Anthony Tommasini is the senior music critic of The New York Times as well as an author and pianist. His biography Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle definitively reveals the composer who was first to create an original American opera inspired by music that was created in the New World and not in Europe. Holding undergraduate and master degrees from Yale University and a Doctorate of Musical Arts from Boston University, Tommasini received two National Endowment for the Arts grants which funded his performances of Thomson's music heard on two Northeastern Records compact discs, entitled Portraits and Self-Portraits, and Mostly About Love: Songs and Vocal Works.
How do you define a professional music critic? For example does education, writing skills, or personality factor into your definition?
You know what Virgil Thomson would probably say is that a professional music critic is anyone who is hired—who is paid—by a newspaper to write about music. Ultimately, it's a way of saying there are different aspects to a résumé or different kinds of backgrounds that can be put together for this funny kind of job. I think something that's forgotten too often is that this is a writer's job first and foremost. You can have all the knowledge of music imaginable, but If you can't translate that knowledge into readable English and deal with this complicated insider subject that resists being written about in a way that brings it to readers then your knowledge has no value.
How music actually sounds is very difficult to express in words. We're constantly stealing words from other fields like color and texture. The only language that really exists to describe in detail how music actually sounds is a technical jargon that is largely unavailable to 90 percent of people who read reviews because our culture is so poorly educated musically. Even people who love music and go to concerts all the time are often intimidated by all that jargon. This is opposed, for example, to baseball fans that know everything about baseball. The typical crowd at Yankee Stadium knows much more about baseball from an insider point of view than the typical audience at the New York Philharmonic.
Therefore, if an editor is faced with a choice between an audiophile who is not a musician at all, but writes in a very lively way, or an excellent musicologist who writes in a smart but stuffy way, the editor will go with the writer. Depending upon the place, The New York Times or a good paper can have both. You can find people who are very knowledgeable and have a background in the field and who can also write in an engaging way and have a good sense of news. The obvious answer is that both are important—experience and knowledge in the field.
Virgil felt not only did he want musicians, but he was particularly keen on having composers be critics for him. He thought only they really understand how music works. But there are a lot of good performers who also have made very good critics, some people would say that characterizes me. Those are the qualities that go into it.
Given your Doctor of Musical Arts thesis and the biography you wrote of Virgil Thomson, would it be correct to say Thomson has influenced your career path significantly?
Oh, completely. I deal with this in my book. When I was teaching at Emerson College in Boston, I lost my job. I wound up looking for other things to do and I fell into freelancing at the Boston Globe. Richard Dyer, who still is the critic there, brought me aboard to help. It turned into something obviously. I was already working on my Virgil book. For the first couple of years, I sent Xeroxes of my reviews to Virgil. He would save them up and red-pencil them. Then we would get together, and I would get the post mortems.
For a couple of years, he took me under wing. He was a mentor to me and taught me a lot—about how to write and how specifically to write about music. I go into this in my book in some detail—I explain his tutelage. It was very interesting; he seldom questioned what I chose to say. It was as if from day one he respected me as a perfectly good musician and a trustworthy musical mind—that my impressions were as good as anybody's. That was all fine. He challenged the way I said almost everything. He questioned the use of adjectives. He questioned the attitude and everything about the writing. In the process of questioning the sense of it, the phraseology, or description, it would make me think why am I saying that in the first place? So, yeah, I did learn a whole from him.
He's a funny model. His own criticism was hardly impartial. It was full of agendas, score settling, and conflict of interest. He was a performed composer who won the Pulitzer Prize for music while he was the chief critic at the Herald Tribune. He was the master of [critical writing] and nobody has ever topped him at this. He was able to express the most complicated matters of music—how a piece sounded and how a performance worked—in the most homespun, accessible, rich language imaginable. He just brought pieces alive. He made performers come to life.
There is the least amount of jargon in Virgil's reviews and yet they are the most vivid you can read anywhere even when he was wrong. [Take for instance] his competitor and colleague at the Times, Olin Downes—he's a very interesting comparison [with Virgil] and if you want to fall asleep pick up a volume of Downes' reviews—Downes was an early champion of Sibelius. He was absolutely right about that. Virgil did not like Sibelius at all and he was absolutely wrong in my opinion. But you learn more about Sibelius from Virgil's misguided, negative reviews than you do from Olin Downes' puffy praise. You really hear those [Sibelius] pieces. You really learn something about how those pieces are working. It reminds me of the days when Pauline Kael was in her element at The New Yorker. Sometimes she would write a review of a movie that I loved like Ordinary People. She thought it was sentimental. I'd read her review and it would be riveting and I didn't agree with it at all, but I saw what she was talking about. She was very perceptive, but, emotionally, I didn't feel that way. Virgil could be like that.
What are the top three to five elements of your music criticism that you focus on, particularly when you are reviewing opera?
I would answer this first in general and then talk about opera. There are basic tenets of criticism, but it also matters for what paper you are writing. The Times, not to be coy about it, has a lot of clout. It's a very major newspaper, very powerful, let's face it. That impacts the way I do my job – I think the way all of us there do our jobs. Your words carry weight. Another critic might just slam something that I've also been to. It's maybe my nature, but I'm not that kind of critic. I am much more likely to be more measured, more respectful, more analytic, try to say, well, give credit where I can and then explain and try to pull people to my point of view through reasoned argument and strong feeling. I know what a slam from the New York Times can do, which doesn't mean that I haven't issued them. It's different if one of our film critics is taking on a hundred million dollar movie that can take it, versus me reviewing a recitalist who may be making a debut in New York. I'd be much more likely to slam a Met production, because they too can take it. They claim to be one of the leading opera houses of the world. So then you hold them to that standard.
A review is part opinion piece and part news report and the balance depends upon the event. It's a funny mixture of those two things. I do have a real news reporter's function. Everything I go to I have to report on the event which I don't only mean the actual event, like what it was like to be there, but what happened during the musical performance, what was the [audience] reaction? I have to report on the event—what's the significance of this event? Why are we there? The review should pretty quickly report why we [New York Times] go there in the first place. What's the news involved? But it's also my opinion. What did I think? It's like I'm writing the news story on the Mets game and the opinion column on the Mets game.
Sometimes when I feel strongly about the performance, the review becomes an opinion piece. If I don't feel so strongly, I withdraw into my reporter's mode. For example, Alfred Brendel is a pianist I respect. He's a valuable artist. I have nothing against him, but he's not for me. He's a little square. If I'm in a position of reviewing Brendel, my tactic would be to withdraw into that reporter's mode—just report on how he played on what happened, and suggest respectfully what I think is lacking, what I miss in his work, and leave it at that.
Whereas when I feel very strongly about something, like I think the NY Philharmonic is a very status quo institution right now. I was pretty vocal in my writing before Maazel was hired that I didn't think he was the kind of person they needed at this stage in their development. I have been very disappointed with Maazel's micromanaging and his conducting. When I describe this, I'm very strong about it. I try to be fair and give credit wherever I can, but I feel very strongly.
Another element of it, there is an ongoing discourse in reviews about issues in the field—the relevance of the art form, the relevance of these institutions, the innovative qualities of these institutions. We have a great field but it's a conservative field. In comparison with other fields, they [music organizations] are far more stuck in old repertory, old works. This is a problem. I'm not saying all these institutions should turn into new music ensembles, but the balance is off. If a repertory theater company had a season of plays that was one third new and recent plays, one third mid and early Twentieth Century plays, and one third old things, we'd think that's a perfectly reasonable mainstream season, but an orchestra that had those percentages of works would be considered a radical ensemble. Why shouldn't an orchestra's season be roughly one third new and recent works, one third earlier Twentieth century things, and one third old works? That's hardly turning it [the program schedule] into a contemporary music ensemble.
People forget that LaScala in the days of Verdi was practically a new music house that mostly performed new and recent works (recent meaning the last 20 years). Once in a while, they did something like Don Giovanni done in the nature of a special revival. Caruso was almost a new music tenor, he sang roles that were new, written for him or recent even when he sang something like Radames [lead male role in the opera Aida] it wasn't that old a work. Toscanini, in the first half of his career, conducted mostly works by people he knew including operas by Puccini . He also conducted older works and standard repertory, including trips to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany and Salzburg Festival in Austria to conduct the Wagner operas in the early 1930s. By the mid-1930s, though, he had broken with both of those festivals on political grounds as the Nazis came to power. Again in the '20s and '30s, that music was not as distant as it is now. This is an issue. We have to do more for contemporary music. I have written a lot about this and I think younger audiences are more intrigued by new things than older audiences. Michael Tilson Thomas who's a model for this probably alienated some of his more mainstream listeners by jazzing up the programming out there, but he pulled in a whole new generation.
Who are the composers to watch today?
There's plenty of room for all sorts of tastes. I'm always interested in new things. The people I like right now include Stephen Hartke who is based in Los Angeles; he's amazing. The Philharmonic did a new symphony of his the beginning of the season that is fantastic. I like Judith Weir, the British composer, very much. I like Peter Lieberson, who is pretty well known already. I like Steven Mackey who is at Princeton. He's former rock guitarist. Lee Hyla [composed Howl, USA, a collaboration with Allen Ginsberg and Kronos Quartet] and Lewis Spratlan [winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in music] are also tremendous composers.
Are there any African Americans among your list of people you are interested in?
No one who leaps to mind. I'm just talking about people who really struck me. None are in my top, handful of people.
What about new opera composers?
Of opera, the three works that have really struck me in recent years are the Saariaho [The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho] opera, L'amour de Loin that was done in Salzburg which then went to Santa Fe and also to Paris, Bastille, amazing, beautiful piece. Then Poul Ruders's piece, brilliant Danish modernist, The Handmaid's Tale, the adaptation is a completely nutty piece, absolutely riveting musically. Then I was a little in the minority, but I liked the Nicholas Maw opera on Sophie's Choice at Covent Garden. Alex Ross [music critic for The New Yorker] also liked it. It's a little long, a little draggy; it's a little too dutiful. It is in neo-Romantic style, which is not usually my thing, but he's a very classy and skillful neo-Romantic. I thought it was a very sensitive adaptation of that story and very beautiful. I also was a bigger defender of The Great Gatsby than many other critics. It's almost impossible thing to make an opera of that book. The music is very distinguished.
Do you have any interest in seeing work-in-progress opera?
Do you ever give feedback on work-in-progress operas?
No, but the only exception is New York City Opera does this composer's showcase when their season is over. It's four or five days with orchestra and good singers—20-30 minute excerpts of works-in-progress, sometimes even as much as 40 minutes from works in progress that have yet to be presented. If you have the right attitude and you're not issuing a thumbs-up/thumbs-down pronouncement, and if you just want to weigh in on them. I have written about them. I think everyone finds this valuable. How better to find out how pieces are working than to try them out?
Some commissions have come out of that. My friend Scott Wheeler who is a tremendous composer based in Boston has done an opera called Democracy on Romulus Linney's libretto. On the basis of a City Opera workshop a few years ago, he got a commission from Washington Opera. I wish more people would do it. But in general, if something is a work-in-progress, it's not a place for critics to go and comment on it. At least not in print. This is a little bit of an exception, just the nature of it. It's very professional, but they don't have a lot of rehearsal time—they throw together these performances with very good musicians and singers.
There's so much you could talk about concerning Virgil Thomson. He was an amazing man.
Part of his [Virgil Thomson's] agenda, included some of the things we are still talking about: composers have to be paid attention to, that America should particularly pay attention to American composers, that conservativeness of programming was something he railed against and that battle is still going on. A lot of things he talked about have gotten worse. He saw power slipping away from the composers and being given to star performers and conductors and that's still true, even more so.
When a pianist like Murray Perahia who plays beautifully—it's like an abrogation of his responsibility as a musician to play absolutely no contemporary music. He doesn't have to turn himself into Peter Serkin, but if he found one composer, just one whom he really believed in and commissioned that composer and played that composer's work, he could make that composer's reputation because of the star power that he has. He's a fine artist. Ultimately I'm not as interested in him as I am in people who play contemporary music as well. It's a limiting quality of his artistry but he plays very beautifully.
Virgil had the gift of writing. Why didn't he write his own libretto?
There's a story in his own autobiography that I repeated in my book, a formative story when he was a kid. He was asked to write a short story, but he was stumped. So he found an obscure story of fiction in a magazine and he borrowed the plot and adapted it. Then it won a prize. He was caught and the facts were undeniable. He learned an important lesson early on that he had no gift for imaginative writing. For him, language was for telling the truth about things. He figured that out about himself pretty early on.
He was a good reader of fiction and poetry. The problem with finding a libretto was you want the poet for music—you want the poetic language. But poets don't have a good sense of the stage. Whereas the theater people who do have a good sense of the stage and of drama, lack the poetic eloquence of language. Theater in this century gave up poetry. It's just this every day dialogue and prose that that Virgil found banal. It was hard to find a person who could do both.
There was that terrible story about Koch. Did you talk to Kenneth Koch about the libretto he wrote for Virgil?
As I explained in the book, I went to Koch for an interview and showed him these notes that Virgil had written 30 years earlier that contained his [Virgil's] complaints about the libretto. Koch was mortified because he felt some of these things could be fixed. It was awful. There is some wonderful language with that libretto, but it is a problem with a weak, pursued woman at its core. As I said in my book, I think what happened is that he showed it to Alice Toklas and she said this is a silly woman. Virgil had always had strong women at the center of his operas. I think Virgil got mad at himself. He was so taken with the language, he didn't notice that and that 's why I think he turned against it. But he went on to set some beautiful texts of Kenneth Koch's to music. It was hard. He thought Gertrude had both—her plays did take the stage although they needed Maurice Grosser to help and decide what they were about. But Virgil would have never tried writing his own libretto.
The Internet is changing the way people are getting information about opera. Besides lower prices for tickets, what else can be done to get young people to the opera?
There's been a revolution in opera since super titles. Some of the purists still complain about them. They're not ideal, but they're a pretty darn good solution. It's brought a whole new generation into the opera house.
People realize this is not an exam. You don't have to take a course. You don't have to study. It's like going to the theater. You just go. They say, Ah, I'm at a play. I'm at the theater! I can just sit back and be swept away. So this is one thing—to make clear to people that it's accessible. It's not this elitist art form that you have to train yourself for.
The City Opera is very good at emphasizing production values and opera as a musical drama and a dramatic experience. If they have a gripping production like Floyd's Of Men and Mice, directed by Rhoda Levine with an excellent cast, then I think what they figured out is that people, who are new to opera, young people especially, have no more vested interest in La Boheme than they do in anything else. They're just as likely to come to something because they read that it's a great show. Hopefully if they go there and they are really swept up in the drama of that piece, they'll think I want to hear more of this opera stuff.
It doesn't always work this way; some people get into the field by the "chestnuts" first. There, too, City Opera has been a good place to expose people to some of these standard works. Because they're across the plaza from the Met, they have to be different. Their basic thing is you may not hear international class singers here, but you will hear very good singers—they're young and they look like the characters they are portraying, and the productions are more modern and immediate. This works for them [young people]. Beyond that I don't know what to say, except I do my part by writing about these things.
©2004 Karren LaLonde Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is an award-winning poet and writer.
She is currently contributing a monthly narrative to Scene4 on a new opera:
Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On.
Another installment of this fascinating "travelogue-pastiche"
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KARREN ALENIER talks with
Senior Music Critic - New York Times
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