function get_footer() { echo "test"; } November 8, 2005

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A Hundred Years of Heavenly Singing

By Mickey Butts

UC Berkeley University & Chamber Choruses


Marathon Might

By Jerry Kuderna

Christopher Taylor


Lovely Airs

By Anna Carol Dudley

Wildcat Viols
Catherine Edwards


Dramatic Deficits

By Michael Zwiebach

San Francisco Opera
La forza del destino


Program Craft

By Michelle Dulak Thomson

San Francisco Symphony
Peter Serkin
Oliver Knussen


Getting to the Heart

By Robert Commanday

Mari Kodama


Stealing Schumann's Thunder

By Jeff Rosenfeld

Berkeley Symphony
Caitlin Tully


Responses to "Where the Buck Stops"


In the Operatic Crystal Ball

By Janos Gereben


Responses to Our 11/1/05 Question of the Week

San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House

Mickey Butts, Executive Director/Publisher

Question of the Week
Here’s a question we put to you, inviting your response this week.

Do you think a critic is more likely to make an interesting assessment of a performance with or without extensive preparation?

Please click here.

Lifting the Curtain on the Reviewer's Art

By Lisa Hirsch

In the world of classical music, you often get back what you put into a piece of music. A little preparation before the concert can pay big dividends for your musical experience. Robert Commanday and Michelle Dulak Thomson explored this topic in a January 6, 2004, SFCV article titled "Be Prepared." Among the things audiences can do before a concert, Commanday and Thomson suggested reading the texts for song recitals, choral concerts, and operas; previewing program notes online; listening to a recording; and, for those who read music, reviewing the score.

But what level of preparation is desirable for the reviewer — that critical person in the audience who captures the essence of a concert for those who attended or missed the concert, as well as for posterity? To find out, San Francisco Classical Voice decided to turn the tables on the reviewers and interview them, so as to inject more transparency into the reviewing process. We learned that practice varies: There isn't one uniform standard in the reviewing world, which is probably a good thing.

In a typical Bay Area season, audiences can hear music written anywhere from 1000 A.D. to yesterday, performed by groups ranging in size from a soloist to the hundreds required for Mahler's Eighth Symphony. SFCV's reviewers are a varied lot, as you can tell if you read the biographies that appear at the end of each review. Many are professional or amateur musicians or composers; some are in academia; others are simply experienced listeners.

It's a given that a reviewer will be familiar with a fairly wide range of music and musical styles, but it's impossible for a single individual to know it all, whether from scores, personal experience as a performer, or recordings. The standard repertory of the last 300 years includes thousands of orchestral, solo, operatic, and chamber works by dozens of the most important composers. In the LP and CD eras, an enormous amount of hitherto hard-to-find music by worthy but not quite first-tier composers has been recorded. (Havergal Brian, Franz Berwald, and Jón Leifs, anyone?) Reach back before 1700 and even more enormous repertories of secular and sacred music open up.

So what's a reviewer to do? As in so many things, the answer is: It depends.

If a work to be reviewed is part of the core repertory from the last 300 years, there's a pretty good chance the reviewer is already familiar with it. It's tough for a music lover to miss the Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart or Haydn symphonies, the Beethoven string quartets, Rhapsody in Blue, the Rachmaninov piano concertos, Le nozze di Figaro, or Aida. (Yes, let's assume our theoretical reviewer is a music lover. If she's not, perhaps she would be happier in another line of work.)

So a reviewer isn't starting from scratch. If the work is a warhorse, no preparation at all might be necessary. And that's just what Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle told SFCV: "For the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony," and, he implied, similarly familiar pieces, "I do nothing."

For some works, a reviewer might decide to look at the score or read through it at the piano. Scores of standard repertory works are easy enough to find; they might be in the reviewer's personal collection, and if not, they're readily available at a big public or academic music library. Or the reviewer might listen to a favorite recording or two, perhaps as a refresher if he hasn't heard the work recently. Even reviewers' personal recording collections vary considerably in size. Alex Ross of The New Yorker once mentioned his 10,000-odd CDs in a blog posting, while New York Times critic Bernard Holland dropped my jaw some years ago when he said he owned only about 300 records.

Reviewers vary considerably in what they think is appropriate, of course. One reviewer might prefer to avoid recordings in order to clear all preconceived ideas from her head. SFCV editor Michelle Dulak Thomson, however, says that if she knows a work well, she listens to several recordings to remind herself of the range of possible interpretations.

The challenges of new and old

New or unusual music presents different challenges. The composer might be completely new to the reviewer and the work might not yet have been published. Andrew Porter, a critic at The New Yorker for 20 years, typically tried to obtain a perusal score from the composer or publisher before an important premiere. Porter attended rehearsals when he could and sometimes talked to the composer or the performers about the work.

Joshua Kosman does much the same thing. For a big premiere, especially of a large-scale work such as Doctor Atomic, he'll go to some lengths to see the score. He also attends the open rehearsal series of the San Francisco Symphony, and not just when new or unfamiliar works are being performed, because the format makes it easier and more appropriate to bring a score along for reference.

If the score isn't available and the work hasn't been recorded, a reviewer may immerse himself in a composer's style by reviewing the composer's other scores or listening to recordings of other works. I expect the premiere of Doctor Atomic sold quite a few CDs for John Adams and Nonesuch, for example.

Early music presents some of the same challenges as new music. More reviewers have heard (or performed in) the Beethoven symphonies than have heard or sung the masses of Obrecht or the secular music of Binchois. Early music groups often prepare their own performing editions, especially if the group is connected with a university or directed by a scholar. The performers may even be playing from photocopies of the original manuscripts. Faced with the need to evaluate an edition or performance style that an ensemble has chosen, a reviewer may dip into the scholarly literature on a composer, period, or work. Of course, this is also true of more recent music. Someone reviewing a Rossini or early Verdi opera would find it helpful to know what vocal ornamentation was common and expected when the work was composed.

Different kinds of concerts also call for different levels of preparation. If a solo recital is the focus, the reviewer might listen to some of the performer's recordings to get a sense of his or her style and strengths. The same goes for a famous conductor leading the San Francisco Symphony for the first time. Choral concerts and vocal recitals can have as many as 25 short works by sundry composers and from different eras. In such a situation, it's difficult to do a lot of advance preparation, and the reviewer may have to rely on her general knowledge and on-the-spot observations.

The literary sources of operas are also a fertile area for the curious reviewer. Verdi’s sources include plays by Schiller and Hugo, for example. In the case of recent American operas, a reviewer might peruse background materials to learn what the librettist and composer left in or out of an adaptation. André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire is based on an iconic American play that also gave birth to a famous film; Carlisle Floyd's Cold Sassy Tree and Mark Adamo's Little Women are both based on novels. The libretto for Doctor Atomic was drawn from many sources, and quite a few reviewers, including Ross and Kosman, consulted Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb for historical background.

It goes almost without saying that an alert critic will try to read the libretto of any opera that is under review. Each volume in the English National Opera’s series of opera guides includes not only a singing translation of the libretto, but also photographs of important productions, scholarly articles, and a survey of important musical themes.

There are circumstances in which a reviewer may seem to be out of luck: A work is new and the score isn't readily available, or the work is very old, or rarely heard, or has never been published. But a look at the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians might provide pointers to articles or books about the work, composer, or time period. Consulting a music librarian can also be enormously helpful. Performing organizations and composers are often eager to assist, as well.

The publication's lead time, and the amount of time a writer has between receiving a writing assignment and the deadline, also bears on how much preparation happens. "I have a lot more time to prepare beforehand here at The New Yorker, given that my columns come every few weeks as opposed to every other day," says Alex Ross. "But I did much of the same preparation when I was at The [New York] Times, as time allowed." He prepares by reading background articles, studying scores, and listening to recordings related to particular pieces or composers.

Reviewing without a net

There's something to be said for reviewing a work cold, even when the reviewer has the opportunity for preparation. For example, Kosman read Cold Sassy Tree prior to seeing the operatic version for the first time, and says that his experience of the opera was therefore different from that of attendees who didn't know the novel. He thinks that might have been a drawback rather than advantage. "It focused my attention more on the decisions Floyd had made in adapting the novel — how to treat particular characters and incidents, what to leave in and what to leave out — compared to those who were encountering the story for the first time and judging it on that basis alone," says Kosman. "In other words, 'How good a theatrical yarn is this, anyway?' vs. 'What was the result of the adaptation process?'"

These days, background knowledge is ubiquitous. Writers now have a wealth of scholarly and recorded resources to back them up. They have access online or in libraries to decades of reviews and writing about classical music. These are luxuries earlier critics didn't have. Then there's simply our exposure to hundreds of years of musical history. It's worth considering what the Beethoven symphonies would have sounded like to a listener who hadn't heard much Haydn, Mozart, or C.P.E. Bach, or how a critic would have approached a radical work such as Tristan und Isolde in the 1860s. I became acquainted with Tristan at a time when I already knew the music of the Second Viennese School, an experience no 19th century reviewer could have had.

But there are certainly advantages to hearing something unencumbered by preconceived notions. Limited preparation can, in fact, make it possible to experience the shock of the new even with old music. I was lucky enough to review a Music@Menlo concert this past summer that included the Schubert String Quintet in C Major. I'd never heard the work before (I have broader and deeper knowledge of the operatic and early music repertory than of 19th century chamber music). I knew the two Beethoven pieces on the program, and because I know plenty of Schubert, I did no preparation for the Quintet. The result was a transcendent concertgoing experience — the kind every listener hopes for, but rarely gets. The second theme of the first movement left me in tears. I was utterly transported for the rest of the piece, and I was still enraptured an hour after the concert ended.

I'm glad to have had that serendipitous experience. I'm not suggesting that reviewers should avoid preparing for concerts, and I certainly don't plan to give it up myself. What reviewers are being paid for, really, is their ability to evaluate both a work and a performance on the fly, and then write intelligently about what we heard for an audience that includes readers of all levels of musical experience. We can prepare for a particular concert, but our cumulative experience and knowledge of music are the general preparation that we bring to everything we review, and it's that knowledge that allows us to sometimes review without advance preparation. Whether writers are prepared beforehand or not, however, the critical piece of the reviewer's art is perspective, and no amount of context can replace that.

(Lisa Hirsch is a technical writer who studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)

©2005 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved


SFCV is a not-for-profit enterprise supported by foundation grants and individual contributions. If you enjoy what you find here and want to see our work continue, please consider making a contribution. By virtue of a generous matching grant, it will be doubled. Your contribution (tax-deductible) may be made by credit card by clicking here, or by a check made out to San Francisco Classical Voice and sent to the San Francisco Foundation CIF, (San Francisco Classical Voice account), 225 Bush St. # 500, San Francisco, CA 94104.

From September 1, 1998 to September 13, 2005, SFCV has published, in addition to the Music News, feature pieces and weekly editorials, 2,182 reviews of Bay Area performances by: 52 symphony orchestras (459 reviews), 89 chamber groups (267), 36 new-music ensembles and programs (234), 39 opera companies (306), 29 choral groups (133), 15 music festivals (101), 33 early-music ensembles (170), 24 chamber orchestras (88), 6 musical theater groups (14), as well as numerous world music groups (14), recital presenters (374), youth music ensembles (10), and other organizations (12).


Mickey Butts, Executive Director/Publisher
Michelle Dulak Thomson, Editor
Richard Thomas, Associate Editor


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