Critics and Clapping


Woke up this morning thinking about the old saw, attributed to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius to “Pay no attention to what the critics say; there has never been set up a statue in honor of a critic.” (Though actually Alex Ross went out and found three not long ago….)

Anyway. The Sibelius quote comes to mind as I process a couple of unusually churlish reviews of the concert I blogged about a few days ago – the DC debut of the National Philharmonic of Russia, a/k/a the “other” NPR. First, Robert Battey in the Monday (3/26) Washington Post griped that “Woodwind and brass entries were often slightly staggered. The percussion missed cues. The strings were energetic but displayed little homogeneity, either in vibrato or bowing, with a concertmaster who appeared past his prime. The NPR, in short, lacks refinement.” But that was more charitable than what Jens Laurson had to say in the generally-fine ionarts blog: he essentially said phooey and left at intermission.

Which is too bad, since he missed – and IMHO the Post reviewer was not of a mind to hear – an absolutely riveting performance of the Shostakovich 5th Symphony. Comparing what I heard and they wrote, in both cases I couldn’t help but feel the reviews were mostly written before the orchestra had played a note; one seeing the whole thing in the dark context of Putin-as-Stalin and the revival of Soviet-style “Russian propaganda,” the other, once you parsed the review a bit, clearly bothered by a conductor’s interpretation of a piece (the Shostakovich symphony) that differed from his own:

“But the pith of the conductor’s job in this sprawling work lies in subtler tasks — building and releasing tension on large time scales, creating internal episodes and relating them to the whole. Shostakovich’s incessant dactylic rhythms often just sat there, and Spivakov brought none of Mstislav Rostropovich’s anguish to the Largo (let alone Leonard Bernstein’s). Overall, a long afternoon.”

Well. I didn’t even know that use of the word “dactylic” was permitted in a family newspaper! I for one found the (other) NPR’s take on the Shostakovich 5th was pretty compelling — even thinking to myself at one point about what a coherent statement Spivakov and the orchestra were making, and I could feel the audience with them the whole way (noticeable lack of coughing and fidgeting). But no, not the way that Rostropovich would conduct it. Hey – I get that. I grew up with an LP by Istvan Kertesz conducting the Dvorak “New World” Symphony and I remember being shocked the first time I heard it being conducted “differently” than that classic recording.

I think it’s connected, in fact, to what Washpost columnist Richard Cohen was calling “emotional truth,” what often veers significantly away from intellectual truth. Cohen was connecting a key moment in his life when he was inspired to become a writer to a turning point in candidate Barack Obama‘s young life that made him keenly aware of the consequence of skin color for the very first time. Only maybe it didn’t happen. I think a lot of our musical memories (and thus lifetime musical convictions) are formed the same way:

“Indeed, the memory of the event/non-event is so firmly planted in Obama’s mind that it seems to have become an emotional truth for him, far more powerful than an intellectual truth. Two and two are four. That’s an intellectual truth for you. But America is a uniquely great country. That’s an emotional truth, and I’m far more likely to die for the latter than the former. So, I suspect, are you.”

My own emotional truth concerns Penny and her father. Years later, when I reconnected with Penny, I mentioned that day on the porch and how much it meant to me. No such porch, she told me. I insisted otherwise and did not relent until she sent me a picture of the home. No porch. Still . . . I like the story my way. In Obama’s case — and maybe my own — there might be something more than foggy memory at work.

I think so. So my crystalline-at-this-point memory was that I was in a shared experience in a sold-out Kennedy Center Concert Hall where I witnessed 108 musicians creating a remarkable performance that required them to think and act as one. And we stomped and hooted and cheered. But I think what will linger the most in my mind is observing the genuine affection and mutual respect in this orchestra. (Check out the backstage photo from their performance in Boston!) When it came time for bows, Vladimir Spivakov asked first the principle players to stand – the French horn, the clarinet, the trumpet, and so on. And to a man, and woman – they did something I have never seen an orchestra of professionals do before….they clapped back. For Spivakov, for their fellow performers, for the audience. A remarkable contrast to the general slouch/wisecracking/ignoring the audience that infects a lot of orchestras at curtain-call time. It was a remarkable and genuinely moving gesture.