Letter to the Editor Print

On CVNC's 5/21/11 Review of the Asheville Choral Society - & More

May 27, 2011 - Brevard, NC:

Dear Classical Voice of North Carolina Editor:

Please accept this letter in response both to Ted McIrvine's recent review ("Bernstein Fares Better than Bach in Choral Concert") and to several accounts that illustrates Mr. McIrvine's lack of musical knowledge of choral/vocal literature. During the past six years, I have seen your online journal grow into a reputable resource. However, I have also witnessed its integrity tarnished, not to mention the reputation of numerous singers, due to Mr. McIrvine's artistic and journalistic deficiencies. I ask that you please publish this letter so that Mr. McIrvine's works will be held to the same standards to which WNC's artists are held. Moreover, I ask that you reconsider Mr. McIrvine's concert assignments as his talents truly fall outside of the choral/vocal genre. I have attached this letter both as a word document and pasted it below.


Dr. Michael Porter


Dear Classical Voice of North Carolina Editor:
Over the past seven years I have come to enjoy the numerous performance opportunities that Asheville has to offer. Moreover, I was excited to see that these events had a "voice" with CVNC. While your website has garnered a wide audience for our artistic endeavors, it unfortunately has done Western North Carolina a disservice as much of our activities are reviewed by unqualified critics. Of course, this statement does not apply to all of the work done by CVNC — the work of Dr. Laurie McDowell is an example of well written and accurate reviews. However, as CVNC has a considerable following from virtually across the globe, it has a responsibility to performers, readers, and to its own artistic integrity to ensure that its reviewers face the same scrutiny as the works they critique. 

I have witnessed several of my vocal/choral colleagues give emotionally riveted and technically flawless performances throughout our region, only to be tainted by the poor, albeit well-intentioned, performance reviews by Mr. Ted McIrvine. My disappointment with Mr. McIrvine's work and, most importantly, the large audience he holds through CVNC, peaked in his most recent review of my performance with the Asheville Choral Society ("Bernstein Fares Better than Bach in Choral Concert"). Before I begin, I want to emphasize that my frustration with Mr. McIrvine is not solely based upon this somewhat negative assessment of my performance, but stems from a long list of badly written and factually incorrect reviews of many vocal/choral performances. As a volunteer reviewer for CVNC, Mr. McIrvine has every right to express his opinions through your online journal. However, I, too, have a responsibility to correct Mr. McIrvine's inaccuracies, and his borderline inflammatory remarks, in the hopes that the CVNC editorial staff will look more closely at his contributions for the sake of its journalistic reputation.  
First, I would like to draw the editor's attention to the inaccuracies of his most recent review of the Asheville Choral Society, and then highlight points from Mr. McIrvine's past reviews that illustrate his lack of musical knowledge. Theses deficiencies are disrespectful and, ultimately, damaging to the work of the performers he critiques. Although I do sincerely apologize for the length of this letter, the inadequacies exhibited in Mr. McIrvine's reviews have grown too much to be simply summarized.
1. Incorrect source citation: In all beginning writing courses, students are instructed that if a writer uses a word-for-word quote from another source he or she must cite both the original author and identify the appropriate text with quotation marks. Although Mr. McIrvine does credit me as the author of a specific quote, he fails to provide the required quotation marks which identify my original words ("Three works by J.S. Bach, Kirke Mechem and Leonard Bernstein were described in guest conductor Michael Porter's program notes as demonstrating the use of songs to assuage anxieties during times of trial.") The correct format for this quote should be: "Three works by J.S. Bach, Kirke Mechem and Leonard Bernstein were described in guest conductor Michael Porter's program notes as demonstrating the use of ‘songs to…assuage their anxieties during times of trial.'" A mistake like this would warrant a lowered grade in any high school writing class.
2. Did Mr. McIrvine read my program notes?: Mr. McIrvine writes, "The sole work on the first half was Bach's Cantata Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BSV 80. This is a cantata that uses a small orchestra and four soloists to present poetic commentary on the biblical texts in the chorales." First, the correct catalog system used for Bach's music is BWV, not BSV. Second, Mr. McIrvine statement about cantata 80's "biblical text" is false. As clearly outlined in my program notes, and what is found in any reference to this cantata in print or online, the chorale text of BWV 80 is from the pen of Martin Luther, thus it is not a “biblical source.”

3. Was Mr. McIrvine at the concert?: Mr. McIrvine writes, "Soprano Beth DuRoy had uncertain intonation and huge scoops in her aria." After reviewing multiple audio and video recordings of this concert, not once did I detect a hint of a scoop, let alone the “huge” glissandos implied by Mr. McIrvine. Moreover, Ms. DuRoy was one of the most appropriately voiced soloists of the evening. This observation illustrates either Mr. McIrvine's lack of vocal knowledge or that he did not attend the performance.
4. Can Mr. McIrvine identify musical texture or, again, was he at the performance?: In response to the chorus's balance, Mr. McIrvine writes, "In the chorale 'Und wenn die Welt voll,' the soprano line totally dominated, and Bach's harmony was not apparent." This is the most perplexing comment from his review. I am confused on why Mr. McIrvine was unable to discern that the chorus was singing in unison for the entire 119 measure movement; Bach's harmony was not apparent because the chorus was not in a harmonic texture. In addition, the orchestral accompaniment was also in unison. This is the most harmonically absent part of the cantata because Bach composed it that way. Furthermore, what Mr. McIrvine claims as a soprano-dominated texture is proved moot as, again, all voices were in unison.

5. Mr. McIrvine's stock observations of conductors: the "left hand": After reading this review, and referencing it with several of Mr. McIrvine's choral reviews, it seems that he can only grasp a conductor's control of an ensemble by making comments on "the left hand." These observations are very sophomoric and, as seen in a number of other reviews by Mr. McIrvine, overused (for more references to a conductor's "left hand," please read Mr. McIrvine's "Santa Brings Greenville Chorale Across the Border to North Carolina," "Shane Long with [the] Asheville Choral Society," and "Asheville Chamber Players Give Stirring Performance of Haydn Mass").
6. Mr. McIrvine's limited vocabulary: As someone who has submitted several articles to professional journals, I can attest that editors look unfavorably on identical phrases used in close proximity to each other. This writing faux pas is seen in the penultimate paragraph of the review. Mr. McIrvine writes, "The other soloists, drawn from the choir, were at ease. Kyle Ritter's organ passages complemented the chorus, which seemed at ease singing in Hebrew." Surely Mr. McIrvine has the ability to find another term other than "at ease." This mistake can only be attributed to the fact the Mr. McIrvine simply did not devote enough attention in writing a quality review.
7. Mr. McIrvine's vague writing style: In Mr. McIrvine's biography, he professes that "at age 15, he decided not to become a journalist." This confession is evident when comparing his reviews to those of CVNC's more accomplished and trained reviews; Mr. McIrvine lacks the poet style representative of CVNC's professional status. Transitions from ideas and paragraphs are not present, resulting in a jarring experience for the reader. It is clear, both with the brevity and the lack of care for prose exhibited in this article, that Mr. McIrvine did not value the significance of his role as a reviewer. 

In addition, Mr. McIrvine's assessments are extremely vague and lacking in definition. For example, Mr. McIrvine tersely states that the selections by Kirke Mechem were "lightweight." What about the selections was lightweight? Technically they were the most complex works on the concert. Dramatically, they were the least "lightweight," as they dealt with the life and death of a controversial abolitionist whose only solution to correcting our nation's sin of slavery was through blood — hardly a "lightweight" topic. Of the seventh movement of cantata 80, Mr. McIrvine wrote, "Mezzo-soprano Amanda Gardner-Porter and tenor David Gresham were particularly good in their duet 'Wie selig sind doch die.'" Why was it "particularly good?" Was it balanced? Did they correctly illustrate Bach's image of Death being slain by the righteous? Were the soloists sensitive to each other's contrapuntal melodies? A more accomplished reviewer would have elaborated on such a claim. Mr. McIrvine's article resembles more of an anonymous blog entry rather than the high standards of journalistic merit CVNC has achieved over the past ten years.

While the above observations are all based upon a single review, Mr. McIrvine's poor analysis of choral and vocal performances in Western North Carolina can be documented in several previous reviews.
1. In "Carolina Concert Choir Presents Beautiful Traditional Fare," Mr. McIrvine erroneously states, "Eventually, I hope, even 'original instrument' purists will realize that a harpsichord is designed for someone’s living room, not a concert hall. J.S. Bach himself reveled in the early fortepiano, using it instead of harpsichord in performances of keyboard concerti late in his life. Surely when ten wind instruments are playing fortissimo, a pianoforte might be the better choice for continuo?" Any student of choral performance practice would find this statement ludicrous. There is not one documented example of Bach using a pianoforte as a continuo instrument. He may have used one as a solo instrument for a keyboard concerti, but not as a continuo instrument. Mr. McIrvine should know that a continuo instrument's role is to be the harmonic and rhythmic “backbone” that holds a baroque ensemble together, not to be a competing force in a musical texture. If Mr. McIrvine wishes to continue assessing Bach’s continuo instrumentation, I would suggest he consult the authoritative text on this matter, Bach's Continuo Group by Laurane Dryfus. In fact, this text does not mention anywhere the use of pianoforte as a continuo instrument. There is a reason why educated musicians -- such as Rilling, Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Koopman, and Herreweghe -- have never resorted to a pianoforte as a continuo instrument.
2. Further in the same review, Mr. McIrvine laments, "My only regret is that this choir’s repertoire lacks adventure. Where are works from choral traditions other than Germany, Italy and England? How about eighteenth century Ukrainian masters Maxim Berezovsky and Dmitri Bortnyansky?" As someone who has a doctorate in choral music, and who also studied with Dr. Richard Bloesch (a Fulbright scholar and one of the brightest minds in choral literature), I can say without reservation that the works of Berezovsky and Bortnyansky are not considered either adventurous or remotely part of the choral canon. Only 18 of Berezovsky's works are extant and Bortnyansky's choral contributions earn the composer just four paragraphs in Dr. Dennis Shrock's extremely exhaustive 787-page tome, Choral Repertoire (furthermore, Berezovsky isn't even mentioned within Shrock's text).Mr. McIrvine comments illustrate that he is "out of his element" when discussing choral maters.
3. Mr. McIrvine's odd critique of vocal music does not rest solely in choral reviews. In his article "Diane McEwen-Martin and Keith Chambers Excel in ALO's Roméo et Juliette," Mr. McIrvine praises both a particular performer's stage presence and singing. While this singer did deserve Mr. McIrvine’s acclamation about a strong stage persona, even an audience member with peripheral familiarity of this opera would have realized that the performer in question was having several vocal problems — even to the point of singing several passages of this character's famous aria down an octave. Again, this begs the questions, "was Mr. McIrvine at the performance?" If he was, why didn’t he acknowledge this issue, or is he woefully unfamiliar with vocal matters?
4. In the same review, Mr. McIrvine, in response to the opera's supertitles, complains, "...when Shakespeare has provided great English pentameter, why not use the Bard’s words?" The reason why Shakespeare's words are not used in the supertitles is because Shakespeare's words are not being sung in the opera; they are the words of the librettists and translators Jules Barbier and Michel Carré who transcribed "the Bard's words" into the singable French language used by Gounod. Singers are taught in their first year of studies that they are responsible for the word-for-word translation rather than the poetic interpretation. By using Shakespeare's original language, ALO would betray the musical and textual structure of Gounod's masterpiece.
While this letter is both long and pointed, it only skims the surface of the numerous concerns I and my vocal/choral colleagues have with Mr. McIrvine's reviews. In his defense, his orchestral and chamber music reviews do not show this level of deficiencies. In fact, they are quite well written and insightful. Mr. McIrvine's comfort clearly lies within this medium. It is my hope that Mr. McIrvine will continue to write for the instrumental genre and leave the vocal/choral arena to a more competent writer. 

CVNC rightfully enjoys a large audience, but with this responsibility come accountability. Poorly written reviews not only misrepresent our musical heritage, they tarnish the reputation of both talented performers and your successful journal.

Dr. Michael Porter


Editor's Note: In the second paragraph of the main body of his letter, Dr. Porter refers to Dr. McIrvine as "a volunteer reviewer...." Aside from participants in our internship program, all reviews published in CVNC are by professional critics, duly engaged and compensated for specific pieces. In the review itself, the mangling of the citation of BWV 80 (shown as "BSV"), and our failure fully to convert it to S. 80, as is our custom ("S" being the initial of the last name of Bach cataloger Wolfgang Schmieder), are errors on the part of our editorial staff.