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. 

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Rubin Institute Review: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Choir, Nov. 9 2014

Antonin Dvorak’s Stabat Mater is not a Mass, but it is massive. Created after the composer’s three children died in quick succession, it is an ocean liner of a masterwork, sailing slow and heavy at no tempo faster than a funeral march. It runs about ninety minutes, with no opportunity for a break without severely lessening its emotional impact. Accordingly, it requires a top-notch crew of musicians for a successful performance. The Czech Philharmonic and Prague Philharmonic Choir, two such crews on tour in the United States this month, teamed up to perform Stabat Mater with frank melancholy on Sunday in UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

Under the steady baton of Jiří Bělohlávek, the orchestra weaved a sonic tapestry of grief, reconciliation and hope. From the piece’s first notes, sustained F sharps which seemed to drop from the sky like stones into a still pond, the orchestra was evocative and wonderfully unified, telegraphing the intent behind every phrase into their playing. The trombones delivered warm, dark consolations, and the strings equally conveyed sorrow and solace. The vocal soloists were also excellent. Notably so was tenor Jaroslav Brezina, who sang a plaintive and beautiful “Fac me vere” devoid of operatic histrionics.

The Czech Philharmonic is hard to rise above, and Stabat Mater demands its chorus does just that. Unfortunately, the Prague Philharmonic Choir was placed far behind the orchestra. This created the right ambiance when the voices needed to echo from the hill of Calvary in the first movement, but less so when the score and text called for greater immediacy.  Zellerbach’s acoustics were unforgiving for most of the work, subsuming the vocals under the orchestra’s full sound at key moments. It would have been better to see more singers on the half-empty risers. Failing that, a cathedral would have been a superior venue.

“Eja, mater” was mostly audible but as blocky as the hall’s concrete balconies, and the movement’s climactic vocal pleas to Mary were buried in horns. “Tui nati vulnerati,” the first glimmer of light after four desolate minor key movements, was almost completely lost, and “Virgo virginum praeclara” was distant even in a cappella sections.  The gates of heaven at last burst open in the final moments with a brilliant, shattering “paradisi gloria,“ breaking forth with enough power to visibly knock people back in their seats. Where was that for the preceding hour and twenty minutes? Amen!

Rubin Institute Review: San Francisco Opera, Tosca, Nov. 8 2014

Don’t go to see Puccini’s Tosca expecting complex insight into human nature. The opera’s plot and libretto are paper-thin, about as deep and unpredictable as your average summer action flick. Tosca will shine, or Tosca will stink, purely on panache. On Saturday at War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera played it old school: painted flat sets and luxuriant costumes by Thierry Bosquet in the style of the theater’s 1932 Armando Agnini production, and a cast as solidly reliable as that of a beloved classic film.

Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian made her American debut as a picture-perfect Tosca, but her voice was sometimes swallowed in Ricardo Frizza’s lively orchestra. Her onstage chemistry with both men was also lukewarm for the first two acts. She claimed she “burns with love” for Cavaradossi,  but the lack of passion in the lovers’ demeanors indicated otherwise. However, Tosca’s vulnerable aria “Vissi d’arte” dripped with pathos without being overblown, and her post-stabbing “And all of Rome trembled before him” was gutturally defiant.

Mark Delavan’s Scarpia marched into the church like Darth Vader arriving on the bridge of the Death Star, his back ramrod straight with a long black cape sweeping behind him. His hefty bass breached the orchestral fortress, with even quiet asides crisp and clear until the “Te Deum” ending of Act I, when he too was drowned out. His scenes with Haroutounian were subtly menacing but lacked much of the essential back and forth, not for his lack of trying. He directed his lines at her; she always directed hers to the audience. This Tosca is an actress to the core, for better or worse.

Brian Jagde’s Cavaradossi was also weakest in Act I, looking and sounding more like a pampered princeling than a revolutionary artist. Once the police stained his face with blood and tore his shirt, he was potent and immediate. “Never have I loved life so much,” Cavaradossi sings in Act III. By that point, it was believable. 

The first act’s savior was Dale Travis as a deadpan wine-stealing Sacristan, beset by the rambunctiously excellent San Francisco Boys Chorus. Joel Sorensen’s Spoletta was so slimy, it is a surprise the stage is not still crawling with worms.

Haroutounian’s fervor and fire show great potential for future roles. As it stands, a strong supporting cast and the production’s sumptuous visual feasts saved this Tosca from the middle of the road.

Rubin Institute Review: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nov. 7 2014

Recently, NPR Soundcheck’s “Tough Critics” web series asked three grade schoolers for opinions on Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The verdict was unanimous disdain. “It’s what they play in cartoons when the character gets really rich, and they show them drinking wine with their pinky out,” explained one boy.

Perhaps those kids should have heard Bach as played by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra at Calvary Presbyterian Church on Friday evening. Conductor Julian Wachner combined kinetic vigor with childlike elan to lead a program of Bach, Telemann, and Handel for his debut concert with the ensemble. Under full house lights, stripped of all hushed and dignified pretensions associated with Baroque music, the result was an unabashedly joyful noise.

Special guest Andreas Scholl proved himself equally at home in the worlds of the sacred and the secular, singing three Handel arias and Bach’s Cantata No. 170 with the ensemble.  Though the countertenor clearly has the voltage to send his voice soaring to the highest balcony of the Metropolitan Opera, his mien was wholly conversational for this intimate performance. “Dov’e sei?” from Rodelinda expressed a heavy heart through a voice like a feather on a breeze. “Va, tacito” from Giulio Cesare was a secret told to a friend accompanied with just the right amount of swagger, rather than the grand proclamation necessary at a larger venue. His tone rang clearer than the aria’s hunting horns, which consistently had to hunt too long for pitches. “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse was Scholl’s well-deserved encore, and each unadorned long note hit like a velvet-tipped arrow to the gut.

 Wachner extracted full potential energy from the scores, unwrapping each phrase and deftly battling the acoustics of the hall, which at times briefly swallowed the lower end. In Telemann’s Concerto in F Major for Violin, Oboe and Two Horns, Phoebe Carrai’s wild violoncello interpolations set feet tapping and heads bobbing. Principal oboist Gonzalo Ruiz made the piece’s fiery trills and peregrinations up and down the scale sound as effortless as a wild swan’s flight on a summer day.

The program’s final selection, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, sparked with vitality. Its few rough edges were easily forgivable and forgettable in light of its spirited stringwork and sweet wind chorales. If Soundcheck’s young critic had attended, he undoubtedly would agree that all pinkies in this rustic Brandenburg were firmly tucked in.

Rubin Institute Review: San Francisco Symphony, Nov. 6 2014

Before departing on its autumn tour the San Francisco Symphony shared selections from its traveling repertoire at home, under the warm lights of Davies Hall. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas, celebrating his twentieth year with the orchestra, conducted sumptuous symphonic dances from three centuries.

The maestro swayed back and forth like a metronome in time with the frenetic Faustian fantasy, Lizst’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 for Orchestra. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik played the devil’s fiddle with sly, seductive aplomb, and principal flautist Timothy Day trilled like a nervous nightingale sensing a hellish presence under his tree. However, as an ensemble, the orchestra erred a shade too far on the side of restraint. Rather than whirling listeners into the frenzy, it left them tapping their feet on the sidelines.

Ravel’s lush Daphnis and Chloe begins with the same rising intervals as the Liszt, but conjures images of a pastoral meadow, far from Mephisto Waltz’s rowdy tavern. Though the ballet was not staged for this concert, the sights of the jam-packed stage and terrace, MTT’s baton painting wide strokes in the air, were almost spectacle enough. Chorus director Ragnar Bolin has well prepared his charges for the tour. The sighs of the masterfully blended a cappella interlude which begins the second part sent chills through the hall.  Flautist Day also delivered a breathtaking performance of the lightning-fast feature in the pantomime section near the end.

Magnificent moments aside, the complete Daphnis is too long without the ballet to accompany it. Taken out of context, it grew repetitive and disconnected over its fifty minutes. Its brief frissons were flashes in the ether: pretty ether, but ether nonetheless. Even sections of conflict were lost in the haze, one almost indistinguishable from another after so many of them. 

The night truly belonged to Gil Shaham, soloist of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, K.219. As he waited for his first entrance, his face was alight with pure joy, and from the moment his bow touched strings the audience was riding the waves of arpeggios with him. The typically ebullient MTT was reserved, letting Shaham take the temporary title of lord of the dance: and dance Shaham did, not losing a single note from Joseph Joachim’s madcap cadenzas, provoking applause between movements, spreading infectious enthusiasm through both orchestra and audience. The oldest selection on the program was by far the freshest and most alive.