I’ve run out of dog food for Eloise, so I drive out to the coast and up to Gualala on a windy late November afternoon. I can see the white caps on the Pacific roiling. The water is turbulent, and the seabirds are riding the air current so expertly they look absolutely motionless, caught perfectly poised in the swiftly moving wind.
I’m just pulling into the lot in front of the Surf Super when I see my neighbor, Marcel Proost, getting into his pickup truck. Marcel usually wears Ben Davis overalls, a checkered flannel shirt and an Oakland Raiders hat. But today I see he’s got on a clean pressed shirt and tie, and his hair has that weird look of a wet cat, kind of slicked down and unruly, like it doesn’t want to be combed.
I also notice he’s got a notebook under his arm and a ballpoint pen behind his left ear.
“Marcel,” I say, “somebody die?”
“Naw. I just come from the concert at the Arts Center. I gotta get home and file my review.”
“I’m covering the concert for the Independent Coast Observer. Didn’t you know?”
Turns out that Marcel had offered his services to our small newspaper as a music critic. This, as you can imagine, truly puzzles me, because I do not think Marcel is in any way qualified to pass judgment on classical music.
“So what kind of concert was it, Marcel?” I am thinking to myself he couldn’t tell a septuplet from a septic tank.
“It was a group up from the big city called the New Confrontations Ensemble. They played contemporary music. Carter, Boulez, Kurtàg, Birtwistle—you know, Euro high modernism. I know, I know—you think you’re gonna nail me on Elliott not being continental, but hey, he just has a different zip code. It’s all the same gang.”
I’m thinking this is ridiculous. Marcel can’t even read music and the only cd’s I seen in his trailer were by some Goth bands like Alien Sex Fiend and Inkubus Sukkubus, which I saw next to his lava lamp. I think he’s just pulling my chain, so I figure I’ll just ask him a few questions and see how far he can bluff.
“So Marcel, how was the Carter?” I calmly inquire.
“Bracing, thorny, a contrapuntal thicket, but intellectually satisfying. Carter, as you know, John, has mellowed since passing the C-mark. I like the new piece,“…come il cacio sui maccheroni,” for three percussionists —stands up quite well on repeated hearings.”
“You’re shitting me, Marcel,” I say. He just stares at me with a look of distaste at my bad manners.
“So, OK. Marcel, I am sure that a week ago, before you went all hoity-toity on us, you never even heard of Pierre Boulez. So how you gonna write about something as complicated as that?”
“Structural clarity. It’s a breeze to write about Boulez. You just say “structural clarity” and you’re home free. Doesn’t matter if you’re reviewing his conducting Mahler or “Pli selon Pli.” It’s all about structural clarity, John.”
“Mad Hungarian, of course, like all of them, but a mind of richly fertile imagination. Fiendish miniaturist. The universe in a nutshell.”
“Doesn’t coddle the listener. Every new piece a welcome musical colonic.”
“So, Marcel, if you’re gonna write regularly you have to be open to other stuff too. What will you write if it’s a concert of Minimalist music?”
“Minimalism? Check your brain at the door.”
“And what if the singers are miked?”
“Amplification? End of the world as we know it.”
“The Vienna Philharmonic?”
“Plush strings, burnished brass, mellow winds. Gender issues.”
“How about that new opera that just premiered last week?”
“Formally flawed, but promises better things to come.”
“Gilbert versus Dudamel?”
“Easy. East Coast probity versus Hollywood glitz. But of course you preface your remarks by saying that you’re only reporting that the others are writing about it. You yourself would never stoop so low as to make odious comparisons.”
OK. OK. So I see that Marcel has gotten himself all informed and knows the key words and catch phrases. He’ll be able to a critique a concert and crank out a review just as fast as the guy at Carl’s Junior can punch in an order. His big problem, though, is that he’s being paid by the word, so he’s going to have to figure out a way to flesh things out, find himself some good adjectives and key words to hold in supply. We need to start right now to help him out or he’ll be outta ammunition when the big bucks start running. Here are a few (culled from the local rag):
-for singers: prima, donna, winsome, hankie, helden, tenor, stalwart, shrill, journeyman, indisposed, passaggio, panique
-for violinists: strapless, sixteen, sex, Seoul
-for older conductors: penetrating, probing, judicious, probing, sage, probing, prostate, probing
-for younger conductors: hair, energy, contract, twitter, manager, Mahler, Firebird, youtube
-for orchestras: big, five, deficit, tour, cancelled, Citibank, union, negotiations, empty, seats
-for operas: neglected, masterpiece, bad, libretto, super, titles, second, act, drags, prefer, Puccini
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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