I had a polite but frank exchange several weeks ago with the general manager of an ensemble. After she authorised our use of their press photos, I sent a link to my published review. She enjoyed reading it – my verdict was generally very positive – but professed that her “heart sank” at seeing the 3-star rating. The implication was that, having survived the pandemic by the skin of their teeth, they deserved to be cut some slack and awarded a couple more of those spangly stars. 

My heart sank too. Three stars is a positive review, but too often it is interpreted by the public – and promoters – as a bit “meh”... and it’s really not. Bachtrack is one of the few sites that publishes its star rating criteria. In any review, hover your mouse over the question mark by the star rating and you’ll see this:

“An event that generally lived up to expectations” – which this concert certainly did. When our writers request to review a performance, one would hope that they go into it with high expectations and that the repertoire or performers – or both – appeal. A performance that generally delivers the goods is clearly 3*. 

Could I have awarded a fourth star? “An excellent event that will be one of the best things you’ve seen this year” No, it was good, but it wasn’t one of the best things I’d seen this year. It wasn’t even one of the best things I saw that week. To maintain integrity, I had to give it an honest rating. 

But it’s all relative. I could well have been at that concert with another of our reviewers who perhaps doesn’t experience the same range of performances or get to as many concerts as I’m lucky enough to attend. Maybe for them, it could have been one of the best things they’ve seen this year. As an editor, I do find our reviewers tend towards the over-generous on these things and I sometimes have to question a 4* rating that doesn’t read like a 4* review. 

Perhaps the problem is in our descriptors. The only time I regret not having awarded something 5* was Romeo Castellucci’s Salome at the Salzburg Festival. I had some reservations about the production, but it – and the performance of Asmik Grigorian – knocked me sideways. “One of your best experiences ever.” It was. “An event that you will remember happily and be talking about in five years time.” Well, it was nearly four years ago now, but it is still most definitely seared into my memory. 

Asmik Grigorian (Salome)
© Ruth Walz (2018)

My reservations about the production – which still persist – got the better of me. Perhaps I was also conscious that I’d already awarded 5* to another Salzburg production the night before. Was I trying to avoid looking like a pushover? 

It maddens me that the star rating is what people latch onto in a review. It maddens me that so much work goes into getting a performance onto a stage or concert platform and all readers and promoters are interested in is the star rating. It also, frankly, reduces the writers' efforts in providing a thoughtful response to what they’ve seen to a few stars. At least Bachtrack, in common with publications like The Financial Times, places the star rating at the foot of the review to encourage the reader to engage with the actual writing first. But then, I wonder how many scroll straight to the bottom first. “How many stars?” 

Isn’t it time we just scrapped star ratings altogether and allow the writers' words to do the talking?