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The Excitement of Listening: Creative Conversations with Music Journalists

Published on
April 25


Heidi Waleson, Justin Davidson, and Elaine Sisman



The stereotypical image of a critic is that of a snobbish, pompous person who has the power to determine which works of art are immortal and which cannot even accurately be called “art.” However, it is important to remember that critics are human like the rest of us, with a passion for meaningful art as well as a passion on creating writing that is itself a kind of art. On Friday, April 25, the Arts Initiative hosted a very special Creative Conversation with two of the city’s most prominent music journalists: Justin Davidson, classical music and architecture critic at New York Magazine; and Heidi Waleson, opera critic for the Wall Street Journal. Music Humanities Professor Elaine Sisman moderated the panel.


Professor Sisman started the discussion off by asking both participants about their role in creating a “musical public,” in getting people to step outside their comfort zone and discover new great musical works. Both Waleson and Davidson seemed surprised by this question, and revealed that they do not see what they do as having much of an impact on creating audiences at all. Of course, they hope that their writing will help spark a curiosity in readers and encourage them to explore future concerts. But what is most important is that their writing helps to explain the excitement that comes from truly listening to a musical work. The focus of their writing is not about getting more people to attend concerts, but rather about getting people to “attend” to what they are hearing when they enjoy a musical experience. Ultimately, with the ubiquitousness of social media, the power of a critic to build audiences is very small. The journalists asked those in attendance how we discover new musicians, and virtually everyone who responded mentioned that social media was the most common way they found out about new artists. Rather than focusing on upholding the great works of the Classical canon, both Davidson and Waleson stressed how important it was to attend the new, the unestablished, the experimental. Even the most austere institutions like the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic need to be aware of smaller downtown venues – places like (le) poisson rouge and the Issue Room are where many exciting musical innovations are happening.


Both Davidson and Waleson expressed the importance of listening to music that challenges them. Though they are both well-versed in the Classical music tradition and are quite knowledgeable about its substantial oeuvre, they value music that defies the tradition in some way – music that is original and new. At the same time, when they view a new staging of a classic work, they look for signs that the new production still manages to honor the intent of the composer. Davidson and Waleson recounted stories of operas they had seen where the director’s vision clouded the original meaning of the work. To paraphrase Davidson, a good director must love the opera, not find ways to work around it. Davidson also explained the two aspects that go into his reviews – there is his initial visceral reaction to the performance, which he hopes comes from an informed position but which may not be valid for everyone; and there is his actual writing, which comes from a period of distance, reflection, and critical thought. Davidson said that he doesn’t care if people say that he is wrong – after all, he is a human like the rest of us, and entitled to his opinion. However, he does care if people do not understand what he wrote. What matters for critics is not making supreme declarations of what art is worthwhile – rather, criticism is about giving informed, clear, and enjoyable perspective on what it means to really listen, even if what you are listening to is unlike anything you have ever heard before.