Classical Critics Survey

5. If non-classical music fans wanted to start listening to the music and reading about it, what classical music critics would you steer that person to and what composer or piece of music would be a good starting point for a beginner?

I don't really steer anyone toward other critics. Most of them set bad examples, taking short-cuts and mouthing clichés. In part that's because newspapers no longer give critics enough space to write intelligently. I find that the level of my criticism remains higher the less I read other critics. As for what composer I'd send them to, there are way too many to list. Almost any starting point works.

Well, this is a problem. The critic I'd pick is Alan Rich, who writes for the L.A. Weekly. He's clear, thoughtful, and persuasive; above all, he makes music matter, because he cares for it so deeply. But what if you don't live in Los Angeles? Are you really going to look for the L.A. Weekly on the Web, to read reviews of concerts you're never going to hear?

So I'd have to recommend a book, rather than a critic. And here I have trouble, because many introductory books on classical music are pretty bad. Two I reviewed recently were full of mistakes, some of them really dumb, the classical music equivalent of saying that doo-wop evolved in the '60s, and that Elvis was born in Nashville. Worse, books like these treat classical music as if people think it's both distant and difficult, so they're either too reverent ("let's worship the untouchable greatness of it all"), or, more common these days, too folksy, in an attempt to put readers at ease ("hey, Mozart was a really cool guy"). Both approaches insult readers' intelligence.

A couple of books, though, are pretty good. Aaron Copland's What to Listen For In Music (a classic from many years ago) is worth reading, especially since Copland, an important composer, certainly knew what he was talking about. I also like one of the folksy books, Michael Walsh's Who's Afraid of Classical Music?, because it says a lot more than its style might make you think it does, and even more because it's so wildly opinionated. Michael refuses to be reverent. He won't encourage people to love all classical music indiscriminately; instead, he dares you to form your own opinion, and freely invites you to disagree with him.

What classical music is good for beginners? Almost anything. Some people think classical beginners should start with something simple, and gradually work their way up to the complicated stuff. (One of the books I reviewed commands you to start with, I'm not making this up, Peter and the Wolf, a piece for children.) I've seen beginning listeners get turned on by atonal music, which the traditional classical audience thinks is impossibly difficult. The problem the traditional audience has is that atonal music is too contemporary for them, but someone coming to classical music from the contemporary world might not have any trouble with it. I've also seen someone go straight from alternative rock to the Beethoven late quartets, supposedly the most rarified classical music there is. But this person already liked smart, rarified music, so late Beethoven was natural for her.

So if you want to start listening to classical music, ask yourself what kind of music you already like. Do you like, for instance, passionate music? Then maybe you should start with one of the romantic classical composers, Schubert, Wagner, or Tchaikovsky. Do you like brainy music? Start with Bach.

Though if I had to recommend just one classical CD, or in this case a classical CD set, I'd suggest Bach's Goldberg Variations, in two performances by Glenn Gould, as reissued in a Sony package called A Sense of Wonder, which costs little more than a single CD, and gives you a bonus disc on which Gould talks about the piece.

The Goldberg Variations is an astonishing piece. It's written in short sections, each based on the same musical design; you can hear that, or at least sense it, so you can start to learn something about classical music's structure. The performances are astonishing, too, but also very different. By comparing them, you can start to answer one question beginners often ask, which is how performances of the same piece differ from each other. And since Gould tells you (on the bonus disc) which performance he thinks is better, you can develop your independence as a classical music listener, by deciding whether or not you agree with him.

What I want in a critic--and what I'd want in a critic whom I could recommend to a classical novice--is a writer who can make the experience of listening to music dramatic. Engaging. Alive. And do it in an unpretentious manner that suggests that this experience wasn't only for connoisseurs. I'd rather not mention specific names (aside from my fellow panelists, who are models of lively, engaged writers). But there are certainly a handful of writers out there whom I enjoy reading.

Works? Off the top of my head: Figaro, Don Giovanni, Carmen, Petrushka, Pulcinella, Mozart's G-minor Quintet and Wind Serenades, de Falla's Seven Popular Spanish Songs, Wozzeck, Kurt Weill--works that are both immediately appealing, smart, witty, gripping, and--most of all--moving, but also intellectually challenging and stimulating, so they immediately repay repeated and frequent hearings.

I'd also want the beginner to hear the most profound and moving recordings: Schnabel's Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, the Schubert String Quintet with Pablo Casals, Joseph Szigeti's Bach, Prokofiev, and Mendelssohn concertos, Maria Callas (what singer ever paid more attention to words?), Conchita Supervia (what singer was ever wittier?), Ezio Pinza (did anyone ever have a more luscious voice?), Klemperer's Mozart G-minor Symphony (so they could hear every note clearly and still get emotionally involved), the old Fritz Busch Cosi Fan Tutte, from Glyndebourne (has any opera performance ever had a better sense of ensemble?) or watch the Boulez/Chereau Ring cycle. I think hearing an extraordinary performance makes a huge difference. Even experienced concert-goers are bored by bad performances and haven't enough confidence to say it was the performance at fault and not either themselves or the music. One of the critic's jobs is to tell their readers that it was OK not to like what they were bored by.

I am willing to speak about anything except other classical critics. But if music fans want a recommendation of a past critic, I'd point them to Virgil Thomson, who was at the New York Herald Tribune from 1940-54, the best critic ever. His writings are collected.

A long-ago musician boyfriend of mine presented me with Harold Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers when I was of tender years; it worked for me.

To cite another obvious example: I might encourage someone new to the field to read Virgil Thomson, to encourage him or her not just to consume this stuff reverentially, but to have opinions about it. I see no reason to talk down to beginners. It's silly to think you have to start slow: it's like telling an adult he should read short stories in simplified English before he's ready for a full-sized novel. I would probably recommend one of the pieces I fell passionately in love with at an early age: Beethoven's Violin Concerto, for example, has held up pretty well over the years. Or Stravinsky's Sacre de Printemps. (I've heard from a couple of different people who have TA'd in university music courses that the kids responded best to 20th-century music--Shostakovich, Stravinsky--and that the best modus operandi was to start from there and work backward.) I'm often asked for a top five opera list for people who know nothing about opera. I change it according to whim, but I usually include Verdi's La Traviata and Bellini's Norma--mainly, again, because they worked for me. I've heard that Wagner's Rheingold has been an ideal point of entry into opera for some people: gods and giants, big colourful music.