In the fall-out from the ‘Dumpygate’ saga surrounding critical reaction to Glyndebourne’s Der Rosenkavalier, critic-bashing has enjoyed renewed vigour. Using the incident to promote a ‘Battle of Ideas’ debate on the value of music critics and the role they play piqued my interest in attending Saturday’s Free Stage event at the Barbican. Run by the Royal Philharmonic Society, the debate featured speakers approaching the subject from different angles. What is the role of the music critic? Is there a future in music criticism? Are music critics being replaced by amateur bloggers? Both writing and editing for Bachtrack, I was particularly keen to hear views on internet reviewing.

<i>Battle of Ideas</i> panel © Tom Hutchinson
Battle of Ideas panel
© Tom Hutchinson

“Don’t be boring. Don’t be rude.”

Thankfully, ‘Dumpygate’ wasn’t the focus of the debate, effectively chaired by Dr Tiffany Jenkins. It was merely used to kick things off by demonstrating the ire that critics’ words can cause. Amanda Holloway, commissioning editor at Sinfini, offered two rules to critics: “Don’t be boring. Don’t be rude.” Sound advice. It’s important that critics are opinionated… it’s the nature of what we do. If we cannot form strong opinions on what we see or hear, why on earth would anyone want to read us? Holloway’s “don’t be rude” rule is one where boundaries can blur. As a general rule of thumb, “don’t say anything you wouldn’t be prepared to say to the artist’s face” is the best approach.

“There is nothing more exciting than being moved by someone's passion for the music they are listening to,” stated Cathy Graham, director of music at the British Council. The critic’s role is to share that passion, whether to celebrate or to lament a performance where something is lacking.

What should critics review?

Cathy Graham lamented the narrow range of types of performance reviewed, turning her attention towards commissioning editors, many of whom decide where to send their critics. Here at Bachtrack, our reviewers request what they’d like to cover. Whilst I offer a list of suggestions each month, there’s no guarantee anyone in the review team will ‘bite’ and I’d like to think we cover a fair range of interests in our coverage.

Should performers read reviews?

© Tom Hutchinson
© Tom Hutchinson

Tenor Christopher Gillett wisely guarded against the pitfall of performers regarding music criticism as “a justice system” where they are sentenced by unfavourable reviews. I know several singers who claim not to read the critics. I don’t believe them for a second, but I accept that they can be wounded by negative press, so criticism should be related to the performance rather than becoming personal. My beef about the Glyndebourne debacle was less about the description of Tara Erraught’s Octavian as “dumpy” (a deliberate costuming ploy, in my view), but the fact that only two of the five critics concerned wrote anything about her actual singing.

However, this begs the question as to the target audience. Performers may be keen to read feedback and artist managers will scour the column inches for a juicy quote to pluck for their client’s website, but shouldn’t reviews be aimed at an interested public, which may book tickets for that production, or other performances by those artists?

Who does read reviews?

Some audience members at the debate claimed not to read them at all, preferring to trust recommendations by a knowledgeable friend. I’d argue that once you get to know a critic’s writing, especially when it’s been about a performance you’ve attended or a disc you’ve purchased, you slowly build a trust in their opinions. Or the inverse can happen: if a particular critic hates a performance, I know there’s a fair chance I’ll love it!

The internet: “A luxury of space”

© Tom Hutchinson
© Tom Hutchinson

Is there a need for critics at all today? Who is writing reviews? The internet has given the maxim “everyone’s a critic” added impact. While social media makes it possible for a tweeted review of 140 characters, is there still an appetite for something longer and more reflective? Simon Millward, director of Albion Media, refuted the idea that young readers lack the attention span to concentrate long enough to read a newspaper review. But with the advance of bloggers and internet reviewers, are newspaper critics under threat? The printed press is scything through its classical music coverage, so will the shift towards internet reviewing continue? A colleague in the printed press has enviously remarked upon the “luxury of space” I enjoy online. Ever-decreasing word limits have an impact on the amount of detail a critic can impart. However, a pithy review can still be immensely powerful.

Beware ‘cheerleaders’ and endless comparisons

Chief music critic for The Daily Telegraph, Ivan Hewett, sounded a warning about bloggers who were essentially “cheerleaders”, writing rave reviews without a sense of balance. I sometimes worry about 5-star raves which seem more about attracting notice as a writer (or earning coveted press tickets) than offering a fair and balanced account. Hewett also cautioned against drawing endless comparisons in reviews. I agree that whilst it’s important for the critic to have plenty of experience under his/her belt to help put the performance into context, by “shoving that experience down the reader’s throat”, as Hewett phrased it, you threaten “to alienate them by making them feel inadequate”.

Inevitably, the nature of a debate meant that a number of topics were alighted upon, some of which I've chosen to focus on more than others. It was certainly good to hear a range of opinions reasonably argued. 

Ultimately, I want to read critics who can write stylishly, with authority and whose judgements I trust. There are plenty of such writers out there – in print and online – and for as long as classical music is celebrated, they will have a place.