Critiquing the critic, Part 1: Virgil T – yeah, you know me

As a music critic, it’s essential to my development to study the cultural commentary of the past. Though in recent times critcs have become speciliasts in a genre (to even more recent times when budgets mandate that critics became specialists on whatever they’re going to see that night…), it used to be that critics were not only writers, but composers, performers and teachers. Being diversified was the name of the game and the best in their fields tended to excel in more than one.

One of the most lauded music critics of the 20th century was Virgil Thomson, a native of Kansas City, also a composer. He gained prominence in the music scene while living in Paris during the 30’s, a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and collaborator with Gertrude Stein, and spent a majority of his professional life in New York City.

Kansas City keeps track of it’s own, though, and KCPT is working on producing a documentary on his life and work. The KCSymphony has performed orchestral pieces and this past October selections of his work were performed by singers and chamber musicians in Helzberg Hall, filmed for the documentary. Also performing some arrangements of his work was the People’s Liberation Big Band of Kansas City and the theatrical ensemble The Monocle. The taping was presented concert style and was ticketed, though the turn out wasn’t very impressive and many audience members left after intermission.

But the show, despite the hall’s amplification quirks (namely, that amplification made vocal work muddy and unclear, especially anything spoken, thus we in the cheap seats lost the pertinant introductions to the works), was a great introduction to Thomson’s vast and impressive repertoire, with work from his operas, chamber and solo pieces, and songs. With everything going on I wasn’t able to address the performance at the time, though this music blogger did.

And though my investigation of Thomson the composer fizzled out, I keep returning to him as a writer. He exemplified a certain brand of criticism that isn’t often seen nowadays, and while he has his detractors, at least he painted a vibrant picture with a strict point-of-view.

Criticism is a fascinating subject and is similiar, in part, to being made king: anyone who wants the job isn’t fit for it. Especially now, given the supposed decline of print publication and their readership vs the rise of internet self-publishing (ahem), it’s easier than ever to post opinions on any subject imaginable and have those words reach out into the ether.

But there is a responsibility, one of which I am only starting to fully realize. Cricitism is not about the writer. The writer acts as a conduit between performer and reader; the reader should, as with all the greatest fiction, by unaware to the presence of the writer. It is not the place to be vulgar, biased, or clever. And how often do we fail?

Blogs have the advantage of allowing endless space to work out an idea. And endless space is probably the last thing anyone needs. Some of the best advice I was ever given was that the reader has limited time. They probably won’t give you more than three minutes of their time. Writing for that audience has its own issues (hence the frequency of mis-used and poorly attributed quotations), but that mindset does help center an article.

In the past year my attitude towards criticism has become almost entirely reversed from where I started; since I began writing on a semi-professional basis my philosophy has changed. I’ve noticed it in other writers, too. When we start out, so desperately do we want to sound knowledgable that we lose sight of our goal – given that any goal was established in the first place. And that attitude lends itself to overly wordy, overly critical reviewing.

I’ve gotten both verbal and written feedback for some of my reviews, some in passing and some a bit more forceful. Just like I’ve been given a platform for my opinions, others are just as entitled to theirs. In this case reading Slonimsky’s “A Lexicon of Musical Invective” is a nice refresher. To see what the critics at the time wrote about the music and performance of their time helps to put what we’re doing into a current historic perspective.

There was recently a brou-ha-ha (at least in a very small way) concerning Kansas City Ballet’s premiere of “Tom Sawyer.” Some reviewers enjoyed it, some panned it. For my part, I reviewed just the music – Tony Award winner Maury Yeston wrote the score and had the original concept for making the classic novel into a ballet. Much of Twain’s work has been used as inspiration for other works – plays, musicals, paintings, and so forth – so a ballet wasn’t too far fetched. But for as rich as the musical environment of the era was, to my ear, these elements weren’t brought forth in any supremely memorable way. And I couldn’t get over my personal bias of seeing the rascally Tom leaping and spinning in supurb classical ballet style. It just didn’t seem to fit. But then, I tend to enjoy dance that isn’t about something more than programmatic work. But it is my bias, I acknowledge it, and I think that working from that is yet another element of a critic’s responsibility.

If you lasted this long, thanks for sticking around for what is just the start to my internal dissection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑