The Student as Critic

By: Edna Landau

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Just a week ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Oberlin Conservatory at the kind invitation of Prof. Kathleen Chastain. Prof. Chastain teaches a course called Professional Development for the Freelance Artist and she has been encouraging her students throughout the semester to send in questions to this column. As a result, we have had some excellent questions from Oberlin students which I have enjoyed answering. While at Oberlin, I learned of a brand new initiative, The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, which excited me greatly. Why, you might ask (Edna), would I become so enthused about a program to train future writers about the arts when they might not be able to support themselves doing so? The internet is full of articles and blogs that address the steady increase in the number of arts critics who have been dismissed from their posts. There is certainly the hope that institutes such as this one may help to underscore the importance of expert music criticism and the role it plays in educating and building future audiences for the arts. I also strongly believe that music students can greatly benefit from having the opportunity to learn from leaders in arts journalism and from the experience of writing about performances they attend. Reflecting upon how they felt about a concert and expressing their thoughts in writing can help them achieve a higher level of objectivity and enable them to set new standards for the evaluation of their own performances. It is one thing to leave a concert exhilarated. It is another thing to be able to articulate why. Was it solely the extraordinary level of artistry of the performer and their ability to communicate with their audience, or might it also have been the opportunity to hear a new work, a beautifully crafted program, an unusual collaboration among several artists, or some words from the stage (before, during or after the concert), that engaged the audience and made them feel both welcome and enlightened? Aspiring young artists should keep in mind that critics often have to choose which event to cover among multiple concerts taking place simultaneously. It is elements such as these which can figure into their decision.

In the announcement of the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the first of its kind to focus on performance and performance criticism, the Oberlin Conservatory’s dean, David Stull, states: “All of us have reactions to concerts, but rarely do we refine these reactions into perspectives. During the course of the inaugural week in January, the audience, the critics and musicians will have an opportunity to engage with and consider music, not just hear it”. The ten student fellows participating in this imaginative program have been hand-picked from a larger group that have taken Oberlin’s Introduction to Music Criticism course in the fall.  All ten will write reviews of four performances (all part of Oberlin’s Artist Recital Series) to be given in the Institute week by The Cleveland Orchestra, The International Contemporary Ensemble, Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra, and pianist Jeremy Denk, who as the author of a widely read blog, will also participate as a journalist. (The wonderful programs, which include the world premiere of a work by David Lang, as well as details of a public session with several of the guest artists on composing and performing, can be found on the Institute’s website.) The students’ reviews will be critiqued by distinguished journalists, both in private workshops and in public Panel Sessions dealing with writing critically about music. The guest journalists, who include Anne Midgette, Alex Ross, Tim Page and Heidi Waleson, will also give pre-concert keynote talks, addressing the many opportunities for writing and speaking about music.  At the end of the Institute, they will join with Dean Stull and the Institute’s benefactor, Stephen Rubin, President and Publisher of Henry Holt & Company, to determine the winner of the $10,000 Rubin Prize, which is intended to support further study and internships in the field of music criticism.  An additional $1000 Public Review Prize will be given to an audience member who submitted a review of one of the first three concerts. The three professional critics judging these reviews – Donald Rosenberg of the Plain Dealer and Mike Telin and Daniel Hathaway of – will consider “critical acumen, fluency of writing and clarity of thought”. Six reviews of each concert will be chosen for consideration and posted on the Rubin Institute’s website. The authors will receive private feedback by e-mail from the three critics. The winning review will be chosen from this group of eighteen submissions.

Judging from all this, I would say that Oberlin, Ohio will be an exciting place to be in mid-January. Lucky are the students and the entire community, who will have the opportunity to be in the company of such journalistic luminaries and to be part of what promises to be a memorable week of immersion in great performances, inspired talks and eye-opening insights into the world and the art of music criticism.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

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