Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Luxury of Scholarship

Last night’s San Francisco Symphony subscription concert, with its emphasis on the chamber music of Franz Schubert, was more disappointing than I had anticipated.  However, when I set about trying to write my “examination” of the event for, I realized that this was one of those cases where the usual techniques of criticism would not necessarily serve either the performers or myself very well.  Indeed, because last night’s audience seemed to be a bit at sea over the whole affair, this struck me as one of those situations in which “examining” would be more useful than “reviewing.”

The thing about examining, however, is that it tends to be highly context-dependent;  and one is not always certain, when undertaking the task, just what contextual elements are likely to be appropriate.  Therefore, I find it is useful, when dealing with context, to defer the usual introduction of the basic facts about the performance itself and follow the lead from Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” in preparing a suitable introduction.  (Aristotle talks about this as “paving the way, as it were, for what is to follow.”)  Thus, I found that I needed two introductory paragraphs to address the nature of performing chamber music before launching into any account of what actually happened on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall.

This strikes me as more than the usual question of how many “column inches” should go into writing about a performance (although I certainly enjoy the luxury of not having to worry about how many paragraphs it is going to take me to say what I want to say).  Rather, it is a matter of recognizing, at the outset, that any fair account entails some prerequisite level of scholarship.  Now I realize that the very concept of scholarship tends to turn off many readers, particularly those “enthusiasts” who bring their I-know-what-I-like attitude to the performance;  so there is the added challenge of making the scholarship not only palatable but also interesting.

Aristotle may have drawn upon flute music for his advice about introduction;  but I have discovered (often from the efforts of others) than a well-chosen anecdote is often the best way to lure the reader into territory that (s)he tends to be disposed to dislike for being too “heavy.”  In this case I had the luxury of being able to tell a story of personal experience, whose authority could be reinforced because it had taken place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and had “name appeal” (in the form of Robert Mann, founder of the Julliard String Quartet).  Whether or not my strategy was a good one from the reader’s point of view, it definitely provided me with the framework I needed then to write down the points that mattered most about my disappointment with last night.  I suppose what mattered most to me was that I could make a case that involved something less superficial than merely picking nits, but I could not do this without first establishing what it was below the surface that was so significant.  This required Aristotelian introduction, and I guess that whether or not that strategy worked is a matter between me and my readers!

No comments: