about it and made her willing to try again.

I'm not saying that critics should set out not to like music; indeed, I am always rooting for the performer and the show when I sit down. But I do think it's a shame that many people don't think they know enough to have an opinion about classical music -- even, sometimes, people who really love classical music and have been going to concerts for years. If someone told me he’d been going to the movies for years but didn’t know enough to have an opinion, I'd think he was crazy. I’d like to remove that wall from around classical music as well. I think one way that I can do that as a critic is by calling it like I see it. I think that acknowledging what’s good and what’s bad, and exploring personal likes and dislikes, is the way to start building dialogue in the field and, ideally (or idealistically) to get people to love it more.

For a critic, I think simply being nice about performances represents amateurism in the worst, pejorative sense. A professional critic manifests amateurism in the sense I'd like it to have -- a deep love of music -- through engagement: getting out there, covering the field, keeping it in the newspaper, or on-line, and telling it where he thinks it's going wrong. We don’t need boosterism: we need to regain a sense that this field matters, and that there are reasons for everyone to care about it, beyond a dutiful sense of “it is great and we should.” That's the basis of a love of music, an amateurism, that sustains, rather than distant appreciation of isolated, glamorous performances.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 27, 2009; 11:37 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Next: Opera: Young at Art


I always appreciate Anne's holding the Washington National Opera to the fire! I live in Richmond, where a standing ovation for even the worst of performances is standard, as if no one has any idea of what actually constitutes a fine performance. I long to be able to boo, just once in a long while, to show that I don't agree with the opinions of my seatmates. I'd much rather provoke discussion, with my own performances, than thoughtless approval.

Posted by: roxie3 | May 27, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Brahms > Bruckner

Posted by: Lindemann777 | May 27, 2009 10:34 PM | Report abuse

Well, I agree that Brahms is a greater composer than Bruckner. I just happen to love Bruckner.

And roxie3, I think you should boo when you want to.

Posted by: MidgetteA | May 27, 2009 11:27 PM | Report abuse

I totally agree with this post. You can't be a useful critic unless you have strong opinions about the way things ought to be, and you have the ability to explain your positions to others. I sing with the Washington Chorus, and although you usually tear us a new one, I look forward to your reviews because you give it to us straight.

Booing, by the way, is only one way to express one's displeasure with a concert. Hector Berlioz once was in the audience at the premiere of a new opera. Finding the first act intolerably dull, he called out: "Twenty francs for an idea!" Half-an-hour went by, and he followed up: "Forty francs for an idea!" Still later: "EIGHTY francs!" Finally he rose and stormed out, muttering (audibly): "I give up - I'm not rich enough!" Man, I really hope that story's true.

Posted by: erclark | May 28, 2009 12:41 AM | Report abuse

the failure or success of classical music has little to nothing to do with how critics write about it---what a self-centered opinion! the failures of classical music today have to do with the fact that an appreciation for it is slowly dying out. No one comes to love music by reading about it in a newspaper. similarly, who is saying people can't judge music without "knowing" about it? millions of people judge it without knowing about it, simply by not attending. They have heard it, they don't like it, so they don't go. This applies not only for people with no musical knowledge but for people with much musical knowledge, too---few people are experts on Dallapiccola or Schoenberg, and so they don't go when they are scheduled on a concert. They might be Schubert or Verdi afficionados, however, and happen to like the music as well. So they go.

but to suggest that somehow critics feel oppressed into writing positive things about music is misguided if not ignorant. reviews in major newspapers, blogs, and other media outlets slam performances all the time---ESPECIALLY new music, which in theory should be that which is most "praised" so it survives. have more faith in people to know what they like and don't like without the post needing to tell them...

Posted by: geddaisgod | May 28, 2009 1:29 AM | Report abuse

"Anyway, I think we need to embrace these disagreements, because they help get classical music off its film-star pedestal and into an arena where we can interact with it, have opinions about it, dare not to like it."

You could do that on this blog! Let's have some intemperate posting!

I can provide a guest post about why Bruckner's music is mostly unlistenable, and how hearing his 9th played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was the second-longest evening of my concertgoing life, with every repeat in the Scherzo sapping my will to live.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | May 28, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Anne, you're onto something, but I caution that whether you liked or hated the concert shouldn't be the focus.
I submit to you that the job of the music critic in the 21st
Century is to shed light, not heat.
Frankly, it is not as important whether or not you liked
the concert, but WHY you came to this conclusion.
What happened to make you bored? What failed, what succeeded, and what did you miss?
Just because one finds Bruckner dull doesn't interest me, and
if you do find it boring, there is probably a reason, or more
likely several, that causes the impression. Bruckner is too good
a composer that has been subject to far too many misguided renditions.

Think about it. Mozart is not the problem. Neither is Beethoven.
Musicians today are capable of giving a concert as great
as anybody has ever heard. But what's the problem on any
given evening? What was an encouraging development?
If you reach your potential, the answer will
be difficult to pen and a fascinating read. Good luck.

Posted by: BrianDBell | May 28, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I got hooked on opera at age seven through a MET Ring cycle on the radio. It was confirmed in my late pre-teens when I started going on my own.

You are right on the money--it was the size of the emotional gesture and the power of the combination of all the performing arts that was the hook. I've never looked back, and made my career as a designer for theater and opera as a result of that youthful experience.

Posted by: WilliamFregosi | May 28, 2009 8:09 PM | Report abuse

Critics used to provide the life blood of musicians' careers. Consider the absolute power that Virgil Thomson held over the New York music scene from his throne over at the New York Herald-Tribune during the 1940s and 1950s. In addition to Thomson, there were a string of extremely knowledgeable critics that proved instrumental in the success of any number of careers, because, in most cases once the concert was over, all you had were the reviews.

Playing a recital in one of the prestigious New York halls used to mean that, as long as you provided free tickets for the reviewer, the concert would get reviewed in the paper. And a good review from the New York Times made it possible to get hired to play concerts in New York and outside of New York.

When I lived in New York in the 1970s, I always enjoyed going to concerts and reading a review in the paper the next day. I felt fortunate to have the chance to read reviews by excellent critics who knew what they were writing about (though there were a handful of critics who did not know as much as they should have known).

These were obviously people who loved music, but their charge was not to keep classical music alive and to seek out new audiences for it. It was a different time, and classical music still held a place of importance in the musical "marketplace." These critics were people who understood that they were hired by their papers to give a true account of a given performance. They were professionals who had reputations to protect. Most of the good ones are either dead or retired.

The current "marketplace" is too crowded with entertainment for a classical music concert played by an unknown person or ensemble to make it into the New York Times. Even concerts by well-known people go un-reviewed.

Now we have to rely more on amateur critics (critics who don't make money writing reviews). These critics are are often highly-intelligent, over-educated, and extremely knowledgeable people who write their music criticism in blogs. I tend to trust the musical blogosphere more than the "press" when it comes to classical music concerts.

Posted by: elainefine | May 28, 2009 9:53 PM | Report abuse

I am an amateur musician (piano) and several years ago I found a wonderful group of similar people. It is the Adult Music Student Forum, and its purpose it to provide performance opportunities for members. Master classes also happen as well outreach to assisted living communities. Visit for more info.

Posted by: kashe | May 29, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate Anne's comments above and over the years have defended the critic's role to many Board members, conductors, subscribers, and musicians. However, trained music critics who understand their role are increasingly rare, and not every community is blessed with an Anne Midgette. I think many critics have the opposite effect of what Anne outlines above. Far too many reviews I have read over the years have seemed designed mainly to demonstrate the reviewer's musical superiority and loftiness rather than edifying the listeners and furthering informed musical dialogue within the community. Instead of helping listeners to understand, interpret and value their own listening experience, such reviews reinforce the listener's sense of their own musical illiteracy.

Posted by: andybuelow | May 29, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Anne, thinking about the whole thorny topic of the critic's role overnight, I am struck by your use of phraseology like "caring enough to hear it (classical music) done right" and "maybe she didn't hear a good performance." I completely agree that a critic's role is not to be the "booster" of the local arts community, but neither is it simply to be the arbiter and judge of what is "good" and "bad." Certainly there are objective standards of what makes a "good" or "bad" performance. But I think BrianBDell is on to something: the reviewer who simply writes based on her own likes and dislikes, and seemingly goes out of her way to find something to criticize, is doing the music as big a disservice as the critic who simply pounds out a "cheerleader" review.

In Part I of "In Praise of the Amateur" you write about how much of the "fun" seems to be gone from live classical performance. I think music criticism bears some responsibility for this. So often a reviewer seems to be holding up a local performance to some impossible-to-achieve objective standard (perhaps a mixture of their favorite CD recordings by Bernstein, von Karajan or Toscanini) instead of opening up their ears, heart and mind to the performance that is unfolding before them.

Some of the most engaging performances I have heard in my lifetime were not the most technically virtuosic. I recall an enthralling performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring by an undergraduate orchestra. The students were on the edge of their seats the entire time and so was the audience, and the atmosphere in the hall was electrifying. Following more than a decade working at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, I spent six years as executive director of an emerging part-time orchestra in Traverse City, Michigan. While few of the performances I heard would have measured up technically to those regularly turned out by the MSO, they were consistently enthralling, engaging and musically satisfying.

During my years in Milwaukee I remember the Journal-Sentinel critic, Tom Strini, wrote an excellent column about the role of the music critic. I wish I still had it, because it was the best description of what a critic's role should be that I have ever encountered... and he lives it. Tom wrote in such a way that his presence greatly enriched the Milwaukee music scene and contributed to a constructive, informed musical dialogue. Although musicians may not always have liked or agreed with his reviews, he had the respect of the musical community and his presence was greatly valued (and I assume still is).

Posted by: andybuelow | May 30, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

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