Reactions to the shock

Well, I’m joking a little. I mean reactions to my  “shocking proposal,” which really wasn’t so shocking. The real shock may come in something else I’ll post today or tomorrow. There’s a bad moon rising about tax deductions for donors to the arts — a lot of people, some quite distinguished, are starting to believe that these tax deductions aren’t warranted. What would that do to classical music?

But more on this later. My shocking proposal was that classical music institutions be written about, in newspapers, the way real journalists write about everything else – that, for instance, newspapers should demand that orchestras reveal their ticket sales, so that we’d all know how well or badly they were doing. Now, the most devastating comments thoughts about this come at the end of this post.

But Gene Carr — who runs Patron Technology, an e-marketing firm — points out that we need regional and national benchmarks before we can understand those sales figures. And of course he’s right. As he wrote to me (and of course I’m quoting him with his permission), “When Dell’s sales go down 5% and the industry goes down 10% they celebrate. So what if your orchestra is down 5% if the rest of your colleagues are down 15%?”

So we need benchmarks. But where are we going to get them?

Music journalists should demand — in the loudest voices possible — some solid data. Or else, they could say, they’d deride orchestras (and opera companies, and even poor little chamber music groups) as spin machines. OK, I’m pushing this a little far, but really! Anyone covering Dell or any other business firm has all the information needed to interpret any new development. While in classical music, the great, immortal art form, no such thing is possible right now.

*

Then Brian Bell, with some praise of me for past writings, e-mailed this (quoted with permission, as always):

Finally, I fear what you have written could be wildly misinterpreted. Yes, Boston is learning that Levine likes to challenge the listener with new compositions. [Brian was comparing the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa and under James Levine.]

Letters to the editor abound. People are suddenly talking about the orchestra again, debating the merits/demerits of Ameriques. But the benefit here is not that there has been “negative” coverage. Far from it. There has been more light than heat.

Elsewhere, trashing individual players/conductors won’t help matters as much as WHY the concert wasn’t the success it could’ve been. WHY was the concert boring? Too often in the past I’ve read critics who roast a concert, but don’t adequately explain why. Mindlessly generating controversy isn’t the answer. Grappling with how the composer wasn’t served well, will.

I’d mildly say that I’m not interested in trashing anyone, but in helping communities understand how good (or not so good) their orchestra actually is. But Brian raises an important point, which is that the overall artistic profile of the orchestra (or a local opera company, or chamber music series, or new music series) needs to be talked about. And, to get back on my hobby horse, compared to similar profiles elsewhere. An organization afraid of doing new music should — just for instance — be told about similar organizations elsewhere that thrive on it. Or rather the community that supports the organization should be told.

Maybe if critics had a stronger idea of what’s going on nationally, the New York Philharmonic wouldn’t be so ritually abused. I’m not saying that the Philharmonic couldn’t be more creative. It has miles — light-years — to go in that regard. But it’s also not as bad as people like to think. Yes, we can do the kneejerk comparison to Los Angeles or San Francisco — so ritually famous for their creative programming — but so what? Maybe the Philharmonic has something to learn, but maybe, on a national scale, it’s not as uncreative (compared to all large orchestras) as people think. I’ve always thought it got a bad rap, though, damn, in New York City , of all places, there ought to be very little limit on what it might try.

*

And now we come to the devastating comments I promised. Three people have posted comments on the blog comments here and  here, though you’ll have to do some scrolling to find them), in which they say that their local critics aren’t any good. These people — those posting comments, not the critics — work with major orchestras, at least one as a musician. Sample excerpt:

In my city the music critic has rarely written a word I agree with and not just about us. He is an informed person but his ignorance, at least in my opinion, has made me laugh out loud frequently. Coincidentally, he has started in with the personal attacks with players he doesn’t seem to admire. So whose opinion should go down in print?

Sometimes we behave like a critic’s column is like a box score, as though it is an accurate record of what transpired on stage. As a player in a full time orchestra I feel we are the real experts. I wasn’t surprised to read this, because I’ve heard similar things from orchestra people, and other classical music professionals. And I know it can be true. So I was naïve — talking about what critics (or classical music journalists generally, whether they’re critics or not) should do, without stopping to ask whether they’re fully competent to do it.

Which raises a serious question. I said that classical music journalists should look at orchestras (and of course other classical music organizations) far more sharply — and thoroughly — than they currently do. But who’s going to look at critics and journalists? Think about it — they’re the only ones in the classical music food chain who aren’t going to be rated in public, the only ones immune from criticism (unless yo  count letters to the editor, which don’t carry much force). Someone’s sure to say that musicians don’t like critics because they don’t like reading bad reviews, but I haven’t found this to be true. In fact, I’ve seen musicians either laughing or aghast at critics because a performance had been terrible, and the critic liked it.

So how could musicians in any town sit in public judgment on their critic? I’d suggest a standardized test, which ideally would be developed nationally, and would consist of musical excerpts to listen to, and questions to answer, both about music and about how the music business works. The excerpts would include common faults in performance, sloppy rhythm and bad intonation, for a start, things musicians are normally unanimous in hearing. But the rhythm shouldn’t be too sloppy, or the intonation too unpleasant. Let’s see who hears subtleties. Critics would be asked to take the test, which remember would be given all over the country. And their scores would be announced.

Musicians could be asked to take it, too, just to see how they’d do. And at last — though I’m sure my scheme is way too optimistic — we’d maybe have some objective recourse, when a musician wants to tell the world a critic doesn’t know what he or she is hearing.

And yes: I’d volunteer to take the test.

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Comments

  1. Paul A. Alter says

    Sorry, Greg; I think you have read what’s coming — many times. Be that as it may . . .

    What is the function of a music critic? We know what purpose most other critics serve:

    -Book reviewers help us decide whether to read a book.

    -Movie reviewers help us to decide whether to see the movie-

    -Record reviewers — buy/not buy the record.

    -Play reviewers — see/not see the play.

    -Restaurant critics — eat/not eat there.

    -TV critics — watch/not watch the show.

    Some of the above may be striving to accomplish other things as well, but the yes/no function is a given.

    So what do we get from music critics? In many cases, the concert has already taken place, so the yes/no function doesn’t apply. So what is the purpose of the review?

    One sure sign that a music critic has never considered that question is the “score keeper.” I don’t mean “score,” as in a musical manuscript; I mean “score” as in hits, runs, errors, touchdowns, goals, etc. What is the purpose of telling readers that the trumpet’s entrance was late, the oboe was sour, the clarinet out of tune, or any of this other trivia? How does this information help the reader? Of course, if it happens often enough, it might help the conductor prune out some inadequate players, but any conductor who is not capable of hearing such bloopers for himself is also inadequate.

    Thomas Beecham addresses this matter in one of his books, saying something to the effect that audiences are so ignorant today that they judge performances by the number of mistakes. He states that he has conducted some wonderful performances but, afterwards, people we commiserating with him about the mistakes.

    Another breed of critic that is useless is the one that makes pronouncements about the performance without supporting data. “The performance was brilliant” sort of thing. One purpose of a critic that I’m sure of is educating the reader; so, unless said critic helps the reader form the ability to make his/her own judgements as to “brilliant,” said critic is a fraud.

    Another fraud is the critic who addresses the individual compositions played in the course of a program without also addressing the program as a whole. A great deal of artistic judgement goes into assembling a program, but it is only within the past year or so that this fact has started to be widely recognized (for example, giving such names to programs as “The French Touch,” “Rapture,” et al).

    Anyway, my position is that we can’t conduct any constructive critique of critics until we decide just exactly what the hell they are supposed to do.

    Paul

    Suppose you’ve got an orchestra in town that plays 18 concert programs a year, an opera company that does four productions, a chamber music presenter that offers six concerts, and a new music group that plays twice a year. How do you know which of these are any good?

    Enter the critic. It doesn’t matter if the concerts the critic reviews are already over. You, the reader, want to know if the groups are any good. Are the orchestra’s concerts reliable? Does the chamber music presenter pick good groups to present? How is anyone supposed to know all that unless the concerts are reviewed? Oh, sure, if the chamber music presenter presents name acts, eager, motivated readers can find out about them by trolling the web. But what about people with a more casual interest? And how about the ambience of the concerts — the hall, the program book, any extras (like pre-concert talks, or opportunities to meet the musicians)? Somebody should assess how good these things are.

    When I say critics should discuss which players in an orchestra are good (and which might not be), that’s not to inform the conductor. The conductor — if he or she is any good at all — already knows. The point would be to inform the community of how well lits orchestra is doing. Suppose a smaller orchestra has poor players, but elsewhere in the state, within reasonable driving distance, there’s another orchestra of the same size with musicians who are better. Maybe the first orchestra isn’t drawing on the best people.

    And what if a musician is bad, and the music director can’t get much support for making a change? Pressure from the community might help. If the playgrounds in a community are in bad shape, the official in charge of them in the local government will be held responsible. Why shouldn’t orchestras also be held to account? If the clarinets are bad, the performances will suffer. Why shouldn’t the community — not to mention the hard-core audience — be told whether anything is being done?

  2. Ben says

    Thanks for raising the issue of qualifications for critics. In the past there have certainly been notable composers, theorists, historians, and even performers who wrote music criticism. This has been valuable as questions of compositional style, interpretive practice, and other such subjects received debate publicly. This is not what happens today.

    In my own personal experience–which is as a performer, though my encounters with the critics themselves have not been surrounding my own performances–I have whenever given the opportunity, inquired as to the background of a critic. This is, therefore, annecdotal but nevertheless: a major critic from London told me he was unhappy as a lawyer, so he became a critic; one from the NY Times told me she was baically a writer who stumbled into writing music criticism and advanced quickly. Never have I received an answer that gave me reason to think that the person would have the developed skills I would have expected. My question has always been “WHY?”

    Why should these people, who have never played, written, or even studied music be put in the position of judging the interpretive decisions of people who have devoted their lives to it–people who have the esteem of their peers and their audiences. Why would the public care what this guy thinks? What has he or she done to earn that right, other than prove to some editor somewhere that he or she can write persuasively?

    When Elliot Carter or Pierre Boulez or Nikolaus Harnoncourt writes about some musical issue, I’ll listen. Your standardized test idea would at least acknowledge that one needs skills other than ‘writer’ to have something to say about music. However, I fear that as with many other jobs, the people who are truely qualified just wouldn’t want the job.

    Well, you’ve put me in an odd position here, because I’m sure the Times critic you’re talking about is my wife, Anne Midgette. And I think she’s a very good critic. She and I would disagree with what you remember of her background. There’s a good deal more music — and musical training — than you talked about. She’s also accepted as an equal by many important backstage people in the opera world.

    But it’s true she’s never worked professionally in music. Even so, she hears quite acutely what’s going on. Not in every case, obviously, but then classical music critics are asked to know more than anyone could reasonably take responsibility for. The critic who knows exactly what’s going on with singers, as Anne does, might be lost with organ music (as I would largely be). Still, I’ll say this, quite fearlessly. If you think I hear music with some kind of professional ear, then Anne does, too. When we’re at performances together, we don’t disagree about what’s going on. We might assess it differently, or value different aspects of the performance differently. But we almost always agree on the facts — whether someone has sound vocal technique, whether a string quartet plays in tune, and a lot of things more subtle than those two.

    Quite beyond this though, I’m not sure I’d agree that critics need formal musical qualifications. Some very good critics haven’t had them, including most notably George Bernard Shaw, who had no formal musical training and no professional musical experience, but in his criticism writes more acutely about the technical side of music than just about any critic I’ve read. And I’ve encountered critics in our time who’d actually worked as misicians, but who can’t hear a thing.

    So I’d say, to draw on a hoary old proverb, that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Let’s see what critics write, and only then judge whether they’re qualified. Not, by the way, that critics shouldn’t, preferably, have a deep inside knowledge of music. That, other things being equal, can only help.

  3. Paul A. Alter says

    A couple of decades back, the SLSO played at Carnegie Hall. The Post-Dispatch printed the reviews of the concert by the NY papers.

    St. Louisans were outraged that the NY reviews discussed the performance, but not the SLSO per se.

    The reviewer for the P-D (I believe it was Frank Peters, whose writing I respected, pointed out that the coverage was a sign of respect for the orchestra. The reviewer assumed that the SLSO was a competent orchestra so they could focus on what was really important and not trivialities such as clams and other such glitches.

    If the local orchestra is a first- or second-tier ensemble, and the local reviewer constantly mentions mishaps, the effect can only be to drive people away from the concerts. With all the other things to do and all the other demands on discretionary spending, why would people waste money going to mistake-ridden performances.

    On the other hand, if the orchestra is iffy, then the reviewer has some value judgements to make. Should s/he point out inadequacies and thereby take the risk of driving people away from concerts, thus — perhaps — leading to the demise of the orchestra. Or should the reviewer point out that the local performances are probably the equal of what Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schuman, Schubert, et al heard during their lifetime and that audiences should not be deterred from attending concerts for such reasons.

    Orchestras today have reached levels of proficiency that were rarely attained when I first started going to concerts. Should we penalize them for not being better or should we support them for producing concerts that were not possible until well into the second half of the last century?

    There is nothing more disheartening than hearing musicians comment on performances. I made a recording of a high school chorus in the St. Louis area. I was moved by it. When I played it for the director and a few participants, all they talked about what so-and-so clearing his throat and other such minutia.

    Or, when I heard Charles Munch lead the French Radio Orchestra in a concert in Los Angeles, I thought the performance outrageous. I asked the guy next to me, who happened to be first trumpet from the Havana Philharmonic, what he thought, he was enthusiastic to the max: “It’s a wonderful orchestra! Did you hear those trumpets!”

    Yes, I had heard those trumpets and I thought they were technically proficient, but strident and — my touchstone for judging performances — unmusical.

    So, again, it depends on how we define the function or, more precisely, functionssss, of a critic.

    Paul

  4. Ben says

    Thanks for addressing my thoughts. My concern is not with any particular critic. Also, I agree that no one could be qualified to address all aspects of music in all disciplines, nor should they be expected to. While I acknowledge that people without professional experience in music certainly can have insightful things to say about music, I am perhaps too colored by my own personal experience. My perception of music–my ability to differentiate, notice, appreciate what I heard advanced in unexpected ways as my proficiency as a performer increased. Not only the ability to appreciate the degree of technical difficulty when a performance seems effortless, but to appreciate the intricacies of ensemble skills or other such mysteries. A theoretical understanding of these things is certainly something I thought I had, until the reality of overcoming these challenges proved to be nothing like what I had expected.

    Having said that, this kind of listening is not always the most important function of a critic. In fact, I think that as a bridge between performers and audience, those technical judgements about the relative merits of one performer’s execution as compared to others is of little significance. We don’t need a score keeper. This is art. Let’s focus on ideas. Unfortunately, score keeper seems to be what many critics see as their main function, and as I said before, I question their authority in these matters in the first place. What makes it particularly frustrating is the idea of people taking the word of the critic as truth (with the full weight of any large publication behind them). It seems to me that classical music audiences feel far less empowered to make and trust their own opinions than do those of other art disciplines (though this is a separate discussion altogether). The voice of the critic then, begins to take on the unfair burden of telling these insecure audiences what to think, and when you consistently disagree, feel your judgement is superior, and have no forum in which to argue the point, one is bound to develop some level of frustration.

    Thanks again for at least offering an opportunity to air these issues.

    Ben, thanks in turn for your response.

    I do agree with your larger point. Critics too often don’t have enough musical chops to really understand what’s going on in a performance. And they could also know more about how the music business works. I imagine that’s true in any field, but it’s certainly true in classical music. So solid musical knowledge is a plus. What to do if a critic really notably displays ignorance — that’s a hard one. What happens to ignorant sportswriters? I suspect they get fired, often enough, because their editors know they’re ignorant. So that’s yet another place for this discussion to go. Since culture editors these days commonly don’t know much about classical music, how can they judge whether their critics are any good?

  5. Graham Atkinson says

    In Australia a Food/Restaurant critic is being sued (along with his paper) for a substantial sum by a restaurant that got a bad review and subsequently failed.

    Could a music critic face a similar fate if a season flopped or failed to reach targets?

    Not very likely. The legal presumption would be on the critic’s side — any court would begin by presuming that the critic had the right to free speech. And common sense would suggest that the organization that suffered bore some of the responsibility itself. Maybe their performances or marketing were terrible.

    The organization would probably have to sue the critic for libel. And that’s very hard to prove in the US. The organization would have to show that the critic had said things that were harmful and factually not true, and also that the critic knew that the statements weren’t true. There would also be more chance of proving libel if the critic made general statements (“This organization is so awful that it doesn’t even deserve to exist”). Specific criticisms of an event, no matter how harsh or how often repeated, aren’t likely to be libel.
    I’d be curious to know if there’s any legal precedent for statements of opinion being libellous. That is, if a critic said wildly critical things — “This orchestra is surely the worst in the world; its playing is abominable, an outrage, and the organization doesn’t deserve to exist” — and then could be shown not to really believe that…maybe then the critic would lose a court case. But in general, the critic starts out in these things with a legal advantage.

  6. Paul A. Alter says

    Let’s take a hypothetical situation.

    Let’s set up a hypothetical composer; we’ll call him “Greg.”

    Now, suppose that “Greg” writes a hypothetical composition we’ll call “Symphony” and it is played by a hypothetical orchestra in a hypothetical state called “Dakota.”

    If a music critic were to write a review of that performance, would “Greg” prefer that the critic focus on the performance of a hypothetical oboe player who is somewhat less than proficient or on the quality, characteristics and emotive power of the music

    I know which I’d prefer if I were “Greg.”

    OK, now in that town in “Dakota” is a hypothetical listener, “Paul.” “Paul” attended the concert, enjoyed the composition, and would now like to see how his feelings about the music stack up against those of an expert, such as the reviewer. “Paul” also was somewhat put off by the oboe. So, should the reviewer focus on the music and mention the oboe in passing or should he focus on spanking the oboe and then devote what is left of his six column-inches to discussing the music.

    In the town is another hypothetical music lover; we’ll call him “Alter.” “Alter” was not able to attend the concert, but he has heard of “Greg” and he wants an evaluation of the music; he will rely on this evaluation to guide his decision as to whether to attend future concerts at which “Symphony” is played and whether to buy the recording, if and when it is released. “Alter” does not know about the oboe problem. What sort of review will best serve “Alter’s” needs?

    Many years back, I read an article in the St. L Post Dispatch by (I believe) Frank Peters in which he discussed Slatkin’s success at achieving a new blending of the brass into the texture of the SLSO. It was upbeat and heartening. If the orchestra (or portions thereof)is consistently bad or consistently good, such matters should be covered in feature articles — not in reviews.

    Furthermore, I believe that such articles should focus on discussing accomplishments by the orchestra, not on its failings. If the writer wants to correct a deficiency, s/he should do it constructively — not by spanking the culprit publicly but by suggesting possible areas of improvement.

    Also, mentioning the bad players serves to make them celebrities; let’s reserve that for the good players. We want the public to follow the activities of Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Edi Falco — not Lindsey, Briteney, Paris, and Nicole, all of whom have accomplished very little but have achieve notoriety by screwing up.

    Hypothetically yours,

    Paul

    I don’t think it matters what kind of review I’d prefer. The review should be accurate and fair. If I had a performance of my music that wasn’t entirely good, I’d hardly mind if the critic pointed that out. Especially if the performance entirely distorted the piece, which has happened (though emphatically, emphatically not in South Dakota). Then I’d be thrilled if a critic caught on.

    In my experience of being reviewed, over more than 20 years, the rarest thing is a review that really understands what happened. Good reviews are nice, bad reviews hurt, but a deeply accurate review is refreshing for my mind and soul.

    We also should beware of thinking that reviews are going to be entirely one thing or another — entirely talking about the oboes, or entirely talking about larger things. A competent critic can easily do both at once, and put the two in the proper proportion.

    Finally, I don’t think critics have any obligation to be constructive, to try to further the interests of an orchestra (or other organization), or to try to help in a campaign to get people to attend. The minute a critic does that, smart readers can tell the dice are loaded, and they’ll lose interest both in reading the critic, and in going to the concerts the critic reviews.

  7. Bill Brice says

    I have to express my disagreement with Paul Alter’s implication — that a music critic must have training and/or experience as a practicing musician. If we took that seriously, we’d have to follow it through to its logical end — that the only significant audience are those few who speak the technical language of music.

    I’m pretty sure Pauline Kael never wrote a screenplay or directed a film. I disagreed with much of what she wrote, but she made me think about film and about writing.

    It’s a real trap, assuming that only members of “the club” can have anything worthwhile to say about art.

  8. Paul A. Alter says

    Not guilty, Bill. EMPHATICALLY not guilty. I take no position as to whether critic should or should not be a practicing musician. I have seen good and bad on both sides of the question.

    As someone said earlier, GB Shaw wrote some dandy music criticism, although he was not a practicing musician. Berlioz, who was a composer and played only the guitar, is one of the best writers about music that I have ever read. Debussy also wrote, and I have no idea what he was trying to say.

    The music writer for the St. Louis Post Dispatch sang in opera, and I find her reviews not at all helpful; they may be to others, but certainly not to me.

    Pauline Kael was an interesting case in point. Actually, she rarely wrote about film; what she discussed was her reaction to the film under discussion. That could be a bad thing or a good thing for music reviewers. Bad if all they react to is the box scores; good if they react to whatever “message” they find in the music.

    And now, moving right along, I most certainly do not recommend phony praise for all concerts. What I’m trying to say is something else, as follows.

    Suppose you blindfold me, hand me a gun, and say, “hit the target.” I shoot, and you say, “you missed.” How does that help?

    Now, suppose you had said, “about two degrees lower and seven degrees to your left.” That’s constructive.

    What I propose is that critics try to be constructive, which in no way precludes honesty.

    And, finally (am I getting paid by the word?), this sports analogy — I don’t think it works. In sports, there are certain set standards: balls, strikes, hits, goals, times, fumbles, tackles, etc, etc. You look at the statistics and if a player does not add up, you lambaste him/her — if that is your inclination.

    In music, there are some standards (intonation, tone, missed notes, et al), but some of the most gifted musicians have not done too well in that regard. Rubenstein, for example, was accused of missing many notes. Szigeti — possibly my all time favorite violinist — was accused of having poor tone. Such things lose importance in the face of that undefined matter called “musicality,” which I cannot for the life of me pin down.

    One thing I know is that most studio-recorded performances are note perfect, but not at all musical.

    Paul

  9. says

    Greg,

    Very good discussion you have going here. I vaued the music criticism of Paul Hume when I was ushering for Constitution Hall back in the day. He was a musician, a good writer, and not afraid of offending the front office.

    The fellow we have down here used to be a business writer from what I hear. He knows music well enough and writes well, but he is such a publicity arm of the local orchestra it is frankly boring as hell to read his reviews–not to say irritating. That, plus his adoring comments on certain members of the orchestra whom he deifies. One sees the same names over and over again.

    I agree with the late Henry Pleasants who didn’t like a critic to parade his knowledge before his readership, but I do think the critic should be someone with a good ear, good judgment, lots of savvy about the game, and enough guts to tell the truth.

  10. says

    Greg, back to one comment you made at the start of this post: “Anyone covering Dell or any other business firm has all the information needed to interpret any new development. While in classical music, the great, immortal art form, no such thing is possible right now.” Dell’s information is public knowledge, because Dell is a public company, required to publish reports that give all that information. If Michael Dell held Dell privately, you might not know much at all about its finances.

    Yes, that’s true, and it’s good that you pointed it out.

    I suppose there’s no legal reason why arts organizations need to make their data public — apart, that is, from what’s on their tax returns. These have to be made public, and can be read at guidestar.com.

    But the fact remains that business coverage by and large is far better informed than coverage of arts organizations is. And also that there’s one main reason why important data isn’t publicly known about arts organizations — the press doesn’t ask for it.

    I’ll repeat one of my reasons why I think this data should be revealed. These organizations receive public funds, and solicit donations from the public. So their true condition becomes a public concern, and ought to be known, even beyond whatever the legal requirements are.

  11. says

    I’m pretty late to the game on this, but I’ll chime in anyway. Like many others, I’m quite nervous about the ability of critics to do what you hope – and even the best critics are always going to be affected by completely normal and unavoidable biases that are inherent in who they are. To listen to music without bias is, in my opinion, a bizarre thing, and the expectation that being bias-free is doable or desirable causes a lot of problems. Unless we’re lucky enough to have three or four critics covering the same events, it’s difficult to put a check on this problem.

    However, one thing that I think could help with keeping critics accountable – and that could help with promoting classical music – is if major organizations routinely posted audio of performances online. The sports world learned long ago that televising events does not keep people away from concerts – meanwhile, it could provide a nice check on reviewers who’d automatically be more accountable for their opinions. Imagine if a sportswriter gave blatantly wrong information about what had happened on a play – it would be difficult to get away with that. Now, imagine that a critic says a singer went sharp or the oboist missed an entrance. (By the way, I agree with others who generally don’t think this sort of scorekeeping should be the focus of reviews.) Doubters could easily check up on this. I know that making this happen isn’t a trivial matter, but I’ve little doubt that it would be good all around.

    I had already been thinking this before noticing today that the Boston Pops is going to start broadcasting live on the internet. Obviously the Proms and other organizations have already found success with this idea, and there are lots of signs (such as this blog) that the Internet could help to make for more lively dialogue in a community of listeners.

    Without disagreeing with you, I’ll note that my original point has gotten a little bit buried. I was talking about reporting about classical music organizations — reporting the facts about them, which would include their reputation inside the business. I wasn’t talking about critics. It’s true that, in the present world, most reporting about classical music is done by critics, who might or might not be capable reporters, in the classic journalistic sense. But that doesn’t mean we can’t propose standards.

    As for objectivity, I agree — nobody should expect critics to be objective. That’s one of many reasons I’ve always written criticism in the first person. Everyone should know that this is only my opinion. A good critic will make his or her biases known, so that frequent readers will learn to discount them. And a really good critic can evoke an event vividly enough for a reader to say, “The critic didn’t like it, but I think I would have, if I’d been there. ” Or, of course, the other way round.

    So if you want to talk about things I wish critics would do, that last would be my ideal.

    Finally, about the poor oboist playing flat. I think my original point has gotten diffused here, as in a game of Telephone (or as the British call it, Chinese Whispers). Of course the point of a review isn’t to nail mistakes that might be made. Critics aren’t cops, issuing tickets for infractions large and small.

    But critics have to hear who’s in tune and who isn’t, where the ensemble is good and where it isn’t, and all other technical situations that arise in a performance. And then these things should be mentioned only when they matter.

    When do they matter? When the oboist is regularly flat. When one of our absolutely top orchestras starts playing with soggy intonation for its music director. That’s a situation I’ve actually seen, and it’s very likely a sign of trouble, evidence that the music director can’t inspire the players to play well any more — and certainly that either the music director can’t hear the problem, or isn’t able to fix it.

    Here’s another real-life example. Some years ago, I was at a performance by a very good orchestra, in a midwestern city. They played a Tchaikovsky symphony. The brass was way too loud. I’d given a pre-concert lecture, and someone in the audience recognized me after the Tchaikovsky, and asked why the brass had been so loud. I could have guessed the answer — the conductor didn’t tell the brass to play more quietly. But I didn’t have to guess; I’d talked to people in the orchestra, and they told me that the conductor hadn’t worked on balance at all.

    So I told this to the person who’d asked me the question. I don’t expect critics to have inside knowledge, to know that the conductor never said a word about the blatant brass. But that the brass was way too loud — critics ought to hear that, and write about it, because it’s a problem, it shows that the conductor wasn’t doing the job, and in any case — people in the audience can hear something wrong, but often wonder if it’s really true, or if they simply don’t know enough to understand what’s going on.