The Ecstasy and the Criticism (Wherein my Bubble is Burst)

NaBloPoMo Day 8!

I didn’t expect that committing myself to a month of daily blogging would send me off on a nostalgia trip (for one thing, I’m uncomfortable with the notion that I’m old enough to be capable of nostalgia 😥 ). But the discussion of my Bartók String Quartet Watershed Moment brought up the memory of what has to be one of my top ten classical concert-going experiences of all time.

On December 3, 1995 in New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall, the Emerson String Quartet performed all six Bartók quartets in a single afternoon. It was a little over 50 years since the composer’s death; the Emersons had given a similar performance at Alice Tully Hall in 1981, to mark the centennial of his birth. [1]

It was a mind-blowing experience. Over 2 1/2 hours of music, with two intermissions… Now, if you’re an opera fan, 2 1/2 hours isn’t that big a deal — it’s not unusual for an opera to stretch to 4 or 5. But the in the case of the Bartók quartets, you’re talking about 2 1/2 incredibly intense hours; no scene changes, no downtime — the brief pauses between movements allow you to catch your breath, but that’s about it. It was kind of like eating a multiple-course meal where every course consisted of dark chocolate — no whipped cream or plain vanilla cookies to dilute the extreme richness. (What’s not to like? 😛 )

Actually, chocolate metaphors notwithstanding, I really can’t adequately put into words what this concert was like for me; I can merely talk around it. I can say that at the end of the 4th quartet, I was literally speechless. I had been on the edge of my seat during the last movement, and when it ended, I sank back, simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. While most of the audience got up to stretch their legs during the intermission that followed, I stayed in my seat, limp as a rag doll. My friend who attended the concert with me concurred.

Now, when I first sat down to write today, I wasn’t sure if an account of going to an amazing concert 12 years ago ( 😯 ) would really make a compelling blog post — I mean, great concerts happen all the time, right? So before I got down to business, I spent a little time procrastinating doing some online reading, letting various ideas percolate in my head. I came across a few items that relate to the topic at hand, and also open up some interesting tangents. (It has been my experience so far that when I sit down to blog, I invariably end up going on a journey that takes me somewhere I couldn’t have predicted, and thus far it has always been a pleasant — or at least productive — surprise. The only downside is that it can be a major time sink, but I think it’s well-established by now that that’s what the internet is for! 😉 )

I couldn’t remember the exact date of that concert, so I searched for a review, and my trusty New York Times did not disappoint. Until I actually read the review, that is, and discovered that what I remember as a transporting, mountain-top experience had “raised nagging questions” for the reviewer:

Did it matter, for example, that the Emerson players… could have given a tighter, more alert performance of the magnificent Fourth Quartet if they had approached the work fresh rather than after an arduous trek through the first three quartets?… Did it matter that the audience dwindled markedly before the Fifth and Sixth Quartets?… Did the music suffer? …some of the works were in fact diminished for the moment, their individual movements seeming part of an increasingly indistinguishable stream.

Did it matter that the reviewer completely missed the point, and, in our humble opinion, could stand to increase the amount of fiber in his diet? 😈

I know, I know — he was just doing his job. But it makes me wonder 1) just what the purpose of arts criticism is, and 2) whether that purpose is adequately served in practice.

It’s a pet peeve of mine that the activity called criticism — in its journalistic and scholarly context — seems so often to consist of pointing out what’s wrong with something. (And then proceeding to expound at length upon why it’s wrong, in a well-researched yet self-congratulatory manner, using as many 5-dollar words as possible. 😛 ) That may align with the common definition of the word critical: “inclined to find fault or to judge with severity, often too readily,” [2] but not with the sense of criticism itself as “the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc.” [3]

At the risk of being Pollyanna-ish and uncool, I would submit that “evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work” can (and should) include talking about what’s right about it as well as (or maybe even instead of — I can dream!) what’s wrong. Scoff if you like; I feel have enough experience wearing black and drinking lattes to say whatever I want. 😛

Besides, what is also integral to criticism, I believe, is having some modicum of sensitivity to the context and intent of what you’re evaluating. If I were reporting on a runner’s performance in a marathon, it would be not only tactless but also patently lunkheaded to observe that she was breathing hard and had gotten a little bit sweaty. I wish that, rather than pointing out minute lapses in the performers’ stamina, the reviewer had been willing to sincerely take on just what the Emersons were asking of the audience — which was, in my opinion, that we experience this monumental body of music in a visceral way — going along for the ride and being willing to be with wherever it took us — rather than whining petulantly about the uncomfortable seats and when are we gonna stop for lunch?

Tune in tomorrow, when I’ll tilt at a couple more musicological windmills. 😉

Oh, P.S: Not that I’d ever even try to pretend to be unbiased about any of this, but I just want to confess here and now that I always thought the Emerson’s violist, Lawrence Dutton, was pretty cute. Though not as cute as McDoc, of course! 😀


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    [1] James R. Oestreich, “Music Review: Bartok, All In a Hard Day’s Work,” New York Times, December 6, 1995.

    [2] critical,, Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc, (accessed: May 08, 2008).

    [3] criticism,, Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc, (accessed: May 08, 2008).

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