From A Critic's Perspective
Our whole life can sometimes feel like one giant mark sheet. The most common thought after we finish our final recital is usually, 'I cannot wait to perform without a panel there to mark me.' But enter the profession and there's a corner of the audience marked out specially for the panel of the outside world... the music critics. As part of my degree and as part of music journalism in general, music reviews will make up quite a large part of my writing - does that now make me the bad guy? The fallout from the notorious journalist reducing classical music to clickbait has made the relationship (as far as I can see) between the performer and penman strained to almost breaking point. Determined, perhaps naively, that there can be a good working relationship between both sides, I spoke to one of the UK's top music critics, chief culture writer at the Times newspaper, Richard Morrison.
So Richard, let's start with the practicalities. What is your process when writing a review? Do you write notes during the concert? I do actually but I'm think I'm in quite a small minority. I always look around, you know, because they always put critics together (which I don't like, it feels very clicky) and I don't see anyone else writing. I take notes, part of it's useless because most of the time you're writing in the dark so you can't really read what you've written, but the process of writing something down embeds it into your mind. I find I don't refer to them very much when I then go back and write the piece. Firstly because they're often very elliptical and secondly, once I start writing it's more important to get the flow of the piece. You're not writing an essay where the examiner will tick the points as you bring them up. I find if I don't write a piece as a stream of thought it won't read very well! When you're writing a review for a concert where friends are performing, how do you strike that tricky balance between maintaining a good relationship and writing an honest review? It is very hard to be popular and indeed you shouldn't try to be. In fact, very good critics who can't cope with that degree of separation from the profession, basically give up. I've seen top service critics be too nice to put the boot when it had to be done, so now they still write a lot but it's not critical writing it's more introducing people to new music or introductions to the Proms, that sort of thing. I would also say that, in our defence, it is very hard to get into the mindset of everybody that you're reviewing but nevertheless, it has to be done. Especially when it comes to new music, there are umpteen different genres and composers trying to go their own way. It's very hard to come to everything, both fresh and with sufficient empathy, so that you can understand what everyone's trying to achieve. With events that are away from the mainstream in particular and involved often cross-over genres you often think, 'God I'm so unprepared compared to these people who have been thinking about this event for months and months.' The only way around that I find, is to say, well actually, if they want to attract an audience that isn't just their friends, they're going to have to attract people like me who are coming to it afresh. Thinking of it in those terms, does it immediately speak to me? Recently, reviews that comment on concert dress and appearance have received backlash. When it comes to reviewing a concert what is the critic's focus, should one comment on someone's appearance for a review? Well, I was rather badly mauled on social media seven or eight years ago at Glynbourne in a review of their Rosenkavalier where a very good Irish singer was singing the role of Octavia, obviously dressed like a boy. The costume was so awful that it hung around her like a sack of potatoes and I wrote, 'her portrayal of the role was unsightly' - that was the word I think I used. I was totally taken to task because everyone thought I was referring to her looks when of course the remark was on her costume. I had to apologise and clarify I was talking about the way she was dressed but since then I've been really sensitive about two things: One, I don't comment on what people are wearing I mean in opera it's fine because it's a costume, but on the stage I have only done it occasionally when someone is wearing something out of the ordinary. For example when Nigel Kennedy dressed up as Dracula because he said the Baroque concerto was about death. You're silly to mention it, I mean I certainly wouldn't for example mention Yuja Wang. It's a cliché to mention the fact you can see her legs etc. The second thing is that I won't comment on how fat or thin someone is. It's a super sensitive issue with singers in particular. It's difficult because when you're playing a role in La Bohème for example, and you're supposed to be wasting away and you're clearly not, it defies logic. But then, so many things defy logic in performances that I just think fair enough. It upsets people to have any kind of reference to their appearance and it's not relevant. There are plenty of other things to write about. Maybe that's cowardly but that's the way I want my writing to go. I mean I'm surprised Norman wanted to go there at all. You wrote a brief appreciation piece on the late composer Harrison Birtwistle that received a lot of negative responses. How do you deal with backlash or negative comments? First of all, I think we're the only paper now that doesn't censor very much. Even the Guardian who you would have thought would be much more liberal than us don't tolerate the sort of personal abuse from their readers. Arguably we shouldn't either, I mean sometimes the readers really stick the knife in. You find also that certain things trigger those types of comments and it's usually the headline. People don't often bother to read the piece, they just respond to the headlines especially anything to do with the "woke wars", you know this culture battle that going on. The Times has a minority (but a loud minority) of readers strongly pro Brexit and large supporters of Boris Johnson, who will heavily knock anything they think is woke behaviour or articles. I think for some reason Harrison Birtwistle fell into this category even though I have no idea whether he was for or against leaving Europe. He became like a magnet for everybody who thinks that Britain is run by a sort of liberal elite, who love atonal music - the comments were just outrageous! I wrote another column defending the right to say what I felt. I feel it's not really a debate about the quality of the music it's a debate run by people who don't actually listen to the music, you know, but nevertheless, feel that they've got to say what they think. So finally for the performer reading your review, what would you say to them? I think it's very hard for performers, because there aren't as many of us writing about music as there were 50 years ago, and certainly not in the published national press. But to get that review, in the Times or the Guardian, is quite an achievement in itself. It's only natural the performer will look at every word and think what does he mean by that? Or, you know, how dare she say that? I think that sort of sane response is, first of all, it's only one person's opinion, and it's an opinion that is subjective. Secondly, that person is only doing their job, if they are critical, they're only trying to do their job. Thirdly, they don't bear you any personal malice. They're not out to get you, they're just trying to give an honest appraisal of what they heard and saw that night. It's very hard if you put so much into a performance to distance yourself enough but I think it gets easier as you get older. I mean I've had some very awkward situations where I've had to interview someone just after giving them a less than ecstatic review, and the older people are the more they pretend not to have read it. Neville Marriner said once after a situation like that, 'my dear chap you are doing your job. We're doing ours and you're doing yours.' John Eliot Gardiner always said, 'Oh, I never read reviews.' You know, he's telling a fib but it's a way of saying you're not going to get phased by them. It's always easier if you've come from a performance background because you always know how hard it is to do the other persons job.
Perhaps my naivity can survive another day! Hearing the opinions and processes behind the man writing some of the most read and relied upon reviews, has drawn a clear conclusion that music reviewers, like performer, are just doing their job. More importantly there is a clear divide between the good reviewers who have boundaries and care about the art from those who reduce it to hemlines and personal attacks. Hopefully with people critically choosing where they read their reviews, the poisonous clickbate reviewer will fail to hold any sway. If I had my way people wouldn't send their news to critics like that at all (send it to me instead...) Next time on the blog, we speak to our next brilliant graduate ready to spill the beans about their reality of graduate life and how they've navigated the tricky transition from studying into profession. Until next time,