On Sunday, January 22, the last day of Oberlin Conservatory’s inaugural Rubin Institute of Music Criticism, Jacob Street was announced as the winner of the Institute’s $10,000 prize. Street, an organist and harpsichordist from North Reading, Mass., is pursuing a Master of Music in Historical Performance at Oberlin Conservatory; he is a 2010 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. The prize—awarded by the Institute’s benefactor, Stephen Rubin, and a panel of prominent national critics—will allow Street to pursue unpaid internships and other study to further his development in the field of music criticism for the next two years. The Institute, previewed in “Where are Tomorrow’s Music Critics?” at SymphonyNOW earlier this month, gave ten aspiring young music critics the chance to review five days of musical performances with feedback from professional critics Heidi Waleson, Anne Midgette, Tim Page, Alex Ross, and John Rockwell. Other prize-winners at the Institute were Megan Emberton ($2,500 honorable mention), Samantha London ($1,000 public review prize), and Earl Pike ($250, public review honorable mention).
The student critics were all students in Oberlin’s Introduction to Music Criticism course. Among the works they reviewed at the Institute were a world premiere by David Lang, my international, and George Lewis’s improvised piece Artificial Life 2007, both performed by International Contemporary Ensemble; Ligeti Etudes and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations (pianist Jeremy Denk); Smetana’s Ma Vlast, Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, and Kaija Saariaho’s Orion (The Cleveland Orchestra); and transcriptions of Vivaldi’s The Seasons (early-music ensemble Apollo’s Fire).
Street’s prize-winning reviews can be found here, here, here, and here. On Sunday, just after the Institute ended, Street shared his thoughts with SymphonyNOW about five exhausting and exhilarating days as a music-critic-in-training.
Jacob Street: It’s been quite a week for us student critics at the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. And it’s hard to overstate how unprepared we were for the hullabaloo back during September’s criticism class—I’m not sure many of us knew that such a big event was planned, never mind that major music critics were participating, or that any prize was involved. One of the participants, runner-up (and enviously, effortlessly evocative writer) Megan Emberton, even took the class completely by accident. And it may have been better that way for us, too: I, for one, certainly didn’t feel I knew how to write anything interesting or coherent about the actual, live performance of music.
After a long, intense semester under the outstanding tutelage of Dan Hathaway, Don Rosenberg, and Mike Telin, though, I think we all felt better prepared to trust in our own musical instincts and our ability to express opinions in writing. That’s not to say that being in the presence of major critics like Alex Ross didn’t completely freak us out, though. My first review for Dan, Don, and Mike was an endless list of very specific, very boring minutiae that no one would ever want to read, so it’s a testament to their mentorship that I’d evolved past such a narrow focus by the time of the Institute. But I was still very nervous about trying to impress all the major names in the room with us.
“I was very nervous about trying to impress all the major names in the room with us.”
What the class and the Institute kept reinforcing, though, is that there’s no point writing if it’s not going to be in your voice—not only will it be less natural for you, but it won’t be as interesting or engaging for the audience, either. Over the course of the Institute, the critics time and time again encouraged us to simply relax and be ourselves in our writing. By the final session, I found that we were all producing clear, concise, personal reviews, that truly reflected how the music felt to us, on that day, in that particular concert hall.
And that—apart from finding a good lede [opening sentence], keeping an interesting through-line, establishing authority, using good imagery and language, creating a written work that accurately reflected the experience of being at the concert, being neither too subjective or objective, trying hard, and not trying too hard—was the most important part. Okay, so it was all pretty overwhelming, really. But working together with the critics in groups let us learn from each other’s mistakes, and let us see just how personal and divisive the art of writing criticism can be, from the (entirely amiable) ways the critics debated about our particular arguments and constructions.
“There’s no point writing if it’s not going to be in your voice—not only will it be less natural for you, but it won’t be as interesting for the audience, either. The intensive nature of the Institute made us find and trust our critical voices.”
The metaphor that kept recurring for me was “pressure makes diamonds”—it was the intensive nature of the Institute that made us find and trust our critical voices, because, really, we didn’t have the time (or energy) to trust anything else. Each of the critics gave inspiring keynote addresses—Alex Ross, Anne Midgette, and Heidi Waleson delivered provocative speeches about criticism, its relevance today, and its relationship with performance—although Tim Page’s “Be Your Own Critic” spoke most personally to my own journey through the week, and John Rockwell’s “Nostalgia from a World in Which Print Was King and Critics Were Oracular Pontificators Whom Everyone Else Followed like Sheep” was right up my alley. Having so many models of the profession speak to us starry-eyed students was incredible, even as professional criticism increasingly looks to evolve in today’s internet age.
All of us are long overdue for a nap after this week; there wasn’t a single event that any of us would’ve wanted to skip, and particularly not the four concerts by major artists and groups, who graciously bore our efforts to pick apart their best and worst qualities. I’d be remiss in failing to thank those who enabled this past semester and week, such as Professor Brian Alegant and Dean David Stull, and particularly Steve Rubin, whose generosity made the entire week possible. But really, I just had a good time with the other fellows at the Institute, whose personal voices and styles I got to know extremely well over the course of the past five months. Everyone’s a critic, as they say—thanks to everyone for helping me become a better one!