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Thanks for What? Musing on Praise and Blame


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.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I would thank you for an honest review, good or bad. I appreciate finding out what worked and what didn’t work. But I’m only an amateur. For a professional, should a review be a music lesson?

    Perhaps we could explore the different functions of reviews:

    1. Inform the general audience about the event. For movie reviews, this is the most important for the general reader who wants to know which movie would be most suitable to see. For a one-time musical performance this is irrelevant and useless. Perhaps for a performer on tour the newspaper should reprint the review from the previous city on the day before the concert.

    2. Inform and edify the fans. Many of us feel like “insiders” vicariously through the reviews and feature articles. We like to learn about standard and unusual repertoire and how these pieces can be most effectively played.

    3. Marketing and business. Whether you like it or not, you are a kind of “Consumer Reports” for booking agents and producers. A recording tells you if an artist can play well under the best circumstances; the reviews tell you whether he can deliver the goods again and again in a different city each night. Yes, your opinion carries a lot of weight, even as one of many critics’ opinions. It’s normal to want to give thanks to the reviewer for a good review, but maybe it would be more appropriate to thank the piano tuner, the lighting designer and the house and stage managers.

    Comment by Mark Lutton — June 29, 2010 at 3:48 pm

  2. Bravo Mr. Koven:

    Some good points were raised and, in a most interesting manner..


    Comment by Ed Burke — June 29, 2010 at 8:29 pm

  3. Oh, the reviewing, my unhealthy subject…

    I think it is very important to differentiate bad (means negative) reviews and just bad review, or the review written from the standpoint of sub-expectable reference points. I love negative review. I love those bitchy, hard to please reviewers who set standards and expectations insanely high, if they do. It requires a great talent to write great reviews, not less then to compose a great peace. It is no surprise that history keeps much more name of famous composer or performers then the names of great reviewers. The other thing is that no one pays for “better” reviews….

    Still, I think the greatest damage does not come from negative reviews but from those semi-idiotic exuberant reviews that are unfortunately filed all print “paid” publications. The orchestra was out of tune, played the Fists Movement of the Beethoven Second as it was the Offenbach’s can-can and the conductor was so incapable that he was afraid to make eye contact with public, however the “reviews” drools about “great interpretation” and unique vintage sound. I think those “patronage” reviews are something that do the most damage. I wish you professionals would battle them. I wish a musician after an unambiguously bad performance followed by a great review would stand up and inform public that the reviewer was a Moron. Who knows, then we might not have too many Morons-reviewers…

    I am too idealistic?

    Comment by Romy The Cat — June 29, 2010 at 11:12 pm

  4. I was recently offered a review (good or bad it did not say) if I agreed to advertise in a publication. Icky I feel but I know this occurs in many more fields than just music. I take most reviews with a grain of salt, especially about famous and established artists. I attended a final concert of a tour by a major artist who made it evident that he was bored. Standing ovation and great review. pity.

    I often wonder what the reviewer brings to the table in regard to their personal experiences and biases (we all have them!). I don’t like bad reviews based on the taste of the reviewer (ie. “I can’t stand this combination of instruments”), but a honest review is greatly appreciated. I do wish there were more educated reviewers!

    Keep writing ’em

    Comment by aaron — July 2, 2010 at 8:21 pm

  5. I don’t think it is appropriate for any journal to feel compelled to publish rebuttals to reviews, nor to require their reviewers to engage in debate with readers in the aftermath of publishing a review. That said, one of the advantages of a blog format is that anyone, including performers can comment on a blog posting, and we have all become accustomed to reading the comments of various readers. In most cases, the author of the piece that inspired comments does not respond to these comments.

    What I wanted to address is the timing issue. In most cases reviews are about performances that happened in the past, and will not be repeated in the near future. While it may be interesting to those who live vicariously to read about what they cannot experience for themselves, I believe that most of us would prefer to read an intelligent review before seeing a performance, just as we usually read a book review before buying and reading a book, and read a movie review before selecting a movie to see in the theater or even at home. What we want is knowledge prior to making choice, not knowledge after there is no longer an opportunity to make a choice. In some cases, as with runs of operas and plays, opening night reviews are very useful to those of us who would potentially go to the opera or attend the play–what you write may well influence our decision to go, or not to go. But many concerts, particularly local concerts of classical music happen once or twice, and that’s it.

    What if reviewers were to be invited to sit in on a rehearsal, perhaps a week or two before the actual concert, and to write the review and have it published sufficiently prior to the concert that this review could actually impact our awareness of the concert and our willingness to go to it? I know I am suggesting an unusual collaboration between artists and reviewers, but why not? This would enhance the value attached to the review and to the reviewer. And reviews would have more depth if they involved the reviewer coming into contact with the performers.

    I completely agree with the other comments to the effect that the only reviews that are valuable to either performers or audience are those that are well informed and scrupulously honest.

    Comment by Peter Terry — July 25, 2010 at 11:56 am

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