Every so often, a performer or composer expresses gratitude for a good review or indignance at a bad one. Max Reger’s famous response to a bad review, expressed in a letter to the reviewer, was: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. Soon it will be behind me.” We can sympathize with the wounded pride of anyone who has just been publicly impaled in print, and just as easily we can vicariously bask in the warmth of high praise. As a composer, I, like Richard Nixon, prefer winning to losing the critics’ votes. But is it right to give thanks or to spray acid? Is it right for a reviewer to accept thanks — in which case, wouldn’t he or she have to bathe in the acid?
I am one of the reviewers for this publication, and I do not purport to speak for my colleagues here or, for that matter, anywhere. However, from this vantage point it has always made me squirm a bit when a performer or composer has thanked me for a good review. (So far, nobody has communicated to me on the subject of bad ones, so you may consider this essay a kind of pre-emptive strike). There’s something a bit… unprofessional, it seems to me, in giving or receiving thanks or brickbats for the expression of what is, after all, a mere opinion.
None of us who works on BMInt makes our living doing what we do here, but we are all part of the profession of music criticism and reporting. Our job is to tell the reader what we heard, explain the context a little, and, oh by the way, to say whether we liked it or not. In doing all of this we are not, unless someone comes up with clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, acting on the basis of personal advocacy or animus. The music world in Boston is pretty small, and most of us know quite a few of the literal and figurative players, but I think we all try to be disinterested when it comes to evaluating a work or a performance. I for one, and I have seen other reviewers here do likewise, tell you when a composer or performer is a close personal friend; I do not review performances at all by individuals or groups with whom I am closely related, for example by my wife or by organizations on whose boards I sit. OK, once I reviewed a college production for another publication when two of my children were performing, but in such small capacities that there was no need to mention them, and I didn’t.
What does it mean for someone to get a good or bad review? It is, after all, only the expression of one audience member’s opinion that may or may not reflect the opinions of the rest of the audience. Granted, we are all trained or experienced listeners to classical music here, and so if we express a reasoned opinion, one may take it as a reflection of informed judgment; and I will not try to deny that in some contexts, for example when there is only one review of a particular concert (not our fault, folks: we’re only here because there are too many concerts in the Boston market where there were *no* reviews at all), a review can be helpful or unhelpful to the subject’s career. I do find it hard to believe, though, that one review is going to make or break anyone; it’s only in the context of the weight of opinion that it could possibly matter. That said, as professionals we do not hand out praise and rebuke as barter, party favors, or coals in the Christmas stocking. We’re only telling it as we heard it. Moreover, the people who create, present, and perform the music the public hears are certainly the subject of our attention, but they are not the object: the object is information for the broader public. We depend for our legitimacy not on the rise or fall in the market value of composers and performers but on the public’s trust that we tell as accurately as we can what is happening in the world of classical music hereabouts.
It is a fair comment that a reviewer didn’t get the point of what he or she described, and therefore that the opinion was not soundly based. That, of course, can be as true of a good review as a bad one, though we’re not terribly likely to hear about it in the former case. One must, however, take with a grain of salt the contention from the object of a “bad” review that the analysis of the music or the performance must be faulty. To maintain that sort of attitude, if anyone does, would be a bit… unprofessional. It is certainly possible (and probably usually the case) that a dissatisfied reviewer got the point perfectly well but didn’t think the point was adequately communicated. Or, perhaps, that the point wasn’t valid, in which case I think the reviewer owes a more detailed explanation. De gustibus and all that.
What is perfectly understandable, perfectly reasonable, perfectly satisfactory, is an expression of pleasure that a reviewer enjoyed the performance and/or the piece, or regret that the reviewer didn’t. An expression like that does not imply any sort of quid pro quo, dependency, or right answer/wrong answer dichotomy. Glad you liked it; sorry you didn’t. Next time maybe you’ll see things the same way or differently.
Fine by me.