Writing Responsibly for the General Reader: One Music Critic’s Experiences in 1971 and in 2020

How should music scholars write for non-specialists? That is the wide-ranging question that Dave Hesmondhalgh raised in an essay for Naxos Musicology International in November 2019. (NMI is available to anyone who subscribes to Naxos Music Library or whose library does. Click the “Musicology” button on the left edge of the homepage.) Hesmondhalgh lays out numerous beneficial possibilities.

But he passes quickly over the single most frequent form of scholarly outreach: books and articles (for newspapers, CD booklets, blogs, online magazines) that address topics likely to be of interest to many.

Hesmondhalgh would place this in the category of “traditional public musicology.” He mentions two fine instances: the program notes of Donald Francis Tovey (which were then gathered into the now-classic, multi-volume Essays in Musical Analysis) and the rock criticism of Simon Frith.

By profession, I am a historical musicologist. But I got my start as a writer publishing concert reviews. This was, I think, in 1967, when I was 18. At age 66 (in 2015), I began again to publish reviews on a regular basis, now focusing primarily on CDs (though I also write about some books and live performances).

It occurs to me that my experiences, struggles, and doubts—or, worse, my haste and lack of doubt!—might be worth sharing here. My examples are two reviews that I wrote nearly fifty years apart and that treat one and the same work (an Offenbach operetta).

Glimmerglass 2021 – Thinking Outside of the Box

For over a decade I’ve covered the Glimmerglass Festival and have celebrated its ascension to an internationally lauded event under the direction of the boundlessly energetic and resourceful Franscesca Zambello.  The cancelation of the 2020 season was another of many tragic cancelations of sister opera houses world-wide.

Fabien Gabel conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Dukas, Zigman, and Saint-Saëns, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano, and Jonathan Dimmock, Organ

Last weekend the San Francisco Symphony, surely unbeknownst, gave me a Valentine’s Day card masquerading as a pair of tickets! I don’t honestly recall a concert in recent years I’ve enjoyed more than this one. I’ve known and loved Paul Dukas’ ballet score La Peri for more than fifty years without ever hearing it live, and as a dedicated Francophile in music, I am always delighted to hear again Camille Saint-Saëns’ iconic and fascinatingly structured Organ Symphony. Add to this the fact that I grew up in the wilds of Latin America and learned to tango just about when couples abandoned cutting a rug with each other on the dance floor in favor of wriggling in place, and you can imagine how a piano concerto based on Tango would evoke a special warmth and affection in someone like me. So I am writing more as a fan than as a critic this time.

Richard Wagner, I maestri cantori di Norimberga (or, rather Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Sung in Italian, Beautifully

Ever wanted to hear a Wagner opera performed with smooth singing: little or no barking, effortful huffing, or slow wobbling? Sure, there have been individual singers who have managed the trick, such as Plácido Domingo in Giuseppe Sinopoli’s famous Tannhäuser recording. But I mean the whole cast, from the biggest roles right down to the smallest. Well, here’s your chance: a complete Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that is a near-constant pleasure to the ears. The only problem is that it’s sung in Italian: hence I maestri cantori di Norimbega. But don’t let that you put you off. Opera houses in many countries have developed their own national traditions of Wagner singing in the vernacular. Opera enthusiasts cherish certain recorded Wagner excerpts sung magnificently in French by soprano Germaine Lubin or tenor Georges Thill. 

Two-Piano Recital at Simon’s Rock: Manon Hutton-DeWys and Larry Wallach will Play Brahms and Stravinsky, September 1 at 7:30

I am excited to be performing repertory for two pianos with the wonderful pianist and now colleague at Simon’s Rock, Manon Hutton-DeWys.  We will be matching our trusty Steinway B (on the left in the picture) in Kellogg with a newly acquired Mason and Hamlin BB (on the right) to present great compositions that exploit the medium of piano duo, in sonority somewhere between solo piano and full orchestra.  Our varied program includes Brahms’s Sonata, an alternate version of the great Piano Quintet in F minor; Debussy’s late, dramatic “En Blanc et Noir” composed during World War I, with poignant expressions of French patriotism; Stravinsky’s spare, neoclassical Sonata, and Copland’s joyful “Danzon Cubano.”  We invite you to celebrate Labor Day weekend with us on Saturday, September 1 at 7:30.

Gemma New

A Singer’s Notes 145: Great Beginnings with the TMC Orchestra

The first two concerts this summer season by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra were among the best I have heard in several decades.  The energy level was palpable.  The intensity of the playing, particularly the strings, was a marvel.  The two greatest challenges for the ensemble were Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and the Leonore Overture No. 3 of Beethoven.

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