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Guest Blog: Frances Wilson - Thoughts from a reviewer's desk...

Frances Wilson responds to Tom Hammond's recent article on music criticism for the Music Haven Blog:

I read with interest Tom Hammond's recent post in which he queries the usefulness of reviews and the role of music critics and reviewers. I often question the purpose of reviews myself and take the (perhaps rather naive) view that a review should offer an objective overview of the concert, while giving the reader a flavour of what is was like to "be there". I also believe that reviews should not seek to tell the public how to listen - nor instruct the musician in his or her art. As a reviewer (I refuse to call myself a "critic" as the word has negative connotations for me) and a blogger on classical music, I'd like to offer a response to Tom's article, based on my personal experience and the world of classical music reviewing as I see it at the moment.

There was a time, not so long ago and certainly within my living memory, when "professional" critics were regarded as the significant arbiters of taste and culture, and who could, seemingly, make or break a career with one well-aimed pen stroke. Many of these people wrote for major broadsheet newspapers and respected or specialist music journals and magazines. Their views were regarded as intelligent, considered and definitive: indeed, some people regarded their commentaries as the last word in music criticism.

But critics are not gods, and these days, with the rise of online reviews and blogging, music criticism has become far more democratic. Many online reviewers and bloggers are not professional journalists (by which I mean people who get paid to write), but some are musicians or academics who are intelligent writers with a depth and range of knowledge that may be superior to that of broadsheet music writers. Many of the bloggers and freelance reviewers I've met via my blog and reviewing activities write primarily to share their enjoyment of and passion for classical music.

There is certainly a tendency amongst mainstream music journalists and newspaper critics and their editors to focus their reviewing on major concerts and operas, usually featuring "big name" artists and conductors at prestigious venues, often very London-centric. I suspect that their editors feel that such concerts are the ones their readers want to know about. This is coupled with a desire to maintain a reputation for quality reviews and commercial considerations: driving readers to the publication or website. (Alongside this there is also the rather more murky aspect of creating sensational or eye-catching headlines to encourage more clicks - what is known colloquially as "click bait".) The authors of these reviews are commissioned and paid by their publications and may not be totally independent in their viewpoint because they are required to fall in with the agenda and house style of their employer. In contrast, many independent reviewers are just that - independent - with greater freedom to review what they choose. Because they have not been commissioned to write by a publication (print or online), they take a different approach, often producing responsible, fair-minded and intelligent responses to the music they have heard. They are generally unpaid and tend to buy their own concert tickets. I have been accused of "blagging free tickets" and "writing five-star reviews for mates", neither of which are true: I do not accept comp tickets from musician friends because I want to remain independent and impartial, and any free press tickets I obtain are organised on my behalf either via a PR representative or via the online organisation for whom I review. I do not deal directly with venues or artists, though I do receive many invitations via my blog to attend and review concerts, other music-related events and CDs.

For any artist or ensemble, young and emerging or well-established, mainstream or non-mainstream or non-metropolitan, reviews can offer a significant boost, both in terms of career development and more commercial considerations, because a review is an endorsement, a testimonial and a confirmation of the musician's craft and art, and a review from a leading critic or well-known music blogger can be very helpful indeed. As the acclaimed British pianist Peter Donohoe said in his own article about music criticism, musicians and music critics should be "all on the same side" - that of the music - and by this token, I believe it is important for musicians to build relationships with reviewers and bloggers - and vice versa. Always take it as a compliment if a reviewer writes about you, consider the views expressed and accept or reject them as you see fit. I believe it is important not to slate performers too strongly in the public forum of reviews, by which I mean that particularly contemptuous or personal attacks are not helpful - neither to artist (who may feel incredibly hurt by the review) or reviewer (who thereby reveals him or herself to be misanthropic and unduly negative). Listening to music is a highly subjective experience, even for the most experienced and knowledgeable critic, but I do not believe reviews should be used to express personal dislike of a certain artist, composer or works. Reviews should seek to be objective: I may not like the piano music of Schumann that much, for example, but I can certainly appreciate when I hear it played well. Not being arrogant or egocentric is as important in the field of music journalism and criticism as it is in the world of the performing artist.

So why are reviewers not covering the kind of concert Tom describes in his article? Personally, I'd love to cover more concerts like this but my problem is lack of time: it takes time to attend a concert and time to write a considered review. I'd love to see more coverage of amateur or semi-professional music events too, but I know some critics and reviewers might shy away at the word "amateur". And yet (and I'm sure Tom would agree with me here) the line between professional and amateur is very blurred: I've heard some fantastic playing from "amateur" pianists (i.e. people for whom music is not their main career) in recent months, quality music making of the kind one might enjoy at Purcell Room or St John's Smith Square. I agree with Tom that we need to support the rich and varied musical community we are so lucky to have here in the UK, and critics and reviewers have, in my opinion, a shared and important responsibility in supporting this community by taking notice of what is happening within it at whatever level. Musicians should also seek to build strong relationships with reviewers and bloggers: the accessibility and popularity of social media makes this easy, and the power of such networks in forging strong professional relationships should not be underestimated.

For my own part, I love attending concerts and I enjoy sharing my pleasure and passion for classical music via my writing, either in reviews or more general articles on my blog. It is challenging to write about classical music in a way that is non-specialist, accessible and interesting, and the greatest compliment I have been paid by readers on several occasions is "your review made me feel I was at the concert with you".

Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, concert reviewer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She writes music reviews for her blog and also for international concert and opera listings site, and is a regular guest blogger for InterludeHK and HelloStage. In Februrary 2016, Frances is presenting an event in association with the Institute of Musical Research exploring the wide variety of writing about classical music - from concert reviews to academic writing, programme notes to blogging - at Senate House, UCL, London. Further details HERE


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