Tag Archives: music criticism

Roll Over Beethoven….

Guest post by The Bard of Tysoe

I inherited my musicianship and my love of music from my mum. Many of her first musical memories are religious – as are mine. Hers include pumping the bellows for the organist at the Methodist church in Yorkshire where my grandad was a lay-preacher. Mine, sitting astonished in the congregation of Blackburn Cathedral – then still a building site – waiting for my audition for the choir: wondering if this amazing noise was also what filled heaven. (I was never religious, in any sense: but the compositions and architecture inspired by all faiths will never cease to amaze and inspire me.) I was four.

Forty years later, I also inherited my mum’s deafness – although mine has been accelerated, and deepened, by other medical issues. After a lifetime of singing, playing, composing, conducting, listening… in some ways the loss of music was worse than the main disability which accompanied it. I felt bereft, and grieved for a very long time. Even the ‘familiar’ works on my music server (which has over 20,000 tracks on it – ranging from plainchant to punk; serialism to soul) could not console me. For several years, music was something I accidentally bumped into; never actively sought out; and always came away from more disappointed than before.

When I obtained my first hearing aids (properly called hearing ‘instruments’), a very talented and patient audiologist spent an afternoon with me at home cycling through some of those many pieces, in many different genres, adjusting these little life-savers over and over again until one of their four programmes was specifically set up for listening to music. However, not all harmonies are born equal – there is a reason iPods come with so many equalizer settings, I discovered – and, eventually, I realized that I needed to know the music note for note (often helped by a score resting on my lap) for it to make ‘sense’ to me. It also helped if the composition was sparsely scored. (Thank goodness for chamber music – especially Bartók’s magnificent six string quartets – which I now have so many different recordings of, I have lost count!)

As my hearing rapidly worsened, the technology could not keep pace. Concerts were always painful – and listening to the piano (my own instrument) always sounded especially dissonant: the clash of harmonics confusing the processing of both my digital hearing aids and my analogue brain.

However, I kept reading about improvements to hearing technology; and, as my first set of ‘instruments’ were no longer powerful enough, late last year I was granted a new pair. Initial technical and customer care problems rendered them almost uselessalmost useless. However, thanks to another thoughtful audiologist, I am now progressing well on my return to the musical world, with a much wider and deeper soundscape. (It takes a while to get the fine-tuning right with these things: but I feel that I am more than halfway back to the best the sound can be for me. And what we have achieved is already a massive leap forward.)

It is so long since I played (the family Bechstein upright now resides with my son: another keen musician – those genes are obviously dominant); composed (my Mac, with all my part-finished digital manuscripts, is in storage – along with multiple backups, of course); and I am no longer fit enough (physically or aurally) to conduct: so I simply assumed that any future I had with music would be passive – although immensely enjoyable – as a ‘mere’ listener.

I had, though, started writing reviews of the plays I regularly attended at the RSC – aided enormously by the access provision there: including captioned performances. These were posted on my blog, which had initially been about life in my remote Warwickshire village, both scenic and politic; but which had expanded eclectically to cover more wider culture, as well as life from my slightly warped point of view. And, although I was writing mainly for myself, and happy just to be occupied in some sort of creative act, it really had not occurred to me at all that my previous experience as an amateur musician could similarly be applied.

However, ever since we moved to this area of the world, we have been on the mailing list of the inspirational Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), also based in Stratford-upon-Avon. And, encouraged by my partner, over the last few months, I have attended quite a few of their concerts. This was an extremely tentative – and somewhat daunting – exercise, at first: but, as I have grown accustomed to my new instruments (which, at first, were bass-heavy and treble-light: my hearing loss has a large neurological component, which is not easily adjusted for), I felt compelled to write about my experience, dubbing it “this journey (nay, this pilgrimage) back to live music that I am on”. This was something I needed to do, it seemed – especially as it brought together the things I loved. And it was helped by the fact that OOTS is a small ensemble – as is Eboracum Baroque, who I accidentally discovered on my trek – both of whose sound is tremendously transparent.

Of course, as with the plays’ scripts, re-reading, re-learning the scores, has helped tremendously – although I have not yet had the temerity to experiment with referring to them during a concert: despite never meeting with resistance to this as a student; nor, nearly four years ago, when I followed Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – a work I know better than most; but at a time when my hearing had failed badly – on my iPad in the grand tier of Birmingham’s wondrous Symphony Hall.  (In fact, many other enthusiastic Elgarians told me that it gave them the courage to try something similar: so I probably will return to this practice in the future – although I worry that it may detract from my usual somewhat immediate, emotional response.) Such familiarity also helps; and I am fortunate that, once absorbed, the musical notation often floats through my head whilst listening: bringing me improved clarity.

As with the listening, though, so with the resultant writing. Much professional music – and drama – criticism leaves me cold; does not give me what I crave from not being there (basically, regret…); does not enlighten the mind nor accelerate the heart. But, as I was – I believed – writing for myself, I hesitantly attempted to rectify these faults by producing the sort of review, I would like to read myself – not yet aware that there were those in the wider world who had similar feelings (principal amongst them, of course, this blog’s generous host, Frances Wilson). I was therefore surprised by the reception: not just from other concert-goers – but from musicians (and others) who I admired. (Special mention must go here to David Curtis, artistic director of OOTS: who not only welcomed my different approach, but embraced it with his habitual enthusiasm; and who continues to encourage and help me re-immerse myself in this refreshed world of constant magic.)

After writing a very thorough (i.e. customarily lengthy, detailed and discursive) critique of one of David’s concerts with the (non-professional-but-most-awesome) Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra – not a small ensemble, at all: not for Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto (and with my hero, Peter Donohoe), and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony… – I was still gobsmacked to find the number of hits on the review increasing almost before my eyes: rapidly gaining more viewings and feedback than any other post I had authored. It seemed that I had, unwittingly, serendipitously, hit some sort of target, some sort of nerve: fulfilling a similar need to my own, but, moreover, for many others.

This took a while to sink in – and, me being me, the only way I could deal with it was to write about it. I therefore penned an article on my motivations: what music criticism means to me; what I think it should be; but, principally, what drives me to write in the way I do – and why it is so different to what others (might) produce.

To be honest, I published it assuming I would be condemned (not that I truly minded) for my amateurishness; for treading on the toes of those more ‘qualified’ to produce such writings (although I do have a background in professional journalism – albeit covering technology…). But, again, the positive feedback opened my eyes: and I feel not only have I found some sort of vocation (and one that I enjoy); but that music – as it frequently does – has started to connect me with those who, with much more expertise and experience than me, too wish to promote it in their own inclusive, collegiate, enthusiastic way.

This is only the beginning, though. Not only do I believe that there is a wider audience to be reached by writing with my own, peculiar brand of passion – as do others – additionally, I hope that my experience can encourage and help others who may have also ‘lost the music’ in their lives (for whatever reason) to try and find a way back in for themselves. Without making light of it, my deafness now helps me appreciate music so much more. I therefore hope that I have also inherited my mum’s longevity

The Bard of Tysoe is a peculiar animal: often to be found limping around parts of Warwickshire at night – as well as in the daytime – he is said to be addicted to all things artistic; and can be found blogging about not quite all he encounters (it just feels that way) at http://tysoebard.blogspot.co.uk/.

What matters most to him are beauty, truth and fairness – in whatever myriad forms they occur. His favourite occupation is thinking.

Music into Words – live event on writing about classical music

This week I hosted an event called Music into Words which explored the wide variety of writing about classical music today – from concert and opera reviews to academic writing, programme notes, blogging and even fiction writing which has a focus on music.

The original impetus for the event came from a BBC Radio Three Music Matters programme, aired in 2014, which debated the future of music criticism in the age of the internet. I and several other music bloggers felt the programme was unfairly skewed towards mainstream print journalism with very little positive focus on the valuable contribution of bloggers and online reviewers. As a consequence, I and a couple of other music bloggers decided to present an alternative view. When I first proposed a live event, at which people would speak and the audience could participate in a Q&A/discussion session, I had really no idea how it would work. In a way, I felt I had tossed a handful of balls into the air, not knowing where they might land. What I did know, however, was that the other people who expressed an interest in organising such an event (all of whom I met via Twitter) were all passionate about what they do – all bloggers who write about music, and all come at the subject from a different angle. We shared a desire to “explain” why blogging has a purpose while throwing the debate open for as wide a discussion as possible. In fact, the popularity of the live event (it sold out several weeks in advance of the date) and online discussions via Twitter and our respective blogs, demonstrated that there is a great interest in this subject and a keen willingness by people to engage in conversation about it.

Writing about classical music is, like the music itself, often considered elitist, exclusive, the preserve of the expert or academic, couched in obscure terminology, and generally unwilling to engage with “ordinary people” (whoever they may be). I hope that the live event, which took place on 2 February 2016 at Senate House, UCL, London went some way to demystifying writing about classical music, while also explaining for the uninitiated what blogging is all about and why bloggers have an important role in writing today (and not just in the field of classical music, by the way).

Three speakers talked about their role as bloggers/writers on music and the wider role of writing as a means of engaging with readers, audiences, potential audiences, musicians and more. It was also very interesting to have the views of Imogen Tilden, classical music editor at The Guardian. She explained that budgetary restraints meant that not everything could be covered and that as editor she had to be very selective about what concerts and operas are reviewed. Because of this, she felt bloggers and online reviewers have a role in “filling the gaps”.

The lively discussion raised a number of interesting points, including:

  • How to find “good” blogs online when there is so much material out there on the internet
  • Musical terminology and why it is important that it should not be dumbed down
  • Writing negative reviews
  • How to encourage more musicians and others in the classical music industry to use social media
  • Self-editing one’s writing
  • How social media can shape and drive more voices on/interest in classical music

Based on the success of this first event, others are planned and we are very much open to suggestions as to how we might shape future events.

Follow Music into Words on Twitter @musintowords

Music into Words on Facebook

Meanwhile, you can view the talks by Simon Brackenborough, Mary Nguyen and Jessica Duchen here:

A compilation of tweets about the event

Summaries of the event by the speakers:

Corymbus (Simon Brackenborough)

TrendFem (Mary Nguyen)

Jessica Duchen

We were very sorry that due to illness Dr Mark Berry (Royal Holloway, University of London, author and blogger as Boulezian) was unable to join us. Mark will be a speaker at a future event.

Inspired by this first Music into Words event, I am hosting and speaking at a related event in the autumn. Writing the Piano will feature contributions by acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch, pianist, teacher and blogger Andrew Eales and myself, and will explore different ways of writing about the piano, the instrument, playing and its literature. The event is on 18th October 2016 at the 1901 Arts Club, London SE1. Further details to be released shortly.

(Photo by Christian Hoskins. L to R: Jessica Duchen, Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist), Mary Nguyen, Imogen Tilden of The Guardian)

 

Home thoughts from a reviewer’s desk…..

In November 2012, I was asked to contribute to a podcast for Bachtrack on reviewing piano concerts. This post takes some of the points from the podcast and expands them.

There was a time, not so long ago and at least within my living memory, when critics were regarded as significant arbiters of taste and culture who could, seemingly, make or break a career with one well-aimed stroke of their incisive pen. But critics are not gods (and never have been), and these days, with the rise of blogging and tweeting, music criticism has become far more democratic. Many bloggers are not professional journalists, but many are musicians or teachers, who are competent and intelligent writers with a depth and range of knowledge often superior to that of broadsheet music writers. Many of us (myself included) write about classical music simply because we love it. Bloggers and online critics tend to publish their reviews well in advance of broadsheet providers, sometimes the same night as the concert or at least the next morning, and offer a more personal but no less objective view of the concert. I also love the concept of tweeting during* and immediately after the concert, thus bringing an immediacy to the review, and an off the cuff, instant reaction comment can sometimes express far more than a considered paragraph written the next morning (*during the interval – naturally, my phone is turned off during the performance!).

“Audiences do not wish to be patronised”. This quote from a concert pianist friend of mine, in fact about the necessity to play all the repeats in Schubert’s last piano sonatas, could equally be applied to the reviewer’s attitude to his/her audience. While many audience members may not share the reviewer’s depth of knowledge or musical vocabulary, we should never talk down to our readers in the manner of children’s tv presenters. Good reviews should not seek to tell the public how to listen – nor instruct the musician in his art. A good review offers an objective overview of the concert.

“Classical music reviews are important because, if well written, they can serve as a guide for non-specialists or people new to the music, as well as providing a point of reference for those who attended the event reviewed. We believe that the best reviewers are very knowledgeable about music, and have the additional gift of being able to explain musical details in clear, accessible language. Because at Bachtrack we ask reviewers to write not only about performance but also about the works played, they can also be of interest to people wishing to learn more about pieces or performers when considering whether or not to attend events”

(Alison Karlin, founder & director of Bachtrack)

Rhapsodic, poetic and overblown writing at the expense of clear-sightedness can be irritating to read and may be used to mask a lack of knowledge. This review made me laugh out loud with its unnecessarily purple prose. Joking apart, it doesn’t really tell us that much about the music being performed. A little more historical/contextual background (and a little less “caressing the keys”) would have made this a far more informative and informed piece of criticism.

Conversely, a review which is confined only to technical analysis is dry and dull to read, and may come across as overly didactic or high-falutin. Such writing is really only accessible to other trained musicians or musicologists, and does not really get to the “soul” of the music. After all, it is the emotional engagement which most people seek when going to hear classical music (or indeed any music). Schumann said that the best music criticism is that which leaves after it an impression on the reader such as that which the music made on the hearer. In my own reviews, I seek always to create the impression of “being there”, while also offering the reader some background on the pieces being performed. A good review should arouse curiosity and pique the reader’s interest.

“Where sympathy is lacking, correct judgement is also lacking”

Mendelssohn

An objective reviewer should not be blind or deaf to faults or inconsistencies in a performance, but we should never glory in them. In fact, I have a few phrases which enable me to be “kind” in instances of sloppy playing or a memory lapse (“some uneven passages”, “an anxious moment” for example). And as an occasional performer myself, I understand the amount of time and effort that goes into preparing for a concert. Performers are human, just like the rest of us, and sometimes it is not always possible to arrive at the venue in a calm state of preparedness: maybe the traffic was bad, or one has a cold. These factors can affect the quality of a performance by even the most poised musicians.

For the performer, a review is an endorsement, a testimonial and a confirmation of their craft and art. Performers do not perform to please critics, but a good review or reviews can make a difference to a performer’s commercial success leading to increased concert attendances and CD sales, and for a young performer, greater confidence and credibility. British pianist Peter Donohoe has written eloquently and in great detail about the role of critics and their relationship with performers on his blog (see link below) and I will leave it to Peter to expand on this aspect.

I am always a little suspicious of performers who claim they “never read” reviews (Benjamin Grosvenor is a contemporary example). This apparent disregard suggests either an over-arching ego (“I’m far too important/talented to bother with reviews”), in which case the performer in question should perhaps exercise a degree of humility, or a lack of self-confidence (“I won’t read reviews in case the reviewer says something nasty/negative about me”). As Peter Donohoe says, performers should “take it as a compliment that the critic writes about you at all”. Conversely, it is always a great compliment (to me, at least), to see one’s review quoted on a performer’s website, or in some publicity material, or on a venue’s website. And if it’s any consolation to the performer whose last performance was panned by a critic, reviewers receive critical comments too. Writing about music is hard to do, because the activity of listening to music is highly subjective. I have received comments on my reviews suggesting that I have not heard a concert “properly” or disagreeing with my judgement of a particular performance. The answer to this is, of course, that we all hear differently and our enjoyment of music can be very personal.

When I contacted Peter Donohoe to thank him for such an interesting article on the role of critics, and for writing so warmly about my own blogging and reviewing activities, he replied that it was “because we are on the same side – that of the music”. And that, for me, sums up very neatly the reason why I write about music: I love music and care very passionately about classical music. It has been a significant part of my life since birth (there was music, live and on LP and the radio, in my parents’ and grandparents’ homes, I was taken to concerts from a young age, and encouraged to study music), and I’m not really sure what I’d do without it. Nearly every week of the year, I am at a concert, at the Wigmore Hall, the Southbank Centre, King’s Place, or in a small, intimate venue, in Hackney (Sutton House) or Walton (Riverhouse Barn). I enjoy a wide range of piano music, hear fantastic musicians, both established and up-and-coming, and writing about the music which I love has put me in touch with a remarkable group of people, who, far from being stuffy and elitist (a largely misguided perception of classical musicians) are normal, warm, intelligent, funny and generous (Peter, for example, kindly gave me some help with one of my Diploma pieces via the medium of Facebook). And if one of my reviews encourages someone to buy a ticket for a classical music concert, then I am doing my job right.

Read Peter Donohoe’s article on music critics here

Some other music reviewers/bloggers I follow

Boulezian (Mark Berry)

Orpheus Complex (Gavin Dixon)

JDCMB (Jessica Duchen)

Musical Toronto (John Terauds)

Classical Source

And some bad reviews from the Lexicon of Musical Invective

Does reviewing inform my playing?

Concert grand piano on the stage at London’s Wigmore Hall (picture source The Guardian)

This post was prompted by this question from a friend: “How has reviewing piano concerts influenced your own playing?”.

In the 18 months I’ve been reviewing for Bachtrack, I’ve been to many excellent solo piano and chamber recitals, given by top international artists, and lesser-known, or up-and-coming artists too, at venues large and small. Reviewing has been a way of indulging my passion for piano music, while also being allowed to write about it, and, I hope, share my passion with others. When I select concerts to review, I tend to make choices largely based on repertoire rather than performer, though this year I have made one or two deliberate choices to hear certain performers, out of curiosity, namely Yuja Wang and Benjamin Grosvenor. I also wanted to hear again Marc-André Hamelin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and for the first time, Noriko Ogawa.

I often urge my students to go to concerts for “inspiration” (sadly, few of them take up my suggestion). There is something very special about live music, and seeing and hearing a professional musician at work can be illuminating and inspiring – and sometimes just jaw-droppingly extraordinary (in the case of Hamelin). You don’t experience that same excitement from hearing music, however expertly played, on disc, as you do in the concert hall. You can listen to a disc any number of times, but in the concert hall, it’s an entirely unique experience – for performer and audience. I’ve heard a couple of pianists in the same repertoire at different concerts, and after a pause of several years, and have been surprised, and excited, at the changes in the music. Not significant changes of interpretation, but small adjustments – a little more rubato here, some subtle shading or tenuto there – which shine a new light on the works or highlight different aspects. As a performer, it is these flashes of illumination and insight that make performing such an interesting and exciting experience, aside from the cultural gift of sharing music with others.

I couldn’t really claim that any particular concert or performer has directly informed my playing, but occasionally I’ve considered some of my repertoire in a new way after hearing it in concert. One is unlikely to pick up any nuggets of technique in the concert hall: you’re often too far away from the stage to see details, but listening attentively is helpful, particularly for pedalling. It’s amazing how many pro pianists don’t seem to know how to pedal properly, or who use the pedal as some kind of on-off switch to hide mistakes or inconsistencies of technique. I’ve been doing a lot of work on refining my pedal technique this year, specifically with regard to Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511 (which requires very minimal pedal), so I have a heightened sensitivity about sloppy or inconsistent pedalling! Peter Donohoe, in his early spring concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall, gave a fantastic demonstration of how to pedal Debussy effectively in his performance of Estampes (read my review here). It was an enlightening and expert performance.

Similarly, hearing Noriko Ogawa play Toru Takemitsu’s evocative Rain Tree Sketch II, a piece dedicated to Olivier Messiaen, and full of Messiaenic echoes in its colourful tonalities and ‘flashes’, was very illuminating. I had just started looking at the piece when I went to hear Noriko in a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore featuring this piece and Debussy’s Études. To hear the work performed live by one of the composer’s compatriots, who clearly has a profound understanding of his work, was special enough, but the beauty and refinement of Noriko’s playing made this a truly spectacular five minutes of music for me. I went home to practise the piece with an excitement and enthusiasm, which has remained every time I open the score or indeed think about the work.

A really vibrant or emotionally powerful performance of a piece I am working on will often send me home to study the score in detail away from the piano, or may encourage me to try something new or different. I’ve stopped trying to copy what the pros do – the frustrated concert pianist within has long since been put to bed, and I now concentrate on trying to bring my own interpretation to the music – but a well-executed performance of some of my repertoire may force me to raise my game, always a good thing, especially when one has been working on the same repertoire for a long time.

I think the best aspect of reviewing is the exposure to a such great variety of music, and this is probably the most significant influence on my own playing. My reporter’s notebook, and the black Moleskine notebook I keep by the piano for practising notes, are full of lists of repertoire I’ve heard in concert and mean to learn one day. Here’s a small sample, in no particular order, with a note of where I heard the work:

Liszt – Bénediction de Dieu dans la solitude (Proms 2011, Marc-André Hamelin)

Liszt – Legende: St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots (Proms 2011 – Marc-André Hamelin)

Debussy – Les soirs illumine de l’ardeur du charbon (Proms 2012 – Pierre-Laurent Aimard)

Copland – Muted & Sensuous from Four Piano Blues (Peter Jablonski, QEH 2012)

Bach, trans. Liszt – Prelude & Fugue in a minor BWV 543 (Khatia Buniatishvili, Wigmore 2011)

Bartok – Dirges, no. 4 Andante Assai (Aimard, QEH 2011)

Messiaen – any of the Catalogue d’Oiseaux (Aimard, QEH 2011)

At his spring concert at QEH, Leif Ove Andsnes played one of Rachmaninov’s opus 33 Études-Tableaux for an encore (C major) and in an instant I was hooked (those slavic open fifths!). Sadly, I had some difficulties with tension in my left arm when I attempted to play this one, so I switched to the g minor. I am also learning the E flat Etude-Tableau from the same opus. Together, these pieces form the close of my LTCL programme. Thank you, Leif!