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March 12, 2012

Monday Musings: Everybody's a critic (and should be)

Art cannot exist without reaction. If no one experiences it, you're dealing with the old tree-falls-in-the-forest routine.

I love hearing what people have to say about experiences in concert halls, opera houses, theaters -- even if it starts out "You and I couldn't have been at the same performance."

Naturally, those of us in the business of being paid to render some sort of artistic verdict can get a little full of ourselves, can infuse our viewpoints with a whiff of papal infallibility. Of course, I can never really know if I'm right, in some cosmic sense of the truth. But I know what feels right to me, and I don't mind saying so.

(Any professional critic who pretends that there isn't a hunk of ego in the equation is kidding himself or herself, or you. Likewise, any critic who thinks he or she knows everything and is absolutely right about everything all the time is really, really sick.)

I enjoy getting refresher courses in the wide variety of opinions. There was the recent case of the two ...

"Winterreise" recitals, for example. I was quite taken with both, the one by Wolfgang Holzmair in Baltimore, the other a week later by Matthias Goerne in DC. But I had a clear favorite -- Goerne's. I felt I had witnessed something truly beyond extraordinary in that case.

I was drawn in deeply, right from the start, thanks to the singer's amazing technique, rich inflection of tone and total immersion in the text, as well as by pianist Christoph Eschenbach's eloquent and very personal accompaniment.

Others clearly heard something ordinary, I guess, or just uneven in Goerne's delivery. And where I heard pure poetry and all sorts of subtle nuances at the keyboard, some heard a routine or clunky touch. Go figure.

We all bring (or should bring) something with us to a performance, some set of values we have sorted out over the years. If we're smart, we always allow room for new values to be added -- a tempo we never thought we would find right, for example.

Some people never seem to get past certain parameters. Beethoven has to sound like this, Mozart like that. Do not cross this line when playing Chopin, that line when approaching a Mahler symphony. Oy, how dull.

I can get excited about, say, a John Eliot Gardiner, lean, mean, full-steam-ahead, period instrument Beethoven symphony, and also a thickly textured, tempos-all-over-the-place version by Furtwangler.

In my heart of hearts, I will always pick Furtwangler as my desert island choice -- he had a lot to do with the gradual formation of my value system (as did Mengelberg, Mitropoulos, Bernstein and other podium heroes of the past). But I am glad to hear other approaches, open to being persuaded by other concepts.

I think it's cool when, say, Lorin Maazel conducts a Mozart symphony, as he did the other day in Washington, as if there had never been anything called the historical authenticity movement. I enjoyed the slower pace for a change, the warmer, thicker textures. I'm sure some listeners cringed and squirmed.

You must have noticed the types who want everything to sound the same way every time. No coloring outside the lines. No getting too emotional. No moving around onstage while performing. No weird or distracting attire, either. A whole litany of no's. Geesh.

I find it odd that some folks complain loudly about how too many performers lack individuality, then pounce on anyone who dares to demonstrate it, accusing them of being indulgent or calculating or -- the favorite putdown of the critical set -- "mannered." (I'm grateful that the world made room for such "mannered" types as, say, Cortot, wrong notes and all.)

The live performances that linger longest in my memory and the recorded performances that I especially treasure have a palpable passion for the music at hand, an identification with it.

Give me intensity of commitment, give me expressive fire -- which can mean deliciously soft and slow as much as it can mean vigorous and roof-rattling. Give me personality. Move me. Touch me. Dare me.

I know that people will always disagree over all of this. That's part of the fun. The only awful response to music is to have none, no real reaction one way or another. The worst kind of audience is passive, accepting anything that goes on, then stands up to applaud by Pavlovian instinct.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:24 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


All well and good; Different performers perform differently and different audiences hear differently. But why no timely review of the Baltimore Opera from LAST Friday?

Because I couldn't get there until Sunday afternoon, for one thing. But the review is up now. TS

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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