Thursday, December 16, 2010

Don’t “Listen to This?” Too much Ross in a review of Ross by Lebrecht

In a recent review of “Listen to This,” by Alex Ross, Norman Lebrecht is critical of what is not present in the book: dislike. Perhaps Ross should develop a third volume called “Don’t Listen to This.”

“Great critics are measured more by their courage to be disliked,” wrote Lebrecht, “by their capacity for dishing it out and taking the inevitable backlash, by their willingness to face the music.[…] The greatest critics do not mind being proved wrong.”

Critics do need to be independent and willing to state unpopular views. But is that the most important means by which they should be measured? This would be like defending the entries in Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” by noting that it took courage to express those views which have been soooo “proven wrong.”

“Eduard Hanslick,” writes Lebrecht, “is better remembered for caustically hating Wagner in 19th-century Vienna than for tamely admiring Brahms.” Maybe, but Hanslick also wrote that the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is music “which stinks to the ear.” Shouldn’t Hanslick be remembered instead for “On the Beautiful in Music,” one of the great early texts on aesthetics?

It is insights that one seeks, not likes or dislikes. Value judgment seems less important than rationale. I am less interested in what Ross dislikes than I am in his insights.

Many of the best insights in the Lebrecht review are positive:

“Ross is an avowed buff. He loves music with a nerdish obsession and he wants you to love it as much he does. […] Ross drew creative links between serious and popular music. Music is music, he argues. […] Ross is also credited with […] making new music an acceptable topic of dinner-table conversation.”

I would like to see Ross invest his charisma in deeper levels of analysis. To go beyond the journalistic into the kind of thinking represented by a book like “On the Beautiful in Music.”

Still, it is the educational potential in both books by Ross that makes them worthy. One imagines that people who are fascinated by other styles of music might pick up one of these Ross books and join the conversation with those of us who find energy, and relevance, in classical music.

I enjoy both Lebrecht and Ross; I am so sorry.


  1. I remember taking a course in Music Criticism at Juilliard, taught by Irving Kolodin. He played back to back arias on LP for us and asked us to compare them. Everyone fell into the negativity trap and compared them--this one sounds like 'this', that one sounds better because of 'that' etc. Kolodin quipped, 'Ha! You are all wrong! It's the same artist. Maria Callas at the beginning of her career, and then, again with the same aria toward the end of her career!' It is basic human instinct to compare good and bad, or different--but why and what makes it different, or good, or less good? Many critics used to shoot their mouth pen off to sound educated, or to attract readers because readers know they'll get an 'eyeful' when they read that writer's work. Many people like to read music reviews like a gossip column. case in point is the 'Lexicon' book. Ha--look at those pieces, now beloved and performed more often than the original critic would have imagined. Another thing, is that when a new work is premiered, the ears are trained to listen to what came before and then the new work. What sounded terribly offensive in its time, becomes more acceptable years later, only because our ears become attuned to sound and style over a period of time. This is something most people do not realize. In learning a new work, for example, a new work William Bolcom composed for me, at first, the dissonances did not 'register' in my musical language. Once I learned it, and understood the harmonic components and melodic treatment of themes, it made more sense to me. Imagine a critic listening to a new work for the first time. The only time I witnessed something very unique, was in 2000, when both critics from the main newspapers in Cincinnati attended the rehearsals and concerts of a new work by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. The spoke with the composer, followed the score at rehearsals. This way, by the time they had to offer the public a most educated re-view (means to view again, right?) of the new work, they understood the new work and were able to write something about the new work that made sense and invited the public to attend the next concerts that week.

  2. Thanks for this detailed and thoughtful response!

  3. I only write "good" book reviews - and I have refused to write bad ones or even "mixed" ones. I don't want to be a "critic" in that way. Instead, I want to inspire people to read and urge them towards what I believe is "the good." Perhaps Ross is doing the same.

  4. Dear Eric,

    I think you are right about Ross. His writing is fabulous (as Lebrecht himself noted), and he often sends me back to hear specific works of music again with new ears--even if I thought I knew them!

    In my business I am often in a position where I must write mixed or even negative reviews in order to remain honest. It does take guts (as Lebrecht indicates) to lay out flaws as one hears them and to develop debate.

    I only question why those moments would be the ones that define a critic. Like you, I think that when one finds a new way to hear or read something it is fun to share those insights. For my dollar I would prefer to have those moments be the ones that define the work...if it needs to be defined at all.

    Thanks, as always, for stopping by the Labyrinth!


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