I wish I could let the Sumi Hahn thing over at the Seattle Times and here on TGN go. But, I can’t. I have heard from plenty of really smart, thoughtful people on why her review was badly written. Her style is her own. Does she sometimes use language that is a little over the top? Yes. Might she be casual, even dismissive in her assessments? Most definitely. Sumi writes how she writes, and having written a freelance piece for the Times, the editors are professional and attentive to preserving a person’s voice.
But this is all dust, it is irrelevant, and it obscures the larger point that few people have brought up or disagreed with. Hahn thought the SSO/Lang Lang concert blew. She described the Pastoral as “soporific.” This one word is a critical hand grenade that should blow up in your face. She is calling the SSO and Schwarz sleep inducing. Ouch!
Everyone who writes about classical music or reviews concerts is imperfect. We are prisoners of our own biases, moods, likes and dislikes. We are prisoners of language and the way we write too. The great thing about music criticism is no one has developed a style book for how to write a review. You can read any review on this site and find something unacceptable. I sometimes read old posts I wrote and cringe. I want to draw your attention to a few examples from this site and elsewhere, that the classical music intelligentsia should find just as unfortunate as Sumi Hahn’s review.
In my Kavakos review, I wrote:
“The second movement’s two sections contrasting styles– one is rhythmic and forceful the other relaxed and lyrical.”
I have since corrected this to make it an actual sentence. I can write reviews with incomplete sentences but Hahn can’t use colorful language?
Back at the Seattle Times, Bernard Jacobson wrote about a month ago:
“And on the podium will be Gerard Schwarz, one of the finest exponents of the Mahler symphonies in the world today.”
Jacobson doesn’t back this up with any evidence whatsoever. He throws it out there, indifferent to a long line of conductors more closely identified with Mahler than Schwarz. One commenter lists these conductors – Boulez, Barenboim, Rattle, Chailly, Abbado, Maazel, Haitink, etc. I respect Jacobson a lot, I have read his musings for years. Jacobson can describe Schwarz in exuberant, hyperbolic language but Hahn can’t use hyperbole herself?
This past summer, RM Campbell wrote:
“Violinist Stephan Jackiw is one of the bright young musicians James Ehnes, associate artistic director of the festival, has imported. He is a superb musician, full of fresh ideas and a huge technique, all of which he put to good use in Brahms’ Violin Sonata in A. There is much rich material for the soloist to explore in this familiar work, which Jackiw did with aplomb and accuracy as well as flair. Steven Lowe, in his program notes, quotes the one-word characterization of the sonata by Brahms’ good friend, Elizabeth von Herzogenberg — “caress.” That also is an apt description of Jackiw’s reading.”
In his review of Brahms’s sonata, Campbell mentions the program notes, Stefan Jackiw, James Ehnes (who didn’t even play in the concert) and Elizabeth von Herzogenberg. Campbell doesn’t mention pianist Jeremy Denk who played the sonata with Jackiw. Denk’s part is equal to Jackiw’s, yet, it is as if Denk wasn’t even there. Jackiw wasn’t playing alongside a player piano. RM Campbell can omit Denk from his review, but the mob condemns Hahn for omitting the obvious, that the Seattle Symphony was playing with Lang Lang?
Read any review and if you read close enough there is bound to be something wrong. Clasical music writers are doing their part putting out opinions for the masses, and you, a reader and presumably classical music listener must do your part. I see it too often at Seattle’s various halls and among the records at Silver Platters, people who attest to loving classical music are barely involved, passively listening, and afraid to have an opinion. Audiences are complicit in the insidious notion that classical music is a dying (or dead) art form. Musicians, composers, and music deserve more from us.
Don’t depend on critics to tell you how you should think about a piece of music or a performance. We aren’t the final say. Any critic who presents him or herself as such, is misleading you, and doing a grave disservice to music. Reviewing art is a subjective endeavor. Critics are neither absolutely right or wrong. A better way to look at critics is as the instigators of conversation. Reviews are the start of a conversation not the end. I started the Gathering Note, in part, to begin a conversation about music. If you like what you read, say so. If you disagree with a review of a performance speak up. Above all else, just have an opinion about what you hear.