The Critical Condition: Trust me: I wrote the review
Critics have come in for a lot of criticism. But don't paint them as bogeymen, says Edward Seckerson, concluding our series
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Friday 18 December 1998
So far I'm having trouble recognising myself.
Maybe the fault lies with the definition. A critic may be "a professional judge of art, music, literature etc" or - and could this be the source of the misconception - "a person who often finds fault and criticises". We all criticise. We all have opinions; we all express them. In my experience, the amateur critic - collectively Joe Public at large - is far less forgiving and far more effusive than the accredited professional. It's "awful", "terrible", "ghastly", "wonderful", "absolutely fabulous", darling, and there's an end of it. Ours not to reason why. We live in impatient times, an age of shorthand and sound-bites and sweeping generalisations. Never mind the quality or the width, and to hell with the detail; cut to the chase. The rush to judgement is inevitable. But good criticism effectively begins where judgement ends, with the whys, hows and wherefores. And "quality control" is not even the half of it.
So this critic's credo begins like this: you can take or leave his opinion, but not his prose. Now admittedly this leaves him wide open to accusations of self-indulgence. Isn't it a fact that the critics of smart-assed critics invariably accuse them of using the event - be it a concert, opera, or recording, in my case - as a vehicle for their own self-gratification? Well, yes, it's a delicate balance. The clever prose that would seem to draw attention to itself at the expense of the event may be enjoyed rather more than it should be encouraged, but then again I'll take a good read over a conscientious evaluation any day. Criticism at its best is about sharing the experience. In a sense it's part of the experience, a kind of post-performance art. It's what happens after the applause has died. Because it's at this point that the critic effectively becomes both performer and reporter. If you were there, you'll be wanting to pit your wits against his or her better judgement; you'll be seeking to re-live the experience as you remembered it. A good review will help you do that. If you weren't there, you'll be wanting to know whether you should have been. And even if the event in question is a one-off (and many of my reviewing shouts are) consider the extent to which a creative piece of writing can serve as a kind of surrogate for the real thing. So let's hear no more of this nonsense about the pointlessness of writing about something once it's over and done with. Long before I could afford to attend concerts or opera or even buy recordings, I grew familiar with works and performers I had not yet experienced through the well chosen words of my predecessors.
Writing about music is a strange, even unnatural, business. Finding words to express sounds, finding images to express feelings expressed through melody, harmony, texture, may seem self-defeating: why verbalise that which by its very nature is a sensory experience? Because good musical commentary and analysis is enlightening. And that's something else that critics are not supposed to do. Enlighten. Notice that I'm talking here about music before I talk about performance. To me a critic has as great a responsibility to the music, to the composers, as does the artist. How else are you to ascertain their success, or otherwise? It's never just about the notes, but the reasons for them. Why are they there, what do they say and mean? The critic should be asking the same questions as the performer, and coming up with valid, if not the same, answers and solutions. How to communicate the wit of Mozart, the savage irony of Shostakovich? You could describe the finale of Mozart's 39th Symphony as ending with an abrupt truncation of its all-pervasive seven-note theme or you could take the theory and characterise it thus: "the woodwinds are still chortling away when Mozart slams the door on them". Similarly, with Shostakovich, you might simply refer to the grimly ironic use of Jewish folk tunes in his First Violin Concerto, or spell it out: "Jewish folk tunes whose smile had long since twisted into grimace were ground under the heel of Vengerov's bow." A little imagination does go a long way. Of course, all this is presupposing that a critic's own musicality is sound. You cannot recognise what you do not yourself feel.
Which brings me to the thorny issue of "those-who-can't-do-write" - the critic as frustrated or failed performer. Well, leaving aside the equally contentious view that those who can do more often than not can't write, I find myself occupying the middle-ground position of doer and writer. Eight years as a professional actor and much longer as an amateur musician (percussionist, if you must know - Sir Simon Rattle has the dirt on my cymbal-playing) has helped me to appreciate, among other things, the vulnerability of performers. And that's an insight I wouldn't be without. Of course it doesn't mean that I'm never guilty of hurtful criticism (heaven knows I've been on the receiving end of it), but I do believe that it tempers the temptation to be personal and/ or destructive. The soprano Anne Evans once publicly threw a glass of red wine over the opera critic Tom Sutcliffe (not to be confused with our own Thomas Sutcliffe) with words to the effect of "Reggie and the company would like to buy you a drink" - not because his review of English National Opera's Parsifal was unfavourable (which it was), but because it was disrespectful of the then elderly and frail Reginald Goodall, a distinguished Wagnerian whose conducting Sutcliffe had described as coming and going "like a radio whose battery is running down". Whatever the truth of his observation, the choice of simile undermined it. If there were a Geneva Convention on critical engagement, those eight words might be considered "cruel and unusual".
As an opera critic, you are a theatre critic, too. Gone are the days (well, almost) when production was a kind of window-dressing expressly designed to cause as little disturbance as possible to the great and the good who just happened to be singing there. Productions have grown more challenging, more searching, and in some cases more perverse. But without some theatrical nous (and a degree of insider knowledge), how can you hope to distinguish between the empty vessels and the genuinely insightful? The answer is simple: experience, and a passion for what makes theatre work for an audience. And by "audience" I mean a receptive audience, who enjoys a challenge. As a member of that audience, but one charged with evaluating the success or failure of a show, I am expected to apply specialised knowledge to my gut reactions. As an actor, I have known the terrible, sinking feeling of being marooned by directors who say "trust me" or "do you see what I'm getting at?" or "can you give me more... well, you know..." more often than they give direction. I have known directors with lively minds and great ideas but not the skills to put them on stage. When Nigel Lowery's disastrous Royal Opera production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville opened last year, it amazed me that in among all the hellfire and damnation of the reviews, nobody really explored the fact that most of the problems lay with the execution. Here was Lowery, a gifted designer, unable to reason why his ever-fertile drawing-board had failed to deliver on stage. But then again, the lengths to which this critic went to do so will have been met with impatience in some quarters. Get a life, Seckerson, say it, you hated it. Yes, but...
And that's where the art of criticism begins. But is it read, really read, taken to heart, pondered, even acted upon? Performers are always telling us that they never read reviews. Well, they don't. Do they? Or is that just the bad reviews? Funny how they always flaunt the good ones. Then again, the composer Michael Berkeley revised his Viola Concerto specifically addressing criticisms raised in my review - a fact that I relate not to demonstrate how clever or powerful I am, but to illustrate that criticism need not necessarily result in a them-and- us situation; it can lead to a healthy and constructive exchange of ideas. Symbiosis. Criticism in action. At least until the next time I'm asked whether I liked it or not.
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