About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Critics and Criticism

In June, Dan Gingrich, acting principal horn of the Chicago Symphony, performed Mozart's Horn Concerto #3 with the CSO. We were at the Friday night concert. The Mozart was elegant, tasteful, Mozartian, and flawless, truly a pleasure to hear.

I read two reviews of the concerts, one in a newspaper and the other online. While both were positive reviews of the Thursday night concert. both mentioned that Dan bobbled a note. One note in a three-movement concerto. This the horn we're talking about, the most treacherous of instruments. Why would two critics feel it necessary to include a single chipped note in their reviews?

This got me thinking, again, about the purpose of critics. I, along with many other people, read movie and play reviews to see if I want to spend my time and money on them. It's a public service of sorts, though I also ask my friends what they think because I have enjoyed many movies that were panned by critics. Music reviews are also helpful in learning about works and performers, beyond a single performance. These are benefits to me, a reader of reviews.

Laura Collins-Hughes wrote an interesting review recently in the New York Times of a play that deals with the place and purpose of critics. The reviewed play was "The Kritic" by Brenda Withers, and is, in Collins-Hughes' words, an "exhilaratingly impassioned, many-layered challenge to critics, delivered with unusual sympathy." The lasting wounds of harsh comments, the question of boosterism in reviews, and support for artists versus telling the truth as the critic sees it are some of the ideas explored in the play. What Collins-Hughes concludes is that while telling the truth matters, how critics communicate negative criticism -- problems and failures in a piece -- is important. A character in the play argues that reviews are important for artists to learn and improve, and Collins-Hughes concludes with extending that argument to critics as well, that feedback from readers should help them "learn how they could do better, too."

I like that vision of critics. I would phrase it as telling the important truths about a performance or artwork in ways that will help both the ticket-buying public make informed choices and give constructive feedback to artists, along with the critic's personal take on the performance and works. With that in mind, I believe that pointing out one missed note in an otherwise wonderful concert does not fall into that definition.

Beethoven gets the last word: "To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Modern Music Store

When I first moved to Chicago in the 1970s I went to Carl Fisher's on Wabash Avenue to buy music. It was in an old, old building and I would walk upstairs where the instrumental music was. The horn music was in several file cabinets tucked away in a corner alcove and you could look through the files undisturbed for as long as you liked. I would spend hours there looking for music for myself and later for my students.

Carl Fisher closed in 1999, "the last vestige of historic Music Row." Music Row referred to Wabash Avenue from Madison to Congress (for non-Chicagoans that is five city blocks!) where stores including Lyon & Healy, Conn, King Instruments and more filled both sides of the street. Carl Fisher had four floors of music, from current popular music to classical, and many out-of-print editions. [This information is from this Chicago Tribune article of March 6, 1999, "The Last Waltz."]

We know what happened -- fewer people read music and play instruments. With so many choices of entertainment and recordings of all kinds of music readily available, very few people play piano at home anymore. In earlier centuries purchasing a piano score or chamber music arrangement of current pieces and playing them yourself was often the only way of hearing music.

But a new industry has appeared that solves most of the problems of finding the sheet music you want. That is, of course, the internet. There are large companies selling music online and frequently you can download your purchase. There is imslp.org, a free source of downloadable public domain music. And there are zillions of tiny publishers who specialize in narrow markets, like French horn players. Sometimes these small publishers are hard to find even when you know what you're looking for.

Because the music I buy falls into this last category - horn music or chamber music that includes the horn - I now buy music online. I know that several businesses that specialize in horns and horn products carry these elusive horn works that don't appear in a Google search. Pope Instrument Repair in Massachusetts is one such business, Siegfried's Call in New York state is another. Both carry sheet music that is hard to find anywhere else.

I have no reason go to music stores anymore, but a very kind parent of a student gave both my husband and me gift cards to a local music store. It's a lovely store - open, airy space with practice rooms for private lessons. Like basically all music stores in 2016, they sell guitars, accessories, sheet music and books for piano, vocal, guitar, and drums. The first time I went I bought a music stand and case and a bottle of valve oil. They had my brand of valve oil! And who doesn't need another folding music stand.

We still had lots of gift card credit left and the website says they will order anything they don't have. I have gotten somewhat bored with Kopprasch, Kling, and Maxime-Alphonse, so I made a list of etude books that I wanted. I got a well-informed, engaging, patient employee. He diligently looked up all six of the books I was looking for and was able to find only one -- Gallay etudes, which are published by Alphonse Leduc, a major French publisher. He said he'd keep looking for the others, but later that day I got a call explaining that they could not find the other publishers in any of the sites that they can order from. He kindly told me where online I could order the other books directly (though I already knew that, I wanted to use up the gift card!)

I know that I am not a normal music store customer. It was only the gift cards that brought me in and my experience with the store was completely positive, except for not being able to obtain the music I wanted. I'm glad there are still music stores in towns throughout the country. Music buying has changed for musicians looking for mostly classical pieces or more advanced or unusual music. In 1999 when Carl Fisher closed in Chicago, stores in New York City were also closing, stores in both cases that had been in business since the 1800s. In 1999 the future was unsure. There weren't many places online yet to buy music, but in the last 15 years or so online stores have flourished and small publishers have been able to reach their niche audiences (like horn players!). We may miss the old music stores with their old world charm, but we can't complain about not having many choices of where to purchase music of all sorts.

I'm going to order my etudes online. The gift card? Another folding stand, the Gallay etudes, and a lifetime supply of valve oil and slide grease.