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John Rockwell on criticism

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This may only be of interest to critics, but John Rockwell has a long piece in the NY Times about criticism.

Thumbs Down, Thumbs Up: Prizing a Personal Voice Even if It Hurts

Last week, defying the consensus of the connoisseurs, I went to a concert in the New York Philharmonic's series of all the Beethoven symphonies and concertos. Critics may complain about such supposedly unimaginative programming, but Avery Fisher Hall was fuller than I've seen at a Philharmonic concert in a long while.

But what caught my attention was the piano soloist in Beethoven's Concerto No. 3, Gianluca Cascioli, who was making his New York debut. This is a young man — he's 24 — who has been extravagantly praised for his recitals, concerto appearances and recordings, although still not reviewed by The New York Times. He is prized in the standard repertory (Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann) and in 20th-century music, having the imprimatur of appearing on Pierre Boulez's second set of the complete works of Anton Webern. Richard Dyer, the respected critic of The Boston Globe, named him a highlight of the year 1999 after his debut with the Boston Symphony in Mozart's Concerto No. 21.

Guess what: I hated his playing, and I hated it the only previous time I heard him, too, with the Pittsburgh Symphony in Mozart's Concerto No. 26, for the same reasons. I found it mannered and stylistically eccentric. But then I got to thinking. I don't usually hate performing artists; my reactions normally range between boredom and extravagant enthusiasm. I took such a strong dislike to Mr. Cascioli's playing because it wasn't at all normal. It violated norms, norms being codifications of current fashion. So, I began to think, maybe my visceral reaction is some kind of tribute to Mr. Cascioli's individuality.

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Richard Dyer responds to, and expands on, John Rockwell's article, and there are points in it that shed light on our discussions here:

Distinct styles, panned or praised, are vital

The greatest performers are not necessarily consensus performers with whom everybody feels comfortable.


This is an argument that New York Times critic John Rockwell advanced recently. "Better a personal voice than an earnest student of convention," he wrote. "And if you make some people mad, and you will, all the better."


All you have to do is read through a few day's postings in the opera chat rooms on the Internet to realize that most disagreements boil down to: "The performers I like are better than the ones you like." Rockwell is smarter than that, and he tells us exactly why he admires Grimaud and why Cascioli sends him up the wall.

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It is so true that one must understand that a review of a performance is one of a spontaneous point in time. The next performance of the same artist in the same role will be different to the same critic; so many variables!! That is why it is crucial that dancers have multiple performances in one part and hopefully walk the casting ladder in dances where possible.

Yes, I like it when someone comes up with a new look at a role. I love it when they do it while respecting the traditions before them and allowing me a fresh perspective on those traditions. I also enjoy it when I learn enough to appreciate an artist whom I may have disliked due to my ignorance.

Finally, it is all subjective past a certain level and time does stretch the artist's, audience's, coach's and critic's fabric in various directions. Sometimes the fabric shreds, but if the artistry is there then the fabric beautifies with time.

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