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Samuel Thompson

In Defense...of All of Us....

August 16, 2012 at 4:49 AM

Note: this essay appears in its entirety at Many thanks to Laurie Niles for asking me to post it here - Sam

In June of this year, violinist Charlie Siem was presented in concert at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City. For anyone who is not familiar, Mr. Siem is a London-born violinist whose debut CD was released to critical acclaim in 2008 and followed by two additional CD releases on the Warner Classics and Jazz label (should you have not heard Mr. Siem, please take a moment to visit his website and listen to the samples posted). Mr. Siem also has an interest in fashion and is represented by the special bookings department of Storm Model Management , the agency that represents Cindy Crawford, Eva Herzigova, Jourdan Dunn and Kate Moss. In tandem with his growing concert career, Mr. Siem has appeared in Vogue Magazine, Italian GQ and the Spring 2011 Dunhill campaign - and while his campaign and editorial work has been quite elegant he has shown in the many interviews taken that he is without a doubt a serious violinist.

Regarding modeling: in a 2008 Vanity Fair interview, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (supermodel, songwriter and wife of former French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Ms. Bruni is also managed by Storm Model Management's special bookings department) spoke very candidly about the business: “It is certainly not German philosophy, but it was very instructive, because it was made up of real life. You travel, you are always alone, and you better be well grounded, because it’s easy to lose yourself.” Furthermore, while Mr. Siem's motives for making entry into the fashion world may be viewed as questionable, it is important to remember that some of the most revered artists in what we call classical music have worked in the entertainment world as well.

Violinist Louis Kaufman (1905-1994) was probably the world's most heard violinist as he enjoyed a long career in Hollywood, serving as concertmaster on over 400 movie soundtracks including Casablanca, Wuthering Heights, Spartacus, The Grapes of Wrath and The Diary of Anne Frank. Mr. Kaufman was also a champion of new music and made over 125 classical recordings in a fifty year period - including the first complete domestic recording of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons". In 1944 violinist, humanitarian and activist Yehudi Menuhin was approached to supply music for a film called The Magic Bow (a fictionalized account of the life of Nicolo Paganini), and even suggested to the directors that he appear in the film (Menuhin's brief step into the entertainment world is shared with great candor and humor in his autobiography, Unfinished Journey: Twenty Years Later). The great Jascha Heifetz also appeared on both film and television: who can forget his appearances with Jack Benny and the 1939 movie They Shall Have Music , the latter which featured Mr. Heifetz in a starring role?

So I ask: Is it so terrible that Mr. Siem has chosen to build careers both in music and modeling, especially considering the facts presented here? Surely not, as there is little doubt that he will maintain the standards of excellence that are audible via his website. The New York Times writer who was given the assignment of reviewing Mr. Siem's appearance at Le Poisson Rouge, however, thinks otherwise.

I shall not take time to rebut this review point-by-point; however, it must be said that the direction of said review is made apparent in the first three paragraphs, in which the writer chronicles some of the "highlights" of Mr. Siem's forays into the entertainment world while conspicuously failing to mention any of Mr. Siem's classical "credentials". It is in the fourth paragraph that said review becomes deeply disturbing: "There’s nothing wrong with marketing, or with building bridges between classical music and broader culture. But a musician needs to back up his promotional prowess with skill, and at Mr. Siem’s recital on Monday at Le Poisson Rouge with the pianist Kyoung Im Kim, there was a dumbfounding gap between his retro suavity and the ineptitude of his playing."

Ineptitude? Having listened to his recordings (with hopes to hear him in concert some day as we do live in a "golden age" of violinists), I of course found myself dumbfounded at the reviewer's words. While we do expect a level of perfection and insight from performers - particularly those who are performing standard fare like Ysaye and Vieuxtemps - it must be taken into account that we are all human beings, which means that we are subject to NOT being compact-disc perfect at all times that we are on stage.

It goes without saying that when those special moments arise - those when a performer transcends technique and shares a message that captivates - we cherish them, and we should cherish those moments. Nevertheless, to ridicule a performer based on one evening - particularly after sardonically speaking of said performer's achievements outside of the small world that is referred to as "classical music" - is at best reprehensible.

To say that this is a disturbing trend in arts journalism, however, would be to ignore history: in his autobiography, Isaac Stern spoke of the reviews that followed his New York debut: "We were so bitterly disappointed...I was being patted on the head by some of New York's most eminent critics and told that I hadn't yet crossed the 'Great Divide' into the lofty realm of the artist; that my playing was 'erratic'; that I ought to go back to San Francisco, to the 'land of violinistic prodigies, movie yes-men and sunshine,' and practice some more."

Fortunately for us, Mr. Stern used this as fuel to work even harder, the result being that he did indeed enter that "lofty realm of the artist". While it seems that this "review" may not have hurt Mr. Siem, let us hope that his New York Times review serves as fuel for him as well, fuel needed to continue on the path of excellence that he has chosen.

...and while there is nothing new under the sun, perhaps we should, as the kids say, require all of our arts journalists to DO BETTER.

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on August 16, 2012 at 3:28 PM
Maybe he did have an off-night? But even if he did, I agree it's not a particularly good review. IMHO what an artist does off-stage should not be used for criticism, especially when you have such a limited amount of space. So amen to your conclusion that arts journalists need to do better.

But to be fair, newspaper reviews are usually 90% pretentious bullcrap, anyway. Especially the NYT. If someone could find a recent review of theirs that is worthwhile, I'd love to read it, because I hit dud after dud there, to the point where I don't even seek them out anymore. I'm not sure if it's the paltry amount of space that tends to be given to them, the lack of respect shown to arts journalists by their employers, the readership's lack of interest, or other factors entirely, but I always feel like the people lucky enough to be writing about the shows don't even want to be there in the first place. If you do not want to be there, I sure as heck don't want to hear what you thought. I think this is a field of journalism that is going to go online exclusively sooner rather than later. (The reviews I read online tend to be so much more interesting than the professional ones, if not necessarily better written. But you know what? I'd take a badly written yet interesting and honest review over an intellectually senseless one with good grammar any day.) Then we get into the subject of "would the loss of professional critics be a bad thing?" This sounds terrible, but in its current state I'm not so sure if it would. :/ I dunno.

Anyway! Thanks much for your thoughts. I like Siem's playing; I'd never heard it before. I'd seen pictures of him on Tumblr before and, I'm ashamed to admit, had subconsciously dismissed him. (I know, I know... Not very good form of me to admit that in the same comment as the above paragraph. But at least it was subconscious dismissal, and I didn't write a review in the frigging New York Times about it, so you have to give me that...) In future I will try to be more careful in future not to dismiss someone based on their publicity photos.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on August 16, 2012 at 6:23 PM
Emily - Thank you for your response. Regarding your question ("Maybe he had an off night?"): maybe he did? Haven't we all? I have to agree with you; what an artist does off the concert stage is totally up to the artist - and furthermore, to dismiss someone as "not serious" because of his having serenaded Lady Gaga is inexplicable at best: at worst, the act of dismissing everyone who shows a public interest in "other things" is a sad example of the elitism of which classical musicians are said to have. Fortunately, we see through artists like Mr. Siem that "elitism" is not the case.

Regarding publicity photos: again, nothing new under the sun. It is interesting, however, to read your very honest statement about subconsciously dismissing him because of his photos. I must ask, did anyone dismiss Anne Sophie-Mutter due her penchant for strapless Christian Dior (designed by the late and GREAT couturier Gianfranco Ferre)? HARDLY!

Myself, I do not understand the endless debate about music vs. visual marketing at times. Of course, we know that visual marketing may not be "the answer", but if it's done tastefully and with the music and musicians in mind, why not?

Thanks again,

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on August 16, 2012 at 9:59 PM
Unfortunately I've dismissed female violinists based on their publicity photos, too. I don't feel comfortable naming names, but it's happened. It's probably some kind of deep-seated distrust of marketing machines and a dislike of the vast majority of overtly sexual marketing. I'd be interested to know if other people notice themselves doing this, and if so, for what genders.
From Samuel Thompson
Posted on August 16, 2012 at 10:27 PM
"It's probably some kind of deep-seated distrust of marketing machines and a dislike of the vast majority of overtly sexual marketing."

RIGHT - there's a difference in elegant marketing and "overtly sexual"....I (of course) have my thoughts, but diplomacy prevents me from sharing them. In the big picture, though, as long as there's "proof in the pudding", I don't care.... ;)

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on August 17, 2012 at 1:58 AM
I wonder why we feel hesitant to name names while discussing sex appeal in marketing... I'm not afraid to say I don't particularly care for a particular musician's performance(s). I've done it on this site; I've done it on my blog. So why does it feel so rude and uncalled-for to name names when discussing who uses sex appeal in a way I personally find unappealing?
From Corwin Slack
Posted on August 17, 2012 at 2:50 AM
And then there is this.
From Samuel Thompson
Posted on August 17, 2012 at 5:39 AM
Emily - I wonder if our reluctance is an effort at diplomacy.

Corwin - AH. Hahn-Bin plays exceptionally well, and probably always will. That he does what he does is actually refreshing, at least to me.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on August 17, 2012 at 11:44 AM
Real art has aspirations. It seeks to discover the transcendent and reveal it to us. Once upon a time vulgarity was considered antithetical to art. One could be an entertainer or an artist but not both. In our modern times we have slammed the door on transcendence. We are all just DNA evolved to pleasure.
From Ray Randall
Posted on August 19, 2012 at 10:01 PM
Classical music is suffering from audiences finding other things to do than attend a Classical concert. If being provocative or different brings in the people than so be it.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 19, 2012 at 9:46 PM
Emily, I've done it too, and I've done it for women more than for men, I think. It's interesting that Samuel mentions Anne-Sophie Mutter because I particularly dislike the way she dresses. I know people say it is elegant, and I don't think it's overtly sexual the way something like the (in)famous Lara St. John cover is, but there's something about the strapless look that rubs me the wrong way and makes me uncomfortable. I haven't analyzed my reaction beyond acknowledging how uncomfortable I would feel wearing what she does--it's visceral and it's not easy to put into words.

But I haven't dismissed her as a violinist because of that--I own and enjoy several of her recordings. I listen to them on CD or the iPod and I really make no mental connection to what she looks like while I'm listening.

I find that I have to do that a lot, actually: separate what actually interests or moves me from its marketing, and just learn to ignore or tune out the marketing to the extent possible.

In that light, I found it fascinating (and a little disheartening) to read in Robert's blog that the most attention-getting ads on this site were pictures of an attractive person holding a violin and looking happy (presumably that means smiling). I hate those kinds of ads, at least consciously, but I'm probably in the minority, in denial about what my subconscious likes, or both.

Posted on August 19, 2012 at 10:46 PM
Musical "critics" that neither play the instrument they are critizicing nor are musicians themselves should not be taken seriously. This is particularly true for the violin which is one of the most difficult instruments to play well. Such "critics" don't have the faintest idea of the great merit behind a violinist that has the courage and nerve to appear on stage.
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on August 20, 2012 at 3:13 PM
I wonder if we feel uncomfortable because we subconsciously feel she is being marketed as a sexual object more than as a musical one (regardless of if that's actually true). Maybe that makes us as women feel defensive, or maybe even a little resentful. Seeing imagery just adds to the growing chorus of subconscious societal messages that your job is to be sexy and you are not worthy of attention unless you are sexy. Who knows. I'd be interested in reading a scholarly treatment of the use of image in classical music marketing, and how it has evolved over, say, the last hundred years. Marie Hall was certainly marketed as the Edwardian equivalent of a sex-bomb.

Interestingly, Lara St. John's cover bothers me less because I felt it was more a statement about the repertoire: Bach makes her feel nude, strips her, makes her vulnerable, as it does to all of us. I find other publicity photos with women fully clothed to be more sexual than that particular album cover. But that's just me.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 21, 2012 at 1:26 AM
Thanks for that interpretation of Lara St. John's cover. I hadn't thought of it that way before, and it helps me look at it in a different, more interesting, light!
From Samuel Thompson
Posted on August 22, 2012 at 5:54 AM
"Marie Hall was definitely marketed as the Edwardian equivalent of a sex-bomb." Nothing new under the sun....

Ray - that's the question: DOES doing "something different" bring people in, and if so, do those people STAY and expand their interest in this world? What a fascinating audience survey that would be. On that note, there have been many articles written about the New World Symphony's new facilities and the different types of concerts and events held there. This is all being touted as "the new model", but can this be reproduced as not every city boasts a Frank Gehry hall complete with modular stages and an outdoor viewing screen?

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