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Why the Critics Aren't Always Right

Terez Mertes

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Published: November 16, 2015 at 9:38 PM [UTC]

This past weekend, acclaimed violinist Leonidas Kavakos performed the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. If you read my last blog, you'll know I’m a big fan of this concerto. I found Kavakos’ interpretation to be magnificent. Soul-stirring. No, not perfect. Sometimes a note didn’t land precisely right on the money. And there were moments where the pacing seemed to involve conductor Michael Tilson Thomas trying to keep up with Kavakos’ propulsive playing. But that’s the third movement of the Sibelius for you. In my mind, the performance transcended the tiny flaws; it transcended everything. It had such power. Kavakos had found that place of haunting, bittersweet beauty, where technical brilliance meets vulnerability, and he played the concerto, particularly the second movement, from that space. The performance was so wonderful, in some ways, because there were some imperfections. It lent the piece humanity.

Joshua Kosman, longtime music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle didn’t like Kavakos’ interpretation quite so much as I. Here’s what he had to say. “It was an awkward, unpersuasive performance, wayward of pitch and rhythm and marked by what seemed like the violinist’s utter indifference to what the orchestra was doing at any given moment. Thomas’ efforts to keep everyone together were practically poignant.”

Everyone's a Critic

Well. Ouch. I should mention that I saw Sunday afternoon’s performance and Kosman reviewed Thursday night’s performance. I understand what Kosman was saying, however; I saw glimmers of this within Sunday’s performance. But, even reading this, I will stand my ground. This was one of the most stirring performances of the Sibelius I’ve ever seen.

So. Was it a wildly successful performance, or an uneven one? Should the critic have bashed Kavakos’ performance so unequivocally, or was he simply doing his job?

He was doing his job, of course. I myself have a gig as a dance reviewer for, whereby I attend ballet performances as a member of the press. It’s a funky feeling, being there as a judge. After the first review I submitted, back in October 2013, the editor responded by saying, “well, it sounds like you really enjoyed it -- this is a very kind review -- but it’s got to have something you found lacking, for balance. It’s got to be objective. You’ve got to be objective, as a member of the press.”

Dang. Not my skill. And it’s one of the reasons that I love attending the symphony simply as a subscriber. I like not being objective. I like riding the storm of my subjectivity. I like getting weepy and effusive and gushing out, “it stirred my soul,” and “whoa, Kleenex box, please!”

So. I loved Kavakos’ performance. I was so blown away by its power that I all but leapt to my feet right at the end, cheering Kavakos and the SFS musicians. What an astonishing ride he’d taken us on. But I looked around me and realized not everyone seemed to feel the same. Others in the audience were sitting, clapping politely. That was all. Really? I thought. Really? Was it those missed notes that had people thinking it was like a figure skating score in the Olympics, where points got deducted, and therefore the performance didn’t merit a standing ovation? Did he not look glossy enough, or sway enough, for their tastes? Eventually others rose, some in an almost dutiful sense, and Kavakos got the standing ovation his performance merited.

A first bow, amid now-enthusiastic applause. Called back for a second bow, amid the applause. But then the applause died down, too soon, which filled me with dismay. The guy deserved to come out for a third bow, minimum. I clapped more furiously, but alas, I am but one pair of clapping hands.

Then something interesting happened. As the applause died, there was a low, soft rumbling sound, and I realized it was coming from the stage, the musicians’ feet. It was their way of applauding, because of course their hands are full of instruments. The musicians were in agreement with me, apparently. Kavakos’ performance was far too good to let him walk off with only two bows.

It was the coolest thing, that soft thudding sound of their feet, the string players’ bows tapping against their music stands, broad smiles on all the musicians’ faces. Watching it, my heart swelled. Can a soloist have any greater compliment paid than this? A roaring audience, okay, fine, good for the ego. But there’s a sort of herd mentality about a roaring standing ovation. I have succumbed to it myself, rising to my feet because everyone around me did (usually this is one of the superstar soloists with a household name who’d produced a technically flawless performance, quite possibly at the expense of a sense of genuine heart). But when every member of the orchestra is beaming, thumping their feet, well, that’s saying something. Because a fellow musician understands. It’s not about the missing notes. It’s about finding the heart of the piece, the burning core, the composer’s intention, and sharing this gem with the audience.

Happily, the audience picked up the applauding pace once again, keeping at it till Kavakos came back onstage for one more bow. And as a reward, we were treated to a gorgeous, crystalline Bach partita encore. Nice.

Kosman’s review went on to praise the rest of the performance, and indeed, the two other pieces, Sibelius’ “The Swan of Tuonela” and Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, were both brilliantly rendered. I loved everything about the entire afternoon’s performance. But I’ll tell you what. During that 100 minute ride home, down the Peninsula and through the mountains, it was Kavakos’ rendition of the Sibelius that still gripped at my heart. That, and the image of all the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony stomping their feet in praise of another artist.

Well done, San Francisco Symphony.

This blog first appeared at The Classical Girl

From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 17, 2015 at 4:52 AM
"this is a very kind review -- but it’s got to have something you found lacking, for balance. It’s got to be objective. You’ve got to be objective, as a member of the press.”

That is so WRONG I don't know where to begin. Exaggerating some minor flaw for "balance" does not make one's writing "objective"! It just makes it disingenuous! But this notion that everything has two sides and that you have to "balance" them is very simplistic. It's also an entrenched flaw in modern journalism that allows liars, falsehoods and baldly ignorant notions just as much press as those who seek to speak with integrity and informed ideas.

"Objectivity" is a ridiculous notion;, we all are subjective beings and unable to perceive the world in any other way, period. One can acknowledge that and then aim for truth, in good faith, but that's about it.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 17, 2015 at 4:30 PM
Laurie, I loved reading your opinion here! It threw me into a difficult situation, back then, because I had to go dinging someone or something in my ensuing reviews. I look back on the reviews from my first and second year of reviewing, and I cringe at what must have seemed like unnecessary nitpicking. Wonder how many enemies I made? As one review there drew a hate reply, and my blog has, too, I know there are more than a few. And I guess a writer has to expect that. But I understand the point the editor was making. I'm much better at writing personal essays than reviews, and it showed. (Really, those early reviews sorta sucked.) I feel like I've found a balance in the past few reviews - more detail-based (but screw the nitpicking) and less emotion. The emotion, clearly, I save for The Classical Girl and my good friends at! ; )

From Brecklyn Ferrin
Posted on November 17, 2015 at 9:28 PM
I don't think objectivity is an inherently human characteristic. It's some sort of construct--an unnatural place for human beings to be. That's why we go to the concert hall, to connect to music in a beautiful, flawed, truly human way. The tension between performers is what makes it real, raw, and sometimes, transcendent. If we're looking for flawless, that's what edited recordings are for.
Posted on November 17, 2015 at 11:18 PM
This was a great piece of writing! I can definitely empathise with your experiences; of being moved by something only to find others haven't been. But that's ok, and it's definitely normal! I love the dynamism of music in that way, discovering what speaks to certain people and not others.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 18, 2015 at 4:56 AM
Well put, Brecklyn!
From Helen Martin
Posted on November 18, 2015 at 5:39 PM
I wonder what will happen in Philadelphia.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on November 18, 2015 at 7:54 PM
Helen - will you be seeing that performance? Would love to hear, as well, how it goes!

And thank you for your reply, un-named poster there in the middle (how did your post not show up when I was responding to Brecklyn's?!). Always love hearing others' opinions and experiences.

From Graham Emberton
Posted on November 19, 2015 at 5:04 PM
Issues of reviewing are near and dear to my heart lately because I've also been writing for Bachtrack. Rarely do I have anything especially negative to say (it's usually a Chicago Symphony performance) and I'm often bemused when checking up on the other reviewers in town who are sometimes thoroughly unimpressed.

Also, I've been on the receiving end of editorial displeasure a couple times and it's no fun. Sympathies!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 20, 2015 at 5:09 PM
It sounds like a fabulous experience. My experience with theater reviewers (I go to the theater 4-5 times per week) is that I frequently wonder if they went to the same play I did, and/or if they stayed until the end. It sounds to me as if the orch voted with its feet, so to speak and overwhemingly so. I would go with their vote over some reviewer's.

For those who are interested in reviews, George Bernard Shaw started his career as a music critic. His reviews are fascinating and quite discerning. I think you can get them on I have pdfs of two reviews he did of Handel's Messiah, which I used to send around to my orch when we did a Messiah concert in December. I am willing to share them with anyone who wants them. Just send me your email.

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