Today’s Yin & Yang

This post in Anne Midgette’s Classical Beat blog (on the topic of this NY Times review) has stayed with me for several days, but I’ve had a difficult time deciding why. It is not my intention to take on the writer, for I have no definitive answers of my own. Yet there’s something here that won’t leave me alone.

I can be pretty clinical on the topic of “classical music,” and any arts professional who can’t summon up objectivity when it’s required is nothing but a dilettante. But statements like this send me reeling:  “Classical music has a reputation of being something smart – indeed, its fans are often stereotyped as nerds and eggheads – but the way that people engage with it often seems to me anything but, as if it renders otherwise smart thinkers uncritical.”

“Smart” thinking about music should not be confined to the left brain. Perhaps that’s the proper birthplace for traditional criticism, but the history and the future of great art doesn’t depend exclusively – or even primarily – on linear, deductive and quantifiable factors. What sticks with me is that this kind of approach elevates the value of left-brain critical thinking and diminishes the response of our hearts.

But just when I think I’ve sorted out my reaction, something happens to prove the opposite point. In the last couple of months, I’ve had two concert experiences that make me want to rail right along with Ms. Midgette.

In one, an astonishingly brilliant group of musicians played difficult material in a way that defied description – brilliant on all levels, technical, expressive, artistic and intuitive. I was taken aback when the audience responded positively but not effusively.

In the other, a talented but still green group of musicians played more “accessible” (gah… hate that word…) material with raw energy and great potential. The audience went wild, with an immediate standing ovation.

What’s the disconnect?  Is it that we are wont to measure an experience’s potency first by our immediate gut/emotional reaction, and in our society, that is increasingly the only measurement that’s valuable? Perhaps the general enthusiasm of applause, the number of views or shares on the internet, the buzz in the media – perhaps these things play so overwhelmingly to our right brains that critical discourse has to veer so far to the clinical in order to right the balance.

As I said, I simply don’t know. There may not be an answer here; perhaps it’s another exercise in learning to love the questions.

Enough philosophy for today; it’s time to work on the Don Giovanni cut list :)



An interesting read indeed, and enlightening to read the comments on the original article, I think. I think one commenter made an especially good point: unlike books or paintings, live music (or dance) happens in a moment and passes on. It either works on a visceral level or it does not (and I am not saying that that is the only valid perception, but when it happens, it is pretty overwhelming). How many moments have I had in rehearsal that were not “perfect” or well planned or maybe even “correct” but literally brought me to tears? I think you can (and sure, should) offer critic of the tangible elements but I can promise you that every single person in the opera or concert hall is having a different experience, which may or may not have much to do with the precision and/or excellence of the performers on the stage. And that is pretty much why this is my life’s work.

Bill Harshaw

“single person in the opera or concert hall is having a different experience”

True enough, but as a relatively undiscerning member of the audience, my judgment of the performance is affected by the enthusiasm of others. If a majority of the audience stands after the performance, I’ll probably end up standing.

During the perforance, enthusiasm is infectious. For opera, and for ballet, I appreciate works and performances which encourage applause, when applause is warranted, and discourage applause when not. If singer does great, I want a chance to applaud, and to hear others applauding, which encourages me to believe I’ve got (a little) musical taste.

A follower of the crowd. :-)

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Blog