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November 16, 2003

Tommasini Speaks and Rebuts

A minor fracas broke out between Anthony Tommasini, Chief Classical Music Critic of the New York Times, and Seymour Bernstein, venerated performer and teacher of a piano Master Class at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music last night.

Here is Tommasini giving a very entertaining, if in my opinon snarky and somewhat snide, lecture on the nature of being a music critic. Some of my favorite quotes included "Music essentially resists being written about," due to the fact most readers are musically illiterate. "The only language we have [to describe a performance] is this language we can't use," because 95% of readers of the Times would fail to understand it.

Also, "Amplification ruined Broadway [...] When everything is blasted at you, that subtlety [of songwriting] is pointless," he went on to blast the words of Les Mis for being trite tripe.

Tommasini also spoke of the difficulty of writing reviews of performances of Beethoven; "We all know it, we all love it... it happened again!" is about all he feels he can say about the New York Philharmonic's recent concert of three Beethoven suites (at least I think they were suites, I may have that wrong). "If you play a new work, then you're giving me smoething to write about-"

At which point began the fracas!

From the back of the room came the question from Mr. Bernstein, whose evidently considerable lifetime experience in the fields of performing, teaching and writing about classical music were practically tangible as he spoke;

"To hear you speak [...] is not sending a positive message to these people who are devoted to studying these masterpieces!" He was referring to students in the room who may or may not have been studying Beethoven.

To his credit, Tommasini backpedalled gracefully and managed to state his great affection for the classical canon, but "There has to be a reason for someone to play a Beethoven symphony." He said students should absolutely study the classics, but a concert by a major orchestra should mix up the setlist a little to allow the Beethoven to stand out in its proper brilliance.