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Critics and CDs

And while we're on the subject of CDs: I thought I'd link to the Gramophone Awards short list, which came out a few days ago.

What this reflects, of course, is a high-church view of classical releases. The more experimental, offbeat, contemporary work that's been mentioned in this discussion -- the kind of recording that the current climate makes it easier to get released -- doesn't get onto Gramophone's radar. The initial nominations come from the record companies themselves, so there's a pre-selection process already in place.

This is right in line with what one commenter described as the failure of the critical establishment to find a way to deal with the flood of new releases (a failure of which this member of the critical establishment, at least, is all too keenly aware. Indeed, my choice of links above can be criticized as being fairly old-fogey-ish on the spectrum of contemporary offerings). The best shot I know of so far at the kind of "net-based critical establishment" the commenter is hoping for is, a fine Web publication devoted to CD reviews. This site, too, tends to be more traditional in its focus and doesn't generally address the cutting edge; but it remains a useful resource.

By Anne Midgette  |  August 21, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  music on the Web  
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It's sad to see how an intelligent, open-minded, stimulating critic feels she has to castigate herself for being "high church" and "failing" to deal with "new releases" and for being "old fogeyish" on the spectrum of contemporary releases. This sounds like the North Korean model of musical (self)criticism rather than the rational, scholarly and instructive criticism that I look forward to. But given that I admire and respect Anne, I thought I'd take a look at some of the links she mentioned. Here's some of what I found. First, SEXY/VIOLENT GIRLS/WAR
(composed by: massey, performed by: massey) (oh boy, the thought police for sure isn't going to let this be posted without web owner approval!), then I listened to some stuff from First Things First by Nadia Sirota, hyped by New Amsterdam records as the greatest thing in classical music since sliced bread. Well, at least Sirota and her friends are having fun. Otherwise, I'll take high church any day. Most of this sounds like Amsterdam all right, except that music is the abused substance of choice.

The whole point of criticism is to filter and be judgmental and to point out that the emperor's new clothes just aren't there. It is one thing to disagree on something as subjective as music. It is quite another to accept hype as music. It is wonderful that there are any number of people producing all kinds of sounds, and sharing it with others willing to listen and see what they're like. But the "critical establishment" has to exercise some judgment whether the stuff has enough gravitas to qualify as part of the canon. Please don't apologize for doing your job -- you're doing it very well!

Posted by: gauthier310 | August 21, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Well, thanks very much for the props. But as far as self-castigation goes, all I meant to do was poke rueful fun at myself for not writing more CD reviews.

I do, though, think that a lot of the most exciting, most vital stuff that's happening in the field isn't making it onto the mainstream radar. (I suppose that's always true to some extent.)

New Amsterdam may not be to your taste, but to my ear they're putting out some great stuff. I certainly don't mean to put down one kind of music at the expense of another. If there's one sure thing about the new boom in CD releases these days, it's that it makes more room than ever out there for everybody.

Posted by: MidgetteA | August 21, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

I am looking forward to a future New World release that, while it might not be on anyone's radars just yet, I have an e-mail advising me of its coming: the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra's recording of the Joplin opera "Treemonisha," in Rick Benjamin's new orchestration. It'll be interesting to see how it compares with the larger-scale Houston Grand Opera recording.

New World's recordings of the John Knowles Paine symphonies are must-haves.

Posted by: SportzNut21 | August 21, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

@gauthier310, RE New Amsterdam: first things first has some rather odd tracks (Live Water), but the minimalist offerings are more interesting. If you're willing to invest the time The Night Gatherers has my vote for a worthwhile track. I also really did enjoy listening to some excerpts from QQQ's Unpacking the Trailor. It's crossover for sure. I'm a sucker for a fiddle though, and I like bluegrass, so I have a bias toward this one of QQQ's and I'll listen to and think it over when I get home, so thanks to Midgette for that old-fogey-ish link.

Posted by: prokaryote | August 21, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Thanks prokaryote for pointing me to QQQ; I enjoyed it. I also liked some of the stuff by Muhly (How about now -- the rest of the CD sounded pretty much the same but not quite). Still, for all the hype, I'm not convinced by Nadia Sirota. Whatever she's playing (a viola, they say) it could do with some WD40. Having people listen to stuff on the internet and developing multiple audiences is great, and I appreciate having a savvy critic like Anne occasionally point her more trogloditic readers (like me) to what is going on there, so we're not entirely left in the dark about new music. But the fact that people are composing music and that some of it is even interesting, does not mean that it is automatically ready for prime time. For people who know as little about music as I do, but love music, expansion of their ability to enjoy the canon is more urgent. My current project is listening to Hummel's piano trios (by Beaux Arts) and, by comparison, I'd put first things first very much last. Three cheers for Hummel, anyone?

Posted by: gauthier310 | August 24, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Six or seven years ago my wife and I attended a performance at Wolf Trap at which then conductor Leonard Slatkin conducted the NSO. The music played before intermission was standard fare - I'm not sure but I think there were pieces by Beethoven and Schumann. They were quite well received by the audience. After intermission Mr. Slatkin announced that an American friend of his had written a theme on something that, happily, I have forgotten and of which Mr. Slatkin was so enamored that, at his request, five other American composers and Mr. Slatkin had each written a variation on the theme. The theme was not well received. After the first variation approximately 60% of the audience left the indoor area. By the end of the second theme no more than 10% of the audience was left and after the third variation my wife and I essentially gave up on being polite as did the overwhelming majority of what few of us were left. I doubt that twenty seats were still occupied.

For some reason many conductors seem to feel that those people who pass for composers today are actually composing something that might be called music, whereas the thousands of wonderful works written during the the period 1650 - 1950 may be neglected.

As somebody who fell into none of your categories on CD buyers, I'd like to protest. Since I started to listen to YouTube and correspond with professional musicians my CD purchases have more than quintupled. During 2008 I purchased 82 CDs and I have maintained that pace this year. As I have a true audiophile system I want to listen to the CD versions of what I choose from the thousands of videos which I have the privilege of hearing at no cost. I then convert them to the highest quality flac files possible so that I may listen to them on my computer while I work. Somehow, however, with the exception of Gershwin and, to a lesser degree, Copland, I have managed to still any impulse to buy any music composed by classical (as opposed to jazz) American composers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Speaking for myself and those many others who left Herr Slatkin and the NSO to entertain themselves, perhaps it's time to call junk what it is - junk, and get back to performing the great music of the past.

Sincerely yours

Posted by: GerryR | August 28, 2009 6:40 AM | Report abuse

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