At the start of his writing career, Arlen searched to find his voice as a critic, trying out various approaches. He took a society pages angle in a 1953 piece headlined “Boston Orchestra’s Flawlessness Thrills Distinguished Audience."1 He even used sports writer’s jargon in another, comparing the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra to a “thoroughbred rearing to be taken through its paces,” and conductor Georg Solti to an “enthusiastic jockey confident of the outcome of the run ahead."2 Soon, however, he settled into a characteristic style that is marked by emotional sensitivity and uncompromising standards. Thoughtful and a bit professorial, Arlen often provided historical context as well as frequently clever critiques.
The contrast between Vienna's highly refined culture and the provincial music scene in Los Angeles was stark. Moreover, since Arlen was not the paper’s primary music writer, he had plenty of exposure to less than stellar performances. Nevertheless, Arlen took his role as critic seriously, listening very attentively for the strengths and weaknesses of each composition and performer. In early reviews, Arlen can seem hypercritical, even condescending in his evaluation of a performance, such as the case of a Russian pianist whose stocky build makes him appear to have "the strength of a wrestler which enables him to dispose of notes by the fistful, but not always with complete accuracy."3
Arlen's wry wit helps keep his reviews entertaining. His not unreasonable expectations are on display to humorous result in a review headlined “Concert has Flaws.” He observes that the fairly large audience at the politically progressive Ashgrove Cabaret indicates the attraction of listening to good music while enjoying the café's menu: "But factors other than musical and culinary are at least equally important, among them acoustics, an adequate piano, a printed program, and prompt starting time. None of these was noticeably present, and any sketchiness in this account is entirely due to circumstances beyond our control.”4 When occasionally, Arlen has nothing but praise for a performance, the piece is much less memorable.
Nor did Arlen hide his dismay at the shocking lack of decorum shown by an audience attending an informal concert in Plummer Park in December 1960. As an aside, Arlen noted that acclaimed singer Marni Nixon found a place on the program. “Since she can sing most anything and always sings well, her counterpointing in parts within the range of her flexible soprano had properly quaint and highly pleasant results. This in spite of the fact that the audience smoked in the room (it was not Fiesta Hall) and was rude enough even to blow smoke right into her face.”5
Even musical stars could be subjected to Arlen's prickly side. He panned a performance of Baritone Robert Merrill, noting that it was hard to determine “whether Mr. Merrill dispensed with some of the vocal niceties and subtleties of which he is surely capable because he thought the vastness of the Bowl required constantly loud singing, or whether he just had an off night." While generally a fan of Igor Stravinsky, Arlen called each performance as he saw it, and he did not see much of interest in a concert of Stravinsky’s “The Flood.” The critical review provoked a letter defending the work from Lawrence Morton, then curator of music at Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as the director of the Monday Evening Concerts. But another letter writer shot back, “No matter how [Morton] explains it, the work is weak, as Walter Arlen pointed out in his review.”6 However, Arlen is generous when praise is well deserved. Arlen gives a rave review to a young California pianist named John Browning performing at the Hollywood Bowl, noting that the musician’s “technical equipment is, of course, faultless, as could be discerned from his beautiful and effortless control of even the smallest detail. Nothing was left to chance, yet everything--from the most dramatic to the most lyrical passages--had spontaneity, sweep and conviction.” One evening, attending an “electrifying” performance of the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, conducted by Eduard Van Beinum, Arlen was so riveted by Hector Berlioz's expansive 'Symphonie Fantastique' that occupied the second half of the program, that he wistfully confesses having "to leave before it was over in order to meet a deadline was the sort of punishment which fortunately only reviewers have to take.”7
Reviews of the (Uncompromising) Reviewer
Music editor Albert Goldberg wrote that if a critic could be everything his readers would like him to be, "he would be a paragon of human virtues dwelling on heights unattainable by the rest of fallible mankind. But since few of us ever soar to this lofty level, the constituents never hesitate to remind us of the fact. Don't think we object: How else would we know we had readers?"8 So too did Arlen recieve the occasional rebuke of his work. In a review of Mozart's opera "Cosi Fan Tutte," for example, Arlen was clearly trying to be diplomatic by focusing on the charming cast and the clear enjoyment of the audience, noting “it may not have been one of the most spirited and sparkling interpretations from the pit, but it had spunk and drive.” One reader, however, took issue with this gentle approach toward the conductor:
Other readers responded with encouragement for Arlen's perspective, as with his review of a performance of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" starring Dorothy Kirsten which Arlen concluded, "would have made even better sense in English. Every word would have been guaranteed to come across and every man, woman, and child would have had a yet fuller share of pleasure." In a reply that Arlen's editor Albert Goldberg described as "the kind of letter we really like to get," one reader wrote:
"Opera tickets being as expensive as they are, it seems to me that the least one can expect is an adequately rehearsed performance. The function of the critic, among other less specific ones, should be to point out the obvious technical transgressions of a performance, not only for the education of the public but for the information of the performers as well."9
Clearly, some readers agreed with Arlen's "continual harping," sharing his attitudes about the future of classical music in Los Angeles and across the world.
"I came upon another example of your continual harping on opera in English... The point I wish to make is that I hope you keep it up. As a music major planning on going into college teaching, one who became acquainted with classical music by way of opera, I find no valid reason for singing it in a foreign language."10
Reviewer as Educator
Arlen’s at times grouchy tone may have derived in part from frustration with being a second-string reviewer. But he also seems motivated by an educational purpose, offering comments he thought would be instructive to his readers. As frequently as he scolds veteran performers, he uses reviews to recognize and encourage young talent. And he enjoys when an assignment offers a new musical experience.
His instructive intent comes through most obviously when reporting on student recitals and performances, a regular part of his beat. For example, a piece headlined “Youthful Pianist Formidable,” praises the 15-year old's technique and interpretive shadings, and Arlen notes that the student's program was "carefully designed and wisely scaled to show his every ability without overtaxing him. The single instance of bravura and virtuosity was Kabelevsky's Sonata No. 2, Opus 45.11
On the other hand, Arlen observes in more than one critical review that a program was too difficult for the performer to do it justice. Indeed, some performers (and their mothers) must have cringed to have Arlen in the audience. All he can grant a hapless UCLA student is that "if one of the purposes of a public performance is to demonstrate that one can play all the notes a composer wrote into his compositions, then the piano recital…was passing fair." In fact, even that grade might be too generous, since according to Arlen, the pianist produced quite unrecognizable music including a sonata by Beethoven in which "the powerful fugue crumbled as though it was about the collapse in a landslide."12
Arlen has other teaching moments, as well. For example, the buildup to the opening of New York City Ballet’s presentation of the “Nutcracker,” offers an opportunity for a lesson on “one of the most famous, successful, and beloved ballet’s in history.” In another piece, Arlen provides some history on composer Franz Danzi (1763-1826) a contemporary of Beethoven whose works he claims “no longer appears in the repertoire.” Possibly that assessment was premature: a few weeks later Arlen expresses surprise at the “sudden reappearance of Franz Danzi, an obscure German contemporary of Beethoven” at a different wind ensemble concert, also at UCLA.13
Arlen welcomed assignments that expanded his own knowledge of music and he exhibits a willingness to reconsider his apparent bias in a 1961 review, noting of a performance by Ravi Shankar at UCLA that, “virtuosity is not the exclusive province of western instrumentalists.” At other times, cultural differences clearly made Arlen uncomfortable. Describing a Caribbean Revue, Arlen writes, "The program was as torrid as the climate of those parts is said to be, and to keep cool the dancers wore as little as decency permitted. Modesty was certainly not involved.” 14
Arlen's reviews also sometime reveal his bias regarding matters of gender and musical taste. Arlen finds it easy to praise female singers like Nixon and Dorothy Kirsten, but not female pianists. After applauding one singer's courage in offering a difficult program and finding her performance of Shubert sonatas impressive, Arlen takes the artist to task for interpretations and shortcomings in her technique, “although it was by no means incompetent.” Similarly, despite his lavish praise of a female pianist’s rendition of Chopin as “outright stunning” in a 1958 review, Arlen starts the review with sharp criticism. His response to composer and conductor Ethel Leginska was even more patronizing, implying that there is a reason that “women composers and conductors are practically nonexistent,” by noting that some of her pieces show “a certain charm at least, if not a great deal of professionalism.” 15 It is hard to imagine him giving a similarly gifted male performer such treatment, suggesting that Arlen may have been at his most uncompromising when reviewing women's work.
1 Arlen, "Boston Orchestra's Flawlessness Thrills Distinguished Audience," Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1953.
2 Arlen, "Solti and Orchestra Give Masterful Performance," Los Angeles Times July 8, 1955.
3 Arlen, “Stravinsky Highlight of Russian’s Program,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 30, 1958.
4 Arlen, "Concert had Flaws," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 25, 1958.
5 Arlen, "Curious Works Revived by Early Music Group," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 3, 1960.
6 Arlen, "Novelties Keynote Bowl Concert of Kostelanetz," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 1, 1955; "Arlen Was Right," June 1, 1975.
7 Arlen, "Browning Faultless in Piano Artistry," Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1958; "Van Beinum's Last Bowl Concert Outstanding," July 29th, 1955.
8 Goldberg, Albert,"Alas the poor Critic! Readers Alert!" Los Angeles Times, Oct. 16, 1960.
9 Arlen, "Audience Delighted by 'Cosi Fan Tutte," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 11, 1960; reply from Odegard, Peter, "Critical Notes," Nov. 19th, 1960. Odegard was then a professor of music at UC Santa Barbara and later at UC Irvine.
10Arlen, “Miss Kirsten Superb in ‘Butterfly’ at Bowl,” Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1960; reply in Goldberg, Albert, “Alas the Poor Critic! Readers Alert” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1960.
11 Arlen, "Youthful Pianist Formidable," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 13, 1961.
12 Arlen, “Natasha Litvin Gives UCLA Piano Recital,” Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1959.
13 Arlen, "Nutcracker will bow Wednesday," Los Angeles Times, July 17, 1955; "Wind Quintet Plays Rarely Heard Works," March 10, 1958; "Wind Quintet, Pianist in UCLA Performance," April 1, 1958.
14 Arlen, "Ravi Shankar Gives Dazzling Performance," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21, 1961; "Lively Songs, Dances in Caribbean Revue," Aug. 11, 1958.
15Arlen, "Miss Kirsten Superb in 'Butterfly' at Bowl," Los Angeles Times Aug. 13, 1960; "Selma Kramer Plays Difficult Program," Nov. 6, 1962; "Leah Effenbah Gives Brilliant Piano Recital," Dec. 7, 1958; "Woman Conductor Presents Own Music," May 14, 1960.