I dare you not to cry: on classical music and critical thinking

Today in the New York Times, Roberta Smith expressed great enthusiasm for the Whitney Biennial in New York. (And can we take a minute to appreciate what a pleasure it is when a critic really, really likes something – and to remember that this excitement only carries weight when the critic in question is not generally thus excited?)

But one sentence in the review leapt out at me – about music, of course.


NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 27: Art as analysis: The Whitney Biennial in New York (through May 27) reliably evokes a wide range of critical debate around the country. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images) (Mario Tama/GETTY IMAGES)

Art as passion: for many, an image like this one, of the cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott with the NHK Symphony in 2011, evokes an uncritical response equating classical music with passion, commitment, and Great Art — regardless of how well or badly he actually played. (Photo by Susan Biddle for The Washington Post) (SUSAN BIDDLE/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

 Time and again, artists and thinkers who are sophisticated observers of their own fields step back and goggle when they see classical artists at work. I often cite a Shakespeare concert presided over by Adrian Noble, the acclaimed stage director who was just about to make his Metropolitan Opera debut with Verdi’s setting of “Macbeth;” a few weeks before the show, the Met co-presented a performance that juxtaposed readings of Shakespearean monologues with singing of Shakespeare-based opera arias. Noble spoke between the pieces: he had acute insights about the spoken monologues, but after the opera selections he was reduced to the equivalent of, “Wasn’t that great.” (This uncritical and disengaged attitude was reflected in his staging of “Macbeth.”)

Yes, classical musicians can be amazing, and their performances are the result of a kind of intense dedication (those hours of practice) that rightly inspire respect in those who don’t do it themselves. Yet all artists spend hours and hours making their art, and few other artists are greeted with the same kind of awe simply for doing what they do (“You wrote a BOOK? All those WORDS? Wow!”). 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. Smith can write thoughtfully about Herzog, but the musician reduces her to effusion.

 This rah-rah, “Mozart was the greatest genius EVER” kind of reception also interferes with the dissemination of contemporary music. A visual artist once asked me about this, herself somewhat perplexed; I like the most contemporary, avant-garde art, she said, but with music, I stop around Mozart, or maybe Schubert, and I can’t relate to the contemporary at all.

I dare you not to cry, indeed.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.

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