A couple of nights ago, I went to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who are on a tour of the West Coast with their music director Riccardo Muti. The performance was wonderful, with two Brahms symphonies (the Second and Third), and an encore from Schubert's Rosamunde.
I followed articles on the tour, which got raves throughout, although the oddest review came from the Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed when he wrote about the concert in Santa Barbara a few nights they reached L.A.. In fact, it was one of the strangest reviews I've read, in which he was seemingly enthusiastic about the performance, writing things like, "The homogeneity of instrumental texture he achieved couldn’t be beat. Liquid winds marvelously blended with stirring brass. Fabulous strings played as one." And later added, "Muti allowed all the time in the world for us to take this all in. He drew out every pause, pregnant with meaning. He painstakingly ascended to glorious, heaven-opening climaxes and faded slowly, oh so slowly, to heart-stopping black, a black so empty it felt like sensory deprivation." Indeed, he even tossed in a "perfect", noting that, "After all, in this unflappably perfect world, the 'Unfinished,' its two movements drawn out to nearly a half-hour, overwhelms with an unstoppable effusion of lyricism, each unfolding inner line with its own story to tell."
So, he must have been utterly overjoyed by such magnificence, right? I mean, after all, it had a texture that "couldn't be beat." It was "marvelous" and "fabulous" with "heaven-opening climaxes." And as "heart-stopping" and "perfect."
But -- somehow he managed to find a way to rag on it. "There is, though, a price to such awe," he wrote. Absolutely a price, of course, because, like, eww, who really wanted to be awed, for goodness sake?!
Who indeed, because "...but where was the articulation, the sense of saying something?" he asked. Yes, where, oh, where? Silly me, I had thought it was found when he wrote that conductor Muti "drew out every pause, pregnant with meaning." And when Muti showed "each unfolding inner line with its own story to tell." Yes, oh, heavens where would that blasted "sense of saying something" possibly be??
How odd was this review? Even within one paragraph, critic Swed found a way to rave about the orchestra being so masterful that you couldn't even argue with it -- after finding a way to have argued with it. "It was too powerful, too masterful, too big to fail. You don’t argue with performances like that. They’re not about you. Right or wrong, you submit."
And for all this music so heaven-opening to which you couldn't help but submit, he somehow impressively was able to complain about what wasn't even there.
"For some clueless reason," Swed wrote, "Muti, who has admirably championed several progressive young composers in Chicago, left off a recent CSO commission by the orchestra’s current composer-in-residence, Elizabeth Ogonek, from the Southern California portion of the tour."
And that was sort of the foundation of all his criticism, despite his raving of ethereal perfection. The core of his full article seemed to be complaining that for some "clueless reason” they only played standard fare, and not adventurous new music. Seriously, dude? First, I think it’s odd to review anyone what for they didn’t do because it's not what you want, not for what they actually did. And second, I don’t think the reason is “clueless” in the slightest but rather seemingly obvious – when you tour, after all, since audiences can only hear you once, on that single night and then you're gone, I’m guessing that those in attendance mostly want to hear you do what you are famous for that brought them there -- and also want to hear the familiar so that they can compare you to what they know. That seems pretty basic and hard not to grasp in the slightest, contrary to being "clueless."
(By the way, next week the Israeli Philharmonic is in town. They’ll be playing the Beethoven Piano Concerto #3 and Schubert Symphony #9. I wonder if critic Swed will chide them for their choice…)
Anyway, overall it actually was a very positive rave, just the oddest one I’ve ever seen.
And we might as well have a bit of the CSO and Muti here, as well. This is the "Jupiter" segment from Gustav Holst's The Planets. You'll likely recognize it. If that's okay...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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