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.

A lively debate is developing over on the Music Haven blog in response to an article by conductor/artistic director Tom Hammond in which he questions the usefulness of reviewing concerts when it seems that the main focus is on “big name” artists and venues in the big cities (i.e. London) and scant attention is paid to out of town or smaller scale and amateur performances.

As a reviewer myself, for this blog and also for a major concert and opera listings site, I regularly question the value of reviewing concerts, and it troubles me that certain reviewers seem to focus an undue amount of attention on the big names and almost none on lesser-known or more unusual artists and ensembles. Personally, I see my role as an “enabler” – enabling artists, audiences and reviewers to connect, engage and communicate via my blog and my reviewing. As the British pianist Peter Donohoe said in his own earlier article on music critics, ultimately we should all be on the same side – that of the music – and I feel we have a responsibility as reviewers and music bloggers to support the rich musical landscape we are so lucky to have here in the UK.

Read Tom Hammond’s article

And read my response to Tom’s article

As regular readers will know, I write concert and exhibition reviews for several arts and culture websites, as well as for this blog. I thought it would be helpful to have all my reviews in one place, and to include content written by my reviewing colleague Nick Marlowe. So a new blog has been launched – MusArtLondon – as a permanent home for all our reviews. We cover all major art exhibitions in London as they open, and music and opera, together with longer articles on places of interest in London, in particular those with literary, artistic or musical connections.

Do take a longer look at http://musicartlondon.wordpress.com/

All my reviews and articles for Bachtrack to date can be found here

Read Nick’s reviews for OneStopArts here

In my new role as a reviewer for Bachtrack.com, several things have occurred to me recently:

  1. I have turned into a frightful self-publicist, sharing my reviews with anyone and everyone, and gaining an absurd, childish rush of delight from every retweet or recommendation I receive
  2. I’ve become geekily obsessed with stats and hit rates, scanning my blog each day to see how much traffic it has received, and regularly checking Google to see where I am in the search order (some smug satisfaction was gained earlier today when I saw that my latest review had achieved the giddy heights of top spot)
  3. I’ve discovered a whole other world of music bloggers in the blogosphere, who review concerts and who offer speedy and insightful reactions to what they’ve just heard.

I have blogged before about the ‘joy of blogging’: it’s free to set up and you don’t need to be a techie to organise your own blog. For me, the most important aspect of blogging is being able to express myself freely, hit the “publish” button, and wait for people to stumble across my blog, or even subscribe to it. I have always written, from short stories and poetry at school, to a full-scale novel, tentatively entitled ‘Facing the Music’, and incorporating two of my pet subjects: music and the First War (the premise of the book is whether music has value in the lives of people during extremely straitened circumstances; I argue, via my protagonist, that it does…..very much so).

Like playing the piano to any degree of seriousness, writing is hard work, and can be all-consuming. When it is going well, one can lose oneself in it, for hours on end. When I was deeply immersed in my novel, I often forgot to eat, and would stay up late, or get up in the middle of the night, just to write. And just like playing the piano, one needs to practice one’s writing.

This is why blogging is such a good discipline; it forces one to be concise, to avoid unnecessary woffle, while allowing one to hone one’s writerly craft on a regular basis. And for me, there’s absolutely no point in having a blog if one does not regularly update it with new and (I hope) interesting material. It has also opened doors to other writing-related activities: the job at Bachtrack came about directly as the result of someone reading my blog.

Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve connected with many other piano and music bloggers around the world – and a couple of whom I’ve actually met (at Maurizio Pollini’s final concert at the Festival Hall last month). Some are specialists, but many of these bloggers are not professional music journalists (i.e. writing is not their primary job/source of income), yet they take their writing very seriously, and are read by many like-minded people who feel these writers have something interesting, important or insightful to say.

And why does one need to be an “expert” to write intelligently about music? I doubt the vast majority of people who read reviews want to know that the piece opened in A minor but resolved itself in C. They don’t want to be confused by esoteric music-speak or complicated analysis, which can often appear unnecessarily dry and academic; they want to know what the concert was about, what it felt like to hear that piece, see that performer, experience the atmosphere in the concert hall that night…..

Bachtrack’s USP is to encourage people who would not normally go to classical music, opera or ballet to book tickets for such events; thus, reviewers are encouraged to write imaginatively and in an accessible way.  Many of Bachtrack’s reviewers are not professional journalists. Most of us are keen ‘amateurs’, people who love going to concerts, the opera and the ballet, who are open-minded and receptive to what we are hearing/seeing, and who are able to convey our enthusiasm in a snappy 500-word review. Bachtrack insists that reviews are submitted within 48 hours of the event: this means we’re usually ahead of other reviewers (though not necessarily other bloggers/Twitterers), and newly-published reviews are tweeted and shared across the internet very quickly.

These days, people even tweet an instant response during the interval: I’ve done it myself, and I love the idea of people tweeting from the Bechstein Room at the Wigmore (actually impossible in reality as there is no signal down there, but you get the picture!) or from the Level 4 bar at the Festival Hall. In effect, surely it’s the same as leaning across to your companion at half time and asking “So, what did you think?”

Some music blogs I follow regularly:

Boulezian –  intelligent and detailed concert and opera reviews written by academic Mark Berry. I first discovered this blog last March, after Mark wrote about the Jerusalem Quartet recital at the Wigmore which was interrupted by protesters. He, like me, was in the audience that day.

Orpheus Complex – concert and opera reviews, and general music-related articles, written by Gavin Dixon, who has a special interest in 20th century music.

Jessica Duchen’s Classical Music Blog – concert and book reviews, music-related articles and musings written by journalist and author Jessica Duchen.

I’ll Think of Something Later – articles and musings on music, including reviews, by broadcaster David Nice

Entartete Music – articles on music and culture by Gavin Plumley.

Slipped Disc – Norman Lebrecht’s blog, featuring all manner of music-related articles, from reviews to breaking news.

PS for those who are interested in such things, I make notes in an old-fashioned reporter’s notebook when I’m reviewing, but tend to compose on my laptop. I use classic black Moleskine notebooks for notes about playing the piano, my practising diary, and for other writerly notes (I have 6 full of notes for my novel). And I always use a 2B propelling pencil….