The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Alex Ross’ “Listen to This” is a must-read for classical music fans

October 22, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

With his new book — the one with the astigmatic front jacket — “Listen to This” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 366 pp., $29), Alex Ross solidifies his place as America’s foremost critic of classical music.

True, “classical music” is a term he himself doesn’t like, as he announces right away. That said, the term is small potatoes potatoes – just categorizing shorthand like pop, jazz, rock, bee-bop and country — and despite his reservations about it, it works well for him. You’re not about to see him or his writings move over to Spin or Rolling Stone magazine.

The book is a collection of expanded and altered essays that first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, where Ross is a staff critic.

This book builds off his first book, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century,” which won a National Book Critics Circle award in 2007, but covers more ground. And from his Harvard degrees to his stint at the New York Times and his MacArthur “genius” award, Ross (below) is well qualified.

Here is a link to his bio:

And here is a link to his blog:

And here is a link to a conversation with Ross stemming from his new book:

Don’t be bullied or intimidated by his confident tone and his erudition. Ross’ writing is extremely readable , accessible and enjoyable except when he lapses into technical terms. And you don’t have to agree with everything Ross says. I, for example, remain partly unconvinced by his pieces on pop singers Bjork and Radiohead, Frank Sinatra and Kurt Cobain, and only so-so about his chapter where he follows Bob Dylan on tour for a week.

All of those “non-classical” pieces reap original insights, but there is more drift than I care for. It’s as if Ross is trying just a bit to hard to be hip and to make classical music relevant. Sometimes, he seems to protest too much, though one understands his desire to transcend boundaries that he deems artificial.

I also don’t share his apparent all-embracing enthusiasm for contemporary music. Sure, there are some fine pieces of music, maybe even some masterpieces, being written today.

But I just can’t see anyway to get around the fact that classical music is not the genre for this era. Its heyday ran from about 1650 to 1950, give or take a couple of decades. There is great and interesting stuff before and great and interesting stuff after, but that’s where the vibrant heart of it lies – not in the unusual environmental music of John Luther Adams.

But whatever my disagreements, I still say this rewarding and enjoyable book is chock full of insights and information. Among the best is his ingenious tracing of a certain bass line through history and different styles, genres or periods from classical through jazz, rock and blues.

Most of all, the book is full of attitude. Ross (below) takes music deadly seriously and writes aware of “culturally-aware non-attenders.” Music is not just entertainment but education and more, something worth pursuing and pursuing seriously. It’s not all box office and marketing stats for him. It’s pleasure, but serious and informative pleasure. What would expect from a man who was turned on in his boyhood by Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and by the elucidations of Leonard Bernstein, a worthy pedagogical mentor whom Ross does proud.

The examples of essays that reward the serious listener, and the serious reader, cover just about everything in the book’s 19 chapters or essays.

How can you not love a critic who downloads all of Mozart on to his iPod – all 9.77 gigabytes — and then listens to it and reports back in a survey that is enlightening for its original takes on the playfulness and “intelligent happiness” of Wolfie. Ross’ account of “Don Giovanni” alone is worthy reading the entire essay or even volume.

“Mozart inhabits a middle world,” writes Ross on page 73, “where beauty surges in and ebbs away, where everything is contingent and nothing pure, where, as Henry James’ Madame Merle says, an envelope of circumstances encloses human life. It is a place where genres meld; where concertos become operatic and arias symphonic; where comedy and tragedy,and the sensual and the sacred, are one.”

You will not find a better account anywhere of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s cultural identity (modernity and contemporaneity) and what it owes to its last conductor, Esa Pekka-Salonen (below), than here.

His examination of the role that depression plays in Brahms, especially in late Brahms, is masterful for its subtlety of analysis and familiarity with the music. Ross knows how to listen between the notes. He knows how to hear.

Similarly, his examination of Schubert and how mysterious he and his music remain even after 200 years is masterful in its fairness and judgments of both the man and the music.

And his analysis of what makes for great performances of Verdi is thoroughly convincing. Ross sees beyond the grandiosity of grand opera.

His behind-the-scenes history of the legendary Marlboro Festival (below) in enlightening and entertaining; his account of Western classical music in China is fascinating, although it also seems a bit too apologetic for China’s inattention to “classic” Chinese music. (I want to say: Alex, there is a good reason for that. The Western music is simply better and more universal. Just ask the Chinese.)

His obituaries and  portraits of the singers Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (below top) and Marian Anderson (below bottom) are quietly moving, but deeply felt by the writer and also by the reader.

Most of all, when you finish reading an essay by Ross, you want to go right out and listen to the music, either in live performance or in a recording – which is one reason why Ross includes not only plentiful notes for further research but also a helpful discography of suggested recordings of the works he discusses.

And that, in the end, is the most valuable service a music critic can perform: To bring us back not to himself or his writings, but to the music.

On that score, no one surpasses Ross – who knows how to make demystified sense of sound — and few critics can equal him.

At a time when so much of the media – like pubic education – is cutting back on coverage of the fine arts and performing arts, that is no small service.

It is enough, in fact, to make Ross even more a national treasure as he matures. He is now only 42 years old. So a lot of good listening lies ahead for him, and through him, for us.

It is also enough to make a reader and music lover — this reader and music lover, at least —impatient for his next volume.

But with the gift-giving holiday season approaching, this latest one will have to do.

It will do very nicely.

Do you read Alex Ross’ books, essays and reviews in The New Yorker or blog?

What do you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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