Thursday, 10 December 2015

Tom Hammond: What's the Point of Reviewing Concerts?

Conductor Tom Hammond ponders the efficacy of music criticism, and wonders why - with the growth of online reviewing platforms - there isn't more variety in the types of concerts being reviewed.

I recently conducted three concerts - all with non-professional orchestras and not in famous venues - which were attended by about two hundred people in each case.

Each concert featured a noted, successful soloist. Not world famous names - yet - but amongst them someone currently with a CD in the Classical Charts, and a recent finalist from BBC Young Musician of the Year. Repertoire included rarities from famous composers, contemporary music and 'war-horses' of the classical repertoire. No world premières, but hardly stock programmes either.

The likelihood is that the audiences who came were almost exclusively friends and family of the performers. Nothing wrong with that. Each player probably brought three or four people each, which isn't bad and meant each concert either made a little money, or at least didn't lose too much. The concerts seemed to go well (my opinion is, of course, not objective) and members of the audience I spoke to, including experienced professional musicians, said they thoroughly enjoyed being there.

So, all good and nothing wrong (aside from the usual desire from all musicians to do even better next time around, which is as it should be). But, one thing is bugging me. Why, in this day of multiple online reviewing platforms, did not a single concert receive a review? I don't mean a broadsheet, of course, or even local press - but one of the many online review platforms, all easily discoverable c/o a popular search engine. And of course not just my concerts, there were doubtless many more interesting musical enterprises going on during October and November.

Before I pose potential answers to that question, I have to ask; what is the point of reviews of concerts?

Is it to feed the curiosity of the extant audience for classical music? To try to foster new audiences? To give an honest reflection to the performers of how they sound to help them? Is it to generate revenue via advertising on a website, or is it to pull attention to 'main' websites of newspapers, magazines etc?

If it's for financial gain, I would imagine that only covering the main venues in London and other Metroplitan areas makes sense: The majority of people who want to read about classical music, opera and ballet are interested in famous ensembles, conductors, singers, soloists. But...I doubt it is done for money. Is it?

A quick look through four such websites (hardly scientific research, I accept) reveals that the performances covered in the last month included only two that were by non-professional ensembles, and none that were in 'unrecognised' venues.

In the case of the Royal Opera House, the LSO, LPO, ENO, Royal Festival Hall, Wigmore Hall and so on, they have dedicated marketing teams with the resources to help sell concerts. Not an easy task I know, but hardly in desperate need of extra assistance from reviews?

And do we need to read what is so often the case in such reviews; that a famous orchestra and conductor with a famous soloist, gave - surprise, surprise - a very good / excellent / slightly below-par concert. At the grass-roots of musical life in the UK there are so many enterprising concert series, festivals, amateur orchestras and younger ensembles who are very much in the need of the oxygen of both publicity, and frankly the feeling that someone outside of their immediate circle cares about what they are producing. Many of these people are exactly the same demographic who will have an interest and read such websites and printed reviews, so to engage with them may well increase readership.

The reviews needn't be anything other than honest of course, and a good slating can be as useful as being showered with journalistic garlands - but it would seem to me that the purpose of such reviews needs to be examined to see if they serve the rich musical communities they, presumably, hope to interest and support.

The answer? I suspect most reviewers are not paid, and probably just get a free ticket to the performance. In that case, given a choice of the Philharmonia or a plucky non-professional group or student ensemble in a suburban church - who can blame? But perhaps the editorial boards of these sites need to think about the crucial question of what they are contributing to the overall music scene, always in need of their intelligent support.

Visit Tom's website HERE

Read Frances Wilson's (Cross-Eyed Pianist) response to this article HERE


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this most interesting and thought-provoking article. As a reviewer myself, I often ponder the usefulness of what I do. I think at a basic level, reviewing offers those who were at the same concert and potential concert-goers an overview of the event which will, hopefully, encourage people to hear the same artist or ensemble in the future, or may pique the reader's interest to seek out a concert they might otherwise overlook.

With the rise of online reviews and independent bloggers, reviewing has in many ways become far more democratic, which is both wonderful and tricky. There are some very fine music bloggers out there, writers who are often far more highly qualified than any broadsheet "professional critic" (one of my favourites is Boulezian) and who go to concerts and write about them because they enjoy the activity of hearing live music. (There are also some dreadful bloggers whose purple prose seems to be more an exercise in self-indulgence than objective writing!)

Most bloggers are not paid and most buy their own concert tickets and simply write up the event because they want to express their own thoughts about it. I regularly come up against people who accuse me of "blagging" free tickets (not true - the only free tickets I obtain are via, the site for whom I regularly review) or writing five star reviews for mates (also not true - I do not accept comp tickets from friends as I wish to remain impartial and independent).

There are many bloggers and online reviewers out there and I agree with the author that it is frustrating that more do not review concerts such as the one described here. For my own part, I would love to review more concerts and events like this one - and by the way, I am not snobby about whether it is "amateurs" or professionals who are performing: the line between the two is often very blurred - but my main difficulty is time (time to go to the event, and the time to write a considered response). I believe it is important to support such performers and concerts, and reviewing their activities can be a very useful boost.

Remember that most paid ("professional") reviewers who write for a particular newspaper or journal are not wholly independent for they must fall in with that publication's house style and agenda. They tend to cover the "big name" concerts, operas and artists (and CD releases) and the focus is largely metropolitan, with London receiving the most attention. There is also undoubtedly the need to drive traffic to their sites and coverage such as this ensures a reasonably good click rate. There is also the rather murky activity of "clickbait" whereby a juicy or provocative headline will encourage readers to click the link and thereby land on the site.

Most blogs are written by one person - there is no "editorial board" who decides what is to be reviewed, though some blogs are multi-authored. This gives bloggers the freedom to review what they choose. I think artists, concert organisers and others should seek to connect more closely with online reviewers and bloggers and build relationships with these people. Social media is a great way to connect and forge mutually beneficial relationships. And as the pianist Peter Donohoe said in his interesting (if rather long!) article on music criticism, "we are all on the same side - that of the music"

James Francis Brown said...

Excellent points. Is there an opening here for an enterprising reviewer to specialise in the amateur music world? A small team perhaps? Could someone come up with a clever way of making it sustainable financially? I think something like this could be very uplifting for players and may provide an extra incentive in performance - if it were needed!

The Bard of Tysoe said...

Agreed! My recent review of the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra (amateur, but amazing!) garnered me more hits than anything I've written on my blog. My thoughts – if I'm allowed to link – on why I've started to review such concerts is here:

Tom Hammond said...

Thanks for the idea James: Whilst nothing wrong with the idea (of building a community amongst the non-professional music world who will reflect on each other's performances) I think this slightly misses the point of my article, which is that the people who currently spend their spare/concert time reviewing the 'big' names should look at the very least to the seond-tier of professional music making - as well as amateurs - so that the public who are interested in music per se are made aware of the rich alternative offerings available.

Strenthening the community of non-professionals is great, but I can't see how they could supply oxygen in the way someone who writes for for an established organ and, thinking more about this, it might also give birth to a cabal that could prove counter-productive.

One UK-based reviews website even reviews live-streamed concerts from the US - surely they could dedicate that time to helping spread the word about the music happening in their own country?!

Tom Hammond said...

Thanks to Cross Eyed Pianist and the Bard of Tysoe for their thoughtful, honest and interesting reflections on my article :

I think there is a slight danger that what I said should only be seen as applied to the non-professional world (Which is, as CEP says, a place of murky distinction) as I also think there is so much going on just below the highest bar of the established professional outfits, be they performers or venues.

As with funding, the marketing of events is often very tricky if you're not a big organisation and don't have dedicated staff to work in these areas. Perhaps people simply forget, or don't have the time, to remember to invite reviews when they are stretched already.

Hopefully these thoughts will serve to send a gentle message to the reviewing community to seek what lies just beneath the radar, and adjust the balance so that a wider section of the music community benefit from their insights and reflections.

James Francis Brown said...

Oh dear - I hope I didn't miss the point Tom! I suppose I quite like the idea of saying to the big, established reviewers - 'we don't need you to condescend'. The kinds of initiative I have in mind have a habit of starting small and growing exponentially, if they answer a real need.

There's often a kind of senility with large, successful companies and this goes for the 'organs' of musical awareness (reviews, publishers, record labels etc.) where they tend to take money from what is already successful (sometimes dubiously) and neglect the things that will be of value in the future. They become less imaginative - it seems, almost as a law of inverse proportion to financial success. I can see natural reasons why this might happen but we will always need the fresh initiatives to counter the trend.

Heather Tomala said...

Having read all the above with interest, I would like to offer the perspective of a professional performer and coach...

I chose this profession not to please reviewers, but to please audience! Two situations lead me to reviews (of various arts): a) curiosity for someone else's take on an event I have just attended, and b) seeking further information before seeing a long runner such as a film or play. Knowing that reviews can be biased for reasons already mentioned, I will look for a few different ones. And here we arrive back with the original issue of what is reviewed, and how.

Might reviews of the future take on a new raison d'etre: not a critique of a performance but a pathway to further discussion and research of one aspect of it? Just as the BBC website publishes the semblance of a 'news item' engineered to drive viewers towards its latest Panorama documentary, could a review instead focus on an unusual ensemble, rare piece of repertoire, or use of period instruments in a new context, for example? The prevalence of online reviews and hyperlinks would suggest this is only a small step away, and may in turn challenge creativity in the art of programming, and scholarship in the art of writing.

Once a week I teach some very able under-18 musicians in a group setting - one activity I have set them is to analyse reviews and consider how to formulate their own. A straightforward write-up of a central London classical concert drew little interest, whereas another detailing Krystian Zimerman's dramatic reaction to an audience member's mobile phone use prompted lively debate on concerts, filming and mobile phone culture, copyright, repertoire choice, recording contracts, performance behaviour, venue responsiblity, and many more.

I think what I'm getting at is a review that is a catalyst - not the end of something, but the start.

Cross-Eyed Pianist said...

I agree with Heather's comment above that performers should never perform to please reviewers and performers who cosy up to certain reviewers in the expectation of a 5-star review need to take a close look at their professional integrity. By the same token, I am troubled by certain reviewers who have become self-appointed fan boys and girls for certain artists who by the attention paid to them in the media become The Next Big Thing, only to be dropped when they give a less than perfect performance or their latest CD is not up to scratch.

I think part of the problem in what is covered by reviewers is similar to the issues we have in getting new music out there: that reviewers think readers and potential audience members aren't interested, so they focus on the mainstream/big name performances in the expectation of larger readership.

I admit to a certain bias because I am an independent reviewer and blogger (see my article in response to Tom's) but I do think there is a role for people like me (and there are plenty of us, many of whom write extremely intelligent and considered articles) to engage with the musical community and to turn reviews and concert write ups into a vehicle for lively debate about how music is presented and enjoyed, how performers are doing things differently, innovation, new music, audience engagement and a whole host of other aspects which feed into our rich musical landscape. And I think this kind of approach will make reviews far more interesting to potential readers as well.

Gregory Marsh said...

Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. As an amateur musician, I have been involved in many performances of this type--the kind where, as you say, the audience is filled with immediate acquaintances of the musicians. I agree that this type of performance has a lot to offer, and increased exposure in the review world could only do the music community good.