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.
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