Guest post by Sylvia Segal

Sylvia is a music-lover and The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s most longstanding reader


Dear Fran,

Your blog’s 10th anniversary reminded me that I’ve been meaning to send you a musical message. Lockdown has meant a lot more listening time which, though solitary, has been a great pleasure.

As you know, I have a tendency to have mini love affairs with selected composers, meaning that temporarily I listen to little else. You’ll remember my ‘Chopin period,’ I’m sure. Before that there was Ravel. And Mendelssohn’s chamber music. Bach puts in an appearance regularly, as does Haydn, who always lifts my spirits. And so on.

Anyway, lately it’s been all about Schubert’s piano sonatas for me. Not necessarily the final three, but early and middle ones. Years ago, I bought a 7-CD set of them, played by Ingrid Haebler. The earliest sonata on there is no. 3, and already he’s modulating in a way that reminds me of a tightrope walker without a safety net! It makes me smile to hear him tie himself up in knots, only to untie them a moment later, as if by magic.

Beethoven famously remarked that the piano “couldn’t sing,” but I think Schubert put paid to that idea. (And Mendelssohn.) If you’re able, listen to the slow movement of Schubert’s sonata in B major (D.575). It’s a song. It IS a song. A beautiful, sad one.

On the subject of whether the piano sings or not, I have never forgotten the study day that Robert Levin presented at the British Museum about the evolution of the piano. Focusing on the period that is his forte (sorry, pun), late 18th/early 19th century, he made the very interesting point that composers like Mozart and Haydn didn’t expect the piano to sing, they wanted it to SPEAK, in the manner of well-argued discourse or civilised conversation.

I was reminded of this in Paris in February, where I picked up a free copy of the New York Times in our hotel, and read an article about John Eliot Gardiner entitled “Treating Beethoven as a Revolutionary.” It was about rehearsing Beethoven’s symphonies with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in connection with Beethoven 250 (I expect those performances didn’t happen, sadly), and he said something that really struck me:

Another thing I think is important [as well as the clarity and exhilaration you can achieve with original instruments] is to encourage the players to “speak” their lines, so that each phrase emerges as a kind of sentence made up of words that they articulate with consonants as well as vowels. Beethoven, it seems to me, is asking for declaimed narration. He conceives of his symphonies as developing and dramatic narratives, and that, in turn, demands an acutely conscious declamatory approach from the players.”

So interesting! I do often think of music as a language, and individual composers’ styles as their ‘handwriting.’ This wordless language has its own structure, vocabulary, grammar—none more so than the music composed around the time of the Enlightenment. Mozart and Haydn spoke it fluently and effortlessly, and we as listeners need to be familiar with the rules of the language before we can experience the thrill that comes when we hear them broken.

Beethoven and Schubert – both voracious readers – inherited this formal language. But I think they became less and less interested in the discourse/conversation aspect, focusing rather more on what Gardiner calls “dramatic narratives.”

Lockdown has afforded me time to think more about the music I’m listening to, which is one of the many good things that have come out of it. A good friend and I keep marvelling at how unconstrained we’ve felt (I know, a contradiction!), and how the extra time we’ve had has not been a burden. Rather, it’s been a gift.

I’ll leave you on that happy note.

With love and warmest congratulations on The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s tenth birthday,

Sylvia


A note from The Cross-Eyed Pianist:

Sylvia is a good friend of mine and, when she lived in London, a very keen concert-goer, especially at the Wigmore Hall. It was Sylvia who encouraged me to start going to classical concerts again, when my son was at an age when he could be left more happily with a babysitter, and we have enjoyed many memorable concerts together. Sylvia was this blog’s first reader and remains a loyal supporter (and eagle-eyed proof-reader!).

 


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I really didn’t expect to be writing this post…

When I started this blog in the summer of 2010, I did so without any expectation that it would be anything other than a place where I could write about the music I was listening to on CD and in concerts, the piano music I was learning and my experiences as a piano teacher. I certainly didn’t expect anyone to read my musical ramblings! But read they did, and some readers left comments and so conversations and a sense of community developed across the internet.

Ten years ago, blogging was still a relatively new form of writing/journalism; today it is almost de rigueur to have a blog, and some have become very well known, often independent voices which provide a refreshing, sometimes non-mainstream, perspective. For many of us who blog, it is simply a way of sharing a passion – whether it is music, food, cycling or knitting – and a means to connect with other likeminded people.

My passion is classical music, and particularly the piano – the instrument, its literature and the exigencies of being perhaps the most solitary of musicians, a pianist. When I first started writing this blog, I had been playing the piano seriously for about four years, having returned to the instrument after an absence of some 20 years. Part of the motivation behind the blog was to share my experiences as an “adult returner”, the pleasures and frustrations, what it felt like to take lessons again as an adult, performing (in both exam and public settings), connecting with other pianists, attending piano courses, and more. Often after a piano lesson, I would rush home to write down what had happened, giving me an important opportunity to revisit the nuts and bolts of the lesson, and distill and share the knowledge with others. I also charted my progress through three performance diplomas via this site, an action which a concert pianist friend of mine described as “very brave”, whereas I just saw it as a way of sharing my learning outcomes in the hope that others might find my experiences helpful, and maybe even inspiring.

As the blog has evolved – and I have always felt that a blog needs to offer plenty of variety and regularly updated content – I have found myself drawn further into the world of British classical music (again, a place I never expected to be!), and in the last five years in particular, with my reputation more established, I realised that this was where I’d always wanted to be. I feel comfortable in the presence of other musicians, whether professional, student or amateur, music professionals, and fellow bloggers, reviewers and journalists in a way I never felt in my previous career, and I welcome and appreciate the opportunities the blog has given me to attend concerts, CD launches, music courses and many other events.

Launching the Meet the Artist interview series in 2012 has given an extraordinary insight into the creative lives of musicians and composers, offering a glimpse beyond the concert platform and the notes on the score into the day-to-day lives of these remarkable people, and debunking some of the traditional preconceptions surrounding classical music and musicians. The interviews are fascinating, honest (sometimes painfully so), entertaining and inspiring.

But for me the most gratifying aspect of blogging is the connections I have made and the wonderful interactions and conversations that regularly take place via this site and also on social media (where I probably spend far too much time!). I’ve made friends through this blog, in both the virtual and real worlds, and I really value these connections which have seemed even more significant during these long months of lockdown.

Just as a concert is not a concert without an audience, this blog would be nothing without its readers, of whom there are now some 25,000 per month (a figure which continually amazes me). So I must first thank everyone who reads, shares and comments on the articles contained here.

A huge debt of gratitude must also go to musicians and composers, not only those who have taken part in the Meet the Artist series, but also those whose music I have heard in concert and on disc, who engage in this remarkable activity in a profession which is tough, competitive and precarious (and never more so than now).

I would also like to thank all those people who contribute guest articles to the site. Your contributions keep the site fresh and give readers an opportunity to hear different voices and opinions.

Whether I will still be writing this blog in another 10 years’, or even 5 years’ time, remains to be seen, but while it continues to interest me to do so, and while there is the inspiration and motivation, I will keep writing.

 

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

 

This month, this site reaches its 10th birthday and I’d love it if you would join the celebrations. There are a number of ways in which you can join in and be featured on this site:

  • Send a recording of you playing some music – it can be anything – and if possible include a few lines about the music and why it’s special to you (perhaps you spent the long weeks of lockdown learning it?)
  • Compile a playlist on YouTube or Spotify
  • Write a guest article on any music-related subject

The celebrations will continue all month, so please feel free to submit your contribtions over the  coming days and weeks and I’ll upload them as they come in.

There are also celebrations taking place over on The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s Facebook page and of course I’ll be tweeting all the wonderful contributions you send in.

One of the most significant aspects of this blog for me, as its creator, is the sense of community that surrounds it, and the important connections and conversations it sparks. I’ve made so many new friends as a result of the blog, in the virtual world and in real life – all connected by a shared love of music, and for many, like me, a passion for the piano.

Use the Contact page to get in touch

I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Frances

The Cross-Eyed Pianist

A conversation with Jon Jacob who blogs at Thoroughly Good

JJ: I read a few reviews this morning with star ratings. I’m reminded how they much they annoy me. I’m not entirely sure why they do. I was hoping our exchange might help me understand why a bit better.

Basically, I just think rating someone’s performance is a bit odd. Mean really. By stating how many stars you thought someone’s performance was you’re kind of elevating yourself – making out that your criteria for judging whether something is good or not is valuable.

What really irks is that so much marketing stuff makes use of these star ratings. Because when that happens that rating process is legitimised.

Do I need to lighten up? Am I missing something?

CEP: I have always been uncomfortable with the star rating system for reviews and was acutely aware of it when I wrote for an international concert listings and reviews site where star ratings were de rigueur. For me, when reviewing, it meant that I had to always been thinking “is this a …. star performance?” and the aforementioned site actually had guidelines for reviewers to help them decide whether the performance deserved five stars or fewer. Awarding three stars often felt quite mean-spirited to me – being in the middle of 1 and 5, 3 feels like you’re saying “it was ok”, when in fact it was quite obvious to me, being a musician myself, that the performer had clearly spent hours and hours preparing for the performance and was maybe just having an off day at the concert, for whatever reason (something I think many reviewers – and audiences – don’t appreciate: performers are human too and a disrupted journey to the venue, feeling under par and a whole host of other factors can affect one’s performance…..)

From the reader’s point of view, I think star ratings are very limiting, especially if they are published at the head of the review (as is common practice). The reader/potential audience may see a low star rating (and I think a lot of readers think 3 stars signals “mediocre”) and not bother to read on. There is, of course, a converse argument – that a one-star review might pique one’s interest to actually read the review and/or go and hear that performer out of curiosity.

As I think you know from my writing on this subject and our conversations, I do not think it is the reviewer’s role to “rate” the performance; nor do I think music performance can be rated via such a rudimentary metric as stars. We are not talking about hotel accommodation here where the criteria for star ratings are more easily comprehendable! I believe a music review should be a record of the event and as such serves to place the concert in context (for example, a composer anniversary or a premiere of a new work). I believe we still need to record the activities of performers/composers via intelligent, well-informed and well-written music criticism – in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. Such writing prevents mediocrity and dumbing down, and, I hope, encourages variety, authenticity and objectivity. Unfortunately, I feel the star rating system discourages all of this by putting an undue focus on “rating” the event rather than describing it and bringing it to life for those who weren’t there.

I agree with your comment about the value of star ratings for marketing purposes and this troubles me for the same reasons you express. And to describe someone as a “five star performer” seems to me be an anodyne and lazy way of presenting what might be a really exceptional artist. Sadly, in our feedback-driven culture, where undue emphasis is placed on customer reviews on sites like Amazon or TripAdvisor, I don’t think we can easily escape this…..

JJ: Your response reminds me of the challenge in art music at the moment. On the one hand we want more people to enjoy it. I want people to experience a similar thrill discovering personal insights about the art. Such insights can’t be documented as a criteria or expectation from listening. They are by definition personal and distinctive. A Haydn sonata’s impact on you will be different from the impact it has on me, for example.

How do we report on a performance authentically and respectfully without stating implicitly or explicitly that the performance should be performed one way or the other? And how do we style that reporting such that it advocates attentive or active listening rather than promoting an erroneous requirement of prior knowledge in the subject? It’s as though we need to promote listening, rather than the content.

In that way, I’m not entirely convinced that star ratings support that approach to documenting events or promoting active engagement in performance.

There’s a personal perspective too. What if the star ratings apply to a soloist rather than an ensemble? Does the person using the rating mechanism have a responsibility for the way the rating might be interpreted by a large audience (ie the rater’s intent maybe entirely different from the audience/reader interpretation)?

I also don’t get the point in rating a live performance which is by definition a one-off. Fine for opera because there’s a run of performances, but a one off concert seems a bit odd.

But still, I wonder whether there’s another perspective I’m missing.

CEP: I agree re. star ratings for opera (or theatre/film, for that matter) – stars are more relevant if there’s a run of performances.

I’d love to know how much store audiences/potential audiences really set by star ratings (maybe we should run a survey?!). Do people really select concerts by performers who’ve received favourably ratings on the basis of those ratings (I know I don’t), or are there wider criteria (such as reputation of performer, venue, programme etc – the last point being my usual criteria for selecting a concert)? Do they think “oh I’ll book to hear Trifonov because he always gets 5-stars”? Not sure…. and I think audiences are actually far more discerning than mainstream reviewers/promoters give them credit for.

Your response ties in with something else I am pondering – the apparent need to find “meaning” in everything, specifically in classical music as a way, perhaps, of validating it or making it relevant to people today. In an way, reviews are complicit in this by trying to express meaning (whether it is actually there or not in the music) to the reader. It seems we can’t simply report on the concert, describing the sounds the performer/s made, the quality of the performance, our personal response to it. Everything must be freighted with meaning or “relevance”. The music is not simply allowed to “be”, or be “entertainment” (in the best sense of that word)… But I digress slightly.

When I was reviewing regularly, I would quite frequently receive comments from other people who had attended the same concerts and who might take issue with something I had said in a review. For example, I was accused of being “far too generous” to a very elderly pianist (now sadly no longer with us) because his Chopin performance was “riddled with errors and inconsistencies”, and why hadn’t I documented them? But I don’t believe it is my job as a reviewer to highlight a performer’s errors (unless they are really dreadful, in which case I simply wouldn’t write a review); nor do I think reviewers/critics should seek to tell the musicians how to do their jobs.

My personal “crusade” – and I think this is a sentiment we share – is to encourage people to enjoy classical music and to debunk this silly notion that one needs to be well-informed, knowledgeable or educated to a certain level in order to “appreciate” it. Unfortunately, some of the more high falutin or pretentious writing on classical music isn’t helping; but I also think people are becoming more suspicious of mainstream critics and reviewers and are turning instead to independent review sites/blogs where they can find longform/more considered writing which has a more personal/authentic voice to it.

JJ: We agree. For me I experience unfamiliar works, familiar ones, or new compositions as a journey of self-discovery. What or how the composer or performer does is of secondary importance to the effect their work is having on my emotions. That for me is the thrill of this art form. Being able to articulate when it works and when it doesn’t takes more than just a rating.

What I keep coming back to in our exchange here is the responsibility on the mediator – be it marketer, journalist, critic – to advocate the art form in a respectful way that pays deference not only to the effort involved in creating it, but also emphasises the listeners contribution to the end product.

I’m not sure I’ve arrived at the best way of achieving that preferred mediation, but I’m working on it.

It’s been an interesting and busy year, marked in May by my move from London, my home for 30+ years, to a quiet corner of Dorset – the isle of Portland on the striking Jurassic Coast. Leaving London and its vibrant culture, not least a wealth of classical music which I have much enjoyed, might have felt like a huge wrench, but in fact I don’t miss the big city, and I am already discovering plenty of music here in Dorset.

In addition to allowing me to muse on things musical, the blog keeps me in touch with a large community of people, some of whom have become good friends in real life, and this has undoubtedly prevented me from feeling at all lonely or isolated here in Portland. In a way, I enjoy the best of several worlds: we live in a light-filled modern house, far bigger than anything we could have afforded in London, with views over Chesil Beach and the sea, and fantastic Turner-esque sunsets in the evening. My son lives in a flat in SW London, which means I can still visit to see friends and enjoy concerts and other cultural highlights, before retreatng once again to a place whose quiet and slower pace of life are very conducive to writing and piano practise.

People regularly ask me how I continue to produce so much “content” (an on-trend word for articles/writing). The truth is that I love music and I love writing about music and sharing my passion. Articles are inspired by encounters and conversations with other musicians and writers, concerts I’ve enjoyed, things I’ve heard on the radio, and much, much more….and while that inspiration remains, so the blog will continue (it will celebrate its 10th birthday in July 2020).

A big thank you to all my readers, followers, guest contributors and wonderful Meet the Artist interviewees, all of whom make the blog so interesting and varied.

Wishing you a very happy and music-filled 2019