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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Essay: The Critical Ear

What do reviewers listen for at a classical music concert?
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The protest against silence from The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
Art by Jules Feiffer © 1961 Random House LLC.
You see us at the Philharmonic, at Carnegie Hall, at chamber music performances, and at the opera. We sit there sometimes scribbling in ugly notebooks, sometimes perusing progam notes or musical scores, sometimes with eyes closed, heads bowed in some sort of deep communion with the spirits of the creators of the music being performed.

When not bowed in sweet (and zealous) contemplation, we keep our eyes moving. Glance at the conductor. Watch the concertmaster. The timpanist. Other members of the orchestra if we can see them. (Some venues and seating arrangements are better for this than others.) We try to keep our pens as quiet as possible, to turn the page with a minimum of disturbance.

So what is it we are all listening so intently for?

Being a classical music critic is not easy work. It' a constant demand of concentration and focus, trying to catch details in a performance that the ordinary, untrained ear wouldn't. I've often compared this job to transmutation: turning sounds we hear into words to give our readers a glimpse into an experience they may or may not have shared. You need to know music, performance history, recordings history (the back catalogue) and have all that as a background either in your memory or on hand when you sit down to write. But what really counts is what's in your head.

I've learned to listen to music in pick out and divide ensembles of strings, individual players in the winds and brass, the meter of percussionists. I listen to singers and pianists for clarity and phrasing, and an underlying hard to define quality of passion and meaning. I monitor my own emotional reactions to a piece and I admit I might be kinder in review if I'm more moved by a performance. Was I bored? Was I engaged? All are factors in the final write-up.

Opera is even more difficult as it adds another layer--that of staging, costumes, lighting and acting to the already complex variables listed above. In an opera review you should break down what the production was like, and whether it dramatically worked--not whether it was "conventional." Every director brings something of value to the table, but every opera production also runs the risk of being rote, stale or just having the singers go through the motions on a given night.

Singers are another matter. Is this what the role should sound like? Do they have a cold or an illness and is it a factor? Is the singer a good fit for the part they are attempting? Does the dramatic soprano have a rich bottom end or is she shrill? Did the bass hit that low note without a wobble? It's good to listen for these things and report them but at the same time don't nit-pick...and don't dissemble. Be honest and be fair. Don't be bitchy.

In all cases, I try to remember what I know about a piece and at the same time hear it afresh. No comparing conductors--no comparing performances especially as they are all different. You try to ignore expetations and concentrate on the experience at hand, letting the music flow over you and through you, and letting the artists make their own statement of the work at hand. Of course whether or not you like or agree with that statement is your job...but you have to remember that you're reporting not pontificating.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats