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Shifting Responsibility, Part I

Posted on Thursday, June 29, 2017 at 12:52 AM

From writing columns to reviews, it's important to always consider the who, why, and what.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Recently, respected Bach scholar and eminent musicologist Daniel Melamed invited me to address his class on writing about music, which -- as a member of the faculty in the distinguished Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University -- he teaches every couple of years.

We used to exchange visits: I to his class and he to mine in IU's School of Journalism titled "Reporting the Arts." I no longer teach mine, since I dropped out two years ago when I was 85. By then, I had been officially retired for 16 years but was still teaching part time. It was long enough, I decided. Daniel is far younger and still engaged full-time in his academic duties.

I was happy to join him. He attracts interesting and interested students. Most of the time, they will be writing -- if writing they do -- for different audiences with different needs. Handling a lay audience for a journalistic publication, newspaper, or magazine, as I do, differs vastly from his world, but he understands that it can be most useful for his budding musicologists and the like to understand there are opportunities elsewhere, away from the technical journals and scholarly books. For them to also know that, in addition to writing my newspaper Sunday columns and just about every-other-day reviews, I have written about music for children in the magazine Highlights for Children, for adults in program notes for Lyric Opera of Chicago, and for other markets.

Who Am I Writing For?

I benefit hearing from Daniel's crew: their questions cause me to pause in my work and remember how important it is to always consider the who and why and what when I sit down to write. Who am I writing for? Why am I writing for the who? And with what will I satisfy the wants or needs of my projected who?

Even for the same kind of audience, the one for Lyric Opera, I have to remember (and the editor there will remind me, even guide me) that my approach writing some sort of background piece for a performance of Verdi's La Traviata or Puccini's La Bohème, should be different from one, say, for Alban Berg's Wozzeck. The first two are so popular and well-known that a writer should consider some hidden aspect or zigzag approach to gain the interest of a reader waiting for the curtains to open. For a Wozzeck performance, a more nuts-and-bolts approach is probably preferable because far fewer folks in the audience will have sufficient knowledge of what that remarkable opera is all about. My responsibility shifts.

Historical and Contextual Reviews

When it comes to reviews, I have to make decisions while experiencing the performance or the book or the CD or the DVD about in which direction to head. To offer an example, let me turn to a children's opera, Brundibár, which was performed here in Bloomington last fall. I realized before anything happened that my obligation and opportunity differed from the norm, both in a preview column and then in a review of the production and performance.

The column became historical and contextual. Here, in part, is what I wrote:

"Terezín: the name in Czech. Theresienstadt: the name in German. It makes one shudder. It makes one weep.

"To Terezín or Theresienstadt, to this concentration camp near Prague during World War II were sent artists: musicians, writers, actors, painters, and cultural leaders, first Czechs, later Europeans. From this concentration camp were sent most of those musicians, writers, actors, painters, and cultural leaders to the not-far-away extermination camp at Auschwitz.

"Those artists, while at Terezín, practiced their skills and created a cultural life in the midst of disease, malnutrition, scandalous conditions, and death. They created and presented cabarets and theater; they gave concerts and lectures and classes, to stimulate the mind and fortify the heart.

"Music became particularly important. Four significant Czech composers came to Terezín and practiced their craft: Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, and Hans Kráza. Conductor Rafael Shächter brought the score of Verdi's Requiem with him and trained soloists and choristers to perform it as a statement of defiance, the 'Dies Irae' ('Day of Anger') coded as a message of damnation due to come for their evil German captors; the 'Libera me, Domine' ('Deliver me, Lord') hinting at later reward for the prisoners' suffering."

Skip a paragraph to this: "One of the Czech composers, Hans Kráza, brought with him to the camp a children's opera he had written before his arrest. Brundibár it was called. Brundibár it still is, and this coming weekend, you can see this slice of 20th-century history at The Warehouse in a series of performances co-produced by Jewish Theater of Bloomington and Stages Bloomington.

"The story tells of a brother and sister whose father has died and whose mother is ill and in need of milk for nourishment. The problem is that the children have no money to make the purchase. They decide to sing in the town's marketplace, hoping that way to gather the necessary funds. An evil organ grinder named Brundibár [Hitler] stands in their way. He chases them off. But with the assistance of a sparrow, a cat, a dog, and the children of the town, Brundibár is chased away, and the singing begins."

I go on to say: "Brundibár was performed at Terezín more than 50 times and documented in a propaganda film the Nazis made in an attempt to fool the outside world into believing that the camp was a beneficent place where children flourished. In reality, not only were the children mistreated while in the camp but, apparently, all but two members of the cast pictured in a photo ended up in the gas chambers at Auschwitz."

The column goes on to quote those in charge of the production about how it all happened and what was required to get it done and what they hoped to accomplish with a run of Brundibár. Most of the column, however, turned out to be a lesson in history. Our job as writer and editor requires making decisions. How best do we serve the subject and reader?

My task after seeing the opera was to react, to give my readers a review. Again, I knew that my follow-up had to be no regular follow-up. Here is how I approached my reaction:

"Brundibár is not for reviewing. It is not for critiquing. It is not for nitpicking.

"Brundibár is for hearing and listening and experiencing and thinking about and learning from.

"What Jewish Theater of Bloomington and Stages Bloomington have produced together for us, the citizens of southcentral Indiana, is a lesson in history, a lesson in social conscience, in the nature of good and evil, in the unending struggle for humanity and against inhumanity.

"Within the sprawling expanse of The Warehouse, an unusual but appropriate venue down on South Rogers, two of Bloomington's theatrical institutions have put Brundibár on exhibit, a short, one-act opera written by Czech composer Hans Krása. Krása, when sent to the concentration camp Terezín, took the score with him and, then, saw to it that children in the camp could either perform the opera or see it while, over time, there were 55 presentations of his charming yet also menacing handiwork.

"A production here and now is far different, of course. There is no composer today, in the safety of our community, to end up in the death camp at Auschwitz as did Hans Krása. There are no performers, children or adults, in the safety of our community, to end up at Auschwitz as did all but two of the children that took the stage in Terezín.

"But the tale told and sung in Brundibár needs to be told and sung from time to time so that we, who lived through that period, will not forget and so that those who did not live in the 1940s and might not be thinking about such matters do learn and think. As the evil organ grinder, Brundibár, warns at opera's end: he may have been defeated in his efforts to control a fairy tale village, but if we don't watch, he might return, not only in fiction but in nonfiction. The danger is always present."

There were flaws aplenty in the production. None of that mattered because of the honesty portrayed in getting the project done and the importance of bringing history up to date. The actors, adults and children, were amateurs. Those who led the preparation were limited in ability but so totally committed that the production achieved tremendous power. The effort was terrific, noble, as it turned out worthy of a viewer's tears. "The sincerity of what one saw," I wrote, "the sense of community, the desire to show something important, the hope that a significant lesson was being passed along: all these I deem as an act of love contributed by everyone involved."

List of Elements to Consider

The lesson being passed along to you is not complete. I will continue it next month. But in the interim, please consider the list that follows, a list of elements that can be important in a review, a list from which a reviewer selects a path for content, purpose, and approach. The list is alphabetical:

Allegiance to art, allegiance to artist, allegiance to audience, analysis, community boosterism versus welfare of community, consumerism, context, description, education, elucidation, entertainment, history, impression, institutional goals, interpretation, intimate knowledge, judgment, narration, observation, opinion, reportage.

We'll go from there.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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