November 12, 2004

Le Concert Spirituel: lively listening, inspired critique

Ernest: "You are incorrigible. But, seriously speaking, who needs art criticism? If [an artist's] work is easy to understand, no explanation is necessary…"

Gilbert: "And if his work is incomprehensible, an explanation is wicked."

—Oscar Wilde, Critic as Artist

Le Concert Spirituel's performance last Friday seemed exquisite enough to provoke such a statement, and complete enough to merit such a response. Conducted by Hervé Niquet, the ensemble performed Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Messe de Monsieur de Mauroy, Marche pour les trompettes and Te Deum, works epitomizing the elegance, grace and piquant pointlessness of the French Baroque. Charpentier was an aggregator sans pareil; someone who defined an age rather than metamorphosed it. He was not a product of his age, nor was his age a product of his work. Rather, he pinned down his epoch, concretized its characteristics, and set the stage upon which revolution could later occur. Mahler would have liked him.

The concert was superb—deconstructing it would cause the literary equivalent of the Banach-Tarski paradox. Every series of analytic decompositions would double the perceived volume of perfection. The elegiac, almost melancholic opening followed by an intricate contrapuntal Kyrie; the strophic Gloria with its dark, sinister opening, which then composes itself into an appropriate expression of enthusiasm; the beautiful Sanctus and the Domine Salvum Fac Regem, which ends the piece; were each individually breathtaking, while working together to form a coherent, overarching narrative. Niquet's conducting technique was clarity itself: He physically etched out the enunciation points, sculpted the fermatas, chiseled the pitches, and molded the inflections in the air. The resulting textures were complex and gorgeously melodic, with almost subliminal harmonies. The ornamentation was perhaps the finest I've encountered; the trills at the cadence points and climaxes were picturesque without being exaggerated.

Niquet's dynamics were awe-inspiring; this was apparent in the Marche pour les trompettes and during the second half of the Te Deum. He would set up a dynamic plane, so to speak, and then project a crescendo outwards in a clean, sharp line, lifting it out of the plane while simultaneously suppressing the other instruments. It was like watching an artist paint foreshortened figures, with scintillating plays of perspective. The acoustics of Rockefeller chapel molded themselves to the music, enhancing its depth and multi-dimensionality. Niquet managed several such dynamic layers at the same time, and conducted with a curious mixture of control and abandon. The performance appeared choreographed to the nth degree, controlled in such detail that it became more spontaneous than spontaneity.

The conductor focused his choral passages by centering them on one or two prominent vocal parts, and allowing these to shine through the general texture. The orchestra usually performed a bit flat—a convention of period performance—but the parts thus highlighted would sing slightly more sharp, enhancing the relief. The blend in the men's section of the chorus was beautiful without being homogeneous, and Anders Dahlin, the countertenor, was formidable. He owned every note he sang. His voice was filled with power, immediacy, and an astringent sweetness as he knit the passagework into luminosity, especially in the Credo of the mass. It was a superb rendition, one that was only matched by that of the soprano, Marie-Louise Duthoit. She had a stunning sense of vibrato. She would begin a note "straight," that is, precisely on pitch, and then segue in the vibrato for color where required. Therefore, every note would begin transparently, and then gain definition, a definition that could morph according to the context.

It was altogether a mesmerizing performance. And the question is, did this review add any value to it?

The audience at Rockefeller last Friday went wild—they applauded for over ten minutes, and the conductor was called back four times, finally agreeing to play an encore. The artist performs, realizes, interprets, and the audience reacts to that interpretation. The connection between the two seems entire, so what possible utility is brought on by the presence of the critic? Last week, in this very column, Alexander Coppock seemed to suggest one of the possible answers: "If you were at the concert, you know what happened, if you weren't you don't. I have always thought that a reviewer shouldn't just give an account of the performance, but of his experience of it. I am much more interested in how one can listen to Classical music." While agreeing with that in part, I would be inclined to take a rather different approach. Exploring the various means of listening to the music is indeed an integral part of criticism. However, I would posit that analysis and description, used as evidence to back up the opinion of the critic, is an extremely important part of the process.

What the critic experiences at a performance, when taken in isolation or stated as an isolated opinion, is meaningless. It merely gives the audience yet another set of impressions that they don't quite know what to do with. The question, ‘Why should I care about what you felt?' figures prominently. If, however, the critic provides analytical evidence for his opinion, and more importantly, the logical steps that he used to evolve it, he offers the audience a method of thinking about the music at hand. A large part of "knowing how to listen" comes from knowing what to listen for, and how to interpret what one has heard. A critical opinion is essentially a model of how one could go about forming one's own. It offers one a linguistic and musical palette from which one can draw to process this particular concert, as well as others. Thus in a review would I defend the necessity to have performance commentary, descriptions of what went on, as well as generalized commentary on the music.

I would also suggest that an effective critique is one which leads the reader to consider the concert in a different light, postulates a different perspective on the same event, draws the unexpected parallel to contextualize the music and its history, transposes the event onto a different key, and re-interprets experience from an unusual standpoint. In other words, a critique must add something original to the experience—to distinguish it from a descriptive narrative. The latter adds as little value as pure impressionism, as it neglects the question, ‘So, what do you make of this?'

Returning to the question I put forth at the beginning of this review, art criticism is essentially an interpretation of the interpretation—a piece of analysis that is able to create and illuminate the logical links between what was heard and what one felt about what was heard. Criticism, then, is the art of integrating perceptions into conceptions and providing a way to evaluate those conceptions in the light of one's personal aesthetics. Why does one need it? To enable one dialectically to engage with art. What can the critic add to the experience of the audience at Rockefeller chapel last Friday? He can define, validate and concretize it. He can enhance it by giving it reason to exist.

This is far from being a merely academic, or worse, a merely theoretical issue. It strikes at the very heart of the current "malaise of ignorance" which afflicts classical music. If one cannot process one's perceptions, encountering them will obviously drip with tedium. Why would you ever want to know more about anything that boring? Who was Haydn? Is he still alive? And that is precisely where criticism steps in. Apprehension is, after all, a prerequisite for appreciation. And appreciation is the first step away from soporific listening and into active exchange with some of the most incredibly beautiful music of our times. Criticism, ladies and gentlemen, is Lewis Carroll's rabbit hole constructed so that you can walk into it. It is the illumination of the passage to Wonderland.