The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music and opera review: The Ear says to New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini, “Critic — heed thyself!”

April 6, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

Perhaps you have heard about the mess at the Met last week.

Veteran conductor Leonard Slatkin (below), current music director of the Detroit Symphony and former music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra,  conducted Verdi’s beloved opera “La Traviata” –without fully knowing the score.

Slatkin admitted as much in his blog.

And sure enough, he got drubbed by critics for his performance, which by all accounts lacked cohesion, unity and expressivity. They pointed out that Slatkin really does not do — and has never done — opera and that a debut at the Met is not the occasion for on-the-job learning.

Then, to his credit, Slatkin agreed and withdrew, so the Met named house maestro Marco Armiliato as a replacement conductor.

This week, on Monday, the New York Times’ senior critic Anthony Tommasini (below), who had criticized and chastised Slatkin, published a post-mortem and used recordings to compare various styles of conducting Verdi by Arturo Toscanini, Carlo Maria Giuliani and Carlos Kleiber. It was well researched and revealing, insightful piece, typical of the quality and judgment that Tommasini — himself a well-trained musician — brings to his job as a critic .

Tommasini — who is will be coming to Madison to give lecture to mark the 2011-12 centennial of the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet — even showed a certain generosity toward Slatkin, adding, and I quote: “Mr. Slatkin’s mistake was to accept the ‘Traviata’ gig in the first place. No musician can be good at everything. He had nothing to prove.”

Here is a link to the full story:

I like that touch and prefer to think it isn’t just a token cover or kindness.  The fact is that I couldn’t agree with Tommasini more — except perhaps on the merits of the Yale piano teacher we both had, Donald Currier, who died in January at 91 and whom we both admired and loved.

But I ask myself: How then does Tommasini come off so often chiding other musicians — and listeners too — for not being more receptive to modern and contemporary classical music?

In this April 2009 review, for example, he chided pianist Murray Perahia (below), after praising him greatly, for not championing more modern music — which Perahia simply confesses he does not understand — and for playing a Mozart sonata that Tommasini says intermediate-level amateurs play too often, even though Alfred Brendel and others find it an important work. (Great music doesn’t have to be hard to play — Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, anyone? — but is almost always hard to interpret. Plus, Perahia played Beethoven’s “Appassionata” and Brahms’ “Handel” Variations, both virtuoso pieces, so Perahia, like Slatkin, really had nothing to prove.)

Here’s a link to that review:

Ands the same goes for listeners.

Last January, Tommasini took listeners of the New York Philharmonic to task for leaving before the  final piece — the “Three Orchestral Pieces,” Op. 6, by Alban Berg, one of the Second Viennese School atonal composers that Tommasini — himself a composer — likes to champion.

Here is a link to that review. Read the comments at the end:

Yet there is a contradiction here: the same audience members he criticizes had stayed for American composer  John Adams’ ‘The Wound Dresser,” a much more contemporary piece from 1988.

Audience members may have had various personal reasons to leave — including the fact that they just don’t like Webern, a matter of taste I happen to share with them, even after repeated listenings and exposure to that particular composer.

But this week Tommasini is right: Not every musician is good at everything — and should not be expected to be.

And not every listener can appreciate or like everything.

And neither, I would argue, can every critic.

But a little bit more consistency in his generosity would be to Tommasini’s credit and to that of the musicians and public he reviews.

The important thing, for any performer or listener or critic, is to connect with music — and art in general — that speaks to you deeply, movingly and for a very long time.

So I say — stay big: Cut out the nagging about the “should”s and keep up the understanding and empathy of the “is”s.

But what do other listeners and critics say?

What do you make of the Met mess?

What do you make of Leonard Slaktin?

And what do you make of Anthony Tommasini’s remarks?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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