On the Arts: No Matter What the Event, This Critic Hopes for Magic

On the Arts: No Matter What the Event, This Critic Hopes for Magic

Sunday, April 30, 2000

By Rebecca Redshaw

Every time I take pen in hand as a reviewer of an event, be it concert, play, musical or lecture, I expect to be dazzled. I want the evening to be memorable.

I want the performer, whether it’s a one-person tour de force or an orchestra of 90, to be brilliant. I want the evening to unfold as if I were attending my first concert with a ticket purchased from money I saved baby-sitting.

It should be, quite simply, a once-in-a-lifetime event experienced by only those within the confines of the theater or concert hall. No second takes. No fancy editing. The actor may stumble or the violinist may miss a note or two, but live performance is not about perfection.

It’s about magic.

When I moved to Los Angeles, after spending the first 20-plus years growing up in Pittsburgh, the response of new acquaintances after introductions was of sympathetic, faux understanding.

“Pittsburgh. A great place to be from, right?” This remark was always made, of course, by someone who had never been to Pittsburgh and assumed that a place so old and “unhip,” compared to L.A., was a good place to leave.

I enjoyed Los Angeles for more than 20 years. Like Pittsburgh, it is a city, when mentioned, that triggers all kinds of stereotypical responses and cliches. Rather than smokestacks, shots and beer, and middle-America mentality, L.A. conjures up superficiality in the form of leased foreign cars, superfluous plastic surgeries, and a cultural district that begins and ends with the cement footprints at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Neither image of either city is accurate. Los Angeles has a wide and varied array of art museums. Concert and studio musicians perform various styles of compositions at the highest level. The abundance of trained, unemployed actors has given rise to available and excellent small-theater productions.

One of the many surprises I had upon returning to Pittsburgh several years ago was a similar wealth of talent being exposed on small stages throughout the city. Musically, the consistent high level of performance by the Pittsburgh Symphony and various musical companies in the area is a treat.

But this is not a comparison of two cities. Whether on the West Coast or at the Point, my responsibility as a reviewer is to the audience, relaying my interpretation of a singular event. Two facets of this responsibility are always on my mind: (1) Is the performer giving his or her best, regardless of the venue? And (2) Is there a different set of standards because of that venue?

As an introverted writer who watches and observes and reflects in prose, I have the utmost respect for anyone who has the courage to stand before the footlights and perform. It’s risky business, and the payoff rarely hits middle ground. Not unlike an athlete who is raucously cheered when he completes a long pass only to be brutally booed on the next play when he fumbles at the goal line, the performer prepares for his or her role and wants to do well. Sometimes they enthrall, and sometimes they disappoint.

Pittsburgh is my home now, but because of my dual-city adult status, I have seen differences in performer standards. An actor may give a dynamic performance at the former Huntington Hartford in Hollywood when he or she knows that industry bigwigs have scooped up the first 10 rows of orchestra seats and then perform a benefit at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh and give less than 100 percent. The price of a ticket may be the same in both cities.

Nothing upsets me more than an artist who gauges their effort by the supposed social caliber or importance of those in attendance. The effort should be determined by the downbeat or spotlight, not whether the performance occurs on either coast or somewhere in between.
Should there be a different criterion for different performances? Yes and no. To refer again to our football player, is it fair to compare the starting quarterback at Northgate High School to the starting quarterback for the Steelers? Their task is the same.

Does the difference in the cost of the ticket raise the bar of expectation? You bet. You certainly expect a different cut of meat at Ruth’s Chris than you do at McDonald’s. On the other hand, someone reading a review and deciding whether to buy two tickets to a future performance deserves an honest appraisal of the event.

Everyone in the theater or concert hall has a different level of appreciation and knowledge. When writing about the concert, I often write with the non-concertgoer in mind. I can hope that someone will read the review at breakfast the next morning and think, “I wish I’d been there,” or “I can’t believe I missed this.” Also, there’s very little point in writing for the culturally elite. They have a pre-established level of appreciation for the performance different from a newcomer to the classical music scene. For years, I read Jim Murray’s sports column in the Los Angeles Times, not because I cared about the Rams (once a Steelers fan, always a Steelers fan), but because I enjoyed good writing.

Knowledge can add to the listener’s enjoyment of the piece. But it isn’t necessary to identify the leitmotif in a Wagnerian opera, or even to know what one is, to enjoy the scenery or costumes or arias. In pointing out the subtle nuances, or lack thereof, in a performance, the reviewer can educate as well as inform.

Not long ago at an event I reviewed, a concert-goer noticed me taking notes and at the end of the evening asked me what I thought of the concert. My response to him was anything but coy. “It’s far more important how you feel about the evening.”

As a reviewer, and reluctant critic, I try to place the bar fairly, to demand as much of myself in relaying the events of the evening as I demand of the performers, and to continue, every time I take pen in hand, to hope to be dazzled by the magic.