Interview with critic Melinda Bargreen: Suffering as print media slide down relentlessly
The influential music critic Melinda Bargreen contributed regular reviews and features on the music scene in Seattle, Washington, for more than 30 years, only to find that her newspaper, the Seattle Times, decided to cut space for music criticism in its shrinking future. She was forced out. For the past 11 years as a free spirit, Ms. Bargreen, pianist, degrees in English literature and a composer of successful choral works, has been writing books, delivering lectures and contributing freelance reviews to her old paper. I asked her to look back on what she has learned in a lifetime of music criticism and describe what she is doing now.
Question. To what degree is music criticism today a force for good … or evil?
Answer. These days, I wonder whether music criticism can be described as a “force” at all – given the relentless slide downward of print media, and the inability of electronic media to give readers real insight into great performance and new talent.
Q. What is the impact on performers?
A. The decline of print journalism is disastrous. Unless you played your cello at the royal wedding, or just won a prestigious competition, how is a player going to make a career when there isn’t a reliable source to say how good you are?
Q. But generally speaking, don’t serious critics contribute to goodness?
A. We all like to think of music criticism as bringing to light wonderful talent, participating in the thrill of discovery, giving readers the chance to be in on something exceptional. Or the “calling out” of an overhyped phenomenon that’s not really worth the kudos. But there are times when it also is a force for evil. Overpraise for the undeserving, underpraise (or no notice at all) for the venturesome.
Q. What is the critic’s role in this circumstance?
A. At the very least, the reviewer/critic ought to be able to tell the reader more or less exactly what went on in the concert, how good or how horrible it was, and precisely why that judgment was formed.
Q. Don’t your worry about the artist’s feelings?
A. I think that the minute you start thinking about how the artist will feel when he/she reads the review, you are heading down a dangerous path. A critic’s responsibility is to the reader and to the audience. Not to the artist, except that the critic owes the artist a fair and honest hearing.
Q. How have you adjusted to your newspaper’s decision to dump classical music criticism eleven years ago? Do they know something?
A. It’s safe to say I’m still adjusting; after all those decades it’s still difficult to think of the newspaper as “they” and not as “we.” This is an issue of ageing in every discipline, even in cases where you’d hope that the voice of experience would have value. In our society today, the voice of experience prevails about as often as the voice of reason. They’re both sotto voce.
Q. You must have found yourself in a difficult position, being a good-natured critic, when second-tier pianists turned up with too many bad habits, hammering the clavier for two hours. How do you stay true to your kind self?
A. There are always two ways to steer a review: the pianist was having an intermittently off night, or the pianist should go out and shoot himself/herself. I usually prefer the former.
Q. How do bad recitals affect you?
A. I’ve seldom heard a completely awful piano recital. What’s usually the case is that you hear routine ho-hum Schumann and dutiful Mozart, and then maybe some Scriabin that makes you stand up and cheer. And sometimes it is impossible to be kind and still tell the truth. In that case, truth wins.
Q. Have you ever acted on the impulse, common to New York critics, “Aha, I’ve been waiting for decades for someone this bad!”
A. You don’t have to wait for decades! Bad performers come along all the time!
What bothers me the most is when a much-hyped performer turns out to be terrible.
Q. How do you relate to the players? Are you there to help them? What happens when you seriously object to a technique or interpretation?
A. Any critic who thinks they’re there to help the players is incorrect. You are there to help the readers, not the players, by telling them as honestly and interestingly as you can what happened in the performance, why it was (or wasn’t) great or moving or dreadful.
Q. On a personal level, are players among your best friends? If so, how do you remain objective?
A. No, players are not among my best friends, though I am a little looser about this friendship issue now that I am not employed by the newspaper. If I am asked to lecture at a music festival (and am therefore paid by them) I am careful not to review the concert in question, but that’s about the extent of it.
Q. How about looking deeper for trends and insights?
A. Yes, much more interesting for me are friendships with people inside organizations … some orchestra players, for example, who will tell me what’s going on behind the scenes and how the current maestro is regarded. Now that’s interesting!
Q. I once wrote about a violinist that he “fairly butchered” a Beethoven sonata. He never spoke to me again and I still feel bad, 40 years later. You received a bag of hostile mail after you slammed Andrea Bocelli. Should a critic care about wreckage he or she leaves behind?
A. In the case of Bocelli, I doubt that he ever heard about the unimpressed reception he got in Seattle; he could hear the roars of approval from the audience and if his handlers were smart, they didn’t show him negative reviews. So I have no concerns about wreckage.
Q. What is your view of stage antics of ambitious pianists – the swoons and hair-flicks (Khatia Buniatishvili), the miniskirts and six-inch heels (Yuja Wang), the eye makeup and winks to the audience (Lang Lang)?
A. It’s all show-biz. All three of those pianists, though, really CAN play (though in varying degrees of success in varying repertoire). No matter how short Yuja Wang’s vestigial swath of skirt becomes, no matter how vertiginous her high heels, she knows her way around the ivories (I especially like her Prokofiev), and I think she makes music more fun for a wide variety of listeners. If she couldn’t play, all the short skirts in Christendom couldn’t save her career. Same goes with the emoting of Buniatishvili, and, of course, most of all, the ultimate showman, Mr. Lang, the classical world’s answer to Liberace.
Q. Are the Chinese invading us with intent? Some 40 million of their young are working on “our” repertoire? Are they mechanical players or true artists?
A. I think it’s “their turn” to discover classical music, and I just hope they leave a little room for non-Asians in the cutthroat world of music festivals, auditions, competitions, and orchestra seats. After all, we Americans “horned in” pretty thoroughly on what was originally a European tradition (classical music and the piano recital). But my view of all musicians, including Chinese newcomers, is based on talent and musicianship: if they can really play, let them!
Q. Should Western musicians be afraid, even very afraid?
A. I think all musicians should be very afraid that classical music is continually being marginalized in our society, with university music departments shrinking and younger listeners/performers hampered by a lack of music education in the public schools. These are worse problems for the West than an influx of gifted musicians from another part of the world.
Q. How adaptable are you in today’s changing music scene? What is your view on some of the contemporary works – such as John Luther Adams, John Cage, or Stockhausen, or Berio? What happens to your gut when you hear my favorite, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Due Notturni Crudelli Il Furio, metallo?
A. I consider myself adaptable and ready to be convinced by something good. By this I mean something that communicates to the listener something beyond the personal distress of the composer. How old-fashioned to still be looking for beauty! We hear a lot of John Luther Adams in Seattle, and I just finished reviewing for another publication his latest magnum opus “Become Desert.” It is decidedly better than the interminable “Become Ocean.” I still feel impatient, though, with what I consider “ambient music” that feels like “music to zone out by.” JL Adams is very good at what he does, and he’s sort of “flavor of the month/year/etc.” in the music establishment. But having heard both these “Becomes” more than once, I definitely feel sated.
Q. And as for my favorite?
A. The Sciarrino piece deserves the “Crudelli” designation, in my opinion. We may be better off not discussing what I feel in my gut, but my ears are definitely saying “No, thank you.”
Q. Women conductors are mounting the podium more and more in the past ten years. Are the guys in the band gritting their teeth? Will this trend last or is it a fad?
A. Well, today the “guys in the band” include a whole lot of “gals in the band”; I think the Seattle Symphony is about one-third women, possibly more, and they’re certainly not alone in that demographic trend. Women conductors who know their stuff and prove their worth are generally welcomed by players who are grateful for good artistic leadership. Maybe there are grumblings and mumblings among the players, but by and large – at least in Seattle – the “chicks with sticks” are accorded equal respect when they prove they deserve it.
I’m also noticing more and more women hired in important principal spots in major orchestras; again, this makes sense whenever it’s deserved.
Q. What are your thoughts on the future of live classical music? Looking out across your audiences, isn’t most of the hair white or blue? What happens when they die?
A. Despite the fact that I share that white hair (carefully colored blonde), I feel pretty optimistic about the future of live classical music. It cannot thrive without community involvement, philanthropy, and visionary leadership; those are always vulnerable to financial vagaries and limitations. Nobody has a great crystal ball with respect to any of the arts, in my view, but I’m hopeful that the current programs of inexpensive tickets for the young will play a part in starting future listeners out on the right path. If you look to the past, the people who had the discretionary income and the time to attend classical events have always tended toward the upper end of the age spectrum. I don’t particularly think that the concert audiences as a whole have aged appreciably in the years I have been writing about music.
Full text of this conversation will appear in Michael Johnson’s forthcoming book of 35 interviews, “What musicians really think”.
Another version of this interview appeared in Slipped Disc
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