Monday, August 28, 2006

Criticizing the Critics

I’d like to revive something the late critic B.H. Haggin used to do: criticize the critics. For the most part, critics don’t acknowledge the existence of other writers in their pieces, aside from the occasional vague reference to other opinions. It’s a professional courtesy not to question another writers’ opinion, I think, a sort of honor among thieves. However, I’m not a professional and I can say whatever I please. The July 10 issue of The New Yorker had a couple of choice places to start this project: “Farewell Symphony,” Alex Ross’s encomium on the departure of Daniel Barenboim from the Chicago Symphony, and “Westward Ho!,” Joan Acocella’s paean to Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.

Here’s Your Hat. What’s Your Hurry?
In my opinion, Daniel Barenboim is one of, if not the, least talented musicians before the public today. Clearly, since he’s music director of the Berlin State Opera and principal guest conductor of La Scala, many other people don't share this opinion, and it’s true that I saw this view first expressed in Haggin’s writing, but nothing I’ve heard in all the years since has changed my mind.
Take, for example, his contribution to the 30th anniversary celebration of Live from Lincoln Center recently broadcast on PBS. In the madly kaleidoscopic segment of concerto performances, Barenboim’s few measures stood out for the leaden quality of the playing. There was no phrasing, musicality, or even interest in what he did. He looked the part but based on his playing he could just as well have been some guy from the audience in a tux, called up at the last minute to take the place of an indisposed soloist.
I have to think audiences respond to his bella figura. Just listen to the Mozart Two Piano Concerto in E-flat, K.365, he recorded with Vladimir Ashkenazy in 1975, my exhibit A of Barenboim’s astonishing shortcomings as a musician (available in Decca/Londons Mozart Piano Concerto box set). Ashkenazy’s entrance after the orchestra introduction is everything it should be: beautifully played, tastefully phrased, technically secure. Then Barenboim comes in and instead of answering it in kind, produces an elephantine response, painful to hear.
Another recording of the Concerto is available on the BBC Legends label (BBC 4037-2), taped live at a Proms concert with Barenboim conducting the English Chamber Orchestra and Sir Clifford Curzon playing the other piano. Listening closely while following the score to keep track of who was on which piano, it was clear that Barenboim’s playing was consistently less sensitive, less interestingly phrased, less varied than Curzon’s. It’s not always out-and-out bad, which surprised me, but it isn’t really good. It is Curzon who I wanted to hear more of, who made Mozart interesting and engaging. For example, in the solo in the last movement that starts at measure 113, Barenboim’s playing isn’t cleanly articulated, especially the dotted notes. Sometimes he’s just sloppy, as in the sixteenth-note runs at measure 418 in the same movement.
There’s also a video of the same Concerto with Barenboim and Sir Georg Solti, who plays the first piano part and conducts the English Chamber Orchestra in a 1990 performance. It is also available on CD (Decca Eloquence 476 2451). I was only able to watch a few minutes, but I would recommend it to anyone who would like to see Barenboim in action. Perhaps you will hear that he uses only three dynamic levels: forte, mezzoforte, and pianissimo. Compare his playing to Solti’s, who shapes the melodic line by varying the dynamics. Barenboim does precious little within the phrase and waits until the end to dramatically reduce the volume to a whisper. The Live from Lincoln Center clip suggests that his playing hasn’t changed in more than 30 years.
I would say that Barenboim’s leaving Chicago would be cause for celebration, but that wasn’t why Ross wrote his piece. We are told that the performances Barenboim conducted over three valedictory days were variously “grimly eloquent at the outset and electrically triumphant at the end” in Beethoven’s Ninth, “vividly executed” in Carter and Boulez, and contributed to an exit that “could not have [been] more graceful.” But read between the praise and you will find these cavils:

“The Mahler Ninth felt like a recapitulation of Barenboim’s Chicago career. The first movement was rocky at times, orchestra and conductor never quite settling on a central pulse—that stuttering-heartbeat rhythm that signifies the composer’s knowledge of his own approaching death. [A questionable assertion, but let it go for now.] Yet the playing was passionate in the extreme. There was an engaging wildness in the middle movements, together with more disagreements about tempo. (Some musicians have long been frustrated with Barenboim’s habit of setting new tempos on the spur of the moment.)”

“I had an adverse reaction when I first heard the great Chicago orchestra under Barenboim, a decade ago. There was a crude and chaotic quality to the sound: you could still hear the vehement aesthetic of Georg Solti, Barenboim’s predecessor, but it lacked Solti’s precision. Barenboim conducted with a broad beat, trying at times for profound effects that either he was unable to articulate or the orchestra was unwilling to execute.”

“Pride filled Barenboim’s voice as he declared that he had gained that trust—for much of his tenure, there was resistance from factions in the orchestra—and that he had just received the unofficial title of Honorary Conductor for Life.” [Perhaps he just wore them down over the years.](italics mine)

I’d suggest that Ross was really hearing Barenboim’s conducting in those passages, but that over the years he let down his critical guard. When Ross says “although [Barenboim] had gravitas even in his youth, something in his work has deepened,” it is more likely only Barenboim’s acting ability that has deepened over the years. I don’t think musicality can be taught to an unmusical person, any more than someone can be taught to be a good writer.
The fact that Ross takes Bruckner’s symphonies seriously is further proof that he’s reacting to Barenboim’s stage gestures and demeanor since Bruckner is a prime example of a composer whose chief ability lies in creating impressive sounds that don’t add up to anything. A hit single, a guitarist friend once told me, has to have a sound and a hook and Bruckner’s symphonies have both. Unfortunately, while he wanted desperately to write symphonies, he couldn’t assemble the pieces into a coherent whole. But there are those, like Ross, who are convinced he was a worthy successor to Beethoven and predecessor to Mahler. He characterizes Bruckner as “a composer who carved out his music as if it were cathedral limestone.” To my ears, the cathedral is imposing, all right, but it is hollow inside, which perfectly describes Barenboim’s playing and conducting.
Alex Ross seems like a really nice guy, which is not the first qualification I think of in connection with criticism. When I read his blog, The Rest is Noise, I get the sense that he’s a big ole’ classical music fan who wants to do his best to encourage composers, musicians, and listeners to get out and write, play, and hear more music. Now that’s a great attitude and essential in keeping the business going but I think a critic better serves music and the music business if he starts out committed to the belief that guiding readers to the most accurate and most exciting performances of the best music is his primary reason for writing.

A Direct Line to Heaven
Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography may not be on the same level as Barenboim’s conducting, but it is not at all the great white hope of Russian dance that Joan Acocella thinks it is. “Russia is in the torturous process of catching up with twentieth-century modernism, from which it was isolated for more than half a century, and Ratmansky was made by God to help it do this,” she said. God? Really? Who told her this?
Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons was part of the New York City Ballet’s latest Diamond Project, a program that commissions new ballets for the company. Acocella starts her piece with a perceptive critique of the Diamond Project and its latest products, a mixed bag at best, she says. I saw just one other of the seven pieces, Christopher Wheeldon’s Evenfall. It was on a program with Robbins’ Ma mère l’oye and Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco (to Bach’s Two Violin Concerto) and in that company it didn’t stand a chance. (Well, with the Balanchine at least. The Robbins is entertaining but embarrassingly sentimental.) After seeing Evenfall and a subsequent performance of Klavier I’m starting to wonder about the fuss that’s been made over Wheeldon. Evenfall did not hang together at all. It looked like an homage to Balanchine, using Bartók instead of Stravinsky, but it made me think that maybe Balanchine was right not to set a ballet to Bartók. Acocella summarized it as a piece “in which women in filigreed tutus bent over and stuck their butts up in the air to Bartók’s beautiful Piano Concerto No. 3.” Fair enough.
But then she goes right off the deep end with Ratmansky’s Seasons. It clearly touched her at some profound level but the work itself doesn’t live up to her reaction to it. At its best it was reminiscent of Robbins’ piano ballets, and come to think of it, at its worst it was too. To start with, there were the costumes. The five couples came onstage — strolled onstage, to be accurate —in simple costumes reminiscent of Russian peasant dress. “Wass very Rooshian,” I told a friend. “Wass all very Rooshian.” The couples were color-coded and the women wore a version of the traditional headdress, though it was not decorated as in the traditional peasant style. Finally, we have an answer to the crucial question Steven Sondheim raised in “Ladies Who Lunch”: “Does anyone still wear a hat?”
As the couples stroll onstage they greet each other, talking about something or other — the harvest, perhaps — before they start to dance. In the ballet’s 12 sections the couples enact stages of the peasant year, accompanied in five of them by a singer. The music, by Leonid Desyatnikov, was dissonant sometimes, melodic other times. Acocella heard “not just folk material but also jazz and Steve Reich—and Stravinsky” in the music, making for a curiously mixed bag at best. It was not, apparently, composed for the ballet.
Wendy Whelan was the featured soloist, though Jenifer Ringer, a wonderful dancer, was also in the cast I saw. Whelan returns at the end in white, which is the color of a wedding gown but also — gasp! — the color of a shroud. Also very Rooshian.
To Acocella, Ratmansky “takes on the great themes—love, grief, marriage, death—and looks them straight in the face.” But there’s a Marie Antoinette-playing-at-being-a-shepherdess quality in a work choreographed by the director of the Bolshoi Ballet and danced by some of the world’s most sophisticated ballet dancers for a New York City Ballet matinee audience that takes as its subject the life of rural Russia. At the same time, and I realize this sounds completely contradictory, it is very New Masses: The simple peasants are closer to the truths of life, love, and death than we decadent bourgeois and we could learn so much from them if we would only take the time to sit at their simple, peasant feet.
What’s fascinating is that Acocella sees the ballet clearly but, bless her, she takes it seriously. Also, she has the advantage of program notes that translate the texts of the songs. Here she describes one of the sections, quite accurately:

“The ballet wears no tragic mask. The dancers often do regular, unsentimental, ‘street’ things. They run around; they knead charley horses out of their legs; they chat with one another. Even in the most mystical passage, nothing gets too heavy. Here is the lyric:
“For you, the body, there is but one lot . . .
To go under the earth, to feed worms.
And me, the soul, I’ll go repenting.
I went near Eden, I didn’t get there . . .
Our Eden, it’s a mighty merry place,
Birds are singing, flowers are blooming,
Oh, on the flowers angels are sitting.
“To this song Jenifer Ringer enters, her expression rapt, her arms groping. She is searching for something—Eden, heaven—and everywhere she turns she comes up against some obstacle. Three men partner her, but they are not men; they are just the arms that support her quest, and block it. In the ballet’s most beautiful moment, the men become the angels on the flowers in Eden. They sit on the floor in a neat little row, and she steps into their hands, then onto their knees, as she walks out into the air, into the void. ‘I went near Eden, I didn’t get there’: she doesn’t get there, but no tears are shed. The whole thing, as serious as it is, looks like a children’s game, which I think is what Ratmansky is saying about the hope of heaven. The thought is Russian, the manner Western. The casualness is a bit like Jerome Robbins’s. Still, you are stabbed in the heart.”
Or else you’re not. As for the ballet’s “most beautiful moment,” didn’t Paul Taylor do the same thing in Esplanade 30 years ago? “No new steps, only new combinations,” Balanchine said. And sometimes not even that.
Acocella may have let her head get ahead of her critical gut with Ratmansky but she was right on the money the next week in “Secrets,” her review of Diana Vishneva in American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle. (See sidebar, below.) I’m not sure which New Yorker critic Edward Gorey was talking about when he said, “She knows who danced Giselle in 1897 but she can’t see what’s in front of her face,” but on the evidence of this piece he wasn’t referring to Acocella. (That would leave Arlene Croce as the next most likely candidate.)
She saw the performance with Angel Corella as Albrecht; I saw Vladimir Malakhov a few days earlier. The effect was the same: “a show that left people sitting dazed in their seats afterward.” In the second act pas de deux, the Met audience was as quiet as I’ve ever heard them, transfixed by the dancing of the two principals. They slowed the tempos w-a-a-y down and turned in a breathtaking performance. Here were the true “angels on the flowers in Eden” of Russian Seasons.
Burning Down The House
Another New Yorker critic in that July 10 issue was Hilton Als, who wrote about Richard Greenberg’s The House in Town, presented by the Lincoln Center Theater. Als took his review as a springboard to psychoanalyze Greenberg through his characters, a temptation critics often give into. In the climax of the review, Als condemns Greenberg for projecting his fears of contemporary Manhattan women on the play’s protagonist. That’s a serious charge, but if we take it at face value, we’re facing the slippery slope of assuming that a character’s moral shortcomings are a reflection of the writer’s neuroses. Is Sweeney Todd about Hugh Wheeler’s difficulties with authority figures? Moving away from the theater, what does that say about the screenwriters of Heathers (Daniel Waters) or Mean Girls (Tina Fey) and their views of women?
Critics are a lot like families: You can’t always live with them and you can’t shoot them. If only they agreed with us more often.

Sidebar: Thinking About Giselle
Giselle is quite a dichotomous little ballet. The first act is stereotypical, colorful, and melodramatic, while the second act is Romantic, monochromatic, melodramatic, and moving. It is also fascinating, and it is still influencing ballets today.
As the American Ballet Theatre program notes point out, Giselle is the oldest ballet still in the active repertory, premiered in 1841. The current ABT production, however, owes more to a Petipa version reset by Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1987. If the structure is reminiscent of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, with a first act in which the story is set forth with more mime than dancing and a second act which is nearly nonstop dancing, that may reflect more of the Petipa/Maryinsky influence than surviving aspects of the original 1841 version. Also familiar from Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty are the royal characters who parade around in lavish costumes attended by a stage full of courtiers, the young prince with an attendant who has not independent life of his own, a unison dance for demi-soloists (think of the “Dance of the Young Swans” in peasant costume instead of tutus and feather headpieces), and a curse. In Giselle, it is Giselle’s weak heart instead of a fairy with a grudge but the plot hinges on it just the same.
Giselle’s determination to dance despite the fate that awaits her may have inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes, published in 1845, reworked in the 20th century in Powell and Pressburger’s movie, made just over 100 years after the ballet. (And doesn’t Victoria Page’s ghost appear at the end of the film? I’m not quite sure as it has been several years since I last saw it.) The twist that Andersen introduces to the story of the demonic shoes is that in Giselle it is the men who are danced to death by the women, spirits who have killed themselves after being jilted or betrayed.
Another aspect of the ballet that has resurfaced in modern times is the interplay between members of the corps, who wave to each other as they enter, cross the stage, and exit. The intent is to establish a sense of community among the dancers before the action takes place before their (and our) shocked gaze. They are surrogates for the audience, most of whom are unknown to each other before they take their seats in the theater. This interplay was a central motif of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and the subsequent dances he created to Chopin, as well as Goldberg Variations and even Ma mère l’oye.
Closely associated with Robbins as this vocabulary was, after Peter Anastos’ wicked satire, Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet, it might have seemed like choreographers would leave it strictly alone. However, Alexei Ratmansky’s commission for the New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project, Russian Seasons, shows that even today they find it just as appealing.

29 June 2006

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