Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Criticizing Your Friends

We asked the critic Bernard Jacobson to reflect on his book Star Turns and Cameo Appearances, to be released in December.
There probably are, I cheerfully confess, musicians and writers who might think that a critic who never took a music course in his life must be a fake.

My education was centered on the subjects of philosophy, history, and the classical languages. But criticism is a branch of aesthetics, which may be regarded as a branch of ethics, which is in turn a branch of philosophy, and I think my philosophy studies were crucial in helping me to make the distinction between factual statement and value judgment that is a vital element in sensible criticism. As a motto, I adopted very early in my five-and-a-half decades as an active critic George Bernard Shaw’s dictum, “I never penned an objective criticism in my life, and I trust I never may.”

Critical judgments, after all, are made by people. It is the critic’s cardinal duty to be passionate. Certainly, having set passion loose on a given work or performance, it is his duty also to provide reasons to back up his personal judgment—to go into details, perhaps, about why elements in a piece fell short of coherence, or why certain choices of tempo in a performance didn’t work, or why they threw new light on a piece he had thought he already knew inside out. But this is a secondary duty, necessary to explain a positive or negative judgment, never to be placed on the same level of importance as that central judgment itself.

The kinds of detail I have found myself most often concentrating on in evaluating performances tend to be matters of rhythm or phrasing or dynamics. Pulse, I found in the light of two performances within a week of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, is more important than simple tempo: in one, the second movement was far slower than in the other–but it flowed much better, because the dominating metrical element was a broader two beats to the measure rather than a fussy chopped-up six. Silence, too, can be of fundamental importance. Far too often, the sense of cohesion in a performance is damaged when a measured pause indicated by the composer is shortchanged by the performer.

But given my essentially humanistic and indeed people-centered conception of what criticism is about, the account of my career I offer in my new book, Star Turns and Cameo Appearances: Memoirs of a Life among Musicians (University of Rochester Press, 2015), focuses as much on the individuals and ensembles who make music as on music itself. I have been fortunate enough to number many fine musicians among my friends. Again, I know there are colleagues who see it as improper for a critic to be on terms of friendship with those he reviews. To me, however, it seems that close observation of the arduous and often agonizing work composers and performers do ought to discourage any sensitive writer from being brutal or sarcastic about the results. If you have integrity, your judgments will be fair, and if you haven’t they probably won’t. Nor can I imagine friendship with a musician whose work I find bad, while in reviewing a man or woman I value artistically I would never allow a momentary lapse from the standards I admire to go unremarked.

Most formative and indeed educational for me was a close friendship beginning in my twenties and lasting some thirty-six years with the English composer Wilfred Josephs. Several times, when he ran into a creative road-block, he would call, say “I’m stuck!” and ask whether I could come straight over. We would spend perhaps a couple of hours looking at the difficulty together, and then, with his mind cleared of problems, he would send me away. And more than once he would say to me, “Okay, it’s finished. Now tell me how it works.”

It is such relationships that are explored in my book: personal friendships and professional associations with composers ranging in style from Josephs to Iannis Xenakis, and taking in Michael Tippett, Nicholas Maw, Robin Holloway, Jonathan Lloyd, Ralph Shapey, Richard Wernick, Richard Wilson, Heinz Karl Gruber, Robert Lombardo, and Andrzej Panufnik on the way. No less important to me are the performers I’ve been lucky enough to number among my friends: conductors Riccardo Muti (for whom I worked for seven years at the Philadelphia Orchestra), Carlo Maria Giulini, Colin Davis, Franz Welser-Möst, Gerard Schwarz, and José Serebrier; singers Thomas Hemsley and Ian Bostridge; instrumentalists including Garrick Ohlsson, Stephen Hough, Malcolm Frager, and the great, late-lamented Czech pianist Ivan Moravec. And while some might facilely imagine that the composers would have been the most brilliantly intelligent among these groups and the singers and instrumentalists the least, with the conductors ranking somewhere in between, the reality is that every single one of these individuals has consistently contributed a wealth of thought, knowledge, and artistic and human insight to the person and the writer I have striven to be.

Bernard Jacobson's career has included spells as recording executive; music critic of the Chicago Daily News; artistic director and adviser to several international orchestras in Holland; and visiting professor at Roosevelt University's Chicago Musical College. He has also performed and recorded as narrator of concert works and opera.

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