Critical Mass(acre)

It happened again, this time in Lyon. There is that moment sometime after the first performance when someone in the administration of whatever orchestra I’m conducting says “have you seen the reviews?” – and I know that “the Moment” has arrived.

“No,” I always reply, “I don’t read reviews.” George Bush could only hope for the level of shock and awe that passes across the face of whomever has asked the question. Yes, I am aware that the classical music business seems to run on repackaged excerpts from whatever newspaper has deigned to take notice, but really – why should I pay attention to that?

This is not the “all critics are idiots” rant. Yes, I do think that most critics are idiots, but there are a few who actually know what they’re talking about. A very few, mind you. But this has come to mind because of the recent debacle with the newspaper in San Antonio. Perhaps it is just coincidence but I stopped paying attention to reviews immediately after I read a review of a concert I conducted with the San Antonio Symphony. We did Copland 3, a beast of a work, that I have both played and conducted several times. In the review the one major complaint about me was “he didn’t give enough cues.” The response I had to that line is definitely not printable.

Anyone who has ever dealt with Copland 3 knows that you are spending all of your time, energy, effort, whatever, trying to hold the damn piece together!. If, as a conductor, you start worrying about giving cues in a piece like this then you’ll end up looking like a spastic octopus. There is simply too much going on, and you must trust the orchestra to be able to count rests into the low double digits and come in when they’re supposed to. They are professionals, after all, and they do not need to be spoon fed. And so I threw the San Antonio paper down in utter disgust, and I am proud to say that was the last review I have read. I wonder if the review of that concert was one that was written by a ghost writer? It would be interesting to find out.

But the main reason I do not read reviews is that that if I have prepared for this week’s concerts the way I should, and I am honest with myself as a musician, then there should be no one who attends any of the concerts who knows better how the concerts have gone than I. After all, this is my job. I should know the score backwards and forwards, I have spent all this time in rehearsals with the orchestra, I should be able to give myself an honest musical assessment as to whether things are working. This is all very simple. That’s simple mind you, not easy. Those are two different ideas.

Funny enough, I do sometimes read the reviews of other musician’s concerts. I find them very enlightening. Many critics seem to spend a lot of time trying to establish their own credentials by comparing whatever performance they are reviewing to some other performance/recording, and then expounding as to whether this performance (in their august opinion) was musically comparable to the other ones. Honestly – who cares? Performances are meant to be individualistic. I want to hear a performer’s soul come through whether I agree with what they end up doing or not. Should it be the role of a critic to put their own personal judgment into print on musical matters? Would it not make more sense for the good critic to limit themselves to discussing the technical aspects of the performance, and/or such topics such as whatever historical significance a certain performance may have? Perhaps “limit” is too strong of a term. We are human beings, after all, and cannot completely divest ourselves of our own opinions. But if I see one more review of anybody that’s compared to Bernstein’s recording, or Van Karajan’s recording, or whatever, I think I’m going to scream.

In Edmonton the local paper does not review the orchestra. The Edmonton Journal, in their infinite wisdom, decided that the premiere music performance ensemble in Northern Alberta was no longer worthy of the measly 6 lines every week that was being devoted to reviewing our concerts, and so they stopped. I heard a lot of people say that it was a travesty, the end was near, look out for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, etc. What has actually happened at the end of this last season is that ticket sales have gone up, we are much more inventive when it comes to putting ourselves in front of the media (thanks Melayne!), and I am honestly not sure if anyone misses the EJ reviews one iota. After all, the best critics are the ones who show up to the orchestra week after week. If they don’t like what they hear they’re not going to write an article in the local paper about it. They will just stop buying tickets.

And THOSE are reviews that I pay attention to: pass me the info on our ticket sales, please, and don’t bother giving me copies of anything else.

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