Tim Page on music reviewing

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John F
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Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by John F » Tue Sep 17, 2019 5:15 am

In Memory of the Critic’s Trade
Tim Page
September 2019

Back when most of the leading newspapers in the United States employed paid, officially designated music critics, the artists reviewed were, quite naturally, pleased by positive reviews and less happy with negative ones. The only unpardonable offense was when nobody showed up at all – when the concert on which a musician had spent many hours, perhaps years, planning and preparing would be over and relegated only to memory.

This affront is more rule than exception today, for there are likely no more than 20 Americans who still make most of their living writing in newspapers about classical music. In the mid-1980s, The New York Times published more than 1,000 concert reviews a year and there was a column every Sunday devoted specifically to debut recitals. The Daily News had a full-time critic, as did the New York Post; Newsday, after 1987, had two. Reviewing was a good way for young writers to make a poor living: In addition to the newspapers, there were classical music reviews in New York Magazine and the Village Voice as well as in those publications specifically devoted to the field – Ovation, Keynote, Classical, Musical America and others. Coverage at The New Yorker was so copious that critic Andrew Porter was able to assemble a large volume of his published criticism every three years or so.

The profession isn’t entirely defunct – there are some extraordinary critics still on the beat. In cities with major arts centers or celebrated orchestras, such positions are easier for an editor to justify in tough financial times (and it has been mostly downhill since the advent of the internet). But it is now more common for a newspaper to find a general assignment writer to write some nice words about the local production of “The Nutcracker” or a visit from Yo-Yo Ma – the so-called “big-ticket items” – while leaving a city’s more venturesome endeavors alone.

As such, a lot of history has already been lost – and the private recordings that find their way onto YouTube can only tell us so much. Many local newspapers have either folded or been taken over by big companies with minimal interest in presenting any sort of intellectual record of a given place. The critics are mostly gone and – as astonishing as it may seem to some of those we have tossed and gored – I think we will be missed. Maybe composer and critic Virgil Thomson said it best: “Perhaps criticism is useless. Certainly, it is often inefficient. But it is the only antidote we have to paid publicity.”

I was fortunate enough to work as a daily critic for more than a quarter-century. I began as the junior music writer at The New York Times, where I might be sent out to anything from a program of 15th-century Korean court music to an accordion festival, along with plenty of Brahms and Beethoven along the way. I wouldn’t have confessed it at the time, but I was utterly unprepared for my new eminence, and few things would make me happier now than an opportunity to delete the majority of my early Times work from archives and distant memories. Although I had collected records since childhood, knew a good deal about contemporary composition and played the piano acceptably, I had scant knowledge of huge portions of the repertory and no understanding of the day-to-day challenges and intricacies of the music world. Moreover, I had not yet developed much human empathy for my fellow mortals. So I approached my new job with the prim, Robespierrean surety and acid cleverness that then seemed to me the most important qualities of a working critic.

The Times was used to steep learning curves – developing a voice with which to speak through New York’s most powerful and prestigious newspaper is never an easy adaptation – and my editors were good enough to keep me on. Over the next quarter-century, at the Times, at Newsday and finally at The Washington Post, I learned a great deal, and if I remained capable of producing the occasional dunderheaded howler, at least there were fewer of them.

Over time, I learned that writing withering reviews – especially of the glib, dismissive “Joe Jones played Mozart last night; Mozart lost” variety – are the easiest to bang out, but a string of insults is hardly criticism. It was much more difficult to put across serious and unhackneyed thoughts about a performance that had been moving and effective. And the middling performances – a baroque trio ensemble in a church basement, say – were most difficult of all. It is genuinely good for the community that such events exist – they are unpretentious, generally well-played and provide a pleasant afternoon for people in the neighborhood – but it is hard to say much about them. Put it this way: If I find a young writer who can give me 750 truly gripping words about yet another performance of “The Four Seasons,” I’ll know that I am in the presence of a gifted critic.

Music criticism will go on – in a few papers, in small journals and on the web (some of the record reviews on Amazon are startlingly erudite, but they are in the minority). Still, for better and worse, there are few gatekeepers, people to guide a curious reader toward writing that will be both authoritative and as open-minded as possible. And with the near-disappearance of copy editors at most daily newspapers, all sorts of factual and lingual mayhem slip through into what you read. Worst of all, almost nobody gets paid.

I became a writer to explain the world to myself, to conquer the chaos in my head and create a couple of paragraphs that might sum it all up, fixed and unassailable as a logical theorem. Now that I no longer have newspaper duties, I only accept assignments when I think it at least possible that I will be interested in both the subject and its treatment. As such, outright pans are rare (critics who cover a daily beat have no such leisure).

There came a time when I thought I was being too tough on people I knew personally, in some dubious attempt at “fairness.” Philip Glass has been a friend since I was a college kid begging for tapes of his music to play on the radio. In the mid-1980s I found myself unresponsive to several of his works in a row and said so in print. Trouble was, when I heard one of the pieces I hadn’t liked a few months later, I decided that my initial assessment was wrong and I started to question my impartiality, with the fear that I had been too determined to be coolly objective and missed the music.

I knew that Virgil Thomson had assessed the work of many of his friends and used to brag that he could “review” his grandmother. But I didn’t want to review my grandmother – or my friends. And so I told Philip that I would no longer review his new works. He shrugged and grinned. “Oh, that’s okay, Tim. I don’t like everything you write either.”

http://21cm.org/magazine/state-of-the-a ... ics-trade/
John Francis

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Re: Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by maestrob » Tue Sep 17, 2019 11:40 am

Page makes a few good points here. I've had success buying discs based on reading amazon reviews, but that's only because I know how to judge the reviewers themselves based on my own taste. As a guideline, I rarely buy anything that has less than six or seven five-star reviews. That eliminates the discs that receive praise from only a few friends of the artist.

Classical music criticism in newspapers is dying, just as local newspapers are dying. It's a sad situation as our culture becomes more and more fragmented, but I see hope in the internet, and I'm not one of those that believes classical music is dying. BBC Magazine still reviews 110 or so CDs per month, and performance standards are, to my ears, still excellent if not improving.

BTW: Has anyone noticed that our thread on new discs is approaching 1,000,000 views? So, maybe Lance should launch our own magazine? :D

John F
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Re: Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by John F » Tue Sep 17, 2019 12:46 pm

Page isn't talking about record reviews, which rarely appear in newspapers and magazines, but about reviews of live performances, an entirely different matter. After all, reviewed or not, the recording will still be there as primary evidence of the performance; not so a live performance unless it happens to be recorded.

Young musicians used to hire Carnegie Recital Hall for their debut recitals so that the New York Times would publish a review that would make them known and publicized. The Times stopped this long ago, and its reviews of performances other than by the top organizations have shrunk to the vanishing point. This not only discourages such performances, as Page says, but diminishes the historical record of our musical life. The result is that our descendants wll know much less about our music than we know about the musicians and performances of the 1950s and 1960s In this respect the Times is far less the newspaper of record, as it used to claim, than it used to be.
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Re: Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by barney » Wed Sep 18, 2019 7:59 am

That is very sad, John, but even so the NY Times is still a beacon for the industry. When I was there in 2016 it had a four-page arts section every day. I don't know anyone else who comes close.

John F
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Re: Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by John F » Wed Sep 18, 2019 8:50 am

There's still an Arts section in the NY Times every day, and today's paper has 12 articles (I subscribe online so I don't know how many pages), but since that section also includes movie reviews, pieces about serious music, theatre, and dance aren't given much space.
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Re: Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by barney » Wed Sep 18, 2019 5:48 pm

No, that was true in 2016 also. There could always be more. But the variety, breadth and standard of music writing in the NYT simply excels everyone else. I'd give my right testicle to be an NYT music writer, travelling Europe to festivals and performances I fancied, plus the rest of America, not to mention New York's extraordinarily rich musical life. Just look at how many NYT articles are posted on this forum - way more than any other source.

John F
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Re: Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by John F » Wed Sep 18, 2019 5:53 pm

The best music writer nowadays, I'd say, is Alex Ross of The New Yorker. Unfortunately he is almost never given the space to review music and performances - the New Yorker's music criticism has steadily shrunk since Andrew Porter retired. To tell the truth, I don't think very highly of the NY Times's current music staff; the other American newspapers' abdication of reviewing events makes them look good, but only in comparison.
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Re: Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by barney » Thu Sep 19, 2019 8:16 am

You're probably right about Ross. thoughtful, knowledgeable, interesting. I get NYT online, but not New Yorker though.

John F
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Re: Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by John F » Thu Sep 19, 2019 8:36 am

The New Yorker has a pay wall, but they let some of their articles through it. Ross's web site, https://www.therestisnoise.com/, has links to the New Yorker pieces we can read.
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Re: Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by Lance » Fri Sep 20, 2019 1:59 pm

Virgil Thomson was a favorite reviewer of mine, as was Harold C. Schoenberg. Harris Goldsmith and I were personal friends and I learned much from his reviews in ]High-Fidelity magazine. He was also a fine pianist. Locally, newspapers have done away with any artistic critiques of classical music concerts in our area, as has happened nearly everywhere … our forever changing world!
Lance G. Hill
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When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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John F
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Re: Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by John F » Fri Sep 20, 2019 5:59 pm

Lance wrote:Virgin Thomson
:lol:
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Re: Tim Page on music reviewing

Post by Lance » Fri Sep 20, 2019 11:18 pm

Yeah, that was my big laugh for the day! But then … maybe he was?!? [I corrected it.]
John F wrote:
Fri Sep 20, 2019 5:59 pm
Lance wrote:Virgin Thomson
:lol:
Lance G. Hill
Editor-in-Chief
______________________________________________________

When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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