Alex Ross

Alex Ross

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 30 1997 3:30 AM

Alex Ross

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       People are always ready to suspect the worst of a music critic. More often than not, they've heard a story about a critic who skipped a concert and wrote it up anyway, giving himself away in some crucial detail. One tale I've heard is of an unlucky fellow who was assigned to review a rare performance of a piano concerto by Franz Xavier Mozart, the famous one's mediocre son. This critic fails to see an insert to the program announcing that the scheduled pianist had fallen sick and that a substitute would take his place, with a substitute concerto. Critic goes home and writes of F.X. Mozart: "In this sad case of genius degenerating into mediocrity over the course of one generation, occasional flashes of inspiration are followed by second-hand imitation, empty note-spinning, and outright gibberish." Alas, the substitute concerto was the sublime Piano Concerto No. 23 by W.A. Mozart. I've been assured that this story is actually true; it may well be. But it is a case more of stupidity than of negligence.
       The critic's life is topsy-turvy. What should give pleasure requires work. Music is, for most people, a way of relaxation, a means of not thinking. They put on music when they get home, exhausted, from a day of work. They go to the opera or the symphony to tune in or zone out or simply fall asleep. Yet here I am--at the New York City Opera, seeing Verdi's Macbeth--taking notes as others gaze pensively. When I write notes in my Stagebill, or when I follow along in a score at the symphony, I often draw alarmed looks from those around me. Music critics are in a curious position relative to the audience: Unless they are covering a long-running production or a recording, what they are describing is a one-time event, which means that the review has no real consumer value. People read reviews not to find out what they should see but to check their opinion against the critic's. Disparities in taste lead to the angry letter that every critic has received many times over: "You and I could not have been at the same performance." The bold denial of reality contained in this familiar phrase is a sign of the passion that listeners bring to music.
       As I listen, I try to find a middle ground between a technical assessment and a mellower, more populist perspective. If I'm following a score, I look at it about half the time, checking the performance against the composer's notes and markings; the rest of the time, I listen more for mood and atmosphere. It's not possible to pay close attention throughout; indeed, composers write stretches of music to which one is not supposed to pay attention (repetitions, periods of waiting, even intentional banality, a favorite technique of Richard Strauss). At this Macbeth, a new production at the City Opera, I'm looking at the mechanics of the staging and seeing how easily and logically the singers move around in it. If I were devoting a whole column to the production, I would go see it again, because opera is too complex and contains too many separate moving parts to be evaluated on one hearing. As it happens, I'm attending tonight more for background reporting, so I'm not as nervously riveted on detail as I might have been. I can sit back a little and enjoy the brutal beauty of Macbeth--it's an astonishing feat of compression, in which one genius (Verdi) cannibalizes another (Shakespeare) for his own dramatic needs.
       Most of the rest of the weekend I spent here at my Brooklyn Heights apartment, punching keys on my PowerBook and otherwise puttering. If a time-motion study were made of my day, efficiency experts might conclude that I am engaged in verifiable writing only in short spasmodic bursts. The rest of the day can easily be taken up with leafing through books or shuffling through stacks of paper whose unifying idea I have forgotten. I am a good candidate for Monty Python's Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things. I am, however, always listening to music. I listen dutifully to all the CDs I get in the mail, except the self-evidently ridiculous ones with titles like Bach for Bathtime and Beethoven for Dummies.

Alex Ross is the music critic of The New Yorker and also a regular contributor to SLATE.