Not letting it go

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.

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6 thoughts on “Not letting it go

  1. Zach: As someone who has written about music for most of my adult life, I can tell you this: A critic is (we hope) an educated listener with (we hope) good writing skills, who communicates his or her perceptions of the performance and insights about the music. Readers are then free to agree, disagree and think further. And we hope they do.

    Usually, the persona a classical music critic projects is that of someone who is deeply steeped in the music world, and who liberally uses its terminology and jargon. Summi Hahn isn’t doing that. She seems to write from the point of view of her intended audience–twenty-to-thirtysomethings who may know a little about classical music, but whose main frame of reference is today’s rock music and celebrity culture. Then when she then throws in a few ripe purple adjectives to describe the music, they stick out.

    I must admit that when I first read Ms. Hahn’s first reviews, I was dismayed, as were a number of my musician friends. I thought she didn’t know much about music. But now I think that she knows more than she lets on. I wouldn’t be surprised if her editor at the Seattle Times told her that part of her job was to attract a younger demographic to read the newspaper. This has nothing to do with classical music, and everything to do with a newspaper that is fighting for its survival.

    Some of the objections to Ms. Hahn’s reviews may about the preceding. Another issue may simply be that she is not Melinda Bargreen. Many in Seattle’s classical music community were dismayed at Ms. Bargreen’s departure, and the downgrading of the classical music beat to a freelance/stringer function. It made it seem that classical music was only barely relevant to the newspaper. And the newspaper seemed to be saying that classical music was barely relevant in today’s world, period. If that’s truly what the hierarchy at the Seattle Times thinks, I strenuously object.

    But none of this is Ms. Hahn’s fault. She is bearing the brunt of music lovers’ anger at the Seattle Times, even as she is trying to find her voice. I hope she is given the opportunity to find it, because I suspect she’s a smart woman and a talented writer.

    We seem to be moving increasingly towards a post-literate world. The loss of a full-time classical music critic at the Seattle Times is but one indication of it. Let’s hope Summi Hahn will grow to be a force in the opposite direction. Let’s encourage her rather than pillory her.

    –Peter Klein
    (Occasional contributor to Gathering Note)

  2. Thanks for your comments Peter. More generally, I think Sumi writes for normal people. They don’t have to be in their 20’s and 30’s. I sometimes wonder whether classical music is still relevant. I certainly think it is. But can any art be relevant if the audience isn’t an active participant, however you define active participant?

  3. A couple thoughts:
    I couldn’t agree more that “reviews are the start of a conversation, not the end.” A common (not to say hackneyed) criticism of critics is that we set ourselves up as conversation-stopping lawgivers–but it’s difficult to make any concrete statement about anything without it sounding so. We can’t append “Of course, this is just my opinion” to every line we write. The problem is, the only way you can really present “evidence” about a statement like Jacobson’s is to sit someone down with three dozen Mahler recordings and point out why you think Schwarz’s are among the best. Beyond that, you have to decide for yourself whether Jacobson does indeed have that broad listening experience and thus whether his opinion on Schwarz’s Mahler is worth heeding.

    I think attracting a younger demographic (or broader, at any rate) has everything to do with classical music–specifically, with building its secure future. Discussing classical works or performances in terms of current cultural references may or may not achieve this goal, and like anything else it can be done well or badly, but I don’t see it as inherently wrong. Describing music outside of technical jargon, especially its affect, is difficult enough that I’d prefer the widest possible range of reference to draw on.

  4. Dear Zach,
    It is sometimes refreshing to read an iconoclastic review. It’s even more gratifying to see a calculatedly delicate skewering of someone whom we think might just be getting a little too much hero-worship. And it’s usually a pleasure to see the use of judiciously chosen folksy vocabulary to enliven a frequently stodgy genre of writing, so long as it’s not done to show off just how much the writer is at home with the material.
    However, it is not at all clear that the reviewer is really at home with big words (“extenuated fingers”), or with the history of music (equating neoclassicism with Bach and Handel). When you write for public consumption, you exhibit your level of skill and knowledge in the medium of prose and in the subject matter. If you make mistakes in these areas, your credibility in all areas suffers.

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