Second Thoughts

Second Thoughts
By Henry C. Mayer

Some Second Thoughts About Criticism

The bent and talent for criticism, especially critical comment on works of art, is an awesome gift. One can get carried away by it.

I am reminded of former British Prime Minister Disraeli's observation: "How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct." That certainly is true for politics and politicians; perhaps it can be true for criticism of works of art. I am reminded that when it comes down to evaluating musical performances, there are many examples of an extremely critical review being reversed as time goes on.

For example, in 1816, the Vienna Orchestra performed a premiere of a recently composed opus. The critic could find little, if anything, to praise in it. Yet in time, it achieved an almost universal acceptance, not to say, acclaim. The piece: Beethoven's Second Symphony.

Sometimes we may forget that criticism is often highly subjective. That has been so ever since a Roman writer wrote, "Concerning taste, there is no dispute." Sometimes, what bothers me is not the act of criticism but the choice of words and how the criticism is couched.

It is one thing to criticize performance; it is another to interpret artistic behavior. I wonder if the following recently written about the visiting Montreal Symphony may not be a case in point:

"Unsettling, too, was the number of flubs from section principals. Some of the attacks were downright sloppy, and by its close, the symphony seemed only a means for Dutoit and his colleagues to swagger."

The word that bothers me is "swagger."

I wonder if we write with the same realization that no piece is ever interpreted exactly the same way twice, even by the same artists. Yet some criticism is so written that a discerning reader might think that only the critic knows the correct way to play a certain number.

Other times, one has to wonder if a critic is only writing for members of his lodge and/or professional musicians. Some allowance should be made for the quality of audience reaction and response. Regular symphony concert goers are not always off base when they express enthusiasm for a certain piece.