Reflections on ‘the gift’ of listening:
A farewell column

The view from Highwood Manor House at Tanglewood. (Photo by Jeremy Eichler)

In Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” the warm-hearted bird-catcher Papageno is presented with a set of magical bells capable of summoning a strange celestial music, one with the power to turn violent enemies into dancing marionettes, to banish thoughts of harm, and even to conjure missing loved ones. “Take this treasure,” sings the First Lady. “It’s yours.”

I’ve always viewed this moment as a kind of pocket parable about passing forward the gift of art and the challenge of grasping what one has been given, internalizing its bounty. These are also themes central to the mission I’ve undertaken over the last 18 years as a critic for the Boston Globe, exploring them through thousands of reviews, features, and Sunday columns.

This one will be my last, as I am moving on from the Globe and joining the faculty of Tufts University. I will continue writing and speaking about music in other contexts, and I very much hope you’ll keep in touch.

Covering New England’s extraordinary classical music scene for this readership has been the honor and privilege of a lifetime as well as a great responsibility. When I arrived at the Globe in 2006, this position had been held by just two critics before me — Michael Steinberg and Richard Dyer, both legends — over the previous 42 years. Almost two decades later, I am still routinely amazed by the engagement of the region’s musical public, the depth of talent and creativity among our local community of musicians, the breadth and quality of offerings, and the constant thrum of student energy.

Fortunately, in attempting to cover such a thriving scene, I have never had to go it alone, and I’m grateful to so many Globe colleagues present and past, beginning with the core classical team: writers Malcolm Gay, David Weininger, Jeffrey Gantz, and, especially, A.Z. Madonna, who stepped in while I was on leave; and editors Brooke Hauser and Veronica Chao.

And of course, there is a special gratitude every critic feels toward their readers, the audience in one’s mind when we sit down at our desks. Thank you to all who have followed the coverage over the years, and to those who took the time to write in. The most meaningful reader letter I ever received was from an incarcerated woman writing to thank me for providing a conduit to the thrill of the live performances she could no longer attend. Ever since reading her words, early in my career, the task of writing about this art form — providing bridges from sound to language, and from event to experience to memory — has felt like a profound responsibility, an act of trust, even a sacred compact with readers.

The highlights have been too many to count. I have reviewed great performances by orchestras and opera companies, chamber groups, visiting soloists in recital, and local ensembles with deep roots. I have loved covering the city’s abundant early music and new music, and hearing countless orchestral masterworks wrapped in that impossibly deep shade of Tanglewood green. And we have explored together composers and birdsong, a secret death mask, a marble Beethoven, the quieting of the cities during the pandemic, the history of applause, and the mysterious role of concertmasters. In my early years at the Globe, the piece that drew perhaps the widest reader response was a story about infant musical perception, researched with a strong assist from my newborn son (now a high school senior).

By its nature, music criticism also at times opens onto larger civic issues. I have urged the city to build a proper opera house, sounded the alarm when Charles Ives’s Connecticut home was put up for sale, decried the use of music as a weapon against loitering in public spaces, and celebrated the history of Boston’s own august institutions. Then there is the task of thinking in public about the past, present, and future of the city’s flagship ensemble. While chronicling the BSO’s history, following along on its tours, and savoring so many of its great performances in Symphony Hall, I have also called on the orchestra to embolden its artistic vision, diversify its programming, expand its local footprint, and deepen its links to the broader communities it hopes to serve.

Over the years, some stories have taken me — and I hope, by extension, you too — farther afield. I have brought readers to Gustav Mahler’s three composing huts nestled into remote corners of the Alps. Together we have met Gyorgy Kurtág, the reclusive Hungarian modern master composer, living near Bordeaux. We have looked into Venezuela’s storied national music education program, an iconic Britten opera against the backdrop of the North Sea, and a concert hall construction boom in China. We have spent time with a Soviet cultural commissar appointed by Stalin, and a lion of conducting approaching winter.

Making these experiences all the more remarkable has been the fact that they occurred against the backdrop of a shrinking criticism landscape at mainstream publications around the country. One reason for this contraction is the increasing dominance of online metrics in shaping coverage. Reviews of classical music and other performing arts, by these digital measuring sticks, sometimes fare poorly.

But while these metrics may be good at counting eyeballs for stories read online, they cannot tally the affections of print subscribers, nor can they measure the depth at which a piece has resonated personally with an individual reader. And even if they could, what conclusions should follow? As my colleague Alex Ross has written, “once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts.”

Robust cultural coverage is essential for any city’s arts ecosystem — which also, of course, plays a key part in the local economy. (As the Globe’s art critic Murray Whyte has pointed out, “21 million people go to the theater, visit a museum, or buy a ticket for a concert in the Greater Boston area over the typical year — four times as many as those attending every single home game of Boston’s four major sports teams.”) Yet beyond these larger civic benefits, for individual readers, I have always believed good criticism can offer still more.

These benefits can ideally extend beyond practical advice — which recordings to check out, which concerts to attend, or what to make of the performance one just heard — toward another function: broader, deeper, more personal. I have always considered it my responsibility as a critic first and foremost to enact, with some sense of invitation, a way of thinking about, responding to, or, most simply, living with the presence of art.

In a society so relentlessly driven by commerce, works of art don’t conform, they don’t stand up to be counted (as the dilemma of the digital metrics suggests). Yes, we might pay money for our ticket to the concert, but again, the value of what a performance gives us cannot be quantified. It is, in some deep sense of the word, a gift that stands outside the domain of market exchange. Works of art, as the author Lewis Hyde has illustrated in his essential book (appropriately titled “The Gift”), can provide us insteadwith another species of reward, “a moment of grace, a communion, a period during which we too know the hidden coherence of our being and feel the fullness of our lives.”

The problem is, what cannot be valued according to the coin of the land can all too easily then be written off as valueless — whereas the opposite is in fact true: The presence of art in our lives is, in the literal sense of the term, invaluable.

And here is where critics can and must contribute. In such a fiercely capitalist society, one now endlessly addled by digital distraction, critics can strive, in partnership with readers, to help make the gift legible, make it tangible, make it real, understood, and felt. Adapting a phrase from the violinist Isaac Stern, they can explore not only how we listen — but why. This is the essential question I have endeavored to address, sometimes directly, often obliquely, across my years of writing at the Globe and in my recent book “Time’s Echo,” which makes the case for approaching music as culture’s memory, an art form that bears powerful witness to the hopes, dreams, and catastrophes of earlier eras, and even our own.

Kafka famously proposed that “a book might be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” Maybe for some, however, the ax will actually be a performance, a work of music. It’s my hope that what I’ve written here over time has, at least on occasion, thinned the ice or sharpened the blade.

Meanwhile, I remain deeply grateful for these many years of listening and reflecting together. For me they have been, in short, a gift.


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This article was published in The Boston Globe on June 27, 2024.