I had friends who enjoyed the “Mozart in the Jungle” pilot and said I should enjoy it in the spirit in which it was intended, rather than focusing on what they got wrong. Yet the factual errors in “Mozart in the Jungle” are so great that it would be as though someone set out to dramatize the reality show “Deadliest Catch” by showing a group of fishermen sitting on a dock in Alaska trying to catch crabs with fishing rods. If you’re willing to accept that little in this show bears even the remotest relationship to reality, then you may be able to enjoy it.

Anne Midgette on “Mozart in the Jungle” for the Washington Post

A little update

I’m done with finals, and I’m looking for concerts to see and write about in the New York area. I’m going to see Helene Grimaud tomorrow at the Park Avenue Armory, but because my internship with San Francisco Classical Voice is starting we’ll have to wait a bit before posting the review.

In the meantime, scattered and slightly coherent thoughts about music will once again appear here now that I’m not writing papers 24/7.

The enjoyment and understanding of music are dominated in a most curious way by the prestige of the masterpiece. Neither the theatre nor the cinema nor poetry nor narrative fiction pays allegiance to its ideal of excellence in the tyrannical way that music does. They recognize no unbridgeable chasm between “great work” and the rest of production. Even the world of art painting, though it is no less a victim than that of music to Appreciation rackets based on the concept of gilt-edged quality, is more penetrable to reason in this regard, since such values, or the pretenses about them advanced by investing collectors and museums, are more easily unmasked as efforts to influence market prices. But music in our time (and in our country) seems to be committed to the idea that first-class work in composition is separable from the rest of music-writing by a distinction as radical as that recognized in theology between the elect and the damned. Or at the very least as rigorous an exclusion from glory as that which formerly marked the difference between Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred and the rest of the human race. This snobbish definition of excellence is opposed to the classical concept of a Republic of Letters. It reposes, rather, on the theocratic idea that inspiration is less a privilege of the private citizen than of the ordained prophet. Its weakness lies in the fact that music, though it serves most becomingly as religion’s handmaiden, is not a religion. Music does not deal in general ideas of morality or salvation. It is an art. It expresses private sentiments through skill and sincerity, both of which last are a privilege, a duty, indeed, of the private citizen, and no monopoly of the prophetically inclined.

Concert Review: REBEL, Oberlin (Kulas Recital Hall), November 23

Oberlin College’s Kulas Recital Hall can be a dangerous place on a November Sunday afternoon. The lights are dim, the seats are on the cushy side, and the heat just a shade too warm: in other words, a perfect environment for a nap. This, however, was not the case when historical performance ensemble REBEL came to town on the 23rd with their program of 17th and 18th century works. From the first note to the last, the hall was wholly awake.

The ensemble took only an instant to breathe after each movement before joyfully launching into the next one, continually conveying spontaneity without noticeable rough edges. They immediately found the groove of each piece, starting and finishing phrases in perfect time without any trace of stuffiness or stiffness. Endings of movements were also quick and vivacious, eschewing the deep curtseys so common in the codas of Baroque performance. Despite the number of works on the program, the concert lasted only an hour.

Communication within the ensemble was uncannily excellent. Violinists Jorg-Michael Schwarz and Karen Marie Marmer were in sync and in tune, even through the most impossibly frenetic, high runs of Biagio Marini’s Sonata sopra la Monica, Op. 8.  Violoncellist John Moran’s back was to harpsichordist Dongsok Shin, but during the wild Allemanda of Corelli’s Sonata, Op. 4, No. 8,they may as well have melded minds. 

The ensemble played together on all the pieces except for a performance of Domenico Gabrielli’s Sonate a Violoncello solo from Moran and Shin. Moran’s slow and soft sections flowed, bending the written rhythms without veering into faux-Romantic rubato territory. In faster, louder sections, the sound balance tipped in favor of the harpsichord, and the cello sounded slightly pushed. 

Overall, the repertoire choices and performance style favored light and sprightly over heavy and slow. The lightning-fast transition from the second movement Vivace to the third movement Presto of Telemann’s Sonate Corellisante V was a surging rush of masterfully controlled energy. Only in William Boyce’s Sonata V in D did the group’s performance veer towards generic and polite, and the cookie-cutter piece was just as much at fault for that.

 Vivaldi’s Sonata Op. 1, 12 ‘La Follia’ starts out as a simple thread of a tune and turns into a bright gem, catching the light in a different way by the moment – a slow waltz, a lively dance, a mad dash. In the home stretch, Marmer and Schwarz traded the melody back and forth so smoothly and seamlessly that the two moving bows on stage were the only indication there were two players instead of one. The program tied up with a winkingly melodramatic, drawn-out final note, and the faces of musicians and audience alike broke into the kind of exuberant smiles more often seen on a returning roller coaster than in Kulas Recital Hall. 

Pre-Review Thoughts: Tenth Muse at Fairchild Chapel

I went to go see a bunch of historical performance tricksters give a mini-concert tonight. They didn’t give out programs, and whether or not they announced what they were about to play was a toss-up throughout. I was writing blind impressions down, and looking at them now, it seems those raw thoughts untethered to a composer’s name, a country, or anything are going to be pretty helpful nevertheless (or perhaps because of?) But we’ll see about that after I write something.

Thoughts on the Rubin Institute, for lack of a better title

“You mean they actually teach people to be critics?” commented one person on a link shared by music writer Tim Page, a few hours after the conclusion of the second biennial Rubin Institute for Music Criticism in San Francisco. No, Mr. Commenter, no one can teach you to be a critic. As the old cliché goes, everyone’s a critic. If you have pondered whether or not you liked the performance you saw, or if a recording failed to move you and you have voiced that opinion, you are as much of a critic as I am – and I just got handed a check for a hefty sum of money for showing “outstanding promise in music criticism,” so I sincerely hope I might be a critic. 

I learned at the Rubin Institute how to translate my opinions on music from wide swaths of abstract thought, fragmented observations, and fleeting flashes of emotion into under 400 English words. I tried submitting 401 once, and San Francisco Conservatory’s website didn’t let me. In short, I learned not how to be a critic, but how to clearly and concisely articulate criticism: lessons I eagerly absorbed and will do my best to put into practice.

The Institute was created and funded by wealthy publisher/philanthropist and former New York Times music journalist Stephen Rubin. This was the second such program, the first having been at Oberlin College in January of 2012. He invited five established classical music critics with various specialties and extra-musical interests to instruct the student Rubin Fellows (seventeen of us, undergraduate through doctoral, representing five schools) in the art of writing concert reviews.

Most of the Fellows were trained performers or composers of what Alan Rich would call “serious music.” Some were musicologists. Though the Institute bills itself as a training ground for the future of music criticism, none were journalism students. My fellow fellows and I were put through a five-day marathon of public panels, private workshops with the professionals, concerts by San Francisco’s most respected musical institutions, and receptions. It was a fine environment in which to discuss music and writing. The opportunity to spend so much time with so many intelligent people who care about some of the same things I do and enjoy talking about them was rare and wonderful. However, the way the Institute was programmed was decidedly not oriented toward the future.

New Yorker critic Alex Ross noted in his pre-concert lecture that many problems in the culture surrounding classical music are bound up in “repeating the familiar and rejecting the new,” a trend I saw in action too frequently at the Institute. I heard countless times that we youngsters were the future of music criticism, and I couldn’t shake the impression that I had been transported to a vanished past. The fact that the programs we reviewed included only music from the European Common Practice Era (roughly from Bach’s birth to the day before the Rite of Spring premiered) was the least of the dissonances. Oberlin College and San Francisco Conservatory’s fellows all had some experience writing concert reviews, but I learned that this was not a common factor. Because there were no contemporary works on the docket, there was no discourse or instruction about reviewing new music except for a thirty-second comment in a public panel from Tim Page. If I am part of the future of criticism, I need to know the differences between reviewing a classical chestnut and a world premiere, and the differences between critiquing a new work and how that work was performed.

Though the concerts we could attend were limited by what was being performed in the area during the Institute’s time frame, I find it hard to believe that there was no contemporary music or chamber music worth hearing in San Francisco during those five days. A new, daring group, hiccups and all, would have been much more interesting and conducive to productive conversations about the future than the well sung but decidedly complacent Tosca we saw at the San Francisco Opera. (Because really, what hasn’t been written already about Tosca?)

The ossification of the canon didn’t stop with the programs, as the newest ensemble we heard was the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Historically informed performance such as it presents is a relatively new practice, as Wall Street Journal opera critic Heidi Waleson explained in her pre-concert lecture. The ensemble was still formed before the oldest of the Rubin Fellows was born. In the world of this Rubin Institute, young, innovative musicians and concerts in spaces other than grand halls did not exist.

Added to that, the staff would have been ideal for an institute geared towards the future of music writing. Anne Midgette worked as a freelancer for decades before landing her first steady job (her current one, at the Washington Post); John Rockwell reviewed jazz and rock in addition to classical music for the New York Times; Alex Ross brought 20th century music to new ears with his warmly and engagingly written survey, The Rest is Noise. Rather than sharing their personal expertise, perspectives, and outlooks for the future, they patiently pored over our reviews of last night’s concerts of last millennium’s music.

Mr. Rubin stated over and over during the Institute that he had put the program together to maintain and elevate standards of critical writing in a world of knee-jerk reactions and online “verbal diarrhea.” However, the writing that the present needs and the future will need is not limited to postgame recaps of the established Western canon, which was the beginning and end of the writing taught and discussed at the Institute. Such can be an essential skeleton of modern criticism, but bones cannot stand alone.

“When they set me loose, I will write like they taught me to write here, about everything I couldn’t write about here,” I vowed in the small hours of the Institute’s final night, writing a letter to a friend. I never expected to be set loose with a check in my backpack, so now I suppose I really have to keep that promise.