End of the line for the overnight critic?

David Herman has written a shrewd piece in The Critic magazine on the decline and fall of the professional theatre critic.

Almost every point he makes can be applied to music criticism, a profession lacking in renewal and flair.

Sample:

 It is hard to think of a leading critic under fifty. There is no new generation in sight. This is unprecedented. Billington was barely thirty when he began at The Guardian, older than Nightingale when he started at The Statesman. Much is made of the fact that Tynan took over at The Observer when he was 27, but Hobson was only 31 when he began as a theatre critic and James Agate was 30 when he began at The Guardian. Beerbohm was younger still, 26, when he began at The Saturday Review in 1898, and Shaw, his predecessor, was not yet forty when he became a theatre critic. Going further back still, Hazlitt was in his thirties when he first saw Kean’s debut as Shylock in 1814. The great critics, in short, always began before they were forty. Who are their equivalents today? Where are the new, young voices in theatre criticism?

Read on here.

 

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  • The very few new young voices in classical music criticism are not critics. Rather, they have been co-opted by artists’ agencies, in despair as they are, to churn publicity puff pieces for their preferred rosters. That is the sorry state of music criticism in a changed landscape in which the cultural importance of serious music is on a steep nosedive.

  • == Who, then, will champion the new and the bold,

    Potential audiences can do their own research, work things out and not rely on the crutch of these finely-honed opinions. It’s a time that’s gone, let’s move on

  • It’s even more true of music critics. Frequently in our “leading” newspapers there’s nothing about classical music.

  • There are two interlinked issues here. First, the development of critical faculties at an early stage and the awareness of the criteria that need to be applied when judging any artistic performance. Second, the ability to write with conviction and precision and in a way which makes people want to read what you have written. These days you can’t be a loser in a school system which encourages ever more star performances at the upper end of the scale: when I was at university ten per cent could expect first-class degrees; now if your alma mater isn’t churning out graduates with at least one-third at the very top something is thought to be seriously wrong. Not everybody can become a brain surgeon but to hear many educationalists speak, you would think that all young people have that potential. We are all judged when it comes to competitions and those that don’t cross the finishing line ahead of everybody else fail to win. A stand-out performance is just that, and no matter how hard others might have tried what is ultimately run-of the-mill needs to be explained in terms of what is lacking and through comparison with the outstanding. However, being unafraid to justify opinions and value-judgements will inevitably put you on a collision course with those who glory in the adulation via social media and profess to having hundreds of friends. Why risk losing any of them by being unduly critical? The ability to write effectively and accurately has for some time now been seriously constrained by inattention to more formal matters like grammar, spelling and punctuation, never mind access to the huge lexical variety of English that comes through extensive reading and not through endless text messaging. The standard of general journalism has never been as low as it is now. Most young writers won’t have a clue if you ask them to explain what a topic sentence. Why does that matter? Because structural form should be part and parcel of the way to convey meaning. Take a look at some of the quality found today in The New York Times or in The New Yorker and the care applied to a seemingly trivial matter like punctuation. In the UK standards rarely rise to such exalted levels. Over two decades ago one UK politician insisted “that the essential message was “Education, Education, Education”. I am still waiting to see the fruits of that in wide swathes of the general population.

    • It is important to recognize stand-out performances, but there is more than one way to do that. But to ignore the perfectly fine, adequate performances as well is wrong.

  • Seriously, why is this a problem? Critics get free tickets to everything, presumably all expenses paid, and then get paid for opinions not shared by everyone. When I go to a concert or the theatre I’m quite capable of forming my own opinion, thank you very much; I don’t need a critic to tell me what to like. Leonard Bernstein, expressing his view of critics, once quipped (and I’m working from memory here), “Who cares if I start a crescendo a couple of bars earlier than shown in the score?” Too much of the criticism I’ve read – and I admit I’ve read a fair bit – seems designed to show readers how clever and knowledgeable some critics are. We just don’t need it.

    • Or written to please other critics, such as record reviewers who obsess over the exact duration of each recording. Such writers are clearly amateurs.

    • Critics generally do get complimentary tickets (do you pay to go to work?) but not “all expenses paid,” whatever that means. The fact that companies continue to operate with this protocol suggests that the artists DO want to see responses by a professional to their work.

      Critics are not there to tell you what to like, or dislike. They are there to tell you what it was like to be in a particular theatre on a particular night. Kenneth Tynan’s articles are literature. As have other great critics’, his have been collected in books. I grew up reading him, and while lamenting that I was not there, I also was — he made me see, and hear, great performances of the modern past. Some of the actors he wrote about in their beginning years went on to very great things — I think particularly of his sighting a promising “little Peggy Ashcroft.”

      Critics have three responsibilities, all equal in importance. The first is to their employers, which is usually a matter of style — a Sun critic would not write in the same manner as a Times one. The second is to their audience/readership: report what went on, in that theatre, on that night.

      The third is to the company and the work. They have to have enough grounding in the writing and the history of theatre, as well as to the society around them, to place the play in question in intelligent context. They also have to accept the realities of a company: they would, or should, not review a student production, with limited budget, possibly cobbled-together venue and costumes and sets, and young people in roles from youth to great age, in the same way they would report the RSC.

      These things are not to show people “how clever they are.” They are to respect what is being presented, and to respect their readership enough to try to communicate it at a level that makes it clear and meaningful.

      And Alexander Hall is quite right above. It DOES require the basic tools that you would THINK (you’d be wrong) a writer comes equipped with: the ability to command one’s own language. (Just as the ability to act used to require as a point of entry the basic ability to speak — pre-Schwarzenegger and Stallone).

      But we live in a time that has abjured reference. People in this day and age appear to have no interest whatsoever in anything that has gone on before, which is why libraries are being stripped of classic works, and why musicians seem to know nothing beyond what they heard on the radio growing up. I recently saw an interview clip (from Graham Norton) involving a very decent and able young man who goes by Will.I.Am. He is very good at what he does, which is rap. But when Miriam Margolyes mentioned the song ‘Smoke Gets in your Eyes,’ and then Cole Porter, he had heard of neither. Not a hanging offence, just typical of his generation.

      Critics will see some things positively, others not. I know for a fact that managements (ore than artists) hate critical reviews. One slagged me off for mentioning that I could not hear a particular singer during the Four Last Songs, and had ruminated on whether the acoustics, inadequate rehearsal with orchestra (which drowned her out) or the lightness of her own voice was responsible. The manager of the house told me that the songs were not really supposed to be heard, they were all of a piece with the music, etc. It was pretty feeble.

      But another time, when I had given a major ballet company a devastatingly bad review of a new ballet by their resident choreographer, a man I liked, I expected to be cut off their comp list. This company had never been anything but welcoming and open to all my requests, and I had a long and good relationship with them. I dreaded meeting them again, but when I ran into their ballet mistress at some other company’s show, she came up to me and said how grateful the company had been for that review. The dancers had known it was “off,” and the choreographer himself, seeing his idea on stage with an audience for the first time, knew he had not cracked it. I was never afraid to meet anyone I had reviewed less than effusively again.

      I have had too much welcome, as a critic, from companies and artists all over the world to believe, as so many here seem to do, that criticism is irrelevant or self-serving. But I put my pens in a drawer, so to speak, some years ago now, and I seriously doubt, without trying to be self-aggrandising, that many of the younger critics have put in half the grunt work I did preparatory to writing a review. I loved to research, to read, to attend rehearsals, to interview people I would never write about but who knew their onions, so the work suited me.

      And I was educated to believe that correct use of language was paramount. (I was in graduate school when some of my undergraduate professors were told, to their horror, that they would have to teach “remedial English” to entry-year students — when I think of the marks I had to produce to be admitted to the honours programme in English!).

      Nowadays people are graduating in English without having done any Shakespeare. Most people I know cannot recognise the most obvious — to me — biblical reference. I had a boss to whom the term “the prodigal son” was mystifying, and an editor who took an article I wrote that I had painstakingly copy-edited lest I committed a typo, and changed the word “violist” to “violinist” throughout. AND the paper refused to run an apology to the artist, despite my pleadings right to the top.

      So until things change, I fear the naysayers will succeed, because the art of criticism — and it is, or was, an art — is dead.

      • I think your very detailed and entirely well founded comment needs a few words of appreciation. This is not back-scratching either. I am completely against the mutual appreciation society that now exists among many in the reviewing fraternity: I see their fawning comments on social media about each other’s reviews and wonder why anybody is enlightened. You made a number of very valid points and I think it is entirely appropriate to say that the best critics never force their opinions on their readers. Ultimately, a critical response will always be subjective. It has to be informed and it has to proceed from an overview about the work and its historical background, but the notion that there is one single best recording of any composition or that any live performance is the “greatest” ever given (yes, I read such drivel from a younger reviewer in London who should have known better) is patently absurd.

    • I admire your sense of adventure and self-confidence. For my part I like to read critics (not blogs) to help me to decide whether I want to go at all. Not that I will blindly follow the critic’s recommendation, but to get some idea of what I might be letting myself in for.

  • Good. No one needs them. No one wants them. The only people bemoaning this in any way are critics.

    Name one artist who loves critics. Name one. They all use the good reviews and ignore the bad. So music criticism as an actual discipline is itself inherently dismissed and devalued by the majority of musicians.

    Again: boo boo. Let it die the death it deserves.

    • Every performer needs quotes of praise from somebody. When it is someone of professional standing, it is more valuable. Without critics, we would then have to rely on the equivalent of book-jacket blurbs by professors and who knows who else. I personally like the comments of the audience.

      • Yes, indeed it was, Charles. I have never quite grasped the point of music critics who are paid to write about a concert for the morning papers on the following day. If I went to the concert, I will have made up my own mind about it and don’t need someone after the event to tell me whether it was a triumph or a disaster.

        If I hadn’t gone to the concert, then I couldn’t care less what a critic said about it. If he said that that Grosskopf’s conducting was flaccid and the visiting Brobdignag Philharmonic was under-rehearsed, then maybe they just had an off-day and perhaps conductor and orchestra didn’t gell, or maybe the work played was beyond them. Or, perish the thought, maybe the critic was just in a peevish mood – perhaps he had just come home the afternoon prior to the concert having had colonic irrigation and the surgeon had mistakenly piped in boiling water and at the concert he just couldn’t get comfortable in his seat.

        Then there’s the phenomenon of the critic who wrote an eloquent review of a performance of Kukpowder’s Third Symphony and it turns out that the work was replaced that evening by Brahms’ First Symphony.

        Critics of recorded performances do perform a useful function, I believe, as they give some guidance of which recordings you might consider buying. I used to love reading The Gramophone, which I first discovered on a news stand at a station from where I was about to depart on a long journey. That was around 1962, when I was a teenager. I read it every month for 37 years until it was sold to the Haymarket company when it deteriorated into an over-formatted comic, overladen with adverts, at which point I switched to the International Record Review, which bit the dust fifteen years later. There’s nothing to replace them; I don’t think the BBC Music Magazine could hold a candle to The Gramophone in its glory days or the IRR, which had minimal advertising and a stellar cast or reviewers.

        • You’ll just have to rely on NL’s Review of the week, then!

          The point of reviewing something that has already happened is like any other journalism. It is covering an event. It preserves a record. Yes, it is one person’s view, but if that person is as prepared as he/she ought to be then it is a part of cultural history. Read reviews by Shaw or Neville Cardus or Tynan or Bernard Levin. They capture elements of their times in a very lively way.

    • as a teen, going to my first concerts and buying my first records, i compared my impressions with the critics’ and learned a great deal. but that was in new york in the 1950s

  • Publishing criticism was never a good idea. A think piece posted sometime after an opening, sure. That would allow time for thoughtful analysis. But no production deserves to be subjected to one person’s opinion. The event should be reported on, but not reviewed, as such. It’s just too destructive, and they are too-often proved wrong.

    • Of course critics are sometimes wrong. Tynan admitted that he had “signally” — his word — failed to see the talent of Harold Pinter in his first exposure to him.

      I once related to a friend what I had thought had been a killingly funny conversation I had overhead two chaps conduct about a movie one had detested (Vanilla Sky). The friend took the view expressed by some here — has he ever made a movie, what right has he to criticise anyone who has finished a product and got it distributed, etc. I said his right is that he had been expected to pay a fairly substantial sum of money for it, and was my friend suggesting that every movie ever made was automatically good? He backtracked quickly, and reviewed his strong reaction — he was a playwright himself, and defensive about doing his best to get something right.

      But he took the point. Artists, too, sometimes get things wrong. And it does nobody, least of all the artists, any favours to pretend otherwise.

  • I don’t know about the rest of the globe but here in Chicago, there used to be a semblance of musical criticism worth it’s salt (vonRhein, Marsh) which has been overtaken by PR departments of the performing organizations themselves.

    Now we’re left with online self-professed “critics” who are generally hostile and believe that they are in control of shaping public opinion in a purely political way just for the sake of power.

    You couldn’t get an objective, informed opinion of a particular performance (or the overall musical scene) from them if your pocketbook depended on it – especially in these times!

  • Too many of the music critics cannot write or hear very well. Many are getting on a bit, but unfortunately the slightly younger generation (including more women) are not proving any better. They look to see certain things, based on their experience of other concerts and other recordings. They then discuss this with each other on Twitter, which becomes a Mexican firing squad of hand-me-down conformist pieties, almost always larded (why?) with uncritically left-wing political and social views. The result is not fresh, direct, and educational but stale, often obtuse and frankly boring. Are we clear now?

    • I have never been n Twitter, except to read an open link. It is beyond me why intelligent people use it. Twitter is for twits.

  • Uh-oh, former (record) critic here. Ah well, fools rush in …

    It seems to me the world is now awash in criticism of theater, TV, movies, music, wines, and oh yes, restaurants. And almost all of it is done for free, with no editor or entity deciding who gets “published” and who doesn’t. Does your computer have a “send” button? You’re a critic! Maybe even an “influencer.”

    Maybe credentials never did matter much. Mine were certainly slender enough – I was a fairly avid writer of letters to the editor of Fanfare about the factual failings of this or that review — back when the letters section was a real snake pit of nastiness — and eventually Joel Flegler called me and said (more or less) “well then YOU write the damn reviews [of violin recordings].”

    The record critic is in a fundamentally different position than the concert music critic or the theater critic. Once the “live” event is past, the actual value or utility of the criticism to the reader seems pretty slender. But the record critic is also dealing with a commercial artifact that is to be sought out and purchased, or avoided. I suppose a review of an on-going play, or the first concert, ballet or opera in a series of repeats, somewhat serves that same function, although I suspect most theater and concert tickets are secured well beforehand. But the record critic can listen repeatedly, can pause and go back and rehear, or can put off the listening until they are in a better mood. We are not surrounded by annoying people. (Although Joel Flegler did ask me to stop mentioning the reactions of my cat to certain recordings.) Reviewing a one-time experience under a tight deadline takes its own skills.

    I would be reminded of the record critic’s highest and best function now and then with postcards or notes from readers, thanking me for at least letting them know a given recording existed. Typing up the headnote with accurate contents, artists, timing and record number was the most work for me, as a rule, and the most appreciated. The opinions themselves are mostly wordy variations on “I like it” or “I don’t like it” or (increasingly, towards the end of my tenure) “I have almost no reaction to this that I can recall.”

    But people DO like to read criticism they agree with, just as they like to read (or hear) news analysis and editorials they agree with. Joel Flegler would sometimes send the same release to two reviewers, when he suspected the reactions would differ. Long-time readers of course came to know the biases and weak spots of the various reviewers. But imagine NPR or MSNBC forcing you to also listen to Fox News’s coverage of the same story!

    Critics, even in the bigger picture, don’t really matter much, as any time at all spent reading and enjoying Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective can testify. Our writings may not end up where Max Reger consigned his bad reviews to, but they have little lasting life (that said I do like reading the collected reviews of Ernest Newman and Virgil Thomson, both for the prose, and it took a will of iron not to steal phrases, and for the look at the concert situations they existed in).

    I think I reviewed or was sent for review about 1000 recordings during my time, and I can recall precisely two letters from artists thanking me for my review. No artist letters told me to go to hell, although one very good (but somewhat obscure) violinist all but told me that at the end of our interview conversation (that part I did not commit to print).

    Maybe all artists hold critics in deepest disdain. But one thing about being a reviewer that was new to me: I was getting press packets from the record companies or the artist’s agencies, about the artists I was reviewing or interviewing, and those packets were stuffed to the gills with (favorable) concert and record reviews (just as the glossy 8×10 photos of the artists were always flattering). Those press packets are the one place where the thoughts of the most obscure scrivener for the smallest of small town newspapers can live on. Sometimes I wonder if that violinist who urged me to go to hell put my interview in her press packet ….

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