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July 21, 2005

US versus Europe

We seem to be getting away from the original questions asked by Doug - are there fundamental differences in which US and European critics see their roles? I'm not so sure if there is, although I know from discussions with my friends, John von Rhein and Scott Cantrell, that they - naturally - feel obliged to offer general support for the home teams. As a body London critics don't - and porably shouldn't - have such loyalties. It is there newspapers who are paying them to write as objectively as is possible. I don't make a habit of accepting work from orchestras, opera and record companies in this country because I feel personally that one is bound to be compromised at some level. Other colleagues think differently, but are then subject to insinuations that, of course, they are in the pay of such-and-such and orchestra, record or opera company. It's a tricky one as most music critics in London do not earn big salaries and have to supplement their income with freelance work and the number of music magazines here is strictly limited (and most of them don't pay well either).
My feeling is that the music profession expects too much of its critics. It asks for "constructive criticism" which, in my experience, is merely a euphemism for good reviews. Then there are complaints that music critics here don't engage with the music as much as they used to in the glory days of Andrew Porter (Financial Times), William Mann (The Times), Desmond Shawe-Taylor (The Sunday Times) and Peter Heyworth (The Observer), but the space for the single-event review has diminished drastically since their days. One can only look with envy at the column inches the New York Times and most of the big-hitting German daily papers still accord to important opera openings or headline concert events. But the fact is, surely, today, that fewer and fewer musical offerings are headline events. A lot of what we hear in London is routine and, unlike the American and European critics, we are writing about events (except opera of course) which readers have no opportunity of catching up with as concerts in Britain, with rare exceptions, tend to be one-offs. The subscription idea has never gripped the imagination of the Brits, or at least Londoners, in the way it does Europeans and North Americans. In the US, I suspect, it is partly a legacy of the European, and specifically Germanic, immigration to the States. On the whole, American orchestras and opera companies seem to have been founded by German musicians and patrons in an attemp to replicate something of their European experience.
The organisation of concerts in London certainly effects the way critics write about it - you don't have to pull punches when you know your review is not going to effect box-office revenues (except of course in the case of opera, but opera fans usually book their tickets far in advance these days, especially at Covent Garden or Glyndebourne where stars are on offer).
Equally editors, particularly of Sunday newspapers, feel that one-off concerts are old news almost as soon as they have been played, so critics have to pick and choose the events they think are likely to have a longer-term resonance. The fact that the London Symphony and London Philharmonic Orchestras now have their own record labels and are actively preserving their work online may well change the way in which classical music is viewed in the editors' offices. Recently, the BBC offered downloads of live recorded concert performances of the Beethoven Symphonies by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and their dynamic young Italian principal conductor, Gianandrea Noseda(a rising star but hardly a household name yet, even in Britain) and they were astonished to get over 600,000 downloads, vastly more than most symphonic CDs can expect in the first week of their release. Not everyone is pleased, of course: a big-name record executive bent my ear on the subject over lunch and his view was that it is commercially unethical for a subsidized institution such as the BBC to give away music free when his company has to pay artists. I don't want to get into a long discussion about the future of the record industry, but it illustrates that there are factors other than purely musical ones which critics need to take on board and occasionally refer to in their reviews. My editors expect me to write for what they call "the general reader" rather than musically literate or specialist audiences, so the days of "academic" and scholarly music criticism may well be over in the UK. There simply isn't space for it and I know of one colleague whose services were dispensed with because his editor didn't understand what he was writing about. It's a tricky one, attempting not to dumb down while also hoping to preserve some kind of standards - and there is always the question of subjectivity. Critics all over the world have their favourites and established stars that they don't rate: in the US, I gather Simon Rattle has never had a great critical following, while over here a lot of us don't see the point of Lorin Maazel or Renée Fleming. I have had long arguments with my friend Thor Eckert - former critic of The Christian Science Moniter - over the virtues of Josephine Barstow, whom he has never much appreciated. Some people - critics AND public - hated the sound of Maria Callas's voice and others dismissed Renata Tebaldi as boring. To some Valery Gergiev is a musical god, but not all of my colleagues are looking forward to him taking over from Colin Davis at the LSO from 2007. I am glad I live in a city where a multiplicity of views are printed and no-one prevails. We don't have any Claudia Cassidys over here (although Norman Lebrecht possibly comes close).

Posted by hcanning at July 21, 2005 03:24 AM


Sorry Mr. Canning, your comments about not working for record cos. don't ring true because you've been caught on video! In the video presskit issued by Decca around a Vivaldi CD, there you are with Cecilia Bartoli strolling the streets of Venice and talking about Vivaldi. I wondered at the time, as a former employee of the late Philips Classics, how that it was possible for a critic to work both sides of the fence. So to hear you protest about the practice now is a bit much.

Posted by: Mary Jo at July 26, 2005 10:36 AM

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