Competitions: The music critics' perspective

October 1, 2010, 9:43 AM ·

Nine jury members may have decided the outcome of last week's International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, but there were others forming their opinions in the audience - among them, critics.

What is the critic's perspective on a competitions such as this? Who really is the "winner"?

These were some of the questions discussed last week at a panel with Ariane Todes, editor of The Strad, Gil French, Concert Editor of American Record Guide and University of Michigan violin professor Stephen Shipps.


The Strad Editor Ariane Todes and American Record Guide Concert Editor Gil French

Certainly critics play a role in how we think about a performance, but ultimately, "we know, as audience members, who is great and who is not," Shipps said. That said, "we all listen differently."

Critics are helpers, with expertise and background, to explain why a performance worked or didn't work. Critics help people find the reasons for their reactions to certain performances.

"'Critic' is a horrible word,'" Todes said. All music writers have an agenda, and that usually involves communicating to a certain readership. The Strad is a magazine read by string players, thus "my agenda is to understand what makes these performances good, or not so good, and to preserve for posterity a description of how they played."

"It's a constant evolution of my knowledge, and the knowledge I'm trying to pass to the readers," Todes said.

French said that, when he was working as a classical radio announcer, an orchestra musician expressed envy at how much music he could listen to. A musician, the orchestra member said, is stuck listening to his or her own part.

But how does one measure a performance?

French quoted the famous 20-century composer and critic Virgil Thomson: "Music either touches you emotionally, or not at all."

Certainly technique counts high in a competition, but that undefined ability to capture an audience's attention and imagination comes into play as well.

"I want to be inspired, turned on, swept away," French said. "I presume everyone here on stage is beyond technique."

That said, people can disagree intensely on what was a "good performance."

French described a Music Critics Association event in which 10 critics were at a bar, five at one table and five at another. All of them had just heard a performance of a singer. One table came to the conclusion that the singer was dreadful, the other table agreed that it was some of the finest singing they'd ever heard.

"There we were, all at the same performance, hearing the same thing, 10 professional critics, and all of us had different opinions," French said. The important thing is "to be able to put into words, why I think what I do, why I like one better than the other."

Shipps suggested that one of the questions to ask is this: Will this performer still be on the concert stage in 25 years?

Todes said she has a constantly evolving checklist of what she wants to see in a performance, which includes things such as sound production, color, projection, intonation, phrasing, and also that "there's a bigger story-telling to the music – there's a journey in the music, and they've thought about it," Todes said. "You can tell when they're bringing that to the music." It's about preparation, but also it's about the thoughtfulness that went into that preparation.

French said he listens for a good instrument, varying tone color, polyphonic vs. homophonic texture, different styles, rhythms and inner rhythms, a sense of form, long lines, interpretive power and that the performer is beyond the technical challenges. Other factors, that he doesn't listen for but uses other senses to determine, include incisiveness, continuity, spontaneity, tapestry, setting a mood, leaning into the music, and having a sense of ensemble.

One person in the audience asked if there shouldn't be a more scientific way of determining who is the winner at a competition.

Actually, flawed though the current system may be, the cream tends to rise to the top, Todes said. And then again, winning a competition doesn't necessarily mean that you win a career. For example, Shipps said, Christian Tetzlaff did not make the finals in a certain competition he entered years ago, but he's certainly made a career. "Somebody should go tell him he's not good enough!" Shipps joked. "There are others who have made great wins (at competitions) and have not gone anywhere (in their career)."

Joseph Gingold, the wonderful violinist and pedagogue who started the Indianapolis competition, did not have a great solo career, and much of that had to do with timing: he was in his prime around the 1930s – the same time as was Jascha Heifetz, who eclipsed everyone; the same time as the Great Depression, and later, war. "There are a lot of non-scientific things that come into it," Shipps said.

One thing to remember is that a competition exists for all who enter it, not just those who receive top medals. French quoted an official at the Van Cliburn piano competition, who once said of the 30 entrants, "There's an opportunity for 30 people here to make a career, no matter who wins."

Shipps recalled a student at the Kreisler competition. She didn't win, but after one of the concerts a couple came up to her... and offered her the use of their Stradivari.


October 2, 2010 at 03:39 PM ·

Very informative. I'd like to hear even more discussion from these wonderful "critics" on their craft.

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