I was actually frowning and grumbling as I launched into Zoom with actor John Malkovich and classical music humorist Aleksey Igudesman to talk about “The Music Critic,” a musical-theatrical send-up of frowning, grumbling inklings everywhere.
Amidst the smoke of a world already on fire, I and other music writers were shaken by the news that Bandcamp, whose Daily was among the shrinking, well-paying havens for quality, authoritative music journalism, had laid off half its staff. It joins countless other publications that have laid off staff or closed this year. In our city where critics once lined the corridors at openings, there is now a full-time music critic. Given the current state of the profession, even well-deserved jabs at music critics can’t help but appear angled downward, if not a whiff of fresh air.
So I entered our conversation feeling very similar to Malkovich’s withering character, an amalgam of every sarcasm and sarcasm thrown at the likes of Beethoven, Brahms, and Dvořák. Many of these were cheerfully compiled in Nicolas Slonimsky’s 1953 book. “Dictionary of Musical Insults.” (Igudesman admits that he relied on loudness when creating “Music Critic.”) To the critical class, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto “sounds stinky,” Bizet’s “Carmen” makes “the melody… outdated,” and Debussy is downright ugly — man And music.
One need look no further than the Tribune’s own ranks for other examples. Former Chicago Symphony music director Georg Solti famously told and retold a disgusting one-liner from the late Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy: “During the Act 2 ensemble, he smiled when he should have slit his throat instead.” (His misquote has since invalidated what Cassidy actually wrote: “On the opera stage Mr. Solti is generally a good man, but by no means a great man… He smiled so happily in the company that I would have been less surprised to see him cut.) throat.”)
The touring show, starring Malkovich and Igudesman, comes to the Chicago Theater supported by a live musical ensemble that includes Igudesman’s comedy partner, pianist Hyung-ki Joo.
When I walked out the door claiming that the show was “inflating the reviews,” Malkovich and Igudesman were quick to correct me. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Igudesman: You call it shish, but it is very loving. This is a very fundamental part of what we do; this is how we grow. I hope we also receive constant criticism from our peers; what works, what doesn’t. The critic is an outside voice that can sometimes be harsh. But that’s the critic’s job. It is not worth writing about how beautiful and wonderful everything is unless it is so.
Q: John, you’ve done a lot of musical theater projects in the classical field lately. How did you get involved with Aleksey’s concept?
Malkovich: I have a friend who works as a customer in Vienna, and in 2007 he asked me to meet a conductor friend of his (Martin Haselböck); oddly enough, he arrived at the Austrian consulate in Brentwood, California. He asked me if I would consider doing a piece with his Vienna Baroque orchestra (Orchester Wiener Akademie). He also had an orchestra called Musica Angelica in Long Beach. We finally settled on a piece about the Austrian journalist, writer, poet, serial killer, and poster boy for rehabilitation for Jack Unterweger. “Infernal Comedy.” So, together with our colleague Michael Sturminger, we designed a mock reading of the book that Unterweger never wrote, with a full baroque orchestra and two sopranos representing the women in Unterweger’s life. Based on that, I made three tracks with them and two tracks with Aleksey’s and my very close friend (violinist) Julian Rachlin when he organized the festival in Dubrovnik. And so I did (Copland’s) “Portrait of Lincoln” with Muti and the Chicago Symphony (in 2018).
There are a few more projects I can do these days. I love the challenge of working with this music that is so beautiful, so powerful and so difficult to coexist with.
Q: So did Julian Rachlin introduce you two?
Igudesman: Correct. Julian and John met on the set (of the 2002 TV series “Napoleon”), where Julian had a small role as Paganini. Julian asked John if he would consider coming to his festival. When you said yes, Julian called me and said, “Oh my God, John Malkovich might come, but I need your help with the idea.” We met John 15 years ago in Paris and we got along very well. Then I came up with the idea of doing “Music Critic,” which John loved.
Besides all these evaluations of the great masters, I felt that it was important to also criticize the people on the stage; This isn’t just outsourcing criticism. Of course, I found some disgusting things about myself. Later, after John shot it in Istanbul, I found a truly appalling review of “The Comedy from Hell” and wrote a little sinfonietta about it. (Note: Without going into too much detail, the critic makes a strong call for the Turkish government to remove Malkovich from the country, among other shortcomings.)
Question: In “Music Critic” we also hear composers criticize their colleagues. Is there any difference if the criticism comes from someone who is also musically successful, say, a Tchaikovsky who wrote about Brahms? (Note: Brahms, in Tchaikovsky’s estimation, was a “talentless bastard.”) Does this make one a better or more “correct” critic?
Igudesman: I don’t think so. If you can write well and have a certain passion for music, it makes you a better critic. You can be the most brilliant composer or performer, but if you don’t know how to express things you can be a terrible critic.
Malkovich: And I think you can be really good at something without having the slightest communication skills. What does something good.
Igudesman: To be honest, it could even be a barrier. If you are successful, people love you for it; If someone comes along and does things differently, it’s not always easy to accept. Although Tchaikovsky and Brahms are close in time, they go about things very differently in terms of composition. As an outsider, we can understand this. And This way. We can see the pros and cons of both.
Q: John, I’m sure you remember Claudia Cassidy; I always think of him when I think about this series. It was career-making and career-breaking in theater and classical music, which seems strange to me now. I don’t know if it’s possible for a critic to be Claudia Cassidy anymore, let alone whether we’d like to be one. Do you think critics are still strong?
Malkovich: I don’t think so. I have very mixed feelings about this, but not about the democratization of ideas. From where? Because people already had ideas.
Once upon a time, (Steppenwolf’s) rival theater, St. I remember doing a play called “A Pain Beyond Dreams,” a Peter Handke adaptation that closed the Nicholas Theater permanently; It was directed by my friend Bob Falls, another rival of the theatre. (Note: The Tribune wrote that Malkovich’s performance in this production, “with its extraordinary vocalism, can be compared to a complex, demanding, intense chamber music work.” St. Nicholas closed for financial reasons. in 1982.) A businessman, probably dragged there by his wife, stood up in the middle of the game and left… (imitations of yawning and moaning) “Oh, look, a trap has been set up there.” Because for some reason there was a drum kit right off stage. People have real reactions, not just critics, and you have to deal with those.
You see, I remember generations of Chicago critics: Richard Christiansen (Tribune reviewer reviewing “A Pain Beyond Imagination”) Glenna Syse (Sun-Times), Linda Winer (Tribune), Michael VerMeulen, Bury St. Lenny Kleinfeld, writing under the name Edmund (both Chicago Readers)… truly excellent writers. When I was a part of Steppenwolf, we definitely wouldn’t have survived without criticism. We just survived with critics.
So, I am not someone who is hostile to criticism. The review we were talking about in Istanbul turned into a huge scandal because it was a tradition for celebrities to sue critics for everything they said. But we featured this guy’s review and people said: “Look at this, it’s amazing. They don’t sue you, they do This.”
It wasn’t really about revenge. I thought it was an extremely funny review. I later learned that the author was someone who had accompanied me several times to see a play I did on Broadway many years ago, but who did not particularly like this particular piece.
Igudesman: Yes, he was actually a fan of yours. The passionate review was due to his frustration. By the way, when we last gave a concert in Turkey in 2020, we finally brought him on stage. He was so happy, like a kid in a candy store.
Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic, for better or worse.
“Music Critic” Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m. Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.; tickets $40-$125 www.msg.com