LOS ANGELES — If there is one book in which most music critics don’t want to end up, it’s gotta be Nicolas Slonimsky’s notorious Lexicon Of Musical Invective. It is what the title says it is — a compendium of nasty reviews of works that long have been considered masterpieces impervious to fashion and further criticism.
It was only a matter of time before some alleged victims of such critical abuse would try to get back at us as an entertainment — and so Aleksey Igudesman (of the classical-music comedy duo Igudesman and Joo) has stepped into the fray with The Music Critic. Igudesman conceived and wrote it, cast actor John Malkovich as the critic spouting invectives, partner-in-crime Hyung-Ki Joo on piano, and a string quartet consisting of himself and Claire Wells on violins, Hsin-Yun Huang on viola, and Antonio Lysy on cello.
The show made its U.S. debut in Seattle Oct. 17 and stopped in at the Orpheum Theatre — a converted old-fashioned downtown movie palace — in Los Angeles on Oct. 20. (A streaming version of the show from March 2021 can be viewed here by subscription.) After three dates in Texas and one each in Detroit and Chicago, it ends up at the Beacon Theatre in New York City on Oct. 28. Lest those who panned symphonic masterpieces be spared the rod, there is also a sequel, The Music Critic at the Symphony, which receives its U.S. debut June 12, 2024, in Portland, Ore., with the Oregon Symphony.
Here’s what happens throughout the 71-minute play with music. First, the five musicians strike up the lively scherzo from Dvorák’s Op. 81 Piano Quintet as Malkovich looks on with an expression that reveals nothing. Without a word of introduction, he suddenly recites some nonsense taken from a bad review of the piece when it was new, speaking in the condescending tone of voice that some imagine all critics adopt. Next, Igudesman and Joo play from a Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano as Malkovich intones, “He (Beethoven) seems to harbor both doves and crocodiles”; the duo only digs in harder as if in response.
Some of these merchants of venom — as they used to call the late comedian Don Rickles — happened to be great composers and thinkers themselves. Brahms catches hell from none other than Tchaikovsky (“What a giftless bastard”), Nietzsche (“He has the melancholy of impotence”), and Hugo Wolf (“The greatest bluffer of the century and of all future millenniums!”). Only one contemporary composer, Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), gets hit (“The blowsy allure of something written for a shampoo commercial”). At another point, Igudesman finds it necessary to respond to a critical blast from his past with the famous (slightly reworded) retort from Max Reger (“I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. Soon, it will be behind me.”). Finally, Malkovich reads with relish a review attacking one John Malkovich, as satirically set to music by Igudesman.
The musicians played gorgeously at all times, amplified as is de rigueur in the theater these days, and it seemed as if Igudesman deliberately zeroed in on the most beautiful passages of these pieces so as to heighten the absurdity of the critical descriptions. Malkovich’s haughty tone of voice further stacked the deck against the evil scribes — and there were a couple of encores during which Malkovich the critic goaded the performers in real time to make the J.S. Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria” more “religious” and convert Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca into a hoochie-coochie excursion in A major instead of minor.
So, what was it like for a real working music critic to be in the audience at the Orpheum for such a ribbing? It felt like being a spy representing his colleagues, trying to stay inconspicuous while wielding his usual pen, note pad, and discreetly applied night light. I could just imagine the headline: “Music Critic Stoned By Angry Mob At John Malkovich Show.” Fortunately, no one noticed — as far as I was aware.
In the beginning, the first few examples of critical faux pas were good for a self-effacing chuckle or two. But after awhile, the constant barrage of foolish, laughter-inducing opinions and wrong guesses on top of the succession of musical excerpts, however beautifully played, became rather tedious. The point had been made — yeah, sometimes we’ve been wrong, hilariously wrong — and hammering away at it again and again and again served no further purpose. The title of a Branford Marsalis album comes to mind: I Heard You Twice the First Time.
Yet what bugged me the most was what seemed to me to be the unspoken premise of the whole deal — that critics are mainly out there to skewer creators and performers, seeking to find fault above all else. That is a misconception of what makes us tick. When I attend a musical performance, I want to be thrilled — just as much as, if not more than, anyone who buys a ticket. The overwhelming majority of the critics whom I know and have known feel the same way. We report what we hear, offer perspectives, strive to get what the performers are attempting to say, and if we’re not thrilled, we try to explain why, hopefully in a constructive way where clever wordplay doesn’t become the end in itself.
There may be some masochistic folk who would be pleased as punch to be included in such a Hall of Shame as this, but not many, I suspect. Who enjoys being on the wrong side of history?