Culture Magazine

"Your Mind is Blank and Empty"

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Or: how to review a performance of a piece you've heard too many times.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

No that is not my head. I have hair.

When you leave off the inherent challenges in being  compensated for one's creative work, the lot of the professional classical music and/or opera critic is a pretty good one. We get to hear a lot of performances, of operatic and orchestral masterpieces that have survived into the fairly small club that is known as "the repertory." Occasionally we experience delicious rarities, epicure works by composers that we've heard of but have never seen played live. And finally, we occasionally get to hear and write about something new and genuinely innovative.
No, we don't have the dangers that haunt war zone reporters or this unpacking the seemingly endless malfeasances of the current political administration. Ours is a quieter lot. Sitting in premium aisle seats (at most venues, anyway), either listening deep in concentration or scribble-scratching in a notebook or on the back of a program between movements. (I prefer the listening option, although I always carry a notebook and pen.)
I've been a reviewer for much of my working career in music: including ten years here on Superconductor. It is important to listen without prejudice and cultivate a certain inner blankness (I call it "finding the void") when going to hear a familiar work. One must train ones self to listen without expectations if you are hearing the work for the first time. However, the same rule applies to music you've heard before: ignore what you know for a short while and concentrate on absorbing the performance that is unfolding in front of you.
Having a priori knowledge of the "catalogue" can be very useful. In approaching an unfamiliar tone poem or a major new offering like the Thomas Adès opera The Exterminating Angel it is helpful to have a background in the work's musical context. One will hear similarities to the past in a quotation slipped into a particular moment, in a turn of phrase that recalls the past, even in the composer's choice of orchestral instrument. The more you know, the better the finished product: i.e. the review, will be.
A different challenge exists in writing about the "core" operas of the repertory. Don Giovanni. Aida. Madama Butterfly. Carmen. Die Walküre. All are worthy works, in some cases high points for their creators. All are challenging for the singers and performers, to wring every last bit of relevance from the work and leave the listener panting for more. And all five operas are easy to burn yourself out on. Some of these shows are heard every year at the Metropolitan Opera and it is often a difficult decision: to figure out whether one can stand to watch Butterfly kill herself again or witness Carmen lead an unwitting Don José to his (and her) bloody end. New productions and fresh casting helps, but with certain war-horses, one must learn to deal.
With works like these, it is prudent to engage in self-care to avoid burnout. As the manager of a one-man operation, it is even more necessary to keep Superconductor going. I go to other cities and hear other orchestras playing familiar works (an effective tool with the most egregiously overplayed symphonies.) I'll read (or re-read) a  book on a composer or a musical style to gain a fresh perspective. I'll re-research articles in my New Grove. In some cases, I'll buy the Dover score and sit and listen to a recording of the work, following the architecture of a familiar piece and gaining a new respect and understanding of the composer's intentions. This has been remarkably effective in gaining a new understanding of the core 19th century symphonic repertory, which is arguably this publication's proverbial bread and butter.
It could be argued that there are only so many times you can see Tosca or Die Meistersinger. However, there are ways to manage one's experience in addition to those mentioned above. I take a year or two "off" from certain operas so's to not burn out on them. In my career I've done that with works like Carmen, Tosca and even the Beethoven symphonies. And then I'll buy a new recording with a different cast. I'll write something new in the blog's opera previews. And I'll find a way to continue to serve the readers and the profession in which I am lucky to find myself. 

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