Music Resists the Word: Being The Times’s Classical Music Critic … – New York Times

Our task is to try and describe music in accessible language and everyday images, which is always hard. Reviewing a performance of Sibelius’s wondrously strange Fourth Symphony, I wrote that the second movement “sounds like a fractured dance in which the broken parts have been reassembled, but in the wrong way.” Of course, I write for musically-trained readers as well, so I do use terms like counterpoint and such. But if possible I try to avoid jargon. One time, describing a Leonard Bernstein performance of Stravinsky’s still-shocking “The Rite of Spring,” I wrote that the haunting, unearthly solo melody in the high bassoon that opens the piece “slowly instigated a restless tangle of squirrelly lines that became a needling, nasal-toned free-for-all.”

I’ve found over the years that readers are intrigued by the practical matters of being a music critic. What’s the workload like? How much preparation is involved?

These days I go to, on average, three performances a week; sometimes less, sometimes quite a bit more. I just returned from Opera Philadelphia’s new festival, where over 72 hours I took in five operas, including three world premieres. (I find reviewing opera the easiest, since I become part theater critic. I can describe the story, acting, sets, costumes, all of which lend themselves readily to words, as opposed to trying to convey what a new symphonic work sounds like.)

My preparation, truly, has been a lifelong immersion in music. I grew up studying the piano, going to Bernstein’s concerts with the Philharmonic, hearing greats like Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers at the Metropolitan Opera. I studied music in college and graduate school, played lots of concerts and taught music at a college in Boston. I was in my mid-30s when I started writing reviews as a freelancer for the Boston Globe. (I joined the staff at The Times in 1997.)

The most exciting, if challenging, aspect of the job involves reviewing a new piece. That’s when a music critic can really matter, if a first performance is going to lead to a second, a third and a future for the piece. My inclination is to be as open-minded as possible in hearing a premiere, since it’s new. Maybe if I heard it again, and again, I’d have a different take. Yet, if I really don’t like it, I’ll say so. And if history proves me wrong (and all you have to do to see how off critics can be is read the disparaging critical coverage of Beethoven’s Seventh and Brahms Second when these symphonies were new) so be it. At least my review will be a fresh, immediate reaction.

I never cease being grateful for the access to music and artists that my job provides. When I was in high school, I heard the great soprano Renata Tebaldi in several performances at the Met. In 1995, having been absent from American for nearly 20 years, Tebaldi, then 73, returned to New York for some public appearances. I was privileged to interview her for the Times. In 2004 I wrote her obituary. Back in the days when I had a standing room ticket to hear Tebaldi at the Met as Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” I could never have dreamt of how our paths would cross decades later.

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