What the Best Conductors and Critics Can Teach Us

The second in an occasional series on opera and education

Friday, June 15, 2012 - 02:47 PM

There is a well-known joke in the music world, one too long to recount here, about a blind rabbit and a blind snake. The snake does not know what he is and asks the rabbit to help him. The rabbit slides up and down the length of the snake and then gives his opinion. There are two responses the rabbit gives, depending who is telling the joke. The first is, “Let’s see. You are slimy and have no ears. Are you a conductor?” The second is, “Let’s see. You are slimy and have no ears. Are you a music critic?”

When I first heard that joke, I recognized in it certain unsavory behavioral traits that have been ascribed to particular conductors and music reviewers. But I have come to think about the best conductors and critics as having something positive in common—they have a great deal to teach us, whether we are performers or lovers of opera and classical music.

An orchestra conductor, in Italian, is called a maestro. This term connotes the leader of a group of orchestral musicians but it also means "teacher." A good conductor is not only a leader but a teacher. These roles are related but distinct. We find, in a teacher, someone who leads us but also gives us the tools to create and grow on our own. A conductor, a leader and a teacher might show autocratic tendencies, but that is not a given.

Some very fine conductors, such as Thomas Beecham and James Levine, spread and communicate the ideas of, and the love for, music in ways that do not feel like an imposition. This does not mean they are weak-willed. Rather, the people they lead respond to them because they are authoritative rather than authoritarian. In contrast, a Toscanini or van Karajan, who seemed to rule with an iron hand, had plenty to teach and could be very inspiring. The imposition of their wills probably was not the ideal means of being a teacher and not necessarily the best way of being a leader. But they got results!

What can a conductor teach? If he or she conducts opera, a conductor will immerse in the ideas, biography and history of a composer and, above all, the music. This involves study of the scores and then arriving at a vision of each opera. Many young conductors start out as a répétiteur (a woman is a répétiteuse) who will go over (repeat, as the word suggests) parts of a role with a singer. This is how the répétiteur learns the music, the needs and limitations of a singer, and how -- through observation -- a great conductor works. This is how Georg Solti began. 

Once upon a time, the best conductors taught and worked individually with singers all through their careers. It gave them the chance to impart their knowledge but also shape the opera performances they would conduct. Watch the august Karl Böhm work with Leonie Rysanek on Elektra

Nowadays, fewer established conductors do this kind of work with singers on a regular basis and opera is poorer and more generic because of this. An exception to this is James Levine and the results were always evident in the performances he led. It is my fervent hope, as he works at overcoming the medical problems that have prevented him from conducting, that he has been able to teach conductors and singers. It would mean for him an engagement in music, which he lives and breathes, and would represent an unbeatable opportunity for the artists he teaches.

Certainly, the exemplar of maestro as teacher was Leonard Bernstein. It has often been said that, as good as he was as a conductor and composer, he was even better as an educator. A particular strength was that he could inspire, and grow, audiences. He meaningfully spread the knowledge of, and love for, music, to children, adults, scholars and fellow musicians. I was one of those lucky youngsters who got to hang on Bernstein’s every word in the Young People’s Concerts he did with the New York Philharmonic. While I was often in the hall for these events, it is remarkable to think that CBS saw fit to broadcast them on prime-time television. Would any major network do that now? Bernstein was equally brilliant, but also profound, in academic settings, most famously in his series of Norton lectures at Harvard in the 1970s. 

Nowadays, one of the most able conductor/communicators is Michael Tilson Thomas, who leads Young People’s Concerts, is the music director of the New World Symphony composed of young players, and also does speeches for adults as well as participating on the "Master Class" series on HBO.

A Critical Difference

There are two rather distinct definitions of “criticism” and they can lead to confusion if one does not understand the role of the critic who does his or her job well. The primary definition of criticism is “an expression of disapproval.” The secondary definition, but the one that obtains here, is “analysis and judgment of a literary or artistic work.” When I speak of music critics in this article, I refer to the secondary definition.

The best critics can be leaders and teachers as well. Alex Ross (right), who writes for The New Yorker, pulls no punches in his opinions but his ideas are taken seriously because his erudition is obvious but not applied in a heavy-handed manner. Critics who write books such as Ross’s brilliant The Rest is Noise can teach in a longer format that way. Some of them also lecture at music schools or before audiences. Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times has carved out a valuable niche by producing videos in which he teaches, sometimes seated at the piano, about musical topics of interest to him. Brian Kellow, in Opera News, applies “analysis and judgment” of artistic works in his columns, articles and books about musicians, singers, actors, and, for that matter, critics.

Many writers who review performances do not have the cultural preparation necessary to write authoritatively and yet have found a forum in publications and on the Internet. This has the effect of lowering the esteem in which even the best critics are held. But even those writers who do have the preparation might not necessarily have the right circumstances in which to work. They are given limited space, and are expected to do a “money” review — that is, is this performance worth buying a ticket to? — rather than discuss why that performance is meaningful. These types of reviews include coverage of the opening night of an opera production that has six more performances readers might elect to purchase tickets for.

When a critic writes about a one-time event, such as a recital, she is writing for history as someone who witnessed the event and is bringing her critical and writing skills to bear on documenting that event. This can burnish or tarnish a performer’s reputation, but under the best circumstances, it can educate the reader and other performers. How can this be achieved? One approach is to try to explain what the artists aimed to do, whether that was interesting, original or valid according to the critic, and then whether the aims were achieved.

The Critic as Performer

Will Crutchfield, who used to be a critic for The New York Times, moved deliberately and with careful preparation into conducting. His conducting and teaching of the bel canto repertory is one of the highlights of the Caramoor Festival each July. He gets a fair reception in the conducting and critical communities, which is different from what certain illustrious figures faced in the past. Two famous composers/conductors who were also critics were Hector Berlioz and Virgil Thomson. They brought matchless insights to what they wrote about but some of their colleagues — critics as well as musicians — felt that they could not fully be trusted. As such, Berlioz’s and Thomson’s compositions did not receive the acclaim they merited.

Here is a fascinating conversation with Thomson in which he brings his aesthetic, by turns compositorial, conductorial and critical, to the fore:

What do you look for in a critic? Or in a conductor?


More in:

Comments [21]

David Wolf from Beijing

While some critics can be insufferable (and some artists can be divas,) to suggest that one must be an musician or have an musicians's talent in order to critique music is so much elitist hogwash. It delegitimizes the opinion of everyone but a closed coterie of talented specialists. That sort of intellectual snobbery might be de rigueur in Parisian salons, but it has no place on the Western side of the Atlantic.

Critics have been instrumental (pardon the pun) to my musical growth and appreciation - I would be much more of a tyro than I am today without them. If there is one message we must comport to listeners of all stripes, it is this: a critic is entitled to his or her opinion, but he is not entitled to yours. Read, learn, then go listen with an open mind.

Jan. 28 2013 03:03 AM
Flute Lady from Manhattan

I'm not taking sides on this issue, but I can't resist quoting something that Aaron Copland once said and which I'm surprised nobody else has mentioned so far: "If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong." :-)

Dec. 27 2012 11:05 AM

While Bernstein should be admired for the composer that he was, West Side Story being one of my favorite, his conducing was questionable. In the Maria Callas' Sonnambula from La Scala of 1955 he virtually destroyed the score and made Bellini sound ugly, that's quite an accomplishment.

Conductors in general, in my opinion, are overrated. The composers did all the job for them, all they have to do really is follow the score. The best conductors do just that, Muti is an example. Not saying conductors aren't important, just overrated.

As for critics, they shouldn't be mentioned in the same paragraph with any artists, they're the LOWEST form of humans. Deep down what they try to do is steal the artists' thunder, leech off their work, like vampires.

Oct. 21 2012 12:14 PM
concetta nardone

Dear Mr.Sousaboy, sir:
Always try to be respectful even though opinions differ. I am not always snarky.
Best wishes

Jun. 26 2012 09:00 AM

well folks....( At least she called me MR.Sousaboy! )

Jun. 25 2012 08:07 PM
concetta nardone

Dear Sousa, Did not say he was a lousy conductor. He was just average. Glamourpuss and that helped him.

Jun. 23 2012 10:05 AM
concetta nardone

No Mr. Sousaboy,
He got to be the top guy at the NY Phil because he was charismatic, was the darling of the Kennedys and the media, gave a party for the Black Panthers and he had presence. Just listen to his recordings of Scherazadhe(?), the final movement of the Eroica, etc. I will never forget his conducting of Falstaff years ago, what a lousy job. Dear Lenny knew how to play the media and celebrity game.
Best wishes

Jun. 22 2012 05:40 PM

@ CONCETTA & DELL....You don't get to be THE conductor of the New York Phil. by being LOUSY at conducting..( please ponder that!)

Jun. 21 2012 08:43 PM
concetta nardone

Oh dear, did I start a kerfufel? At my age? How delightful!
Best wishes to all, those who agree with me and those who do not.

Jun. 20 2012 09:41 AM
del_corchia from Jersey City

I must agree with CONCETTA. I never understood the local worship of Bernstein which at times is almost militant. He was a very charismatic person, a great man who did a lot for music but he certainly was not one of the greatest conductors,not by a long shot.

Jun. 19 2012 06:56 PM

@ CONCETTA....Dear woman, to each his own....but REMEMBER....conducting is INTERPRETATION of a particular piece of music. Its individual STYLE....Now, you may say that you don't APPRECIATE Mr. Bernstein's STYLE or conducting execution....BUT DON'T say he's NOT GOOD at conducting...its just not accurate...its YOUR taste....its not a universal fact for other classical music listeners. I like the BEATLES....you like the STONES....( Who's BETTER at rock & roll?) Get my point?

Jun. 19 2012 03:34 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau county

Sousaboy: No Bernstein was not a great conductor. I did give him credit for getting young people to love classical music. I used to watch that tv show on Sunday afternoon. NOT A GREAT CONDUCTOR, SLOPPY, NOT A GREAT CONDUCTOR, GREAT SHOWMAN. Sorry if I do not agree with press agents.
Best wishes and hope I did not start a kerfufel.

Jun. 19 2012 12:41 PM

@CONCETTA N.- ''BERNSTEIN was not a great conductor??? (NOT) Hes was an AMAZING conductor who not onlt taught a generation to love classical music, but was a CHAMPION for promoting classic music to the masses. A total, perfect musician's musician who had the MOST open mind toward ANY form of musical energy & form. GENIUS is the correct word to describe this American treasure.....in short dear, YOUR DEAD WRONG. (lol)

Jun. 18 2012 09:14 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau county

Bernstein was not a great conductor. Slow, slower, slowest and then he would go into his dance. Great showman and his sunday afternoon tv show all about different kinds of classical music were very interesting and fun to watch. A lot of young people got to know classical music this way. As for the comments about the debut of Caruso, my mother's uncle was there. He would remark "Let's see what this Neopolitan can do?" Boy was he impressed.

Jun. 18 2012 09:40 AM
Sherman L. Greene from Upper West Side

In my opinion, Tommasini is an utterly pathetic excuse for a critic. His former deputy, Anne Midgette, is a far better critic. She made a smart move by switching to the Washington Post, where she is chief. You should have mentioned her by name.

Jun. 17 2012 01:42 PM
Michael Meltzer

I often thought Bernstein to be pedantic and patronizing to his audiences, and not always on the mark. However, by case history, he does teach us not to smoke.

Jun. 17 2012 05:59 AM
Stephen from Seattle

Orestes wrote:

"Olympian heights"?

Oh don't be silly!

No critic can capture even a minim of the essential character of a piece of music which merely a single hearing of the music itself would afford but a casual listener.

Alone of the arts, music addresses and speaks directly to the center of feeling, bypassing altogether, and with no need of the interposition of, the intellectual faculty. For one to imagine that one could capture and transmit even the smallest part of the essential character of such a thing through the agency of a medium that requires the fullest interposition of the intellectual faculty to even begin to comprehend is, well, unimaginable.

Jun. 16 2012 02:51 PM

Like composing and conducting, music criticism is an art. And like them, it involves the use of intelligence, talent, taste, experience, emotion, education, imagination, and discrimination. In other words, it's very difficult to do well. The great music critics--Hector Berlioz, Charles Burney, Henry Chorley, Bernard Shaw, Virgil Thomson, Andrew Porter, and such--can be read and reread with undiminished pleasure and instruction. Who knows if any of today's critics will reach those Olympian heights, but I for one am always interested to know what such gifted reviewers as Martin Bernheimer, Alex Ross, Justin Davidson, or Zachary Woolfe might have to say about last night's performance.

Jun. 16 2012 02:16 PM
Tara from Paris

I'm of the firm disposition that 'critics' should shove their judgemental opinion where the sun don't shine.

If they were such an authority on that medium they would be working in it, successfully and not be judging and picking apart other peoples work and efforts.

The work of a critic is easy. They risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to the critics judgment. The critics generally thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth the critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than any criticism designating it so.

Jun. 15 2012 09:35 PM

BERNSTEIN = TOTAL GENIUS And I always admired his PASSION for any music he ever conducted! He was the total musical appreciation class in one body...what a CHAMP!

Jun. 15 2012 07:25 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

I am especially appreciative of how music journalists and critics of the past created a record of thought about music in their day. Berlioz was an inspired observer of the musical scene; I never get tired of reading him. Then too, one can go to the (online) archives of the New York Times from, say, 1903, and read delightful, as well as edifying accounts of a Met Opera debut by a certain Enrico Caruso.

Jun. 15 2012 05:34 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.


About Operavore

Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore