Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Case for Honest Entertainment Reviews

College grades have lost much of their meaning because of grade inflation: Mean GPA is 3.22 despite students studying less than five hours a week.

Similarly, theatre and classical concert reviews have suffered from grade inflation. Reviewers are generally more concerned about saving those dying entertainments than providing their readers with honest reviews. That is short-sighted because those reviews then can't be used to discern good from bad performances and if a person thus attends a bad one, is more likely to be turned off to the entire enterprise. Imagine if all movie reviews were positive--The net effect would be to reduce movie-going.

I just wrote this review of the Berkeley Chamber Performances concert I attended last night. I like to think that, while I was unvarnishedly critical and praising as I believe was due, the net effect will be to increase chamber music attendance. Also, my praise will be deemed more credible than if I was monolithically laudatory. At minimum, it's more interesting reading than the Pollyannish pap that tends to pervade reviews in less-than-august publications.


* Lovely venue.

* Excellent cellist, Susan Cook, successfully walked the tightrope of playing with deep feeling without being saccharine. Plus, her technique was flawless.

* Mainly excellent program (See below for the exception:) The early  (yet still more modern than Mozart) Beethoven Sonata and the rich Rachmaninoff Sonata were new to me and a pleasure to hear. But my fave was the varied, innovative yet accessible DeFalla, Suite Populaire Espagnole. It was a joy to listen to.

* I really enjoyed that there was a reception afterwards, and the audience members as well as the performers were lovely to talk with. (And, surprisingly, the cheeses served were elite deliciosos, not the usual cheap cheddar, jack, and swiss.)


* Unlike the cellist, the pianist, Gayle Blankenburg's playing was somewhat sterile: While that was true even in some slow passages, the problem was most evident in fast sections, which were sometimes muddy and lacking in sensitivity. Yes, sometimes, she'd use techniques in an attempt to add feeling, for example, lay behind the beat of an important note, but even that felt mechanical. It's hard to describe "feeling," but you know it when you hear it and with Blankenburg, I didn't often enough hear it.

Pianists that play with exquisite feeling include Martha Argerich, Helene Grimaud, and Evgeny Kissin. Of course, one cannot expect that level in local performances such as this but that gives you a sense of what I'm referring to.

For example, when you have time, listen to Argerich's Gaspard de la NuitGrimaud's magical performance of Beethoven's Sonata, Opus 110  or Kissin's Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto: Life doesn't get much better.

* The "modern"/atonal piece (Ross Bauer,) an amalgam of John Cage, Schoenberg, and Thelonious Monk, was emblematic of the kind of music only a theoretical, out-of-touch, ear-free academic could create. Perhaps intellectually "cutting-edge" but to most listeners honest enough to admit it, it was annoying and impenetrable.

* The seats are hard. If you don't have a fat tush, bring a cushion. Really.

This was my first time at a Berkeley Chamber Performances concert and I now plan to subscribe: Chamber music is one of humankind's most beautiful contributions. While the cellist was a 10 and the pianist a 6, that still averages an 8, and one can derive great pleasure from life's 8's. Plus, the next season sounds excellent. The price ($25, scheduled to increase to $30) is fair. I'm grateful it's in the East Bay so it's geographically accessible and one can even find a parking spot! I also appreciated the vibe among the audience members: enthusiastic, intelligent, friendly. Loved the reception. So if you haven't attended a Berkeley Chamber Performance concert, I encourage you to try one.

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