ArtMuseLondon is a sister site of The Cross-Eyed Pianist, focusing on reviews of art exhibitions and music written by people with a keen interest and an intelligent, honest and accessible approach. ArtMuseLondon covers exhibitions, concerts, opera and chamber music, CD and book reviews, and general cultural musings. The quartet of reviewers are selective about what they see and hear and don’t “review everything”. Instead, they choose to write about the exhibitions and music which interest them personally.

Recent highlights include reviews of this season at Opera Holland Park, exhibitions at Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Barbican, and the world premiere of a new choral work by composer Richard Blackford in Poole.

Do take a look at the ArtMuseLondon website if you enjoy intelligent, longform writing on art and culture, and follow the site to receive new articles direct to your email inbox.

ArtMuseLondon is also on Twitter at @ArtMuseLondon


Meet the ArtMuseLondon team

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Jacky Colliss Harvey has worked in museum publishing for over 20 years, and speaks and lectures regularly on the arts and their relation to popular culture. She is the author of the best-selling RED: A History of the Redhead, and The Animal’s Companion.


Karine Hetherington

Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer of novels, who also blogs on art and music. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine promotes singers and musicians performing in the fast-growing Kensington and Olympia Music and Arts Festival. When she is not writing about music, she likes to sing in her local choir or tackle piano sonatas, some of which are far too difficult for her.


1085-6365-nm_photo Nick Marlowe studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art and History at Cambridge University. After working for thirty years in the book trade he is now a freelance writer and artist. Formerly a reviewer for OneStopArts, a spin-off from Bachtrack.com, Nick has also reviewed for US-based art and culture site CultureVulture.net.


FranceFrances Wilson pianist and writers Wilson is a pianist, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. A keen concert-goer, she writes music reviews for her blog and is a regular writer for classical music website InterludeHK. She also curates playlists for classical music streaming service IDAGIO, and has written for Pianist Magazine, The Schubertian (journal of the Schubert Institute of the UK), Bachtrack.com and Classical Music Magazine.

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.

I’m very fortunate, living in London, to have access to a wealth of live classical music. I could be at a concert every night of the week, if I chose to be (except that my family start to moan and rebel if I am out more than twice a week….). I love live music, and have done since I was a little girl when my parents used to take me to concerts by the CBSO at Birmingham Old Town Hall.  I am also lucky enough to be able to combine my love of music with writing about it, through this blog, my reviewing and my writing for a number of other classical music websites around the world.

I’ve been reviewing concerts regularly since 2011 and in that time I have often pondered the value of reviews. Music criticism (by which I mean critiquing and reviewing live music and recordings) has changed a great deal, thanks in no small part to the internet and the consequent rise of online review sites and blogs, and the ease with which people can access information and opinions. Because of this, reviews and critiques could be seen to be losing their significance as people go to the web for information. Back in the old pre-internet days, we sought out newspaper and specialist journal reviews to be informed whether it was worth going to this exhibition at the Tate or how Barenboim performed  in London, and respected critics were often held up as the well-informed arbiters of taste and culture. Today everyone has an opinion.

I’ve never regarded myself nor my writing as particularly special or important, and as a reviewer I certainly don’t regard my opinions or thoughts on a concert or artist as the last word…..I’m neither a professional music critic nor a music specialist and generally write from the point of view of the “punter” – the keen concert-goer with a decent smattering of musical knowledge, an inquisitive approach (which enables me to, hopefully, do the right kind of research and preparation for my articles) and a special interest in the piano, its players and its literature. My fundamental intention in my reviews is to give the reader a flavour of “being there” at the concert.

When I go and hear “great” or “legendary” artists in concert, the real top-flight performers such as Martha Agerich, Murray Perahia, Richard Goode, Stephen Hough or Mitsuko Uchida, I seriously question what this reviewing lark is all about. When we go to concerts by these artists we expect a certain level of extremely high-quality performance, and we nearly always get it. Even if the performer is having an off day or is ill, they are generally able to pull off a superb performance. So if we know these artists are going to play brilliantly, why do we need to review their concerts?

Certainly these artists don’t really need the endorsement of critics and reviewers: sure, it’s gratifying to read a flattering write up, but it’s hardly necessary because these are artists who have validated themselves and their work time and time again through their consistently excellent playing. Do glowing reviews of these artists simply confirm their greatness? Do they guide potential concert-goers to book a ticket the next time Argerich comes to town? If we know these people are so good, why review them?

A concert is usually a one-off event, unlike theatre runs or film screenings where a review might encourage, or discourage, one from attending. On this basis, one could argue that it’s fairly pointless reviewing a one-off concert that has passed, and by the time the review is published, the critic’s opinion may hold little interest or value for the reader/prospective concert-goer. But I think concert reviews serve a slightly different purpose, and this is the reason why I continue to write reviews.

A review is a record of the event and serves to place the concert in context (for example, a composer anniversary or a premiere of a new work). Whatever the source of the writing, good constructive criticism can encourage and publicise new talent or confirm or rediscover old talent, and encourage others to seek it out. Reviews also contribute to the history of an orchestra or ensemble, a piece of music, the career trajectory of an artist. Additionally, and importantly, criticism, whether it’s negative or positive should be about “a dialogue between the art form and the public” (John Allison)

Some argue that reviews are redundant and without value, and that newspapers, journals, music websites and blogs should instead offer previews of upcoming concerts and events. There is some justification in providing such content: advance feature stories may better serve readers by giving them an opportunity to make plans to attend something, but there again, I do not believe it is my job, nor indeed that of a mainstream newspaper or journal, to sell tickets to concerts and fill concerts halls. Nor are advance stories necessarily good pieces of writing/criticism, often being constructed from press releases and similar material.

So we continue to review concerts by the greatest living artists and the new and emerging talents, and all those in between – and why? Because I believe we still need to record the activities of these performers 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.

John Ireland (1879-1962)

 

The splendidly intimate and elegant 1901 Arts Club played host to Steinberg Duo on Friday evening in a concert of music by John Ireland and Edward Elgar. Steinberg Duo, which comprises husband and wife Nicholas Burns and Louisa Stonehill, are regular performers at the 1901 Arts Club and curate a series of concerts there.

The music of John Ireland is, perhaps unfairly, rarely performed. The majority of his output was piano miniatures and songs. He studied with Charles Villiers Standford at the Royal College of Music (who also taught Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells and Butterworth, amongst many others) and by the end of the First World War had emerged as a celebrated composer following the overnight success of his second Violin Sonata, of which more later.

The Steinberg Duo have been praised for their “warm musicality” and virtuosity and this was more than evident throughout their programme which opened with Ireland’s first violin sonata in which the influence of the French impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel was evident in its adventurous harmonic palette. The work is no gentile Edwardian drawing room piece and it was played with requisite muscularity and poise by Louisa on violin, with a nimble and sympathetic accompaniment by Nick on piano.

Ireland did in fact meet Edward Elgar and described the few hours in Elgar’s company as “the finest lesson I ever had”. To celebrate this meeting, Steinberg Duo performed a group of miniatures which represented the kind of salon music which was popular at the end of the nineteenth century and entirely appropriate for the small music salon at the 1901. These short but charming works were a pleasant and contrasting interlude between the sonatas by Ireland.

The second part of the concert was occupied by John Ireland’s second Violin Sonata, the work which made him famous. Since the composer was unfit for military service during the First World War, he was able to continue composing. The Violin Sonata No. 2 was premiered on 6 March 1917 by Albert Sammons and William Murdoch, who performed in uniform, and was an immediate success, so much so that the published Winthrop Rogers was on the composer’s doorstep before breakfast the following day. The first edition sold out before it was put on sale, and the work secured Ireland’s success and reputation.

By 1917, the British populace had developed a weary stoicism about the progress of the War. The work perfectly captured the mood of the period by avoiding sentimentality. Instead, it is imbued with pathos in its arresting themes, striking chromatic twists and turns and harmonic and rhythmic motifs redolent of Debussy’s Violin Sonata or Ravel’s Piano Trio. The middle movement is one of great poignancy with a simple song, on the violin, at its heart. Its expressive melancholy suggests a musical anthem for doomed youth, but also a requiem for a way of life destroyed by the War.

Speaking of his own music, Ireland said “Whatever I have to say is said in the music, and if this does not speak for itself, then I have failed”. This powerful and emotional work was given a passionate and involving account by Steinberg Duo who allowed the music to speak for itself.

Steinberg Duo

1901 Arts Club

Last week Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili performed Musorgsky and Liszt at London’s Wigmore Hall. For many members of the audience, and some reviewers (including this one), it was a coruscating display of imaginative and risk-taking pianism, the Liszt pieces in particular performed with the kind of vertiginous virtuosity which Liszt himself may well have approved of. One critic didn’t like the concert, describing the playing as “rash” and “immature” and ended his review with the comment “on the question of whether Buniatishvili can ever be a serious artist, the jury is very much still out” (full review here). A few days later, Khatia Buniatishvili responded to this review with some thoughtful and intelligent remarks on her personal interpretation of the pieces and sparked a lively discussion across the networks about the wisdom, or otherwise, of performers responding to negative reviews.

Reviews, and critics, are curious things. As Lisa Hirsch says on her blog ‘Iron Tongue of Midnight’, music reviews and music criticism serve the following purposes:

  • Journalistic: recording what happened and when and by which musicians
  • Opinion: recording a critic’s opinion (we hope a highly informed opinion) of what happened
  • Contextual: placing what happened within some historical and musical context
  • Preservation: enabling people in the far future to get a look at what happened, why, and the impression it made

Good reviews don’t make personal comments on the performer (recall the storm around the very negative comments about the physical appearance of singer Tara Erraught), nor allow the writer’s personal taste to rule the review (i.e. reviewers shouldn’t give a negative review just because they don’t like a particular composer or work: they should be able to put aside such likes or dislikes to offer an objective comment on the performance). Good reviews offer the writer’s considered opinion of the concert: was it effective and did it work? Which parts stood out, which did not? But at the end of the day, a review is one person’s view on someone else’s interpretation. Ms Buniatishvili’s detractor in ‘The Guardian’ had just as much right to give her three stars as ‘The Evening Standard’ critic did in awarding her five stars (and myself in giving her performance four stars). And she had every right to reply to her detractor.

But I wonder whether such a rebuttal serves any real purpose in the great scheme of things. An international artist like Khatia Buniatishvili will play many concerts in many cities across the world and be heard by many hundreds of people, some of whom are critics and reviewers. A single concert is just a day in the life, and a single negative review is unlikely to make or break an artist. It is just one person’s opinion.

Some artists simply don’t bother to read their reviews, and some have agents, managers, mentors and partners who filter the reviews. Performers have the courage of their convictions, to get up on stage day in day out and give concerts without worrying unduly what reviewers and critics are going to say. Fundamentally, concerts are about sharing music and entertaining the audience, not playing to please the critics. Without an audience, there would be no concerts (and without concerts, there would be fewer reviewers!).

A quick poll amongst the musical/journalistic community with whom I interact on Facebook revealed that most performers felt responding to reviews was a waste of time and that one should hold one’s head high and move on. The only time when a response may be justified is if the review contains inaccuracies or comments which can be construed as slanderous or unduly personal, or where the reviewer has made assumptions about the performer’s lack of form without proper justification or being in possession of all the facts (for example, if the performer is ill, but no announcement is made ahead of the concert). For the purposes of this debate, I am quoting some of the comments by colleagues (musicians and critics/reviewers):

“the dynamic in all this has changed substantially with social media. The critic makes a public statement and the artist can, if he or she so wishes, make a public statement back without having to do anything as cumbersome as, say, write an open letter. These days, artists, both talented and less talented, can succeed by simply getting the public behind them without any help from PRs and record companies.”

This is a good point: social media has had a huge impact on the way artists and performances are received, and has “democractised” reviewing: everyone can be a critic or reviewer these days, with tweets and Facebook/YouTube “likes”

“this whole issue goes round and round and round and round. There are critics. Some are good, some not so good. Some are helpful, some not. Some, sometimes, offend intentionally or otherwise. All get it wrong sometimes, some more than others. But better to be written about than ignored. So there are critics.”

“I have only once responded to a critic. And that is because he was inaccurate and commented on a discography which doesn’t exist. Beyond that, I just play and don’t give a flying duck what anyone thinks – I’ve been at a piano since I was a toddler and have earnt that right. Many/most critics have been to a certain mileage of performances and done a certain amount of reading/research and have an impressive general knowledge of all things musical. They have earnt the right to write. The best any of us can do is go to live concerts and make up our own minds” (a musician)

And a reviewer writes:

When I review, I arrive at the concert wanting to enjoy it and assuming that the performer will give sincerely of their best. Intelligent listening will always find flaws as well as good things, and it’s dishonest to misrepresent the experience; but there are ways of phrasing this – and still keeping it lively and readable (the critic has as much of an obligation to their audience as the performer has to theirs). I’ll only hand down a slating if I detect actual cynicism.”

I return to my earlier comment: a review is just one person’s opinion and is neither right nor wrong. Confident artists know this and are able to move on from a negative review, looking ahead to the next concert. And some artists will always divide critics: Khatia Buniatishvili happens to be one such artist.

Do feel free to join this debate by adding your comments below.

My own review of Khatia Buniatishvili at Wigmore Hall

Khatia Buniatishvili’s response to ‘The Guardian’ review

A podcast I made for Bachtrack on reviewing piano concerts (start at 13:23)