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Posted at 9:52 AM ET, 01/25/2011

Two critics Verge

By Cecelia Porter, Charles T. Downey

On Sunday, the Verge ensemble performed a concert called "When Kandinsky Met Schoenberg" at the National Gallery of Art. Due to a clerical error, two critics reviewed the concert for the Washington Post.

One of the premises of this blog is that there are a lot of different ways to look at a concert, and the more voices join in the discussion, the better. So I couldn't pass up the opportunity to post two contrasting reviews of the same event: Charles T. Downey's in the newspaper, and Cecelia Porter's on the blog, after the jump.

These two pieces present two different approaches, even two different ways of writing a view. You be the critic: what are the pros and cons of each? And would anybody like to add his or her own views of what sounds like an intriguing concert?


Verge Ensemble explores musical abstractions at National Gallery
by Cecelia Porter

The National Gallery of Art hosted an arresting concert by VERGE ensemble on Sunday celebrating the 100th anniversary of a remarkable convergence of art and music.

In January 1911 the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky heard compositions by the pivotal expressionist composer Arnold Schoenberg (living in Freud’s Vienna, the hub of theories about the unconscious). On hearing Schoenberg’s works dispensing with a tonal center, Kandinsky abandoned his literal depiction of subjects in favor of abstract expression, as in the Gallery’s "Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle)" of 1913, in which the artist transformed a specific scene through heightened colors reflecting the violent fury provoked by battle.

The Verge Ensemble began with pianist Audrey Andrist’s persuasive version of Schoenberg’s rhapsodic post-Wagnerian Drei Klavierstücke (which Kandinsky had heard). It was followed by later works pushing the limits of musical sound. In "traces of spirit whispers - 1.circulation of the light" (2003) by Steve Antosca (artistic director of` VERGE), piano techniques were fused with computer-processed sonorities. For Györgi Ligeti’s Continuum (1968), harpsichordist Jenny Lin gave a riveting account of barely perceptible individual tones speeding through continually unfolding textures. Andrist returned for Elliott Carter’s "Caténaires" (2006), a work of uninterrupted notes coursing through a soundscape of ever-changing pitches.

"Amores" (1943) of John Cage (a onetime Schoenberg student) was the most exciting of the post-1911 pieces. Along with a “prepared piano” -- Cage’s invention involving altering the instrument’s innards -- three percussionists on hand drums, and later mallets, engaged in a complex dialogue of rhythms shaping a clearly ordered design. John Luther Adams’s closing "Red Arc/Blue Veil" (2002), for electronically manipulated piano and percussion, was too long for its static content.

--Cecelia Porter

By Cecelia Porter, Charles T. Downey  | January 25, 2011; 9:52 AM ET
Categories:  Washington, local reviews  
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Neither of these was a review. They were a series of descriptions of the music. There was no judgements made in either, and no commentary. This is one reason the arts now are so confused... nobody knows what is good or bad, what's working, what's exciting. The folks who call themselves critics just go to the show and describe the music. Pathetic!

Posted by: Jeffrey-Harrington | January 26, 2011 6:37 AM | Report abuse

Dear Washington Post,

As you have invited us to critique the reviews, here are some of responses to Cecelia's review.

Cecelia, do you have a background in music? You don't seem to be so well-informed. First, you don't have to put prepared piano in quotes, and the way you describe what it is, is misleading and embarrassing. The most important thing is that the inserted objects transform the piano's timbre.

Going further, when you say Schoenberg dispensed with tonality, you sound like someone who has not heard of the term "emancipation of dissonance." By 1911, had Schoenberg completely done away with tonality? That doesn't happen until Op. 23 (1920).

In a short article, words like "arresting" and "riveting" don't communicate anything of substance.

What were the continually unfolding textures in the Ligeti?

Also, what about the role of time on perception in the Luther Adams?

In short, what I see is a lack of research as well as a roughness of writing style. Hopefully, in the future, an august institution like the Washington Post might care enough to assign someone who is more qualified and capable to report on new music. Capable and responsible reporting on new music is so important at this time, as music culture is one the wane.

Posted by: cleryemma | January 26, 2011 11:12 AM | Report abuse

I mostly agree with what Jeffrey Harrington said. There are important distinctions to be made these days between "review" and "criticism."

The more reviews I read of contemporary music, the more I realize that "review" has come to mean simply (an attempt at) description. This places a heavy burden on finding metaphors for an experience that (whether good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, exciting or dull) can't be described in words. But the worst thing about it is that, unlike a painting or architecture or a novel, unless there is a repeat of the concert, the reviewer is describing metaphorically something that no longer exists. A descriptive review of a one-off concert short-changes the reader, the performer and the composer.

A true critique, on the other hand, is more helpful -- even a scathingly negative one. Even after the fact, it engages the reader and, at its best, challenges performer and composer. All that together has the beneficial effect of incrementally helping build future audiences. My guess as to why there aren't more critical pieces like this in the Post and elsewhere is that a really good piece of critical writing presumes an in-depth, or near-expert, or at least half-way decent, knowledge of contemporary music in its many guises on the part of the author.

Posted by: Steve37 | January 26, 2011 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Cecelia's review was short on opinion but I believe that the program got even more than it deserved. I hate atonal, percussive, and electronic music. Unbelievably, listeners even give serious consideration to Cage's silent music. Give me a tune I can sing in the shower or whistle on the street.

Posted by: pronetoviolins | January 26, 2011 4:35 PM | Report abuse

I can't believe it was a large audience. Didn't they see each other, or are they not familiar with each other? Alternately, if they did see each other, was neither willing to give up a gig?

I think Jeffrey-Harrington is wrong to say no judgements were passed in Ms. Porter's review. In any event, I always want to see a reviewer build a case - provide reasons for any judgements. Those reasons are much more interesting than the judgement itself, IMHO.

Posted by: kashe | January 26, 2011 7:24 PM | Report abuse

In fairness to the reviewers, it is really hard to describe and assess multiple works with which one's readership could be presumed to be unfamiliar and then also throw in a couple notes about the performances in the space allotted by the Washington Post. I've tried to do it many times, always without complete success. I'm sure both Porter and Downey had additional info and impressions that they could have imparted.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | January 27, 2011 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, Lindemann777, but "The Washington Post won't let me do it" is a weak excuse. But you get points for sticking up for the family -- while losing them again for defending the status quo. Right now it appears the Post is probing whether or not expanded coverage of the arts (bravely contrary to the direction of many other major outlets) is viable/profitable (see the new Style-Arts feature separation & expansion on Sundays). Do people really want this stuff or not? I would think you would be looking for ways to push this experiment if you really believe in the importance of the arts. Here are a couple ideas that come from the accidental double coverage and meagre man-bites-xylophone space-available reviews.

(1) IF(!) it was caught in time, the critics could have split the review with one covering first half & other the second & space left for both to comment on what wasn't even mentioned: Did the programming of the concert reflect the idea that Schoenberg inspired many strands of development or did it reflect the idea that contemporary music is now splintered & Schbg was just one of the first splinters? Is this not a fascinating question???

(2) So what if you only have X inches in the print edition? Do with it what you can, and then at the end of the piece send your readers to your personal blog site which you will have set up specifically & only for this purpose (for continuation/expansion of the print piece & apart from any other blogs you're writing) & presumably with the blessing of the Post. You now have the space to write anything you please and as much or as little as you please. And if you're successful (you get further feedback & comments on your blog), you've proved to the Post that there is interest in a deeper print coverage.

Posted by: Steve37 | January 28, 2011 7:39 AM | Report abuse

... and I can't help but add some words from one of the UK's big-time critics, Tom Service, who writes for The Guardian. In a recent key-note at a music festival in Scotland, Service must have gotten quite a chuckle from the audience when he inserted a quick one-liner about his own profession as he was describing the reception of an imaginary new piece of music:

"The critics are lukewarm – resorting to that typical trick – and I should know - of attempted description, bits of cribbed programme note, and a sitting on the fence judgement ...."

A rare moment of complete honesty from a critic :-)

The whole key-note is valuable reading. While I disagree with a few of its premises (and therefore conclusions), it's a pretty accurate description of the state of new music today and what composers and performers are going to have to do about it. It can be found in its entirety here:

Posted by: Steve37 | January 28, 2011 10:14 AM | Report abuse

FYI, I used to be a freelancer for the Post, but I don't write for them anymore. I was never employed as such by the Post, by which I mean empowered to make decisions about the shape, amount, etc., of arts coverage in the paper. Such matters were beyond the freelancer's purview.

I've read the lecture at the link you provided before. I'd recommend other commenters who are interested in this subject take a look if they haven't already.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | January 28, 2011 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Those reading this comment thread may be interested in the further discussion of the issue related to a response by composer Alexandra Gardner, published at NewMusicbox:

Posted by: Charles_D | January 28, 2011 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I liked Mr. Downey's mention of Elliot Carter's age, in his late 90's when the piece reviewed was composed and oveer 100 now! I stopped and thought, is there ANY other major composer in history who wrote works at that age which people performed in public? I can't think of any who lived that long, much less still composing at such an advanced age!

Posted by: c-clef | January 28, 2011 1:08 PM | Report abuse

@ pronetoviolins:

Before they close down the comments for this thread, I want you to know:

I really, REALLY hate anchovies. It really bothers me that anchovies are even allowed to exist. Anyone who says they like anchovies is either lying or seriously deranged.

Posted by: Steve37 | January 28, 2011 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I'm with Lindemann777 on this. Cecelia's review runs about 275 words - about three paragraphs -- which is the limit the Post critics work under. Once you've covered the obligatory who-what-when-where (especially when there's a wide-ranging program and multiple performers) there's not much room left for a long, probing critique. You're obliged to write a sketch, rather than a treatise.

That may be frustrating to serious music lovers -- and to the critics! -- but there's a positive side to it. By running shorter reviews, the Post can cover a much wider selection of the concerts here every month. That lets us (yep, I'm one of the Post reviewers) present a pretty good overview of the musical life here. There's only a certain amount of space in the paper -- so would it be better for the Post to run reviews that are three times as long, but only cover one-third of what we cover now?

Personally, I'm not sure that it would be. The Post is a general interest newspaper, and frankly most of the people leafing through the Style section every morning have little interest in an in-depth analysis of a concert they haven't been to.

But many of them ARE interested in a broad overview of the cultural life of the city, and these reviews -- short and descriptive though they be -- provide that. Meanwhile, Anne Midgette writes in-depth commentary on the more salient concerts. All in all, not a bad approach.

Posted by: StephenBrookes | January 28, 2011 5:36 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure whether this whole thing reminds me more of Ward Bond circling the wagons or the Mary Tyler Moore Show's famous group hug.

Mr. Downey -- who I was most distressed but not surprised to learn from his comment on NMB is finding this conversation "tedious" -- is blowing smoke. I'd say that I find his smoke tedious, but I don't know what that means since I'm not a music journalist.

As I said before, the entire "I only have X words granted me by forces I don't control so it's not my fault & you should really cut me some slack & be thankful for the crumbs I distribute" argument is, uh, baloney -- and highly insulting to composer, performer and audience. Mr. Downey has several linked outlets at his disposal, so despite his apparent hurt and outrage, it is important to remember he can devote as much space to anything he wants IF HE CONSIDERS IT IMPORTANT ENOUGH to spend his precious time on. The old limited space argument is no longer tenable.

In the recent past, on these various outlets (ionarts, dcist and the Post), Mr. Downey has spent plenty of words on what's important TO HIM and what HE determines (or, in fairness, guesses) ought to be important to others. For example:

-- Ma & Ax commemorating the Casals White House concert -- 880 words
-- A piece on Lasso (16th century) -- 550 words
-- the JFK KenCen memorial concert -- 870 words
-- a Terrace Theater recital of a single work, Die Schone Mullerin (imagine the umlauts if that's important to you here) -- 380 words
-- Two articles on the B[altimore]SO/Mobtown Glass extravaganza -- 1480 [!] words
-- the Verge concert consisting of 6 works -- 260 words

Kyle Gann might consider three of these worth his time based on their length, but the Verge review wouldn't register with him (see Gann's comment at

My previous points have not been addressed, let alone answered. Maybe Anne Midgette can help on that when she comes in to clean up. Of course I would like to know just why links between different media can't be more creatively and consistently used to provide something close to reasonable concert coverage for contemporary music. And I would especially like to know what would happen if (remember Tom Service's comment) critics/reviewers were not supplied with the usual concert notes to crib from. (C'mon, guys, 'fess up. We know you do it.)

And now, enough of this nonsense. I'm going to go read a truly important piece in the new Sunday Post Arts section about Anna Nicole Smith and the opera of the future. By my computer's count it's 1,456 words long!

Posted by: Steve37 | January 29, 2011 3:32 PM | Report abuse

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