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Classical Mythology 101

9. The Myth of the Life Or Death Performance

Every performance matters, and every flaw is a sin against humanity.

You've read classical reviews. You know how high-flying they can read, as if the fate of Metropolis hung on every last hairbreadth pianissimo phrase in Superman's arsenal of performing nuances. WHAM!!! A jaunty pulse in the bass line and the heroine is extricated from the jaws of peril. POW!!! A crushing cascade of 32nd-note flurries and humanity is safe once again. But woe unto our hero if he or she cruises through that certain passage with a shade too much breezy nonchalance, if the resounding climax at the recapitulation comes off too bombastic or (horrors!) if our musical savior should hit an unforgiving clinker or two. The Man of Steel's reputation will wither as if bone and sinew had been exposed to kryptonite. The judgement of the review is harsh and it is final.

There's a reason why concert reviews are written this way. Drama. If a concert has no drama, if it has no meaning or any greater significance beyond its being a mere performing event (and some folks' thought process will have been so thoroughly conditioned that they'll cringe at my use of the word "mere" here), if it didn't mean life or death for something ~ the performer, the dead composer, the classic score in question, the city's cultural life ~ it wouldn't be worth the space in the newspaper (and newspaper space for classical music isn't especially generous). So a music critic has to make it sound as if every concert is important and every note must meet some Olympian standard of perfection. He has to make it seem as if the performer were a messenger from Apollo himself. Or else ~ the reviewer would have to get a real job!

Let's consider for a moment who are the clients for a concert review in the newspaper. Always first and foremost is the reviewer himself. For a few hours effort commuting, sitting through a performance and typing up some choice words, he or she gets to attend a free concert; the ticket is either paid for by the paper (if it's a behemoth cosmopolitan daily) or it's comp'd by the concert presenter. Plus the reviewer gets to pass Solomonic (or is it Solonic?) judgement on the work of a globe-trotting music professional for the locals to read. It's a supreme ego trip, believe me. Who else? The performer, whose concert is elevated to the status of "news." The performer's publicist, who likes to stuff next season's press kit with this season's reviews. There's the concert presenter, which gets its name or performing venue kept on the public's radar for another day. And then there's the future music historian, who will search the newspaper morgues 50 or 100 years from now to find out what it was like the night Arcady Volodos played. And what about the reader? If he's truly curious to know what a professional listener thought about a concert the reader himself may have heard and he believes all of the writer's honeysuckle prose, then it's fair to say the reader has been duped again. For everybody else, it's a bust. The concert is usually history by the time the review hits the street. And if the point of music journalism is to make people aware of something that otherwise would not have registered, a review is like a governor's stay of execution that arrives ten minutes too late. Advance stories serve the reader; reviews primarily serve the reviewer.

How about looking at it from a different point of view? Let's take our cue from the physical sciences. Physicists and engineers who study transport phenomena ~ that is, things that flow like liquids and gases ~ can write their mathematical descriptions of motion from either of two vantage points. One, the so-called Lagrangian reference frame, adopts the perspective of an observer who's going with the flow like someone riding a barrel down some whitewater rapids. The other, the so-called Eulerian frame, considers the process through the eyeballs of someone who's in a stationary location, like a fellow standing on the riverbank watching a barrel float by. The two views look different, but the physicist knows they're both the same event. To the music critic and most of the concert audience, theirs is an Eulerian perspective. An eminent musician comes to their town, brings Beethoven to life and rides into the sunset after he's done. But an average touring musician plays between 80 and 120 concerts a year, so to someone with a Lagrangian perspective ~ say a groupie travelling with André Watts or Michala Petri ~ that concert in Los Angeles or Scottsdale is just another gig on the tour. To the performer, every concert may still demand professionalism. But a concert isn't about life or death and just doesn't warrant the gravitas of the Byronic ode or paean that you're likely to read in the newspaper when it's all over.

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© David Bündler, 2000
Last revised: June 5, 2000