Music in Durham

On reviewing

My thoughts on the recent Radio Three debate about music criticism.

Everybody who wishes to judge something ought always to do so without prejudice, passion or precipitation, and with equity and circumspection. He should examine the pieces themselves and not allow himself to be blinded by certain secondary matters that are not to the purpose…In general you will not overstep the bounds of equity if, in speaking of  a composition or a musician, you say that they “do not please you”, rather than that “they are worthless”.

These words were written by the great baroque flautist Johann Joachim Quantz in the final chapter of his book “On Playing the flute” in which he discusses how music is to be judged. It’s a pity that his words lie buried at the end of a detailed treatise on baroque performance practice, because he talks a lot of sense, as indeed he does in earlier chapters about general musicianship. The nature of present-day music criticism has been occupying my facebook and twitter feeds today, thanks to a rather grumpy article in the Telegraph and to a much more intelligent debate chaired by Tom Service on Radio Three’s Music Matters about music criticism, and assorted comments and blog posts relating to both.

The Radio Three debate was great, with a good mixture of performers and writers and although unpaid music critics were not really given much attention, I was mostly in agreement with what was said about the role of critics and our relationship to performers and to music. When online writing was discussed, I detected a fair degree of professional protectiveness and perhaps even nervousness amongst the panellists, which is probably understandable, and this led to one or two rather unfair remarks. There was a suggestion that if you’re doing something for free, there must be hidden interests that affect the objectivity of what you’re saying. If that’s the assumption people make, I would like to make it very, very clear that no-one has ever put any pressure on me to give a particular viewpoint; if my reviews tend to the positive, it’s because I have the freedom to choose what I review, so I’m not likely to go to things I won’t enjoy. When I am negative, it’s usually because I expected to enjoy a performance and was disappointed. To their credit, the panellists avoided the lazy and oft-repeated barb of claiming that newspaper critics are better qualified than unpaid writers.

There was also an assumption that all online reviewers are independent bloggers, and there was no discussion of websites such as Bachtrack, who I write for, or The Classical Source, or Opera Britannia where reviewers are unpaid, but are required to demonstrate the ability to write knowledgeably; where reviews are edited before going online, and whose reviewers are expected to adhere to the site’s own guidelines in matter of style and content. The panellists on Music Matters noted the constraints placed on print journalism by costs without acknowledging that websites with armies of reviewers around the country can fill some of those gaps. For Bachtrack, I cover the North East – mainly events at Sage Gateshead or professional musicians visiting Durham – and its very rare that I see a concert I’ve been to reviewed in a national newspaper. In view of what the Radio Three panellists said about the role of the critic in opening classical music up to a wider audience, I like to think that through Bachtrack, I’m able to do my bit to tell the world about the vibrant music scene we have in the North East, particularly the innovative programming and exciting new music that goes on at Sage Gateshead.

On this website, my perspective and tone shifts a little. Much of what I review here is student performances, which requires a different outlook. When reviewing students, I try even harder to be positive and encouraging, and to keep negative comments general rather than aimed at individuals. The music world in Durham is incredibly small, and so the student newspapers are faced with the problem that most people capable of reviewing a concert or opera are either in the performance, or friends with those who are. My aim when reviewing student productions is to give an independent and experienced voice, and to encourage people outside the university bubble to attend student performances. Again, I tend only to review things that I expect will be good.

So, why do I review? I don’t get paid for it, except in free concert tickets when I’m writing for Bachtrack, but it’s become a very important part of my life and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do it. It forces me to listen much more attentively, and to read up on what I’m going to see, so I get more out of concerts these days than in the past when my mind would often wander; and I’m rather pleased, and satisfied, to feel that I’m putting my music A-level to good use (I’m always delighted when my former teacher gives me a facebook “like” for a review). The experience I’ve gained from reviewing for Bachtrack then contributed to this site being set up and the visitor stats and comments suggest that people are finding it useful.

As Quantz’s discussion amply demonstrates, the debate about what music critics are for, and how they should do their job, is nothing new. There are good critics and bad and whether they happen to be paid or unpaid, or writing in print, in managed review sites or on blogs doesn’t really matter. Kate Molleson, who write for the Guardian, the Herald and the Big Issue, said in the debate that critics should be intelligent, insightful and entertaining. Judge us then by those excellent criteria, not by where we write or whether we get paid.

Update: My Bachtrack colleague Frances Wilson offers her response to the debate here on her Cross-Eyed Pianist blog.

My thoughts on the recent Radio Three debate about music criticism.


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