Criticism Reviewed

Charlotte Gardner
Charlotte Gardner

The nature of musical criticism is a topic I've brushed with before in this column, but not to the extent I'm about to do so, prompted by a discussion I took part in last weekend on BBC Radio 3's Music Matters, alongside Richard Morrison of The Times. Our starting point was uncontentious enough – we were asked to define the role of a music critic, and what a review should consist of. However the context in which we were proffering our thoughts is increasingly one in which professional critics are having to defend their existence against the rise in amateur bloggers, and of newspapers squeezing classical music reportage into ever smaller print space.

One illustration of this trend is English National Opera's launch this past September of its Response scheme, which sees the house no longer offering professional critics a "plus one" (the standard, traditional way of working), and giving those clawed-back seats to ten specially-selected novice critics for whom ENO has arranged coaching, whose reviews will then be posted on the ENO website. "We think people should be able to review [opera] more emotionally", explained ENO Chief Executive Stuart Murphy. "Not just from a technical standpoint about how sections of the orchestra played or how the soprano sang. The question is, did it make you cry, did it make you happy."

I'd suggest that another question is, what about training beginner critics in a conflict of interests environment? Furthermore, plus ones are vital both for professional critics' quality of life, when reviewing most evenings has the potential to isolate you from family and friends, and because they allow us to take younger, aspiring-to-be-professional critics under our wings. So our talk very much reflected all this, and I think the case we made for professional criticism bears repeating here in written form.

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The professional critic: soon to be a thing of the past?

I'll begin with the fact that, whilst there are some extremely knowledgeable amateur bloggers, there's no adequate substitute for total immersion. Every day as a professional critic I'm talking with artists, attending concerts, listening analytically to recordings, writing concert program notes, and getting on planes to hear what's interesting beyond my native shores, and the sheer weight of context that brings to every review can't be equalled by someone with a non-musical day job.

Furthermore, technical knowledge is a vital ingredient towards painting the picture for a reader who wasn't there. For instance, if you're reading about the premiere of a cello piece drawing on Arabic musical traditions, what best helps you imagine it in your head: being told that it had you practically feeling the desert sand on your face and smelling the exotic spices, or that the composer used the quarter-tones and wavering notes heard across Middle-Eastern music, and mimicked the sound of the region's traditional reed flute by getting the cellist to play airy harmonics on their lowest string? Basically, emotions and adjectives add important color, but the meat of the review will be the verbs.

Sticking with technical knowledge, when artists themselves have spent their lives training to the highest technical standards, they deserve critics who are similarly trained and who properly understand what they're doing. I'm actually yet to meet an artist who wants to be reviewed by a non-professional. They want specifics and accuracy. Especially if the review isn't all positive, much as they're also alive to the career-boosting or launching value of a glowing review from a respected specialist.

Artists also want even the most deservedly negative review to take account of the fact that they're human beings, and when professional critics will often know either them or the team behind them, we're far more likely to be conscious of our tone as we carry out our professional duty to report the concert or recording as we hear it.

Finally, a professional critic's review has had to be accountable to an editor before it hits the public sphere, and this matters because (confession time....) every now and then we do have to be saved from ourselves, whether because of a silly factual error or an actual lapse in judgement. Blogs don't have that safety net.

So that's why professional criticism matters. I hope you agree. 

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