Guest Article by Hana Gubenko: What is the Use of Music Criticism Today?

Guest Article by Hana Gubenko: What is the Use of Music Criticism Today?
Guest Article by Hana Gubenko: What is the Use of Music Criticism Today?

What Is the Use of Music Criticism Today?

Guest article by Hana Gubenko

What is the use of music criticism in an era when everyone feels free to form their own opinions, to like something or not, to judge, to hate, to publicly blame predecessors for wrongs committed—and most of all, the ultimate carte blanche, to feel offended? 

Perhaps the answer is simple: Criticism guides us through the jungle of subjective perceptions, preconceptions, and uncertainty into the state of mind where we know what is real and what is fake. As well, criticism teaches us what to perceive in a piece of music, what it is all about, thus opening up the story captured inside the work. When we critics write about a performance, it isn’t judgmental; we are sharing our observations, our fascination, and our knowledge of musical matters with our readers, so as to make their enjoyment of art a bit more rooted and objective. Therefore, equipped with critical perception, we are in charge of making objective observations above and beyond our personal like or dislike of the performance. That is why criticism has its use, even if one might occasionally feel offended by what a critic writes.

Opinions can be contagious, and so one of the functions of a critic is to influence readers. But the main intention behind criticism is to provoke readers to think again before coming to any sort of conclusion or forming an opinion. Moreover, behind criticism there is always a positive intention to enhance readers’ desire to listen to the music and discover something new in it. The fascinating thing about music is that every time we listen to a given work, new contents are about to appear. A little bit like the daily news, each day there is a brand-new musical “story” available to listen to on a recording and, thanks to the work of the press, one can read a credible report about it in the form of a review or join a personal exchange with the artists in the form of an interview.

Composer Boris Pigovat and the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, have decided to use art to serve society and pay honor to the memory of the victims of the 2018 Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting. I am full of admiration for what they have done and am excited to share my observations with you here. Most of all, these artists make it clear that the only remedy against the recidivism of fascism is to remember that at any time the dread is possible again.

The Jewish Lacrimosa, with a Hint of Hope that We Are Not at the End of Times

Boris Pigovat’s Yizkor for orchestra, commissioned and premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on November 26, 2023 under the baton of Manfred Honeck, beweeps not only the victims of the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting, but every single victim of anti-Semitic terror and unforgivable doom of man’s hate toward man. This story goes far back in time to Cain and Abel and has no respite, not even now when the end of times in the form of the climate crisis hangs upon us like the sword of Damocles, and when no one of any religious affiliation whatever seems able to save all of us children of God, humanity. 

The only virtue which might be of help is sanity, which we still are not willing to practice. We have improved a lot as a society, there is no doubt; but when it comes to the pivotal question of when we will learn to share resources, living space, and essential goods, within a trice we lose the hard-won overlay of the Enlightenment and regress quickly to a primitive state. Well-armed with shotguns and the cudgel of fake news and propaganda, we people of today’s progressive world are falling over one another, with lather on our mouth screaming old phrases like Gas the Jews! Six million were not sufficient! and From the river to the sea! 

We have not internalised the fact that we are all alike just humans sharing one and the same origin, and it’s our dear planet Earth that seems to be collapsing under the pressure of our reckless misbehavior. The planet and nature with its resources and beauty were given us as a gift with the command to fertilize and to multiply our kind, but the fraternal hate starting with Cain and simple class envy have brought us to the tipping point. Fascism is a sort of virus, deeply ingrained in the genes of our kind, which makes us think that others might be less worthy of life. For all we know this tendency might be integrated into our biology as a mechanism to avoid overpopulation, but obviously it wasn’t any help. We have millions of deaths through fascism as well as over-population and the imminent collapse of our civilisation. 

The remedy? Why don’t we take a deep breath (as long as the oxygen is sufficient) and go to the concert hall. Let’s listen and take part in a service—it’s not going to be a happy one, but rather a requiem, a Lacrimosa, this time translated into the language which everyone can understand—the language of music. And yes, this time it is a Jewish requiem, the Kaddish; however we like to call it, the Yizkor by Boris Pigovat gives us the chance to grieve together about all we’ve done to one another, to pay honor to all the victims of robbery and sequestration, to everyone who died at the insane hands of people infected with fascism. We shall mourn, think, remember, and try not to forget that the replication of Cain’s crime is daily imminent at every corner of the world. We had better try to stick together, listen to the music, and put away our differences. When we do, we shall start to see similarities instead of gaps between us, before it is too late and grieving will be the only reason to unite. We shall all take a short trip to the lovely state of consciousness of charity and compassion—or perhaps to Venus? As Stephen Hawking said, “Next time you meet a climate denier, tell them to take a trip to Venus.” Which could be understood as equivalent to the good old slogan “Make love, not war,” couldn’t it?

For a sample of Boris Pigovat’s work, here’s Wind of Yemen, from the Singapore International Band Festival with Orchestra Collective conducted by Yibin Seow:

ABOUT HANA GUBENKO (in her own words)

I was born in Moscow on a cold day in December 1990, into a family with a father who was a newspaper reporter and a theatre director, and my talented mother who is a poet and who studied writing. She used to take me along to the workshops and seminars at Gorky University for Russian and Western Literature.

It was Mallory, Yeats, Poe, and T. S. Eliot who fascinated me deeply as a little girl, and who motivated me to learn their poems by heart at the age of three, and to make my own translations. Dante gave me the idea of a connection between spirituality and the art of writing. The possibility and need for a theological basis in literature and ancient Greek plays, along with Shakespeare, motivated me to try to write a play at the age of seven, but I failed—terribly!

From the age of three I started to learn to play violin, taking up the piano at age eight. I went to the Central Music School to study music, and at the age of 12, after leaving Russia and moving to Germany, I made the decision to become a musician—a violist in particular. I started to make my own arrangements of different music written for other instruments and throughout several musical genres, from medieval chorales up to the music of the 20th century. It is very much the like translating pieces of literature from one language to another. I went to study musical performance in Vienna at the age of 14. I stopped writing essays for almost 20 years, and a part of me fell asleep. I became a violist, achieved success in concerts, and focused on the re-establishment of non-avant-garde contemporary classical music. All seemed fixed until the day when Covid made me ill. It gave me a chance to see that a day might come when I couldn’t perform properly any more, and even long before that happened, through the lockdowns, I didn’t have a viola (I had one on loan, but it was taken away by the instrument dealer). Suddenly, there was just a pen in my hands, which was pretty much my instrument in my childhood. Back then it was a beautiful golden Parker, which I earned from my parents, having made a nice translation of the French lyrics by Verlaine for their play, which they seemed to like. Unexpectedly, I was compelled to write a libretto within a day. 

My sleepy writing had lost its skilled shape and I messed it up, but I was awake here, even if a bit a bit rusty! I wrote a play, Winter Journey, based on the song cycle by Schubert, where the main character runs a gallery in Kensington in the 1960s and is visited by illness and the hurdy-gurdy man. From that day on, I became a writing musician and sometimes a playing writer, despite my newly-established work as music editor at Fontayne Editions London. In the past three years, I have written three theatre plays, several articles and essays, along with the unexpected and very exciting opportunity and pleasure of writing for Fanfare magazine since May 2023. This is particularly interesting. I have been interviewed and reviewed as a musical artist more than once before; now, being on both sides makes this new chapter of my life very special and interesting.

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