AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Examining the role of a critic

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

What is the role of a critic? Does he or she even have a role? Does anyone care?

Judging from responses to my review of the California Philharmonic concert on Aug. 10, the answer to that last question is, “Yes.” Those responses have prompted me to share, as I do every few years, some of the rationales and responsibilities of a music critic, a subject that seems timely as we gear up for another very full indoor music season.

In some ways, it’s easier to say what a music critic is not. A critic is not a journalist, at least if your definition is: “A journalist collects, writes, and distributes news and other information.” One reader questioned whether my recent review was a good example of “objective journalism.” If, in fact, such a thing exists (that term may well be an oxymoron), then the answer is “no.”

There is a vast difference between my role as a journalist and as a critic. When I write preview pieces, news items or features for the paper or my Blogs, I do so as a journalist. Our papers devote a great deal of our small space to upcoming arts performances and I do even more in my Blog (although my full-time+ job has limited my Blog postings lately). We try our best to best and wish we had more space and person power to cover the arts more extensively.

A journalist reporting on a particular concert might write, “The [blank] orchestra performed last night at [blank locale]. [Blank] conducted and [blank] was the soloist. The program was [blank].” These are four of the basic “Ws” we learned in journalism school, but rarely would that be news since most of it was available in advance of the concert.

The one item that might be newsworthy would be the attendance but even that number makes little sense without context and, at any rate, is open to conjecture. If I say that x,xxx people attended, you might well ask two questions: “How does that compare to the event by xxx?” or “how many people does the facility hold?”

If I write that 8,000 people attended a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert at Hollywood Bowl where the capacity is about 17,500, that means the Bowl was less than half-filled. On the other hand (as LA Phil management is always quick to point out) that one concert drew more people than would attend three or four concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Is the glass half-empty or overflowing?

When I write as a critic, I wear a much different hat. My responsibility is to present accurately my feelings about what I saw and heard in a particular concert, offering both good points and weak points. That’s the role — the only role— of a critic. Moreover, it’s a review of one concert; if I had, for example, attended the Cal Phil concert in Disney Hall on Aug. 11, I would have had a different opinion.

That last word is the key. A critic’s role is to write critically about a performance — to give an opinion — but he or she isn’t alone in this regard. I believe that everyone who attends a performance is a critic; even saying “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” as performance is a critical opinion, however minimalist. Thus when one of my responders wrote, “This reviewer got it right,” what he was saying is that he disagrees with my assessment but liked the other one, not that one or the other is “right.” The word “right” is not applicable, unless there are factual errors.

What I hope is that when someone reads my review of a concert they attended, they might think about what THEY heard and saw and either validate their first opinion, change it somewhat, or do neither. Any reaction is okay. That, I submit, is one of the principal functions of a critic.

Another point raised by a responder that when my review is the only one, people who didn’t attend the concert might take that review too seriously because they can’t or haven’t read any others. I’m sorry but that isn’t something that I can correct. Occasionally there are multiple reviews of concerts but in this era of diminishing newspapers, the facts of life are that you may only read one in print. The good news is that, thanks to the Internet, you can often find multiple reviews online if you’re willing to search for them. Don’t take any one review as gospel; treat each as one person’s opinion.

Two other things to note about music critics, both related. As a general rule, today’s critics have adopted a much gentler tone than those of previous generations. When Martin Bernheimer left the Los Angeles Times in 1986 after 31 years as its classical music critic and moved to New York City and when Alan Rich passed away in 2010, the Southland lost the last two of the genre of curmudgeonly critics. For the most part, today’s critics (including myself), for better or worse, seem to have neither the desire (nor, in my case, the talent) to pick up that baton).

Another point to note: when an artist performs, what occurred disappears into the ether of memory. A critic’s words, on the other hand, remain immortalized — for better or worse — perhaps for eternity (certainly in the Internet age). Considering the following reviews of works now considered among the greatest ever written:

“While we are enjoying the delight of so much science and melody and eagerly anticipating its continuance, on a sudden, like the fleeting pleasures of life or the spirited young adventurer who would fly from ease and comfort of home to the inhospitable shores of New Zealand or Lake Ontario, we are snatched away from such eloquent music to crude, wild and extraneous harmonies … The chorus that immediately follows is in many places exceedingly imposing and effective, but then there is so much of it, so many sudden pauses and odd and almost ludicrous passages for the horn and bassoon, so much rambling and vociferous execution given to the violins and stringed instruments, without any decisive effect or definite meaning … “(there’s more but I’m tired of typing; suffice to say that this ranks as one of the longest sentences ever written).

“xxx seemed to us [note the plural pronoun — the style of Kings and Popes] as hard and as uninspired as upon its former hearing. It is mathematical music evolving with difficulty from an unimaginative brain … The noisy, ungraceful, confusing and unattractive example of dry pedantry before the masterpieces of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Gade or even the reckless and every-fluent Rolf? Absurd!”

The first, you may have guessed, was a review of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which was published in The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review of London in 1825, a year after the work’s premiere. The second was a review of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 written in the Boston Advertiser on January 24, 1878.
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BTW: if you’re interested, these two reviews are contained in a marvelous book, Lexicon of Musical Invective, by musicologist, composer, author and critic Nicolas Slonimsky. Among other things you will learn that many Boston critics detested the music of Brahms. The book is a great read for any classical music lover and a must for any professional critic. It’s available from Vroman’s or online booksellers.

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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.