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Margaret is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. After a career as a conference interpreter and a second career as librarian. She has degrees in Interpretation, Library Science, and Piano Performance. She enjoys playing chamber music, foreign languages, and discovering history. For Margaret, learning is a constant and entertaining pursuit.
I had been reviewing concerts and theater for five years before the pandemic and it had become a pattern of my life. The pace was frenetic – with three or four performances to cover each week and turning in reviews as fast as possible, usually the next morning after a very late evening. In late February 2020 there was a concert I had been asked to review. It was modern music and some of the composers were young musicians from my town whose work I had never heard. I started to find out as much about them and their previous work as I could. The concert was disorganized. The organizer had neglected to copy programs and when I finally received one hot off the photocopier, I saw that the program had changed somewhat. It had billed a performance of Pauline Oliveros' Rock Piece as a Philadelphia premiere. That was blatantly incorrect. First of all, I had already heard this piece twice in Philadelphia. Secondly, I think the piece is totally absurd and dreaded having to endure it. It may have been brilliant when Pauline Oliveros had her original idea and wrote the piece in 1979, but the newness fades after you have heard it once. She instructed performers to hand out two rocks to each member of the audience and ask them to choose a rhythmic pattern and stick to it while their neighbors pick other patterns and do the same. When you experience it the first time, it is fun and slightly challenging to resist copying your neighbor's rhythm. The second time, it feels silly. This was my third time, so I was recalcitrant, but determined not to spoil it for anyone who had not experienced it. The organizer wanted us to fade out our rock beating and allow the following piece to fill in the void. We crashed at the end, several people unsure of how to stop: slow down, fade out, or what? Tap, silence, crash…giggle. Finally, the expert musicians playing the subsequent piece entered the void left by our awkward fishtailing. How could I review that shambles? I wrote: If you have never heard Rock Piece, you might enjoy your first opportunity to beat rocks together, but by the time you are handed rocks again for the next performance, you may sigh like a kindergartner asked to repeat an easy task. I did not challenge his claim that his concert was the Philadelphia premiere as I thought that would have been a bit mean. I did say we did not do a good job of setting up the atmosphere for the commissioned piece that followed: “What happened was a bit of a train wreck as the audience refused to stop clicking their rocks when the commissioned premiere began.” The rest of the concert was great and I reviewed it in positive terms and high praise, but the organizer was furious. He commented: “I suspect Ms. (Reviewer) was the kindergartner who can't take direction in this equation.” He went on to berate my lack of knowledge and competence and added that this is the twenty-first century (ignoring the fact that the piece in question was written in the previous one). His irate words really stung me and felt like an attack of my person rather than of my review. He added biting phrases like “one can only lament the halcyon days when a credible, respectable, reviewer would put in even the smallest effort to inform themselves of the music they were about to hear.” The attack felt so threatening and diminished my self-confidence so severely that I simply stopped writing reviews. It mattered little as there were so few performances after Philadelphia and so many other cities went dark on March 16, 2020. I began to explore other options for writing – delving into other areas relating to music, but in light of historical events rather than live performance. Two years later, I was asked to review a concert with a premiere by another composer commissioned by my aggressive detractor. I accepted, thinking I needed to face the monster once and for all. I looked up everything I could to prepare myself – and that is saying a lot as I spend an excessive amount of time on research before I review a concert. Soon after it was published, I received a forwarded email from my editor. The composer whose piece I had reviewed was delighted with my positive review and asked if I would review a compact disc of his compositions. A feeling of calm fell over me. Anyone might object to how I perceive their music, but that does not mean I should hide from them. It would be more productive for me to embrace their remarks and learn from them. I have taken time to reread my detractor's comments several times recently and I now see that if I want to continue reviewing, I should be prepared for reactions – not outwardly, but inwardly. Now that we are having more performances and I have started to review them again, I feel much stronger than before. I am accepting fewer assignments and spending more time trying to polish the reviews I accept.