At a concert this winter, I ran into a friend, a practicing lawyer who also holds a degree in music. She admits she is baffled by classical music reviews and wanted to know, “What is the point of music criticism, anyway?”
Um … what is the POINT? I was aghast. As someone who devours music criticism, I was also stumped to come up with an easy answer to a question that sounds simple, but is not. My friend allowed that she could see the point if future ticket sales were involved, as in a Broadway show or a four-week run of an opera, but she didn’t see why a historical account of a one-off concert that will never occur again was worth reading about.
This question is certainly not a new one; it came up recently during New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini’s February “Talk to the Newsroom” Q&A with readers, where he addressed this question, among many others. Tommasini wrote, “Do my reviews sell tickets? I honestly try not to dwell on that too much. With artists and composers I am excited by, especially if I feel that they are not getting their due, I certainly hope that my enthusiasm and advocacy will make a difference. When I really don’t like something, say a lame, clunky and clueless production of a Mozart opera, I do not think about actively discouraging people from going to it. I just try to describe it in a way that makes it sound as ridiculous as I found it to be.”
Clearly, Tommasini doesn’t see his main role as ticket-seller or buzz-killer—though ticket sales or lack thereof are an inevitable byproduct. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the relationship between a Plain Dealer classical music critic and the Cleveland Orchestra has been the source of a longtime dispute regarding the leadership of music director Franz Welser-Möst. In brief, critic Donald Rosenberg has objected in print for years to the orchestra’s musical leadership, and finally the newspaper reassigned him so that he no longer covered the Cleveland Orchestra. A lawsuit against the newspaper, most of which was later dropped, ensued.
Clearly, orchestras and other performers care a great deal about how they are covered in the critical press. In a 1993 Opera News article, Dawn Upshaw explained what she doesn’t like about criticism, and it’s worth restating here. “For people who couldn’t be there, and who value the opinion of that one particular writer, that’s fine. It’s just that I get upset sometimes when I get the sense that the reviewer is writing for the performer’s benefit. That’s not their job. Really their job is to report, and it’s a difficult thing to report, especially when they’re going to seven or eight concerts a week. It must be a very difficult job, and I think they can get battle-fatigued.” She also mentioned the problem of a review’s permanence—the music dies as soon as the last note is played or sung, but a review lives on, regardless of how accurate, well informed, or well written.
Meanwhile, another friend, a composer, takes issue with reviewers who bash music—particularly new music—that they have heard only once, at the world premiere, and may not understand at all. This friend especially objected to numerous reviews by Donal Henahan, the former chief classical music critic of The New York Times, who not only disliked many new works but bashed dead composers, who couldn’t even defend themselves. My friend had a favorite story of a music professor, also a composer, who once said in class that he thought Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was “overrated.” One student, outraged, came up with a comeback: “In light of YOUR body of work, just exactly which aspect of Beethoven’s Ninth to you think is overrated?”
But as to the question “What is the point of criticism?” in the end I can answer only for myself. I read some reviews partly for the reported quality—these are often concerts I wanted to attend but couldn’t fit into my calendar, a sort of “I wonder how it went” curiosity. Other times I read because the critic brings a deep knowledge of a composer or work that could enlighten me about aspects of a performance I wouldn’t otherwise know. I will say that I almost never use a review to make a ticket-buying decision; I’m a lot more likely to do that based on a radio program or recording, previous reports about a singer, or based on some pre-existing interest of mine, like Berlioz or Bach. And I religiously read a few reviewers who not only know the music inside-out but whose prose ranks up there with that of the best writers in any genre.
New York City has such an overabundance of performances that critical reviews help document at least a sliver of them for posterity. There is value to this. And because a review of a one-off concert doesn’t have any ticket-selling aspect attached to it, it’s also a good counterweight to the ever-evolving public-relations machine in the arts—a way to keep things honest. This last is the most important aspect for me, because it prevents cultural hype from having the last word.