Rudy Panucci On Pop Culture

Reviewing the Reviewer: David Williams on Symphony Pops Concert

I’ve been writing criticism for a long time. Back in my radio days, I would be asked to re-write commercials, punch-up political ads, and on occasion, re-write speeches. In 1992, with Melanie Larch, I started reviewing animated movies and TV shows for the Gazette. Since the mid-90s, I’ve been published in a variety of magazines writing on a number of pop culture topics. Not only have I written criticism, but I’ve also coached people on writing reviews. One question always comes to mind—“Who writes these reviews, and how come nobody reviews them?”

Maybe it’s time we changed that. Here at PopCult, there’s a “comments” link at the bottom of each post. If you read something you disagree with, feel free to leave a comment. You can call me names, or just say that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m secure in my opinions. You can even rake me over the coals for writing this very item. I can take it. We critics can dish it out, but can all of us take it? Let’s find out.

I have a unique opportunity to tackle this issue. Last Friday, I was privileged to be in attendance at the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s Pops concert, “A Night On Broadway.” This puts me in a position where I can pit my take on the concert against that of David Williams, whose review of the show ran in the Saturday Gazette-Mail. Since William’s thoughts on the show didn’t exactly jibe with mine, I thought it might be fun to run David’s review through the same critical process that is normally used by reviewers.

I do have to confess to a glitch in my objectivity. My significant other, Melanie Larch, was a guest artist featured at the concert. While this may color my own opinion somewhat, it should be noted that Williams is a composer, and the Symphony has performed his work in the past — so he’s hardly an objective observer himself. We all have our built-in biases. The key is to inform your readers so that they can have a full picture. On to the review of the review:

Williams opens his piece with a rather clumsy paragraph that tries to explain the premise of the concert. He then wastes valuable space speculating about why the crowd was so large, without mentioning that dozens of legislators were visiting that evening. It’s odd that he chose to begin his review this way. I would have saved the discussion of the crowd size for the end of the review. The size of the crowd doesn’t really have that much to do with the quality of the performance. However, the point that the crowd was very large, and very enthusiastic, is worth noting. It’s just not the most important point.

After that shaky beginning, when Williams begins critiquing the performers, we start to run into real problems. He seems to overlook the stunning performance by Eva Vidavska Kumar, so he can carp about some imagined microphone problem. He then pointlessly name-drops a person who had nothing to do with the concert, before briefly noting the incredible performance by Stephanie Adlington, and then dismissing her song as “worn out.” A print review is not the place to offer “shout outs” to your old college buddies. (That’s what the Internet is for.)

In the next paragraph, the reviewer praises the male singers, but takes what I think is an unnecessary pot shot at their ages. When you write a review, it’s okay to say something nice about a performance without immediately qualifying it or adding a snarky remark.

Then, we get to the part where my objectivity goes out the window. Williams says that Melanie’s song, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “never quite took flight.” He seems to base this remark on the fact that Mel interpreted the song, instead of coming out and performing as a caricature of Ethel Merman. Personally, I think William’s comments were totally off-base, wrong-headed, and not grounded in reality. Mel received the second-largest crowd reaction of any adult soloist during the concert. She’s worked 15 years towards the goal of performing solo with the Symphony, and I’m more than a little annoyed that Williams felt the need to be so dismissive of what the crowd obviously thought was one of the high points of the night. But then, I have a bit of a bias here.

Leaving that behind, we get to William’s comments on two performances that I felt weren’t exactly the high points of the concert. He says that putting an operatic vocalist on a song written for a pop singer was a “perfect fit.” I thought it was a mismatch, and the singer would have been better served by a different tune, one more suited to her talents. He then goes on to describe the performance of “All That Jazz” as “comfortable.” It was anything but comfortable. That song featured some of the only choreography of the evening, and it didn’t really work that well for me. We can chalk this up to a difference of opinion.

Williams goes on to rightfully compliment Jon Cavendish and Joe Romagnoli, who both turned in wonderful performances. Almost as an afterthought, he mentions nine-year-old Alexandra Ayoob and sixteen-year-old Micah Atkinson, both of whom deserved far more than a one-sentence blow off. Had he not wasted so much space speculating on the size of the crowd, or interjecting irrelevant asides, perhaps Williams could have spent more time talking about these two dynamic young talents. Maybe he could have mentioned the standing ovations they received.

Wrapping up, Williams gives some love to the orchestra, praising their rendition of “A Century Of Song.” The problem is, that 18-minute piece felt like it lasted a century. About halfway through, the dark of the audience looked like a starry night, as the twinkles of lighted wrist-watches started flickering like faraway celestial bodies. I felt that it would have been better had the orchestra skipped this medley, and devoted more time to the singers. It would have been nice if Bill Rainey or Mark Hornbaker could have had solo turns, or if the women could have had a group number. One has to wonder why a composer would go out of his way to praise the orchestra, even when they’re performing a piece that didn’t exactly thrill the audience.

As it is, I can’t give Williams too high a grade on his review. I understand that the harsh, post-concert deadline makes it harder to organize your thoughts and build an essay the best way possible. But his analysis just seemed way off the mark to me and he didn’t really present his thoughts in a cogent manner. Aside from his problems communicating his points, I felt like we didn’t see the same concert. The concert I saw was an incredible event. The only parts I found slightly lacking were singled out for praise by Williams.

A review is supposed to be an opinion piece, but you have to be able to back up your opinions. His vague presentation and odd organization made for a sub-par bit of prose.

GRADE: I’d have to give this review a C-minus.

2 Comments

  1. primalscreamx

    hmmm…
    Who watches the Watchmen?

  2. gazz editor

    David Williams had this to say in response to the reviewer being reviewed:

    Rudy Panucci is welcome to fire away at my music criticism — anyone is — and I think he should have some fun doing it. But I think that he missed several points of my review of the West Virginia Symphony Pops.

    The size of the crowd was part of the story in this concert. I don’t recall an audience quite so large at other Friday night pops shows. I did not mention the presence of “dozens of state legislators” because that number was not significant enough to influence the size of the crowd. The crossover from other media was, perhaps. Often I don’t mention crowd size in reviews, but this seemed to have a significance outside the norm for pops.

    Mr Pannuci is right that I am by profession a composer and that the WVSO has played my music, but that was just one piece (which it commissioned). Most of my work is not for orchestra, but for chamber music ensembles and wind bands. If I have a bias, it is that I wish orchestras would play something brand new on every concert and that they would thoroughly explore the music of the 20th century.

    Not likely to happen…

    I can’t argue with Mr. Panucci on singers, because everyone has their own likes and dislikes, and the relative quality of a singer’s voice has always seemed a very personal thing. In the case of Eva Vadavska Kumar, I am not sure how he could have decided that I thought there was something wrong with her singing. I said the amplification was poorly handled (in the second balcony, the sound system was feeding back from the power of her voice).

    The city of Charleston has produced a number of important musician, such as the composer George Crumb or the the Chicago Symphony’s principal clarinetist Larry Combs. When I was discussing the vocalist Stephanie Adlington and her Grafton roots, I was trying to provide some context — a standard procedure in music criticism that dates back to the writings of Hector Berlioz in Paris in the 1830’s or Virgil Thomson in 1940’s New York. A town as small as Grafton would seem an unlikely source for artist-quality musical talent (and I have some experience here, since I taught in Grafton in the late 1970’s). My mention of Adam Mason had nothing to do with a “shout out” to an old buddy (even though he is a good friend, but he doesn’t even live in USA anymore). Again, my attempt was one of context. Mason is a musician of considerable stature, arguably the greatest Grafton has produced.

    Mr. Panucci must have found Calvin Custer’s “Century of Song” to be boring and overly long. I did not find it so. In fact, it struck me as one of the few arrangements of American popular music that I have found truly riveting. I actually cut out of the review several sentences about the piece that just made the review too long. Also, I heard a number of enthusiastic discussions about the work during the intermission.

    It is always possible to be at a different concert than the critic.

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