A brief defense of reviewing

What’s wrong with finding out what happened at a concert the night before last?

Recently, I pitched a concert review of a celebrated orchestra to a local publication that shall remain nameless. The celebrated orchestra would be in town for one day, but its appearance was part of a long-standing series, and at a major concert hall here. The arts editor replied in a way that arts editors tend to reply these days.

“In general, if concerts are only going on for a day, we prefer previews over reviews, unless there are multiple dates and readers could still attend the show after reading the review,” the editor said.

When, exactly, did the job of reviewing (anything) become a shopping service? I wanted to reply. When did it become the responsibility of arts pages to sell tickets to the events that are written about there?

Is it the job of the baseball writer to sell tickets to Dodgers games, or to report on the game that happened the night before, with critical commentary?

Do we love the week full of previews to the Super Bowl more than the game itself?

Is the preview of the State of the Union Address more interesting than the commentary after it?

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On recommending things

Recommending things to other people — movies, books, music, scotch, soap, what have you — must be one of the more underrated pleasures of life. It’s something we all like to do because it makes us feel like an expert in that particular thing we’re recommending, or at least in the know. It is also a hopeful boost to one’s status. One rarely recommends downmarket items; it’s not Bud Lite you push on friends, but that expensive double IPA made in La Jolla.

Perhaps there is a bit of snobbery in recommending things, or at least often there is. It’s like name-dropping, recommending is — sometimes we do it to look better than we are. But more often, I think, recommending things is a purely friendly gesture of sharing an enthusiasm with friends. There’s hardly a day when any of us don’t do it. Note how good you feel the next time you recommend something (my recommendation).

Music critic George Bernard Shaw

Of course, being on the receiving end of a recommendation isn’t always so fun. I’ve never particularly liked having books recommended to me, for instance. It’s probably simply because, after a lifetime of reading, I know my own tastes, they are particular, and few people share them. I know what I don’t like too (popular thrillers, for instance). I don’t mind having someone recommend, say, a wine or a scotch to me, however, because though I already like both of those things, my experience with them is fairly limited. The trouble with wine and scotch recommendations is that they’re usually too expensive.

Critics are in the business of recommending things, you could say. Even a critical slam is in its way a recommendation — the thing being slammed doesn’t live up to some more ideal example that it is either implicitly or explicitly being compared to. One thing that most people don’t understand about critics — the very word “critics” is generally sneered — is that they went into the profession out of a deep, encompassing love for the thing they are criticizing. The deeper the love a critic has for the object of his criticism, the more common the negative review from his or her pen: It’s a proposition worth pondering. Nothing can live up to the best, and only the best will do.

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Review: ‘Lullabies From the Liszt Chamber,’ Nov. 14, 1994

(Here’s another of the pithy reviews I wrote as a freelancer for the Los Angeles Times back in the day. I’m surprised at how fearless I seem to be, but Bernheimer created an atmosphere where we felt safe to do this type of thing, where we were actually encouraged to. I don’t really remember this concert, not even after re-reading the review. — TM.)

MUSIC REVIEWS : Lullabies From the Lizst Chamber
November 14, 1994|TIMOTHY MANGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
COSTA MESA — The Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra is for people who like to listen to classical music with their feet up in an easy chair while reading a book. Then they fall asleep.

It is a highly stylized type of playing. The Franz Liszt’s sound, under its longtime leader and concertmaster Janos Rolla, is polished to a lustrous sheen, but is never brilliant or steely, or golden or burnished for that matter. It is a distinctly silken sonority, the violins sugary sweet and soft-edged, the violas, cellos and bass of this 17-member string ensemble acting as poised foundation. Homogeneity is striven for at all costs, and achieved. Pizzicatos become puffy satin pillows of sound.

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Review: Los Angeles Philharmonic plays Messiaen in Costa Mesa

Review: LA Phil Visits OC with a Demanding Modernist Program. Voice of OC, Jan. 21, 2019.

Review: ‘Premiere of Samuel’s Apollo and Hyacinth’, December 6, 1989

(This is one of my earliest reviews for the Los Angeles Times; I was 29 years old, hired as a freelancer just a couple of months before. I remember a few things about this review — one was a bungle. I neglected to mention, because I was unaware, that Gerhard Samuel had served as an associate conductor under Zubin Mehta at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the early 70s. I received a slightly scolding note for the omission from my boss, Martin Bernheimer, a day or two later, and felt hurt by it. Another thing I remember is how darned difficult it was to write these short reviews of new music concerts. Last, I recall receiving a glowing letter in response to the review from the poet Jack Larson, who provided the texts for two of the works on the concert. Larson, most famous for playing Jimmy Olsen on the old Superman television series, later became a serious poet and librettist, and he collaborated with Virgil Thomson on the opera “Lord Byron.”  Well, what do you know, in his letter, Mr. Larson equated my writing with Thomson’s criticism, and I was over the moon. –TM)

Music Review : Premiere of Samuel’s ‘Apollo and Hyacinth’
December 06, 1989|TIMOTHY MANGAN
The celebration of composer/conductor Gerhard Samuel’s 65th birthday was no retiring affair. Taking part in his own birthday tribute, Samuel conducted three of his own works, including a world premiere, for an appreciative gathering in Bing Theater at the County Museum of Art on the latest Monday Evening Concert.

On the first half, the German-born American composer led 14 members of the MEC Ensemble in the premiere of his “Apollo and Hyacinth,” a brief programmatic work in five sections that vividly captures the Greek legend.

It begins with a hymn in the upper register of the woodwinds and bells that slowly intertwines in ethereal dissonances. The music builds to an outpouring of melody, which nevertheless is delicately, airily scored. Then, isolated sustained tones float throughout the ensemble, eventually congealing into a coherent swirl, and the piece ends in mid-air with the cut-off of a rising line. It is a complex though readily accessible score, brightly colored, elegant and graceful.

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Review: ‘Pair Skillfully Meet Musical Challenge,’ January 12, 1998

(When I was a freelance contributor to the Los Angeles Times in the late 80s and 90s, I must have written hundreds of short concert reviews like the one below — 6 to 8 column inches in length. It’s an interesting challenge, writing so short, and I think I became fairly skilled at it. At any rate, note that this review, from 20 years ago, is of a recital by two student performers. Newspapers no longer cover the classical music beat to this extent, and that’s a shame. –TM)

Music Review
Pair Skillfully Meet Musical Challenge
January 12, 1998|TIMOTHY MANGAN
Two young talents, violinist Radu Pieptea and pianist Alpin Hong, were featured Friday night in a duo-recital at Occidental College’s Thorne Hall.

Both past winners of Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards (in 1996 and 1994, respectively) and largely trained locally, these musicians showed technical proficiency and musical resolve in a demanding program. Neither is skittish of the big works. Despite the rain, a sizable, supportive audience turned out.

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Review: Previn at the LA Phil, January 1992

(Here’s another one of my reviews from olden days, written as a freelancer for the Los Angeles Times. Notice the date: What many of us forget is that Previn actually returned to conduct the orchestra after his acrimonious departure from the position of its music director. This review isn’t as sassy as my recently shared Perlman review, but it’s pointed. –TM)

MUSIC REVIEW : Previn Leads Philharmonic ‘Nutcracker’ at Pavilion
January 18, 1992|TIMOTHY MANGAN
Conductors usually get what they ask for. Trouble is, Andre Previn didn’t seem to ask for much Thursday.

On the podium, he was pretty much the traffic cop. Expressive gestures were few, cues for entrances and beat patterns soberly laid out. He often looked bored–and the playing, not surprisingly, reflected this. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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Review: Itzhak Perlman in recital, March 1995

(I wrote this slam as a freelancer for the Los Angeles Times in 1995 and was subsequently assigned to review Perlman twice more that same year. I would never write a review in such a bratty manner these days — I was obviously trying to prove something, to out-Bernheimer, Martin Bernheimer, my boss — but it does make for entertaining reading. –TM)

MUSIC AND DANCE REVIEWS : Perlman-Lite at Wadsworth Theater
March 06, 1995|TIMOTHY MANGAN

It has been shown, under strict laboratory conditions, that rats fed large and consistent doses of margarine (in tandem with electrical stimuli to certain cerebral zones) actually come to prefer the taste of the oily substitute over the real thing.

Similarly, Itzhak Perlman played a recital Saturday night at a packed Wadsworth Theater. He exhumed his usual shtick. He executed his usual violinistic tricks. He gave his usual lukewarm interpretations of serious music and genial interpretations of light music. Almost everyone was happy.

The outer portions of the program listed two potentially potent names: Schnittke and Bartok. But, true to form, Perlman managed to find the pieces with the highest sugar content in each of their oeuvres , the Suite in the Old Style and the Romanian Folk Dances, respectively. He played both with careless aplomb and sticky sweetness. He may have not gotten a couple of the jokes in the Schnittke.

Sandwiched between were the Third Sonatas of Debussy and Brahms. He seemed entirely to miss the Debussy, its Frenchness, its curtly cut phrases, its volatility, the steeliness of its colors. He sounded adequately attentive to the Brahms, gooping up its low- and middle-register lyricism, going teary-eyed up high. Semblances. The “Presto agitato” finale became “Allegro moderato slightly upset.”

As a bonus, he added three of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. His accompanist, Janet Goodman Guggenheim, offered clarity and cleanliness, and sometimes more point than her soloist.

At encore-time proper, Perlman plumbed the depths of “Schindler’s List, Theme From,” Tchaikovsky’s Scherzo, a Chopin/Kreisler Mazurka and Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen.” The crowd oohed and aahed as if he were a trapeze artist. A few of us rats still prefer butter, though.

Happy New Year

Carlos Kleiber conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the “Radetzky March” by Johann Strauss I.

‘Christmas Every Day’ by William Dean Howells

(A great Christmas story that you don’t know. I hope you enjoy.)

Christmas Every Day

By William Dean Howells

THE little girl came into her papa’s study, as she always did Saturday morning before breakfast, and asked for a story. He tried to beg off that morning, for he was very busy, but she would not let him. So he began:

“Well, once there was a little pig–”

She stopped him at the word. She said she had heard little pig-stories till she was perfectly sick of them.

“Well, what kind of story shall I tell, then?”

“About Christmas. It’s getting to be the season.”

“Well!” Her papa roused himself. “Then I’ll tell you about the little girl that wanted it Christmas every day in the year. How would you like that?”

“First-rate!” said the little girl; and she nestled into comfortable shape in his lap, ready for listening.

“Very well, then, this little pig–Oh, what are you pounding me for?”

“Because you said little pig instead of little girl.”

“I should like to know what’s the difference between a little pig and a little girl that wanted it Christmas every day!”

“Papa!” said the little girl warningly. At this her papa began to tell the story.

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