How not to write a classical concert review

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IcedNote
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How not to write a classical concert review

Post by IcedNote » Fri Nov 16, 2012 12:36 pm

Unfortunately, this isn't a joke. And it happened right down the street from me. :(

http://www.sacramentopress.com/headline ... avi_Center
It takes no time to be who you are, but it takes time to be misguided. And as the music started and lights dimmed at 8 p.m. at the Mondavi Center Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, to an almost sold-out audience, a sense of time disappeared.

World-famous pianist Emanuel Ax tapped lightly on the ivory keys of the antique piano in front of him, made in Vienna circa 1700 AD, while musicians playing replicas or authentic instruments of the same time period sat behind him. The Western Health Advantage Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra played Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4, using only the instruments of that period.

“Baroque is the period in which the music was written and played on the instruments of that time,” explains conductor Nicholas McGegan.
Before the performance, McGegan spoke to patrons about the concert, saying, “You will be watching Emanuel Ax play on a Baroque piano, made in Vienna … It is similar to an actual piano Beethoven would have played.”

McGegan, during the lecture, set up promises and expectations for his audience. “Modern orchestras play at a higher pitch,” he said. “The tone of our Baroque symphony will be lower in pitch; this is because the instruments are all wood … they would become firewood otherwise.”

The explanation helped, because when the orchestra opened and the sound of the piano’s “tink” hit audience members’ ears, it set up anticipation for more, and even a sense of “What will come next?” Will there a startling bang from the bassoon or a rocketing spike in tone from the violins?

But as promised, the music stayed soft, gently drawing patrons' ears toward the stage. The slight pop on the piano, whip on the oboe and flicker of the clarinet pushed and pulled the audience members in their seats. The heavy volume of big accompaniments was subdued.

Apparently even outside of Jackson Hall in the concession area, manager of food and beverage services at the Mondavi Center Marissa Tidrick said, “I could feel the ebb and flow of the concert from out here … the acoustics are really good.”

Other patrons who sat inside the theater at orchestra level, including patron Gary Matteson, said, “The piano was too soft.”

Allison Lukanich said, “The seating was really tight; my back started to burn and it distracted me from the music a good part of the night.” Another problem was entirely due to staging; because of the way the piano sat on the stage, only the left side of the auditorium could see Ax’s hands or fingers titillate the piano keys. The right side was left out of this visual experience.

Despite some minor irritations for some in the audience, McGegan's end product was delivered and appreciated. Martha Dickman, a resident of Davis since 1970, who regularly gives tours of the Mondavi Center, says, “’Piano’ means soft,” and points to the word “FortePiano” in the program guide, “And ‘Forte’ means ‘plucked.’”

The softer sound meant the ears had to be more patient, which caused a certain amount of anticipation. There wasn’t much pounding on the bassoon. Instead, the musician brushed across the top with authentic sticks, all of which kept the symphony light and even, exactly as McGegan had explained it in the preshow lecture, “Beethoven sometimes used a single instrument to bump up the base.”

Nonetheless, the musicians’ command of their instruments was apparent as they followed McGegan’s lead precisely; timing, pace and a small amount of banter between the instruments seemed to amuse the audience.

“When I watch a performance I marvel at the expertise, talent and the display of perfection,” says Mort Schwarts, 90, and patron of Mondavi Center for the past 25 years. “The Mondavi Center has some of the finest acoustics, and I feel energized when I leave here.”

Other patrons came to see Emanuel Ax again. “I saw him perform 10 years ago in New York,” said Kaveh Barami, 47, who came to the Mondavi Center with his 13-year-old son, Khalid. “I hope to be blown away by tonights performance.”

Indeed, many were blown away by the performance as they gave a standing ovation to the Western Health Advantage Orchestra, conductor McGegan and solo pianist Ax.

And even if the soft sound of the baroque orchestra or the cramped seating was distracting, the experience left many supporters smiling. “I felt like I could see the dancing in my head,” said Peggy Egli of Davis. “I found that I got carried away with the rhythm and the melody.”
-G
Harakiried composer reincarnated as a nonprofit development guy.

jbuck919
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Nov 16, 2012 1:10 pm

Not the least remarkable thing about this is how out of place the name of Emanuel Ax seems as the soloist, and for more than one reason. (Actually bravo to him for undertaking such a journey in more ways than one.)

It is not entirely the reviewer's fault that there are so many "ouch" moments in this review (I didn't laugh until I got to the bit about the "staging" of the piano so that half the audience couldn't see the hands). The conductor seems to bear a share of the responsibility by his commentary. But in the end, what took place down the street, Garrett--a good or bad or something in-between concert? The quality of the review cannot affect the quality of the performance.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

John F
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by John F » Fri Nov 16, 2012 1:41 pm

Emanuel Ax isn't the only "mainstream" pianist to give the fortepiano a try. Jeffrey Kahane did it back in the '90s. He said it was a revealing experience. Kahane is a very good Mozart pianist, but he said that the modern piano and modern orchestra make it hard to play those parts of a Mozart concerto when the piano is accompanying the orchestra or blending seamlessly into it - he has to consciously underplay his part, like driving an Aston Martin in city traffic. No such balance problems with period instruments; the fortepiano's limited dynamics and quick die-away let him play without holding back and also without drowning other instruments who have the melodic line at the moment. That said, Jeff did not convert to the fortepiano for Mozart or any other repertory; he said he learned what he wanted to know.

I don't know whether Beethoven's concertos present the pianist with the same balance problems when played on a Steinway or Yamaha. I'd guess not, but maybe Emanuel Ax will be interviewed and can tell us what he's learned.
John Francis

Teresa B
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by Teresa B » Fri Nov 16, 2012 7:32 pm

John F wrote:Emanuel Ax isn't the only "mainstream" pianist to give the fortepiano a try. Jeffrey Kahane did it back in the '90s. He said it was a revealing experience. Kahane is a very good Mozart pianist, but he said that the modern piano and modern orchestra make it hard to play those parts of a Mozart concerto when the piano is accompanying the orchestra or blending seamlessly into it - he has to consciously underplay his part, like driving an Aston Martin in city traffic. No such balance problems with period instruments; the fortepiano's limited dynamics and quick die-away let him play without holding back and also without drowning other instruments who have the melodic line at the moment. That said, Jeff did not convert to the fortepiano for Mozart or any other repertory; he said he learned what he wanted to know.

I don't know whether Beethoven's concertos present the pianist with the same balance problems when played on a Steinway or Yamaha. I'd guess not, but maybe Emanuel Ax will be interviewed and can tell us what he's learned.
Just as an aside, I happened to hear Kahane a few years back playing Mozart's K488 (the usual Steinway and modern instruments). He conducted from the keyboard. While he played flawlessly, I felt little emotional connection to the piece, and it happens to be one of my favorite concertos. In fact the gent sitting to my right muttered "too many notes" at the end, and it pained me to realize, I nearly had to agree! The piece was mostly very fast, especially the finale, and not much time spent in realizing the lovely atmosphere of the rondo, which alternates between a sort of joyful dancing and more wistful passages tinged with a hint of sadness. Perhaps Kahane was holding back TOO much?

As to the Beethoven concertos, I think the challenges are much less as far as having to underplay. And I would like to hear what Ax would say about the fortepiano experience.
Teresa
"We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." ~ The Cheshire Cat

Author of the novel "Creating Will"

Burbage
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by Burbage » Fri Nov 16, 2012 8:45 pm

IcedNote wrote:Unfortunately, this isn't a joke. And it happened right down the street from me. :(
It's not all bad. There are points that venue managers and program-note writers might do well to take note of, the opinions of concession managers surely count for something and "pounding on the bassoon" isn't a phrase I'll forget in a hurry.

Guitarist
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by Guitarist » Fri Nov 16, 2012 10:20 pm

How old is that "writer"? 13? 15?

Teresa B
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by Teresa B » Sat Nov 17, 2012 9:05 am

Looking back at the review again, it looks to me like an effort of someone who has little knowledge of the subject material or how a review might be written, but needed to turn in a homework assignment.
:)
Teresa
"We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." ~ The Cheshire Cat

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maestrob
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by maestrob » Sat Nov 17, 2012 12:10 pm

Good grief! :mrgreen:

barney
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by barney » Sat Nov 17, 2012 5:19 pm

Very interesting way to play the bassoon, brushing the top with sticks. Some Guy should appreciate that. :lol:

What I particularly enjoyed about the review was the extensive quotes from the audience. That's novel. And, as a reviewer who reviewed the opening of Opera Australia's spring season in 250 words last Wednesday, I was very envious of the space he had. (Madama Butterfly, since you ask, with Japanese soprano Hiroma Omuri, who was marvellous.)

IcedNote
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by IcedNote » Mon Nov 19, 2012 1:34 am

Well, Alex Ross just tweeted about this story (which can be directly linked back to my original tweet about it. :P ). It'll be interesting to see where this goes...

-G
Harakiried composer reincarnated as a nonprofit development guy.

barney
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by barney » Wed Nov 21, 2012 3:29 am

So has it gone anywhere?

John F
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by John F » Wed Nov 21, 2012 5:06 am

Teresa B wrote:The piece was mostly very fast, especially the finale, and not much time spent in realizing the lovely atmosphere of the rondo, which alternates between a sort of joyful dancing and more wistful passages tinged with a hint of sadness. Perhaps Kahane was holding back TOO much?
He has speeded up a bit since the days when he hung out in CompuServe's Music Forum and I got to know him. But even then, we had some disagreements about tempo, such as in the slow movement of K.467, which he took a bit faster than I think is right for the music's expressive character. He pointed out that Mozart marked the movement alla breve, in his autograph and his thematic catalog, and said this meant the music shouldn't go as slowly as many have played it; in the old Gesamtausgabe, which used to be the standard score, the movement was marked 4|4. I said this was just an excuse for playing it too fast because he wanted to. :) Wikipedia didn't exist back then, but if it had, I would have quoted it to Jeff: "In contemporary usage alla breve suggests a fairly quick tempo... From about 1600 to 1900 its usage with regard to tempo varied, so it cannot always be taken to mean a quick tempo." Q.E.D. We agreed to disagree.
John Francis

Teresa B
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by Teresa B » Wed Nov 21, 2012 7:46 am

John F wrote:
Teresa B wrote:The piece was mostly very fast, especially the finale, and not much time spent in realizing the lovely atmosphere of the rondo, which alternates between a sort of joyful dancing and more wistful passages tinged with a hint of sadness. Perhaps Kahane was holding back TOO much?
He has speeded up a bit since the days when he hung out in CompuServe's Music Forum and I got to know him. But even then, we had some disagreements about tempo, such as in the slow movement of K.467, which he took a bit faster than I think is right for the music's expressive character. He pointed out that Mozart marked the movement alla breve, in his autograph and his thematic catalog, and said this meant the music shouldn't go as slowly as many have played it; in the old Gesamtausgabe, which used to be the standard score, the movement was marked 4|4. I said this was just an excuse for playing it too fast because he wanted to. :) Wikipedia didn't exist back then, but if it had, I would have quoted it to Jeff: "In contemporary usage alla breve suggests a fairly quick tempo... From about 1600 to 1900 its usage with regard to tempo varied, so it cannot always be taken to mean a quick tempo." Q.E.D. We agreed to disagree.
Tempos are always somewhat debatable, within reason. I agree with you and Wikipedia about alla breve. That means the piece is to be played in 2 rather than 4 beats--to me that is not exactly a tempo indication but more of a rhythmic one--the piece flows along with alacrity, but not necessarily at the fastest tempo possible!
"We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." ~ The Cheshire Cat

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slofstra
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by slofstra » Wed Nov 21, 2012 2:20 pm

The online version of the story has some important corrections. It's the "Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra". Corporate sponsorship of symphony orchestra names is not here yet. And, it was a tympani not a bassoon. One wonders what he might have called the actual bassoon.
But I did find this review engaging in a certain kind of way. It was more like a description of an event rather than an actual review. My favourite part, "the slight pop on the piano, whip on the oboe and flicker of the clarinet pushed and pulled the audience members in their seats". Maybe something you can use here, Barney? :)

barney
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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by barney » Thu Nov 22, 2012 8:18 am

slofstra wrote:The online version of the story has some important corrections. It's the "Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra". Corporate sponsorship of symphony orchestra names is not here yet. And, it was a tympani not a bassoon. One wonders what he might have called the actual bassoon.
But I did find this review engaging in a certain kind of way. It was more like a description of an event rather than an actual review. My favourite part, "the slight pop on the piano, whip on the oboe and flicker of the clarinet pushed and pulled the audience members in their seats". Maybe something you can use here, Barney? :)
Yes,I guessed he meant tympani, but I really liked the idea of using the bassoon in this way. Some guy hasn't confirmed it yet, but I'm sure he would too. It's on a par with turning the bass upside down and scraping it in circles around the floor, as happened in the opera we argued about.
You're right; I'm sure I have much to learn. Is the whip on the oboe some form of sadism I have yet to encounter. I have heard oboe players I thought should be whipped. The flicker of the clarinet sounds like an errant projector. And the pop on the piano - where's the snap and crackle? Or did you never have those ads in the US? All in all, very post-modern. :D

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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by slofstra » Thu Nov 22, 2012 9:35 am

barney wrote:
slofstra wrote:The online version of the story has some important corrections. It's the "Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra". Corporate sponsorship of symphony orchestra names is not here yet. And, it was a tympani not a bassoon. One wonders what he might have called the actual bassoon.
But I did find this review engaging in a certain kind of way. It was more like a description of an event rather than an actual review. My favourite part, "the slight pop on the piano, whip on the oboe and flicker of the clarinet pushed and pulled the audience members in their seats". Maybe something you can use here, Barney? :)
Yes,I guessed he meant tympani, but I really liked the idea of using the bassoon in this way. Some guy hasn't confirmed it yet, but I'm sure he would too. It's on a par with turning the bass upside down and scraping it in circles around the floor, as happened in the opera we argued about.
You're right; I'm sure I have much to learn. Is the whip on the oboe some form of sadism I have yet to encounter. I have heard oboe players I thought should be whipped. The flicker of the clarinet sounds like an errant projector. And the pop on the piano - where's the snap and crackle? Or did you never have those ads in the US? All in all, very post-modern. :D
LOL. I enjoyed your comments.
To be fair, it is so difficult to describe music in words. If you have the skill to do that technically, like a Donald Tovey, you will lose 95% of the readership in a paragraph. Or you resort to colourful language that the general reader understands, but is subject to a wide range of interpretations. Or you write a comparative, critical assessment that is of interest only to afficiandos. When I go through an issue of Fanfare or Gramophone, which I don't do all that often, the reviewers seem to resort to a certain repeatable style and lexicon that gets boring after a while. So I did find the style of this review refreshing, even though it told me virtually nothing.

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Re: How not to write a classical concert review

Post by barney » Sun Nov 25, 2012 12:14 am

Well, that's fair enough, of course. I suppose I see it as a bit of a dereliction of duty to quote random concert-goers rather than one's own view, but - as you point out - a rather charming one. And it is obviously not by a regular reviewer.

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