Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Der fliehender Holland

I was just sitting down to write something about Bernard Holland's strange review of Paul Lewis's piano recital when La Cieca brought word that Holland has taken a buyout and is on his way out. So let me return to Paul Lewis another day, and instead take the opportunity to say a word or two about the former chief music critic of the New York Times.

Holland's work has come in for a good share of bashing around the blögôsphère over the years, and today's news will probably unleash more. But on the old Latin principle of de exemptis nil nisi bonum (speak no ill of the bought-out), I'd rather laud his virtues. For me, three in particular stand out.

• Holland has a remarkable ability to conjure up the essence of a composer or a piece of music in a few deftly chosen words. He is, I think, an aphorist of unparalleled virtuosity. I remember as though it were yesterday — and good Lord, it's been 11 years! — the awe and envy I felt on encountering over my morning coffee this passage about Giacinto Scelsi:

The music, with its emphasis on single tones or at least the implication of a single tone, exchanges one dimension for another. Beethoven has length; Scelsi has depth. A Beethoven sonata begins at the front door, takes a trip, meets new friends, goes home. A Scelsi piece closes the front door and digs in the basement.

That paragraph is both beautiful and true. But even when Holland's notions about a particular piece or about music history in general are wrong-headed — which, let's face it, they often are — they're expressed with wonderful efficiency. He can pack more into a couple of allusive sentences than many of us can into a painstakingly argued paragraph.

• At his best, Holland has been a fearless critic. It's hard to recall now, after so many years during which his anti-modernist bent has hardened into unexamined shtick, replete with reflexive, ill-considered sneers at everyone from Schoenberg on down.

But there was a time when that position was both better argued (on his part) and presented in the context of a more fraught cultural environment. The emperor's-new-clothes argument put forth by Andrew Porter and his ilk — "you'd love Elliott Carter's music as much as I do if only you were as smart as I am" — carried a certain coercive force, and it took real courage to face that down.

Here's Holland, writing in 1988 about Carter's Piano Concerto:

I believe I share with the large majority of musical audiences — trained and otherwise — an utter defeat before most of Mr. Carter's music. Full of energy, power and impressive sophistication though it may be, it occupies a world remote from my senses. The cognoscenti who extol his genius ask us to try harder so that we, too, may leave the ranks of the unwashed and join the anointed.

Posterity, furthermore, fills us with dread; for none of us wish to join the philistines of history who sneered at Schumann and made Berlioz's life a misery. We are in effect buyers in a futures market. The recognition of greatness is the commodity, and none of us want to miss a chance to get in on the ground floor. . .

My broker says, ''Buy.'' My heart says, ''Don't.''

• Finally, Holland has a delightful willingness to get weird, to do the quirky and unexpected thing. I understand that's what drives his detractors crazy — it often drives me crazy too — but when it works, he comes up with stuff no one else could ever have thought of. Who can forget his mad decision to include Count Basie in a roundup of minimalist CDs?

But the best Holland moment ever — and for years I used to bring up this episode whenever anyone said a word against him — happened sometime in the early '80s. (I suppose I could now confirm the details of this story in the Times archives, but I prefer to cling to my memories of it — as the late great Herb Caen used to say about a good yarn, "check it and lose it.")

Holland got sent to Fort Worth to cover the Van Cliburn Competition, and he dutifully filed the necessary reports on all the subsidiary rounds and on the eventual winner. But then, before he packed up and came home, he filed one last report. It was a scene-setter about Dallas nightlife, and in particular about the hard-drinking, rough-and-tumble milieu in a cowboy bar of the sort depicted in the John Travolta/Debra Winger flick Urban Cowboy — mechanical bull and all.

And because it was all done in the best New York Times third-person style — completely straight-faced, completely impersonal — I was two-thirds of the way through the article before it dawned on me what he'd done. He'd gone out and got shit-faced after the competition, and then turned it into a feature for the Times.

Seriously, how can you not admire that kind of journalistic enterprise? Ten to one he put his whole bar tab on his expense report.

Update: Aah, I couldn't resist (sorry, Herb). Turns out the bar was in Fort Worth, not Dallas; it was in 1989, not the early '80s; and there was no bull. Otherwise, though, I'd say my recollection of Holland's brief stint as the Hunter Thompson of classical music criticism wasn't far off the mark.


At 5/14/2008 6:47 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Gee, I'll say something about that Paul Lewis review! Ahem:

Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata,” placed between the two Mozart pieces, plays a game of addition. The first of its 11 movements uses a single pitch, the succeeding sections each adding another of the chromatic scale’s 12 tones to the mix.

Eleven sections, each introducing a single pitch, adds up to twelve tones? His math is as bad as his ears if he didn't notice that there are two pitches in the first movement.

Aw geez, I'm gonna miss scorin' points this easy offa the New York Times!

At 5/14/2008 3:57 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

No, I have to defend Holland on this one. I don't know if you know the Ligeti, but the first movement is in fact a virtuoso exercise in composing with just one pitch (plus octave displacements). It gets to two because the very last note of the piece introduces a second pitch (a typically Ligetian joke).

So: Fault BH on the math if you like, but nothing could be more plausible than to come away from a performance of this with a clear memory of that first movement as a one-pitch piece.

At 5/15/2008 9:32 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Why yes, I do know the Ligeti, and I see your point. But even setting aside the apparent difficulty of counting to twelve, isn't the punchline of the first movement, that second pitch-class, the whole point—that this virtuoso exercise turns out to be the world's most primitive V-I cadence? I might have hoped that the Times' resident expert on tonality would get the joke—the boulder Ligeti has spent three minutes hoisting drops to the ground with a Wile E. Coyote thud.

Look, clearly you and I remember this moment off the top of our heads. I know that I haven't listened to this movement in years. So what does it mean that we, who were not even at this concert, know the program better than the person assigned to review it? I'm going to go ahead and fault his math and his ears.

At 5/15/2008 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"'you'd love Elliott Carter's music as much as I do if only you were as smart as I am' — carried a certain coercive force, and it took real courage to face that down."

Rubbish. No one -- certainly not Andrew Porter -- ever made the case that anti-Carter critics are not as smart as they are. That was a straw man set up by Holland because, in the face of enthusiasm like Porter's, which he could not appreciate, he began to feel insecure about they're own judgment. He believed he was being called stupid.

In time, Carter, and atonal music in general, became a kind of nemesis for Holland. The music appalled him, but it also fascinated him, and he couldn't stop writing about it. (Check out the pathetic piece he wrote recently about Geiorge Perle.) Contemporary critics of Beethoven and Wagner also exhibited the same symptoms.

I for one will not miss Mr. H.

And remember: The emperor might have no clothes, but he's still the emperor.

At 5/15/2008 5:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holland's article on Fort Worth bars concludes with this passage "In any case, with this year's winner the Cliburn has given birth to a powerful young brute of a pianist with an embryonic musical intelligence. How this 19-year-old is going to ride out from Fort Worth into two years of worldwide concert tours is a good question."

That year's winner was Alexei Sultanov who suffered a stroke six years later at age 26. He suffered another stroke when he was 32 and died at the age of 35 in Fort Worth, Texas. If there ever was a story more suffused with tragedy and irony, I've never heard it.

At 5/19/2008 3:05 PM, Blogger Sator Arepo said...

I'll miss Mr. Holland's reviews of pieces he liked and understood, his bizarre purple prose and fiercely-imagined analogies.

I regret, though, that the Times, long ago, had not figured out long ago to send someone else to review music B.H. was going to hate--even before he got there.

Worse, however, is that this is a sign of decline in arts coverage in print media everywhere around the country.

My two cents.


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