The first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto ended, and Carnegie Hall erupted in applause. Joshua Bell, whose dazzling solos and severe good looks had fired the crowd, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped it theatrically across his brow. The audience remained enthralled, but Alex Ross ’90, sitting in the critic’s traditional perch halfway up the left aisle, jotted down his thoughts in a small black notebook.
Ross was less interested in Bell than in how conductor Kent Nagano was molding his new group, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Already, Ross heard hints of Nagano’s signature sound: a cool, elegant balance. But the concerto itself, he noted during the intermission, wasn’t quite together. “Bell performed very brilliantly. But I didn’t feel he and Nagano and the orchestra were totally in sync,” Ross said. “Bell seemed to be in his own world a bit, and the orchestra was a little eeeehhh…” He made a nervous motion with his hands, as if someone were trying to hand him a small, rambunctious animal.
Ross wasn’t planning to review the concert for the New Yorker, where he is a staff critic. He simply wanted to keep up with a favorite conductor and hear the American premiere of a piece by Unsuk Chin, a Korean composer whose opera he had reviewed favorably the previous summer. “Absolutely essential to my mission as a critic is talking about living composers,” he said. “It wouldn’t be interesting to me to spend all my time evaluating the right way to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I enjoy writing that kind of column, but the greatest excitement is when works come into being.”
Ross’s approach is both thorough and adventurous. He once spent three months listening to Mozart’s complete works (180 CDs) for a single essay, but he’s just as likely to seek out music that breaches the pop/classical divide. In recognition of his eclectic and exacting criticism, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers has honored him twice, and his book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism and was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction.
He first aired some of the ideas that appear in his book while an undergraduate English concentrator who spent “an ungodly amount of time” at WHRB, the student radio station. During his junior and senior years, Ross hosted a program called Music after 1900 and he now describes the mini-essays he wrote to introduce each segment as precursors to his book.
After graduation, Ross moved briefly to northern California, where he co-wrote a screenplay for a romantic comedy. (“That didn’t quite go anywhere,” he says.) In 1992, he began reviewing music for the New Republic but, uncertain about pursuing a career in journalism, he also applied to Ph.D. programs in English. He was accepted at Duke, but turned that down when he received an offer to freelance for the New York Times.
In New York, Ross attended five or six concerts a week, taking notes in programs that quickly crowded his apartment. Almost every morning he had to wake up and write a brief review for his noon deadline. “I had a hard time with it, actually,” he says; the writing “felt kind of like an official communiqué.” He preferred having space to write about both music and the culture surrounding it. Discouraged, he applied for graduate school again in 1993.
This time he got into Harvard and nearly returned to Cambridge, but an experience writing a book review for the New Yorker gave him pause. Although the editors’ eagerness to rip up and reassemble his review had been intimidating, Ross liked joining his scholarly bent (the book was about the history of opera’s gay fan base) with his desire to connect the music he loved to a broad, adventurous readership. “There’s this great notion at the New Yorker that any topic, no matter how obscure, can be made interesting or made comprehensible,” he says. “Classical music fit in very well with that.” After writing a few more freelance pieces for the magazine, he joined its staff in 1996.
Ross does his New Yorker writing in a Chelsea apartment or his office in Times Square. But writing a book, he found, required a different approach. To escape distractions, he ensconced himself in a coffee shop on Eighth Avenue whenever he could steal time away from his normal duties. In magazine pieces he tries first to grab the reader’s attention, then provide context, and finally zero in on details. “That basic rhythm doesn’t work for a book chapter at all,” he reports. “You don’t need to seize the reader’s attention at the beginning of chapter seven.”
The first draft, completed in 2005 after four years of work, was a whopping 390,000 words long. Ross e-mailed his final draft—half the original size—to his publisher from a Los Angeles hotel room overlooking the recently constructed Walt Disney Concert Hall, where conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen had reinvigorated the city’s orchestra by injecting contemporary music into the program. “It was kind of nice looking down at Disney Hall, because it symbolized what the L.A. Philharmonic has achieved,” he says. “It’s what I try to achieve as a writer.”
Ross’s most common vehicle for highlighting new music is his critical column, which he writes at least once every few weeks. It may be as straightforward as a review of a new production at the Metropolitan Opera or as unexpected as a round-up of talented student composers. “I do feel that a big part of my mission is not merely to write these reviews, but to write intelligently and appealingly about classical music itself for an audience that may not know a lot about the topic,” he says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to make an argument for music.”
His most pointed argument appeared in a 2004 essay, “Listen to This.” He aims his opening salvo at the very term “classical music”—arguing that “It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past…The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype”—and then makes a case for music appreciation based on emotional investment. “Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values,” he writes. “The best music is music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world.” Whether that’s a concerto, a pop song, or an electronic noise experiment is up to you. He concludes by imagining himself a 36-year-old who goes to the symphony for the first time and encounters a rigid ritual that seems designed to keep him from having fun. He coughs; people “glare.” He applauds at the end of a movement; people “glare again.”
Ross worries that the concert-going ritual sometimes runs counter to the spirit of the music. Mozart’s operas draw on sounds both high and low. Beethoven’s music is full of earthy dance rhythms. Gustav Mahler, Ross says, embraced just about everything. “It’s ironic if we start taking those pieces and confining them in a space that’s so regulated,” he argues. “It almost betrays the spirit of those pieces.” But despite these small irritations, Ross still believes that classical music—especially as heard in concert halls, with the resonances and overtones that are lost in recordings—offers something unique. “It’s like escaping into some wide-open empty landscape,” he says. “There’s almost a spiritual dimension to the experience. At its best, it can be like religion without dogma—the feeling of a bigger presence looming above you, requiring nothing but a certain stillness.”