Michael Karman: The problem with Alex Ross

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some guy
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Michael Karman: The problem with Alex Ross

Post by some guy » Tue Oct 29, 2013 2:35 pm

I have no interest in derailing the Ross/Gergiev thread, but I had a lot of issues* with Ross's review, or at least the excerpt we were provided, part of which follows, with interruptions:
The Rachmaninoff program had the virtue of avoiding late-Romantic sentimentality. Gergiev caught the grim mood of the “Symphonic Dances,” the composer’s valedictory statement; the final movement, with its allusions to the Dies Irae, was propulsive, even brutal. Yet there was a deficit of singing warmth, and an almost total absence of charm.{/quote]OK, here's the thing. Pieces of music are not biography. Composers' biographies may be interesting. Composers' biographies may even illuminate certain pieces of the music they wrote. But those pieces are not biographical. They're music. A late piece is not necessarily valedictorial. It's just late. And so "grim" is all my grandmother's eye. And the "allusions to the Dies Irae"? Say, what? We're talking about Rachmaninoff, here. Who quoted the Dies Irae more often than any other composer ever. (And quite a few composers quoted it.)

But Gergiev caught the "grim" mood of the piece, with propulsiveness and brutality. OK. Not sure how all of those things together add up to anything coherent, but let it pass. It's the deficit of singing warmth and the absence of charm that caught my eye. However odd "propulsive" may seem as a way to catch a "grim" mood, singing warmth (if that even means anything) and charm simply don't enter into it. Warm and charmingly grim. Yes. Yes, I see.
The one fully worked-out interpretation was that of the Shostakovich Eighth, a sweat-inducing juggernaut that has long been a Gergiev signature. The hammering climaxes hit home; so, too, did those episodes of frozen lyricism which suggest a solitary figure wandering across the tundra.
I'm glad the hammering hit home. It's what hammering is all about. It either hits the nail on the head or it hits the nail on the head, if you get my drift. I'm very puzzled though by episodes of frozen lyricism also doing the hitting home thing. That can't be true.

I can't tell you how often I've listened to Shostakovich's Eighth, it being a favorite of mine. And I have never ever heard any frozen lyricism in it, certainly none that suggested a solitary figure wandering across the tundra. Perhaps none of the performances I've heard conveyed any frozen lyricism. That's entirely possible. Assuming, for the moment, that frozen lyricism is an actual thing. My theory? Ross is more a poet than a critic, at least in this passage. And a really bad poet at that.

Perhaps he was aware of that himself. In the next sentence, he's turned to psychology.
At the same time, this was the performance that left me with the greatest psychological unease—a kind of critical despair.
Yes. Despair. I can identify with that.
We have read many accounts of Shostakovich’s life under Stalin, his terror-stricken accommodations with the Soviet state. How should we react when this composer’s music is led by a conductor who has entered his own pact with authority, who has even spoken approvingly of the politics of fear? There is no clear answer to that question. We have all made our compromises with power; everywhere, the noblest artistic strivings are circumscribed by social conditions that make them look hypocritical and hollow. But the historical ironies surrounding Valery Gergiev are becoming uncomfortably intense.
There is no clear answer to that question. No duh! It's not a question that even has an answer. It's not a question that should ever have been asked. Alex Ross's own compromises with power (his admission) should so sweetly have led him to be more um charming.


I don't get any sense from any of this that Ross listens to music. That leads me to conclude that he shouldn't be writing about it. No one gets to critique performers for not playing the music in such a way as to match any listener's use of music to produce private fantasies.

Nice though the fantasies may be.

Composers don't write what I want to hear. Conductors' interpretations don't match my private fantasies. The whole world is against me.


"The public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time . . . for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best."
--Viennese critic (1843)

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
--Henry Miller

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Re: Michael Karman: The problem with Alex Ross

Post by barney » Sun Nov 03, 2013 3:18 am

You may find Ross musically unsympathetic or tin-eared, but I think he has a right to feel concerned about Gergiev's conflicts. I have to say that,because I said something similar a while back. But artists are not immune from moral responsibility simply because they are artists. You have not suggested that, but it is a view out there, even if not widely shared.

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