Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

California Love

November 21, 2011


How much worse can classical music criticism get in the Los Angeles Times? In particular, I'm referring to the increasingly poor quality of what the organization's lead classical music critic, Mark Swed, has been producing. It has gotten to the point that one wonders if our region's largest news organization isn't asking itself if this is the best coverage it can provide of one of the key components of L.A.'s cultural life. This year Swed has managed to attack the use of most online social networking for classical music as “technological fascism” and to blithely use the Japanese tsunami in March as a framing device to describe the powers of Gustavo Dudamel (which he and his publisher later retracted, although the copy lives on in news aggregation sites and screen captures). He continues to offer Los Angeles readers little besides blind boosterism for their local orchestra. And now he’s rekindled one of his other favorite pastimes - picking fights with young East Coast composers.

This all started with Swed’s positive review of Los Angeles’ young and adventurous chamber orchestra wildUp on Saturday. (Or you can read my more detailed account of the show if you'd like.) Of course this presented an occasion for him to take an unnecessary swipe at young East Coast composers for some unexplained reason:
Uniting pop with new music is not new. Everyone does it. In happening arts centers such as Brooklyn, virtuous young musicians insist that Minimalism and anything that iTunes happens to be promoting that week must get along. Wired urbanites making nice is always nice. But soupy Radiohead arrangements are another matter.
(Note the obligatory Radiohead reference to establish street cred. But I digress.) I assume this intro, which has almost nothing to do with the rest of the review that follows, had its intended effect – pissing off New York-based critics and musicians alike. All kinds of drama broke loose on Twitter when The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross kicked things off with this:

Which soon led to a flurry of responses from many corners including composers Judd Greenstein, Nico Muhly, and critics like Daniel Stephen Johnson and Alan Kozin to name a few. Some of the best of these 140 character tidbits are as follows:

Now I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with Mr. Swed expressing unpopular opinions or opinions that I or anyone else do or don’t agree with. But I am unclear how this particular statement, in this particular piece provides any added benefit to anyone. Is it telling us more about the wildUp performance or how it fits into the greater scheme of things? Does it provide real insight into the local or national music scene? It certainly does a disservice both to the New York based artists he alludes to as well as the West Coast-based artists he is writing about in the article. At best, this Tupac/Biggie Smalls approach to arts writing is lazy journalism. Swed’s writing is increasingly cranky and out-of-touch with what's going on in the music world and what is unfamiliar within his frame of reference is often met with off-hand derision. When it comes right down to it, Los Angeles, the Times, and the local music scene deserve much better writing and much better criticism than what Swed is providing at this point.

Post-script: Although this post is not about me, I think I should say one more thing. I’m not arguing here that I am free of any of the vices I’ve mentioned here with regards to Mr. Swed. Nor is Out West Arts meant as a substitute for music writing in the Los Angeles Times. I am certainly unfair at times and have plenty of weaknesses as a writer and sometimes amateur critic. However, I am also not paid to write music criticism and OWA is not a comparable platform to the region's largest news organization. We all should expect more of Mark Swed and certainly more of the Los Angeles Times.



I'm guessing Swed's random attack, which led to the Twitter flurry, also led to quite a few website hits and much "discussion" in the form of sniping, and all that attention no doubt made the LA Times happier than just having a thoughtful review of new music, which seems like the saddest comment of all.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?



Opera Reviews '10-'11

Opera Reviews '09-'10

Opera Reviews '06-'09

L.A. Phil Reviews '09/'10

L.A. Phil Reviews '08/'09

L.A. Theater Reviews


Follow Along


Los Angeles

Follow me on Twitter