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July 19, 2005
Looking For A Critical Connection
by Douglas McLennan
I'm interested in Peter's observation that:"London may have had the most vibrant critical scene, but it hasn’t had the most vibrant compositional scene despite outstandingly supportive institutions."
That prompts the question: is strong criticism necessary for a climate in which great art can flourish? Is it not true that when music history is written, one of the ways artistic movements are measured is by how critics wrote about the work?
I'm not talking thumbs up/down here, but surely the success of art in historical terms is at least in part determined by how it engaged audiences (critics being historical surrogates in speaking for those audiences...)?
Touting Two Tims
by Donald Rosenberg
The discussions this week about the role, and relevance, of music critics have touched upon various aspects of the job. Yes, Fiona, we most definitely should be able to read scores, though not necessarily while in the concert hall or opera house. I also agree with Peter that we must make sure that our writing focuses principally on music.
But the absence so far from this conversation of two of my American colleagues, Tim Page at The Washington Post and Tim Smith at The Baltimore Sun, points out how well they are doing their jobs beyond their specializations as music critics. Both are up to their mouses covering the fascinating situation involving the Baltimore Symphony and its supposed next music director, Marin Alsop. The music world can't wait to see how this one is going to play out. Some of what Tim and Tim are writing is analytical, some straight reporting. This is how virtually every American music critic must function, given diminishing staffs and battles for space. The halcyon days when reporting and criticism were separate are gone, at least in this country. We may not always like having to go investigative, but we accept the fact that our experience and knowledge may make us the best candidates to be writing these stories. When we finally do get back to the business of opining on music and musicians, it is with a heightened sense of relief and fulfillment.
Any notion that American critics are isolated from reality or live narrow-minded existences is simply wrong. Just read Tim and Tim, or any number of my other colleagues, to see how expertly and judiciously they balance today's journalistic needs.
Word without thoughts never to heaven go
by Peter McCallum
Let's not also forget that that the true measure is the state of the art of music, not the state of music criticism. London may have had the most vibrant critical scene, but it hasn’t had the most vibrant compositional scene despite outstandingly supportive institutions. The vigorous state of criticism in London may be a better measure of its democracy than of its art, particularly as far as composition is concerned. That isn’t entirely the critic’s fault. Producing the sort of society which values music is more than critics can achieve. It goes to much deeper values built up over time and is particularly complex in a modern metropolis, which, of its nature, has several powerful forces which are somewhat antithetical to art. It also has the critical mass to enable diverse artistic activity to take place but, as we would all be aware, there are also many deadening effects. In the long term it is the art that is important, not the critics. Criticism is a good measure of social a democratic health but that doesn’t automatically imply artistic health.
Different WorldsThe musical and music-critical world I inhabit appears to be a different one from Norman Lebrecht's. I have spent the past four evenings at the BBC Proms in London's largest concert venue, the Royal Albert Hall (capacity circa 5,000) and three out of the four programmes have been almost literally packed to the rafters with music-lovers of all ages. The Proms are, of course, a British institution, uniquely informal and accessible to people with limited incomes, but I see no diminution of the enthusiasm of music-lovers for great music than when I first attended the Proms as a student 30 years ago.
by Hugh Canning
Sure the challenges for performers, audiences and critics have changed over the years, especially with the decline of the multi-national classical record companies (although, I have to say, as a weekly record critic, I am inundated with new and interesting discs from companies big and small and often have great difficulty whittling down my choice of discs for review to eight per month - if this is a crisis, I'm glad I wasn't around in the so-called heydays of the record industry). Friends who visit my apartment call me the King Cnut of CDs, unable to stem the tide of new releases and collectible re-issues that inundates my listening room.
As for Norman's implicit suggestion that music critics should get out more, well I am out virtually every night desperately trying to survey as much of the music scene as I can, but also taking in plays, ballet, films even the odd exhibition, about which I don't write. His suggestion that music critics should attend editorial conferences at their respective newspapers would not be welcome at the Sunday Times where the overall editor has far too many sections and issues to worry about to be concerned with the activities of the classical music critic. Yes, classical music has slipped down the list of editorial priorities, but that could just be the fault of the professional doom-mongers such as Norman who has been predicting the demise of classical music for as long as I have known him. Editors don't have time to attend three consecutive sell-out concerts at the Proms, but unfortunately they do seem to have registered Norman's never-ending mantra of Armageddon.
If the space devoted to classical music has declined, that's not the fault of the critics - when I started to write for London newspapers 20 years ago, the coverage of popular culture was negligeable and so-called world-music non-existent. When I joined The Sunday Times 16 years ago, there were four classical music critics plus Norman himself writing music news stories. Now we are two, but that's still one more than the three other Sunday broadsheet newspapers published from London.
Norman is absolutely right, however, about the multiplicity of outlets enabling far more of a critical debate than is possible in most US cities, indeed several UK broadsheets have columns and tablets in which the range of critical response is surveyed: the Daily Telegraph's Culture Vulture - flapping its wings in glee, standing nonchalantly upright, or lying dead - is the wittiest. Often the views are diametrically opposed but that is healthy and my guess is that London critics reflect the spectrum public opinion, if not necessarily proportionately.
Finally, I agree with Fiona that critics should be able to read a score. Ideally, we would all be "experts" on all of classical music, but now that the repertoire extends from Hildegard of Bingen to Sir Harrison Birtwistle no-one surely can expect in-depth knowledge of everything. I'm lucky in that the enthusiasms of my colleague, Paul Driver, complement my own and we try to cover the gamut of classical music with as much enthusiasm as we can muster. Sometimes it's hard, but we try.
Hang on, Norman
by Fiona Maddocks
With due deference etc to my colleague Norman (it's okay he knows I don't mean it), life actually takes place outside feature meetings not inside though it will pain editors to accept this harsh fact. And what critic can afford to forsake crucial earning hours to indulge in such pleasures, though occasional attendance at the morning news conference might quickly demystify the editorial sieving process.
It is also the case, as he would acknowledge, that he does not review concerts in the conventional sense we've been discussing here but instead comments on matters arising which is an entirely different exercise. (Maybe Norman you should remind us why?). If critics aren't easily tempted out of their boxes there's usually good reason. In my experience as editor, as well as writer, there are those who never say no to a chance to rant and those who prefer to wait until a particular issue provokes them. It would be a bad editor who judged one better than the other. It's how you feed your mind when not in the concert hall that counts.
There's a place for narrow expertise, and we should celebrate it, as well as for the more generalist tendency. I've always done other jobs in addition to music criticism to support a family. Hours which could have been passed comparing early recordings of [enter any genre, mainstream or obscure] are instead spent washing hockey kits or dealing with other less pressing crises. In that respect, I'm not typical and probably have a slightly different perspective from many colleagues. But essentially it comes down to how you listen. Encourage music critics to be broader, to offer social critique and take up issues by all means. But don't sacrifice that hard won skill. It's a serious business which takes dedication, application, experience.
And by the by, does anyone think it matters any more whether a music critic can read a score? I happen to think it does, but maybe I'm being antediluvian.