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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


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