Your classical music critic Ted Shen gets away with some strange writing, often, one guesses, because there’s no one on staff who really cares enough about the classics to check some of the writing he so authoritatively tosses off. But the recent commentary, printed in the Reader Critic’s Choice prior to the August 14 Ravinia concert [August 12], demands an explanation:

Shen writes that on August 14 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will present “yet another” performance of the Mahler Seventh Symphony, to which he adds gratuitously, “There must be a better way to spend two hours.”

Let us disregard the fact that the symphony, even though it is always performed without an intermission, is a full half hour short of two hours. What is incredible about Shen’s comment is that the symphony hasn’t been performed here in a decade! It was last played here, conducted by Claudio Abbado, in 1984. We enclose both the Ravinia program and the Trib review as evidence. And it hasn’t been performed at Ravinia since 1980! Then it was conducted by James Levine.

So one suspects that Shen is not familiar with this famous symphony about which he acts so bored and sated–is this not a bad sign for one who claims to be a music “critic”?

One recalls a previous occasion when Shen was caught in a whopper. Several years ago when Daniel Barenboim led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a free concert in Grant Park, they played as an encore “Chicago,” the classic old song by Fred Fisher (“Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town”). Shen, again affecting his blase attitude, complained in the Reader that they played ‘My Kind of Town,’ a predictable choice.” This is of course a completely different song, written about a half a century later than “Chicago.”

A number of readers wrote in to correct his ignorance, and the Reader printed two of the letters. But Shen, instead of graciously owning up to his lack of musical knowledge, was allowed this rather snotty reply in your letters section, “I promise to listen to both tunes in the coming weeks until I can tell them apart. Will that be penance enough?” An expert and a diplomat!

So now, at the risk of having to read another flippant nonresponse, I’d like to ask the Reader to ask Shen to explain his commentary on the Mahler Seventh. Does it not reflect an ignorance of both the symphony and its local performance history? And will Shen continue to pass himself off as a blase musical “expert” both in the Reader and by stringing for the Tribune?

We look forward to his response.

Deborah Summers

Andrew Ritter


Ted Shen replies:

I appreciate the vigilance of readers Summers and Ritter and their long memories. By “two hours” I meant the duration of the concertgoing experience, not the length of the symphony, which is a repository of some of Mahler’s worst instincts and a weak sister to its immediate siblings. No wonder the CSO, a preeminent Mahler orchestra, has avoided it over the years.