My first high-profile bad review appeared in the New York Times in 1973. Donal Henahan had this to say about my chamber symphony, Passion, Poison and Petrifaction:
"Mr. Hartke's chamber symphony ... reminded one of similar efforts to use the past by George Rochberg, though not so imaginative or so skillfully carried through. Horn calls evoke Mahler and Bruckner, strings whine soulfully, and in the midst of a cheap semi-classical cadenza, the solo piano blandly quotes the 'Tristan' prelude. Predictably, the 'Tristan' reference is cut short by atonal caterwauling in the style of -- well, insert the name of your favorite post-Tristan expressionist. Less predictably, Hartke stirs some bad 1950-ish jazz into his aspic, along with many heavy allusions to 19th century cliches. In spite of a few bright moments, the aspic didn't quite jell, perhaps because the composer could not decide whether to satirize his material or cuddle up to it." [Unfortunately, I must admit in retrospect, he was right about just about everything -- but, Jeez! I was only 20 years old.] The following screeds are mostly much more recent.
There's something about international composition competitions that seems to get music critics' goats. When I was a finalist in the 1998 Masterprize competition, I had the privilege of watching the fourth estate go into high gear, blasting all six of us mercilessly for having the temerity of being alive.
A few samples:
"Hartke's The Ascent of the Equestrian in a Balloon is macho swaggering interrupted by a glutinous pool of sentiment." (The Manchester Guardian)
"So why am I so downcast? Because the sad truth is that none of the 'accessible' music that the six finalists have come up with is any good. ... The American Stephen Hartke's The Ascent of the Equestrian in a Balloon is marred by crude and raucous brassiness." (The Daily Telegraph)
The emminent crank Robin Holloway, writing in the Spectator, hated my piece so much, apparently, that he wouldn't even mention me or it by name, calling it "an aggro- sleazy effort equally (un)inspired by ballooning and putting a two-year-old to bed."
In keeping with the glorious English custom of betting on just about anything, the magazine Time Out actually offered odds on the outcome of Masterprize (I was given 6 to 1). Their 'Insider' said: "But then, parts of the American Stephen Hartke's The Ascent of the Equestrian in a Balloon sound rather like Bernstein. Hartke's entry is brashly rhythmic, but melodically rather crude. This may have an appeal for large numbers of listeners but is unlikely to clinch the experts' vote."
In a CD review the French critic Christophe Robert had this to say in some French journal: "The piece that lends its title [Caoine] to this recital [by Michelle Makarski] seems to me the weakest of all. Happily it only lasts seven minutes."
The San Francisco Chronicle reviewed the San Francisco Chamber Symphony under Donald Runnicles doing a piece of mine together with Strauss' Metamorphosen and Janacek's Idyll: "Hartke's three-movement Alvorada ... proved still less enjoyable. The composer attempts a vein of melodic lyricism, but his melodies are so ungainly -- particularly the unaccompanied main theme of the first movement, with its gaping leaps and garish intervals -- that the effect is blunted." (What the hell is a 'garish' interval, by the way?)
Sometimes even a generally favorable review can leave you wondering about the reviewer's sanity. The Washington Post had this to say about The King of the Sun:
"A puzzling beginning by the strings, sounding like dry flesh dragged on rubber sheeting ..."
For a piece that has been played quite often,and been generally very well received by orchestras and the public, my Pacific Rim has had more than its share of poor or luke-warm notices. The St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch review bore the headline: COMPOSER'S 'SHOWPIECE' PROVES NO CLASSIC, and then went on to assert: "Most composers 20 years ago would sooner have smashed their metronomes than write anything that could be described as a 'showpiece.' Yet that is just what Stephen Hartke did in Pacific Rim. ... According to the composer's program note, the piece ... reflects the influence of Asian and Latin American musics. Here was its glaring weakness: the adoption, but not absorption of sounds, rhythms, bits of melody from here and there. The result was like some of the new California dishes one encounters in trendy restaurants -- Petaluma chicken with jicama and kiwi."
But I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for the late Daniel Cariaga's LA Times review of the world premiere, with his almost predictable use of the word 'neo-Bartokian,' apparently a term that meant something to him if to no-one else, and which he applied liberally to all varieties of pieces that were new to him. He writes
: "[Hartke's Pacific Rim] proved to be bucolic, but self-consciously so. An air of disingenuousness seems to hang over the pleasant-sounding, neo-Bartokian piece, 11- 1/2 minutes in length, and a busy workout for the players. Cowbells might give the work a sense of place, geographically, if cowbells were not a world-wide artifact; at least these cowbells seemed to keep the action out of doors." (Out of doors, yes, Dan, but in the city! My program note talks about the piece as a processional and certainly says nothing about the countryside, but Cariaga had a habit at that time  of not reading composers' program notes. For my part, I don't know how I can be accused of being self-conscious about being bucolic if that was, in fact, the farthest thing from my mind.)
When my Symphony No. 2 was premiered in Los Angeles in 1990 and then done later that year at Carnegie Hall, I got three of the worst reviews of my life in my home base, L.A., but three resoundingly positive reviews in New York. So go figure:
"Hartke ... toys with the easy cliches of broad dramatic contrasts. He veers busily from muted contrapuntal episodes to violent percussive outbursts to hymn-like quasi- resolutions. ... [a] pleasant if somewhat academic exercise ..." -- Los Angeles Times "The tonal and harmonic language Hartke uses is fairly conventional, the orchestration plain and unimaginative. He treads no new ground. He taps push-button emotions. The composer makes it all too obvious when he is writing angry, when he is being sarcastic, when he is waxing stoic. Paradoxically, Hartke's symphony is most successful in its passages for solo instruments (something is clearly wrong with a symphony when that's the case.) -- Pasadena Star-News
"Hartke ... has turned out something of a mess on this occasion. Ingeniously scored in the percussion department, with added piquancy from its use of a harpsichord, the work nevertheless tends to sprawl across the map, nibbling at a few familiar sources. ... There is no sin in eclecticism, so long as one of the voices belongs to the composer himself. In this fuzzy, disconnected, and, surprisingly brutally orchestrated farrago, the voice of Hartke is nowhere discernible." -- Los Angeles Daily News
This last tirade is the work of Alan Rich , a critic whom I have respected for over thirty years, but who seems to have a love-hate relationship with my work: simply put, he loves to hate my music*. My sextet in homage to Mozart really bugged the hell out of Rich: "It wasn't a bad idea, the Hartke, just a bad piece. ...[It] goes by the imponderable title "I kiss your hands a thousand times" ... [but] simply wasted everybody's time: a kind of lavender later-romantic nocturne (Faure, perhaps). It included a few lines for Melvyn Tan's forte-piano, but they might as well have been played on a kazoo for all the personality they embodied." -- Los Angeles Daily News
But even good reviews can prove head-scratchers. I've noticed that as I've become better known, critics are less likely to go directly for the jugular than when I was starting out. Even Alan Rich will offer the occasional back-handed compliment, as in a recent review of Gradus, which he characterized as "intricate, responsible music." Now, how is one suppose to take that?
It is also amusing when a host of critics hearing the same piece come up with wildly divergent assessments of its stylistic character. My Sonata for piano elicited these almost contradictory, if generally very favorable, remarks:
"... Minimalist-inspired techniques ..." -- City Newspaper (Rochester, NY)
"... crossover as it should be ..." -- 21st Century Music
"... expressionist work of compositional grit ..." -- Los Angeles Times [Mark Swed]
"... urbane ..." -- Los Angeles Times [John Hencken]
"... the shadow of Gershwin smiling from the wings ..." -- L.A. Weekly [thank you, Alan]
Actually, I don't mind most of these characterizations, except for the inexplicable use of the word 'expressionist' by Mark Swed. But then, I can't figure Swed most of the time and it's probably best not to get me started on that right now.
* -- As a postscript to all the foregoing, written as it was in 2003, I should note that Alan Rich has recently been more than a little laudatory about several of my newer pieces, among them Tituli and The Greater Good. I don't think that his personal opinion of me is that much different, but I have to give him credit for somehow separating that opinion from his appraisals of my work. I'm sure that if he doesn't like the next thing of mine he encounters, he'll have no trouble saying so - and that's actually fine with me.
Now let's get out of here ...