Wednesday, December 28, 2005

T at it again

AC Douglas reports for duty, calling out the latest critical belly flop courtesy of our reviewer of record:
How about the Munich premiere of Wagner's "Meistersinger," a work he [Levine] conducts magnificently? I love the idea of Mr. Levine's giving a sublime account of this humane comedy and forcing the anti-Semitic composer to confront his twisted prejudices.
[Mea culpa, see below...] To spell it out: circa 45 seconds of googling confirms that the conductor of that Munich Meistersinger was, indeed, Mr. Hans von Bulow, preeminent contemporary interpreter of Wagner's works, wife supplier, and notorious Jewish whipping boy to the maestro. So the whole "What if a Jewish conductor had premiered it...hah!" line kind of goes up in smoke, don't it?

Not to mention the fact that by choosing Meistersinger specifically, Ton is obviously trying to hook the "Meistersinger as half anti-semitic polemic" angle--the kind of take one gets from people who hear the opera once while also knowing Wagner was a crazy racist. Unfortunately, there's not such a one-to-one connection to be drawn from the man's lunatic bigotry and his operas. A complication to be sure, and that's why people really interested in the work don't toss it around so absentmindedly.

There are two big points of contention as to Die Meistersinger's politics: the chareacter of Beckmesser, and the drama's glorification of German art and nationalism. The problem with calling Beckmesser an anti-semitic character is pretty straightforward, i.e., Beckmesser is a fully integrated member of the town and its society--one who is hidebound and pathetic, but a member nonetheless, which the forward looking and creative elements embodied by Walther and Sachs play off of. If Beckmesser becomes an alien to the other characters in the play, as an anti-semitic reading would suggest, the whole thing would fall apart. There's no need to reject and triumph over Beckmesser if he's an outcast in the first place.

The second charge is somewhat more complicated. The problem has to do with our natural tendency to read the past through the lens of the militaristic German Nationalism which bred the first and second World Wars. Interrelated trends to be sure, but its simply a historical fallacy to elide the German nationalism in Wagner's time, when "Germany" was a motley amalgamation of principalities staggering towards unification, and the Nazi state of the 20th century. In this context, the notorious "Honor Thy German Masters" passage Sachs sings at the end of the opera should be read more as a an affirmation of that political project against other countries' aggression, not as a veiled threat against Germany's Jews.

None of this means that Wagner wasn't a wretched anti-semite. But trying to understand Wagner means delving into the contradictions that allow for both his awful bigotry and his creation of sublime works which offer little evidence of it. And in any event, there's little room for the kind of lazy "I gotta finish a paragraph" sentiment expressed above.

Update: Well now, isn't that a way to wake up. Fact checked by A. Ross himself. A full retraction of the paragraph and snipe about Hans von Bulow is in order and apologies to T. My penance will be getting my 19th century conductors that start with H straight. And no more blogging after post-plane cocktails.

However wrong that may have been, though, I don't think the campaign against TT is at all unwarranted. I am very sure it is difficult to be a music reviewer on short deadline, and certainly think I wouldn't be capable of it. But, uh, the whole thing about having a music critic at the preeminent paper of arguably the preeminent music city in the world is that you shouldn't have to read their reviews and make excuses for them. In fact, they should actually be enlightening. If J and I, who in the grand scheme of things know relatively little about opera (see above), can be routinely floored by the shoddy construction and shallowness of T's reviews, then I think we have a problem, Houston.

Later update: Urf. Well, nice to see that Mr. Ross is still reading. For the record, and then I'm going to think really hard of something new to post, at the time it did strike me as suspect that he chose Meistersinger to make his convoluted point, considering the rap it takes as described above. I also think that someone could call it a "humane" opera while trying to play off the juxtaposition of certain parts--i.e., he's saying that Levine would bring out the best qualities in it over the racism thus warming the cockles of Herr Wagner's heart. But looking back, his comment didn't really warrant that insinuation. Sorry T. I will totally buy you a drink sometime.


Alex Ross said...

Throat-clearing noise. The anti-Tony campaign on the classical blogosphere bums me out. Tony is an extremely knowledgeable and humane reviewer. He often writes under tight deadlines, which means that occasionally he may make a minor error or commit an infelicitous phrase. So would anyone who had his job. So do bloggers: Hans von Bülow was not Jewish. He was in fact quite anti-Semitic. Hermann Levi was Jewish, but that's another discussion.

Jonathan said...

Take note:
Alex (of this blog) immediately acknowledged his mistake and credited Alex (Ross) who set him right.

This, I would say, is the primary difference between Mr. Tommasini and most bloggers. We recognize we are not the final authority on most topics and are willing and dare I say excited, even, to stand corrected by those who have better information.

On the other hand, perhaps I simply feel a sort of duty to defend a friend and peer. A sentiment with which I imagine you relate, Alex (Ross)?

A.C. Douglas said...

Alex Ross wrote: Tony is an extremely knowledgeable and humane reviewer. He often writes under tight deadlines, which means that occasionally he may make a minor error or commit an infelicitous phrase.

No-one that I know of in the blogosphere has ever nailed Mr. Tommasini for committing a "minor error." Certainly not I. Every time I've nailed that incompetent it's for an error(s) that betrays his execrable ignorance of that about which he's writing. And that includes this latest display.


Alex Ross said...

Alex, it's gallant of you to correct the von Bülow Jewification, but you're still completely twisting Tony's words around. He's not saying "Meistersinger" is anti-Semitic; he's saying the composer was anti-Semitic but the opera is "humane." How is this different from what you're saying, the abstruse James Levine thought experiment aside?

J, I do consider Tony a friend, so it's probably best for me not to get into this too deep. But I don't think he sees himself as the final authority on anything, nor does he assume the voice of one who does. If his medium allowed him to respond to readers, amplify his statements, and instantly correct himself, he would, but it does not. I'm of two minds: on the one hand, I think there are more interesting uses for this fabulous new webby world than playing catch-the-critic, yet I love Wellsung and other blogs because you / they are completely uninhibited. So I have nothing to say in the end, and probably should have kept my mouth shut.

Alex Ross said...

Oh, ACD! I didn't snub your comment. I didn't realize it was there until after I'd posted mine, having taken, rather pathetically, half an hour to write it. In any case, your comments speak very well for themselves, and hardly need comment from me.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Maybe ACD doesn't read parterre box, where Tommasini got nailed a while back for using "strapping" too many times in describing male opera singers, with the implication that all he's looking at is their physiques. To do this, it seems La Cieca went through years of Tommasini's reviews, counting the uses of "strapping." This came up on my blog in the comments section, and after rolling my eyes I commented that if I were writing 150 or so reviews a year, you'd figure out my writing tics pretty easily. (Between SFCV and Iton Tongue of Midnight, I write closer to 25/year.) That also made me wonder about the quality of the editing he gets, since that is exactly the kind of pattern I'd hope a good editor would catch.

I'm not a personal friend of Tommasini's, but I'm with Alex in cutting him a lot more slack than many apparently do. Ditto Joshua Kosman; I'm amazed at the things people say about him, and I find him generally perceptive, knowledgable, and a good writer. Yeah, I disagree with both Tommasini and Kosman from time to time, and occasionally I think they got something badly wrong, but so? Horse races.

Alex Ross said...

There is copy-editing at the NY Times, which means that someone will check to make sure you're using the word "massive" only in relation to a solid structure, and not in some wider, more surfer-dude way. Otherwise, the stuff goes into print with a hardly a glance from anyone. This is the way it has always been in the newspaper business. Don't even think about fact-checking. That's all up to you.

Lisa Hirsch said...

And while I'm at it: so Tommasini gets matters of fact wrong from time to time. Let me guess: his editor isn't a classical musician and isn't in a position to catch errors of that sort and ditto the copy-editors. I repeat: in 150 reviews a year, plus, what, a dozen or more non-review features a year, most written under significant time pressure, everybody makes errors of fact or writes something on the muddled side. That's about the worst I can say about "if Jimmy went back in time," etc.

Jonathan said...

ACD: I am not one to pull punches, but:

"Every time I've nailed that incompetent it's for an error(s) that betrays his execrable ignorance of that about which he's writing."

First of all, bravo--I haven't seen "incompetent" used as a noun in a long time.

Second, don't you think that is a TAD extreme? Is he careless? Sometimes, yes. Inaccurate? Now and then, absolutely. Should the NY Times reading public expect more thoughtful, researched reviews? Probably.

But even *I* would not go so far as to call him "an incompetent". It's more of an issue of thinking before "speaking"--indelicately betraying the deadlines Alex R. discusses above.

A. Ross: You should absolutely not have kept your mouth shut. This is a good discussion to be having. And I think the POV of a critic is really interesting for all of us. Also, it is illuminating to see a bit how you have to navigate the free-for-all world of the bloggers, and the (by design) more measured world of being a critic in a major publication.

PS: If Anthony Tommasini ever *did* want to respond to his readers in a medium that allows it, we are ALL about guest blogging.

PPS: ACD--maybe you should add a comments section, so we can have a debate about your calling Tony Kushner's ideas "corrupt and perfectly imbecile..."

Lisa Hirsch said...


I had a discussion with another blogger at some point, and we agreed that there were two reasons not to have a comment section:

1. You're famous and your blog will be completely overwhelmed if you allow comments. (For instance, you are named Alex Ross.)

2. You'll be demonstrated to be wrong too many times.

Lisa Hirsch said...

(Not snubbing you above, Alex; your comment to me about editing at the Times was posted while I was doing something else and I just caught it.)

A.C. Douglas said...

Alex Ross: Thank you for the explanation of what I (now see I wrongly) perceived as a snub by you. Will add a second update to my Tommasini post noting this, and correcting what I said in my first update.

Lisa Hirsch: You conjectured correctly. I don't ordinarily read Parterre Box as even though I include it in my exclusive Culture Blogs listing, James's insider opera-fan stuff is not, um, my thing. Regarding your description of James's nailing of Mr. Tommasini (which nailing, if it can be dignified by that term, I'm now being made aware of for the first time), I can say only that, 1) it's typical Jorden-opera-queen-funny-bitchy, and the sort of thing readers of James's blog expect of him, and 2) if intended in earnest rather than to satisfy #1, it's the cheapest of cheap shots, and for that reason instantly dismissible.

As to your, "so Tommasini gets matters of fact wrong from time to time": there's a substantive and meaningful difference between getting mere matters of fact wrong from time to time, and committing errors that are neither mere errors of fact, mere typos (which should be caught by the copyeditor, in any case), nor mere slips of the pen, but are of the sort that betray an appalling ignorance of the subject to hand; the sort of ignorance of which the chief music critic of any major daily, much less a publication like The New York Times, should be totally free. Every error for which I've nailed Mr. Tommasini on my blog is of the latter sort without exception, and I think it of great importance to call out someone in Mr. Tommasini's position whenever he commits such an error. I would never contemplate, nor would it ever occur to me, to even so much as point out an error of the former sort.

Jonathan: Please see my remarks to Lisa as a response to your first comments to me. As to your suggestion of a debate concerning my savaging of Tony Kushner in another of my blog posts: Puleeez! Spare me! The man's not important enough to have a debate about. No Leftist ideologue is, gifted playwright or not. A classical music critic for a major -- the major -- daily, however, is. With all due respect, let's please confine ourselves to that most pertinent and most important matter.


A.C. Douglas said...



No Leftist ideologue is, gifted playwright or not,

was unpardonably partisan of me. That more correctly -- and more properly -- should have read:

"No ideologue is, gifted playwright or not."


Jonathan said...

ACD: Don't you love that we have a place where you can express these things? Gee whiz, I wish you did.

I do wish you had a comments section. The work of a "gifted playwright" is equally if not more worthy of discussion than Tommasini.

OH PS: This is my blog, darling. I will not "confine" myself to any particular topic.

A.C. Douglas said...

Jonathan wrote: OH PS: This is my blog, darling. I will not "confine" myself to any particular topic.

Absolutely. Of course, I'm not compelled to respond to anything *I* consider of no importance.

So there for you! And yo' Mama wears army boots!



Jonathan said...

And that, my friend, is a fair fight! :)


Anonymous said...

Funny that--when considering ACD's most recent qualm--Tomassini was quoted in an '04 interview as saying: "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.

As if king fury needed more fuel.

Anonymous said...

Yes, ACD needs a Comments section.

A.C. Douglas said...

David Sucher wrote: Yes, ACD needs a Comments section.

The hell he does.

(Hi, David. What are you doing in this strange (for you) neck of the blogospheric woods? Way off your normal track, is it not? And be nice, or I'll come over to your comments section, and you know what that means, right? Right.)


La Cieca said...

Since my name was brought up here, I thought I might natter a bit. Who in the world knows what Tommasini meant by that "Meistersinger" remark? I'm inclined to be charitable and suggest that (just maybe) what he meant was, "Levine's conducting of Meistersinger is so overwhelmingly great that it would awe even the notoriously anti-Semitic Wagner." I'm not sure that I am bowled over by this particular sally* but it does seem at least possible that the reference to Meistersinger was inspired by Levine's success with the work rather than any particular association between that opera and anti-Semitism.

* Why not bowled over? Well, because Wagner's prejudice regularly took a back seat to his determination to work with the best available talent, e.g., Hermann Levi who premiered Parsifal. And, though this is more debatable, I have my own doubts about how Wagner would react to Levine's very slow and very thick reading of Meistersinger.

Now, "strapping." Of course the comment was meant to get a laugh, but as always in parterre box, the laugh is there for a purpose. First, when "strapping" was used, it was very often the only description given an entire performance. ("Nathan Gunn was the strapping Silvio") That tells us nothing besides that the writer thought the singer was good-looking, which is not exactly the point, after all. (We're not reviewing gay porn.) If the writer wants to say, "His singing was X and Y and Z and he looked strapping besides," then I say go with the strapping. Otherwise, if you have nothing else to say about the singer, or if you don't have room to write more, better -- I think -- to omit any mention. The omission will piss off the singer's management, but it does help the writer avoid sounding like he's writing abut a high school play.

I would also suggest that there is a bit of reverse sexism/homophobia thing going on here. Would the times print a whole series of reviews in which a male reviewer repeatedly described female singers as, say, "curvaceous" or "stacked?"

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ah, thank you for that. No, they would not, presumably.

Henry Holland said...

Wow, this comments section is like, well, um, like a Nilsson/Leonie/Resnik/Waechter/Windgassen ; Bohm, Wien Statsoper ca. 1965 Elektra: Alex Ross, Lisa Hirsch, ACD, La Cieca, it's nice to see so many fine writers here. No comment on who's the Nilsson etc.

My beef with Mr. Tommasini doesn't go back much further the the bit in his American Tragedy review where he took Picker to task for not writing tough, knotty music (a gross reduction of the argument he presented, but still). I love the music of Boulez, Birtwistle, Ferneyhough, Reimann and others in that general style, but it would strike me as absurd if a reviewer whined that the Mask of Orpheus or Lear didn't use the same compostional style as Norma or Fanciulla del West.

And, I, for one, loved La Cieca take on Tommasini's "strapping". Martin Bernheimer was a polarizing figure here in Los Angeles. A lot of people couldn't stand his reviews ("He hates everything") and, certainly, he scared the crap out of the Philharmonic and LA Opera's management. I loved his reviews and got in to more than one heated argument with people defending them, but if blogs had been around in the mid-80's, I certainly hope someone would have taken him to task for the use of the word "slushpump" whenever he would discuss the music of Tchaikovsky or Strauss. It was as predictible as the sunrise that that word (meaning "overly lush") would appear in a Tchaikovsky or Strauss review.

In any case, the Wozzeck sounds like it'll make a terrifc broadcast tomorrow, so I'm really looking forward to it.

Alex Ross said...

I'd happily be anyone in that cast, though my real life ambition is to be the Gottlob Frick of music criticism.

Lisa Hirsch said...


Henry, you're right, that's a bit of an oversimplification. I thought Tommasini's argument boiled down to "the most interesting and effective music in the opera is the knottier stuff, and I'm sorry there isn't more of it." I also think that in a review of a new opera, a comment like that is appropriate. In reviewing a work that's 80 or 100 years old, it seems pointless. (I here note that earlier this year I mentioned the fine line between grandeur and bombast in Strauss's music, but that's because the performance I was hearing came down too hard on the bombast.) Bernard Holland does that kind of thing too; I remember a review of "Samson" in which he spent several paragraphs discussing how bad the music is and how much he hates it. Okay!

Don't get me started on Bernheimer. (Oh, too late, too late.) I've read a bunch of his FT and ON reviews in the last few years; I don't know his work in LA at all. But I object rather strongly to a critic using 4 of his 10 paragraphs of a Ring review in discussing the history of Ring stagings at the Met, leaving all of 6 to discuss what he saw and heard himself in the performances under review. And did you see his poison-pen ON obit for Ghiarov?! I think it's acceptable to evaluate an important singer in his obituary, but Bernheimer didn't so much evaluate as insinuate.

Henry Holland said...

Lisa, you're right, I didn't quite "get" what AT's point was. Mea culpa.

I don't know his work in LA at all.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that Bernheimer was feared by the managements of the opera and the Phil. I clearly remember Peter Hemmings mentioning how Bernheimer's bad reviews negatively affected ticket sales. The best part of his reviews, actually, were the outraged letters to the editor that would follow. "But...but...I liked the [insert name of concert or opera that Bernheimer had savaged], Bernheimer is a poopy head!" was the general tone of them.

It's odd how we readers of classical/opera criticism in the Los Angeles Times have gone from Bernheimer (who had the reputation, that wasn't deserved, of hating everything) to Mark Swed (who has the reputation, that's also not deserved, of liking everything).