Home > David Amos, Music, The Arts > Be your own critic, or what to do until the review comes out

Be your own critic, or what to do until the review comes out

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–Did you hear about the concertgoer who could hardly wait for the morning paper, to read the review, in order to decide if he enjoyed the concert he attended the previous night?

Being a critic, or being more critical, does not diminish one’s enjoyment of a live musical experience, but actually enhances it.

You can treat a concert experience as a nice place to go, dress up, visit and chat with nice friends, and listen to nice music coming from nice people on stage (if they are famous, the better it is); whatever is being played does not really matter as long as it is pleasant sounding and it doesn’t run too long. An influential member of our community told me decades ago that “the best kind of concert is when the music puts me to sleep”.

This kind of superficiality is OK, but if you would like to improve your depth of understanding, enjoy the music more, and make the entire experience more meaningful, here are a few modest suggestions as to what to listen for in concerts.

–Prepare as much as possible in advance. Read up on the music, the composer. Listen to recordings, read the record booklet’s information. It is usually very comprehensive and interesting.

–After a few listenings of a familiar (or new) work, you will begin to hear the music in a different light. The more you know, the more you will find to enjoy. The great classics have a way of offering you new and wondrous discoveries with each subsequent exposure, as we become more familiar with them. A lot of serious musical enjoyment is derived from knowing what is about to happen, anticipating it, and seeing it develop according to your expectations. In time, you will refine your preferences. The same goes for opera and chamber music.

This isn’t like a mystery novel or suspense movie, where the entertainment comes with spontaneity and a “shock ending.” Actually, the fewer surprises, the better. This is a more sophisticated form of enjoyment, where knowledge, subtleties, and familiarity supersede the cheaper thrill of a surprise. It doesn’t matter what the butler did!

–Once you have a set of expectations, you have a point of reference. Before you take your seat in the concert hall, look with anticipation to:
1. The tempo (speed) that the soloist, ensemble, or orchestra (via the conductor) takes it. Is it what you expected? Faster? Slower? Are you comfortable with what you hear?

2. If you know a piece of music fairly well, look into the elements beyond the basic melodies and rhythms, namely the inner voices, the melodies other than the principal ones (countermelodies), the texture of the ensemble, and the tonal colors in the instrumentation. Is it transparent, clear, all in place, or is it as thick as pea soup? Some very fine orchestras sound bright and brilliant, and some other very fine orchestras sound mellow, and even dull, playing the same music. Compare the sound of our own San Diego Symphony to that of visiting great orchestras. There is no clear right or wrong here, but there are certainly some huge differences.

A lot of this has to do with the conductor facing the orchestra, even if he or she is a guest conductor. I have seen it happen to others, even to myself, where the precision and sound of an orchestra can be radically modified after only ten minutes into the first rehearsal!

3. Is there “magic” taking place between stage and audience, or is it just a routine performance, with musicians punching in their time, the same as any assembly line worker? Is the conductor conveying inspiration, knowledge, love for the music, dullness personified, or an agitated busybody, struggling to save his own life? I have seen it all, at all levels of competency and prestige. Refer to my article of last week.

A wrong note here and there doesn’t matter. The overall message is what counts. Pianist Arthur Schnabel, possibly the greatest interpreter of Beethoven of all time, was famous for dropping a multitude of notes under the piano during recitals and concerts; but his sincerity and communication were so sincere and artistic, that the minor negatives became insignificant.

Remember, that just because an ensemble appears flashy, or the conductor looks like an Olympic gymnast on the podium, or the music ends loud and fast, is no indication that this was an outstanding performance. San Diego audiences which are so generous with standing ovations, take note. Some conductors are artistic sorcerers. Others, equally famous, are doing no more than directing traffic. Can you tell the difference? Some pianists are poets, with a soul that reaches us all; others are nothing more than a machine with fast fingers and fancy motions. Do not be fooled.

I have learned that big names by themselves will not impress me. What I see and hear coming from the stage, regardless of the prestige and good press of the performers, is what matters. And I crave to hear something special, artistic, with a clear musical message. Sometimes I am satisfied, and sometimes I am disappointed. And in rare times, the concert, recital, or opera turns out to be memorable.

Pay no attention to the other patrons around you who jump to their feet and yell “Bravo!” Sometimes, the emperor is not wearing any clothes, but the more you know, the more discriminating you can be. I have recently heard some deadly dull performances by polished, prestigious groups, and upon exiting the concert hall, some well meaning acquaintance will comment to me, “Wasn’t that simply fantastic?” I politely nod.

The more knowledge you have, the more demanding you will become. But the pleasures and rewards that come with it are exponentially greater.


Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and has guest conducted professional orchestras around the world.

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