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Pick of the Day: Hearing the colors

The hardest, most frustrating and very occasionally most rewarding forms of criticism to write are music, dance and food. Some of the greatest critics of our age have devoted their careers to explaining film, books and TV, and it's awfully tough to be great at that work, but there is an immediate accessibility of the material that makes it easier for critics to get across to readers just what it is they're writing about.

The first challenge a critic faces when covering music, dance or food, however, is to communicate what the heck is being commented on. Food writers ransack the thesaurus to find adjectives that might hint at what a dish tastes like; often, the great food critics depend--sometimes dangerously--on simile, comparing a particular spicing to everything from a summer's evening to a lover's eyes. Music writers at least have the whole recorded history of sound to turn to for comparison--dance critics must summon all their narrative skills to describe the action before them.

The best music critics capture the emotion and the technical structure of what they're hearing, and, by concentrating on color, can sometimes bridge the divide between aural and visual. Here's a piece from this week's New Yorker by their classical critic, Alex Ross, that has just a few little descriptive passages that attempt to show what makes Gustavo Dudamel, the hot new conductor of the times, distinct from other orchestra leaders. In some places, Ross relies too much on adjectives--"a fuzzy but buoyant rendition"--but then he'll come back with a passage like this:

"Although Dudamel has the image of an impulsive conductor, a wild man of lunging arms and dancing feet, his musical choices tend to be controlled, sometimes a little predictable. He favored a lush, heavy sound in Mozart, as on old Karajan records. Strings outnumbered winds five to one—problematic in terms of balance, although the increasingly stellar Philharmonic woodwinds compensated with a series of vibrant solos. Tempos were on the slow side, bordering on the somnolent in the Andante of the “Prague” and the Minuet of the “Jupiter.” Dudamel was at his best in the “Jupiter”’s slow movement, where he achieved the same exquisite layering of sustained and filigreed lines that made the Adagio of his Beethoven Ninth so memorable. For the most part, though, this Mozart needed punchier rhythms, cleaner dynamic contrasts, sharper details of articulation and phrasing.

The Post has been fortunate to have two extraordinary classical critics in recent years, Tim Page and Anne Midgette, both of whom can make you hear the performance even as they're teaching you something about the music and the musicians.

In this period of extraordinary change in journalism, the role of the critic is changing, and in some cities, critics are being stripped out of newspapers as a cost-saving measure, or replaced by reader comments and compilations of other critics' scores for movies or TV shows. But this period of empowerment for readers is actually a moment for great criticism to shine more brightly than ever before, a chance for readers to learn from writers who know their stuff thoroughly and have a powerful passion to communicate both their love of the art and their standards of excellence.

Who are the critics you depend on and learn from?

By Marc Fisher  | December 22, 2009; 7:35 AM ET
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