The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Mainstream critics got it all wrong, says an eye-witness and ear-witness whose first-hand account of pianist Lola Astanova’s Carnegie Hall recital sees it quite differently. | February 4, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

You may recall that a couple of week ago, I posted stories about the Carnegie Hall recital debut to benefit the American Cancer Society by 28-year-old Uzbekistan-born pianist Lola Astanova (below), who likes to perform in the latest fashions and who is not shy about promoting herself and her good looks to further her concert career. (That is why she also invites comparison to pianist Yuja Wang.)

Here is a link to that first post:

http://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/classical-music-news-will-lola-astanova-outstrip-yuja-wang-as-the-sexiest-pianist-today-will-lola-or-yuja-become-the-lady-gaga-of-classical-music/

Then a week later, I posted a number of reviews of that recital. Most of the critics said it was so-so, though a couple were more enthusiastic. Here is a link to that second post:

http://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/01/28/classical-music-reviews-of-pianist-lola-astanova-dont-sparkle-as-brightly-as-her-tiffany-jewels-she-played-vladimir-horowitzs-concert-grand-but-she-is-no-vladimir-horowitz/

But subsequently I heard two listeners who each attended the recital and were there on the spot.

Now, of course, we all know how unreliable eyewitnesses can be thanks to the many death-penalty reversals secured around the U.S. by The Innocence Project. Eyewitness testimony has long known to be notoriously unreliable.

Add in the subjectivity of the arts and of both the person making the art and the person consuming it, and the question of reliability is compounded many times.

In any case today and tomorrow I want to offer two sides, one pro and one con, from two people who both attended the recital.

You can make up your own mind which one is right, or if the truth lies somewhere in between.

Today I feature Alexander Grey who wrote at length and thoughtfully to the blog, in two installments. He offered the following impressions and evaluation of the recital by Astanova:

Jake:

First of all, I always enjoy reading your blog because you always try to be fair (even if you have a strong opinion), and always leave the decision up to your readers. I respect that.

So I have to say something about this Astanova concert, and all the negative reviews that you mentioned. I attended the concert, and here is what bothers me about these reviews:

First of all, nobody mentioned that Astanova received a standing ovation from nearly 3,000 people in attendance and was called back on stage (below) three times. A relevant piece of information when measuring how successful a concert went, wouldn’t you say? Especially in New York, where people are experienced (and even spoiled) concert-goers.

Secondly, nobody mentioned that among other famous names the concert was attended by Byron Janis (below), who stayed until the very end (I was sitting two rows behind him) and who was applauding standing up when Astanova finished. I think it is fair to assume that Mr. Janis knows about the piano and understands this music no less than your average critic, wouldn’t you agree? Unless one is willing to dismiss Mr. Janis’ opinion as dilettante.

Thirdly, while Astanova does seem to put a lot of thought into her outfits (she changed her dress for the second part), she did not wear anything even REMOTELY as revealing at that orange Yuja Wang number (below). Astanova wore two long gowns that showed very little skin. With that said, I think you’d have to agree that she could wear a long overcoat with neck-high boots, and people would still say that she was “pushing sex.” Let’s be honest, if she looked like a boy and weighted 200 lbs. nobody would say a word about her outfits even if she’d play in lace lingerie.

Finally, I understand that no two people are alike and opinions differ. No argument there. But I was at Carnegie Hall that night, and Astanova’s performance was very solid, and to dismiss it as “mediocre” makes me question the professionalism and objectivity of the reviewers who make such claim  particularly given their omission of the above mentioned information.

You know, promotion and marketing only go so far. Promotion can get people into a hall (maybe), but it can’t make them love a concert. And like it or not, but 3,000 people at Carnegie Hall loved her. And, frankly, the amount of heated discussions that Astanova generates only further confirms that she is anything, but mediocre.

I personally don’t like everything she does, but I think it’s great for classical music to finally produce a star that has mainstream appeal, and can get more people excited about classical repertoire. That is good for everyone.

Then came a follow-up when I asked Alexander about using his “Comment” as a post:

Hi Jake,

Thanks very much for your note.  You are certainly welcome to use my comments, though given the number of people who attended and obviously enjoyed the concert, I would not call them the “minority report.”

I am, of course, aware that Byron Janis was only “official” student of Vladimir Horowitz (below), and I thought the fact that he came to this concert, stayed until the end (despite appearing quite frail) and applauded on his feet when Astanova was done spoke volumes about her ability.  People like Mr. Janis almost never come out for anyone so I was plain amazed to see him and his reaction.

By the way, I’m pretty sure I also saw David Dubal (below, a professor of piano and performance at Juilliard and another authority on Horowitz) at the concert as well.  I don’t know if he wrote anything about it, but I’m 99% sure he was there.

In my view all these details are valuable, and one of the reasons some of the “official” reviews bothered me so much is because they ignored all of them and ended up suspiciously lop-sided. Having several reporter friends who occasionally share “dishes from their professional kitchens” I was not very surprised: $850,000 in jewels is simply too easy a target for an up-and-coming critic to pass.

By the way, here I have to applaud you again for pointing out that Mr. Zachary Woolfe (below) is actually not a New York Times critic – an important detail that, probably, escaped most people.

But much like you, I noted it as I was disappointed that New York Times did not assign the likes of senior critic Anthony Tommasini (below) to review this concert.  I wanted to read a seasoned and respected critic’s review, but we did not get it this time.  Alas.

I think I said in my original comment that Ms. Astanova may not necessarily be “my cup of tea,” but fair is fair.  She was poised, charismatic, gracious, and had a point of view. And I have to say I enjoyed it.  Time will tell, of course, but I think she is here to stay, and I believe it would be good for classical music.

Also, Ms. Astanova raised a sum in the six-figures for cancer research that night.  That’s very real money that goes to save lives.  How many classical musicians (or critics for that matter) can say the same?  Something to think about and acknowledge …


4 Comments »

  1. Jake, thanks for the publication…wow, my 15 minutes of literary fame!

    You know, reading some of the negative comments I can’t help but feel that the people who are gunning for this girl are mostly unsuccessful classical musicians who are simply jealous. Jealous of the attention that she gets and they do not, jealous of the fact that she is able to get mainstream stars at her concert and they cannot, jealous that she is able to get Tiffany to outfit her and they cannot.

    Basic human nature, I’m afraid. And usually such people cope with their inner frustration in understandable ways: half of them pretend that she does not exist, while the other half goes beyond any legitimate criticism to try to discredit her. And the fact that the negative comments tend to sound personal and seek to belittle her beyond any understandable degree only further confirm my suspicion. One may like or dislike her style, but to deny her piano skills is wrong.

    And speaking of criticism, I’ve yet to read a negative review that would actually explain what specifically was so bad about her playing, outside of some generalities a-la “I just didn’t like her.” They seek to deny her skills without really backing that claim with anything worth readying.That’s what I meant when I said I wanted a knowledgeable critic to attend the recital.

    The problem, of course, is that she is quite capable and technically very strong. Coincidentally, most viewers on YouTube seem to agree: she has a ton of views (few classical musicians have that level of viewership) and an overwhelmingly positive rating (at least on the videos that I’ve seen). Moreover, her videos are not “produced” so she is basically one-on-one with the music, and one doesn’t really need any intermediary to get a personal opinion of her playing.

    I know some will say that “YouTube audience doesn’t understand classical music,” much like someone in your blog had tried to suggest that Astanova’s audience simply consists of “not experienced concert-goers”. I have thoughts on that:

    One: I’m sorry, but I missed since when this music had become for experts only. I thought it was created to touch any human being and, in that sense, a regular/average concert goer’s reaction is actually a great measure of the performing artist’s success.

    Two: I’m sorry, but given that most people consider classical music “boring,” how many of the non-classical fans do you think actually watch her videos? Am I to understand that all of Astanova’s views actually come from P. Diddy’s fans, who secretly search for Rachmaninoff piano compositions, and enjoy them quietly when the night falls on the hood? :) I think I made my point.

    Beyond the numbers that speak loudly, one can argue “interpretations” till the cows come home. But one should always keep in mind that his or her opinion on that subject is just that – an opinion…not a fact.

    Alex G.

    P.S. Oh, by the way, I didn’t know what Mr. Woolfe looked like when I wrote my initial comment. So thank you for posting his photo. It feels good to be right: he is, in fact, a very young man, who is trying to get noticed and for whom Tiffany’s products are well beyond his means. Yes, I think the latter played an unfortunate role in his review. But, once again, that’s only human nature.

    Comment by Alex G. — February 6, 2012 @ 2:26 am

    • Hi Alex,
      Glad you consented and liked the publication.
      And it is there for more than 15 minutes!
      Thanks too for some more excellent points you make in this comment.
      I think envy an vicariousness always play a big role in all the performing arts — a phenomenon worth exploring more deeply one day.
      I mean, when I see a great soloist playing a piano concerto — it is ME up on that stage (in my fantasy life anyway).
      Thank you again for being such a loyal reader and such a perceptive and willing commentator.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 6, 2012 @ 9:29 am

  2. Perhaps they thought she was too small beans for NY Times’ most senior critic to review! Anyway, I agree with all of the reviews in general, Ms. Astanova does not seem to be an astounding pianist and what makes up for it are her other qualities. This is not a bad thing, but perhaps if she would like to be taken more seriously, she should try to do less of the glitzy events and work on building herself professionally!

    Michelle

    Comment by Michelle — February 4, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    • Hi Michelle,
      Thank you of reading and replying.
      Good advice.
      Substance should always trump sensationalism and marketing, whether it is in her case or someone else’s.
      Happy listening.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 5, 2012 @ 11:14 am


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