Weathering withering music criticism

A recent obit of the late music critic Peter G. Davis in the New York Times ( brought to mind Mr. Davis’  book The American Opera Singer (Random Books, 1997).

The enthusiastic praise by the Times’ Clay Risen: “an exhaustive, exhilarating and often withering history in which he praised the versatility of contemporary American performers while taking many of them to task for being superficial workhorses” caught my interest.

I spent $25 on a paperback copy from Amazon, and after receiving it I eagerly sat down to read it.

Risen’s words – “often withering” – should have raised a red flag. These days my tolerance level for “often withering” critical bitchiness is at an all-time low, and after painfully plowing through the one third of the book that focuses on singers that I have been listening to over the past sixty-plus years, I finally gave up.

Mind you, the book’s back-cover and inside front cover are full of the praise of fellow critics, but I could not find one single recommendation by a singer, conductor, composer, or working musician.

Davis had a nasty way with words, especially when dispensing caustic remarks along the lines of “…her flouncy, braying Carmen was truly vulgar and self-indulgent…” when speaking about mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.

When commenting on Leontyne Price’s farewell performance in Aida in 1973, Davis writes: “…few had the nerve to point out that most of Aida’s music was no longer at her command… By then she was reduced to a collection of desperate whoops, careening roller-coaster portamentos, and wild register shifts – once was left with the queasy sensation of Aida sung by a nightclub singer.” Say what?

Anyone who has listened to Price’ O patria mia in that 1973 performance, followed by an ovation that seemingly went on forever would dismiss that statement of Davis as nonsense. Even when meaning to praise, Davis often misses the critical boat by omission or by exaggeration. At one point he speaks of Price as “…the first classically trained black opera singer to attain worldwide stardom.” Did Davis ever hear of Marian Anderson?

But I will spare the reader more. Leonard Bernstein’s famous quip “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen a statue of a critic” kept coming to mind as I encountered few words of unqualified heartfelt praise or, for that matter, a worthy in-depth critical evaluation of those singers who did not make the cut for Davis, instead of backstage gossip, trivia, sarcasm and little else of value.