Defending the Music Media
It’s a peculiar and alienating feeling to sit among a crowd of people and feel as defensive as the others feel delighted, as unmoved as they feel enthusiastic. That’s what happened to me on October 22, when Vladimir Jurowski, the conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and new music director of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, gave a concert of works by Brett Dean (“Testament” for orchestra), Schoenberg (the Piano Concerto, with Marc-André Hamelin), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, in a “retouched” version by Gustav Mahler. At the performance, in Berlin’s Konzerthaus, Jurowski responded to a bad review in his introductory remarks, then proceeded to give a performance full of the problems from which he had just defended himself.
Taking a microphone before the “Eroica,” he said, “In the press, they wrote that ‘Jurowski’s Beethoven shows us how lucky we are to have historically-informed performance.’” He argued that much about historical performance styles is unknown and that there is never just one right answer to musical questions. He was broadly right about these points, but then, talking about the retouched “Eroica,” he twice repeated the mantra “you don’t have to like it, but you have to know it,” as a rebuttal to his detractor. The audience laughed and cheered. It was an odd feeling sitting in that concert hall with a press ticket in my pocket and knowing that nearly everybody around me was laughing at a critic’s alleged narrow-mindedness. (Aside: Is something bad but historically “relevant” worth performing?)
With that newly coined phrase, Jurowski presented his relationship with the critic in a time-honored context: the musician fearlessly explores new territory, while the bitter reporter takes cheap shots at him from afar. Then the concert began, and the reviewer couldn’t have been more right. When a photographer “retouches” an image, they remove redeye and blemishes, whiten teeth, and smooth out wrinkles. That’s not what this Mahler version was—rather, the Viennese conductor had taken Beethoven’s masterpiece and given it several layers of pancake makeup. The sound was plodding, the volume at times painfully loud; the Funeral March’s elegant bass grace notes, played by an eight-piece section, sounded clumsy and elephantine. In the Finale, the clarinets held their bells up high, a Mahlerian gesture that works in Mahler but here seemed ridiculous (and was inaudible). The piece ended and the hall erupted in cheers.
Alex Ross, in a memorable turn of phrase, wrote that the critic’s job is “to stand in a public space and say, ‘Not quite.’” That may be “irritating” to musicians, as he writes, but it is also certainly “somehow necessary,” despite any review’s subjectivity, as a handbrake for marketing hype. After two years at VAN it seems that musicians are less convinced of this necessity than they used to be. Increasingly, they are using their platforms to hit back at bad reviews and the music press in general. Has the prevalent mistrust of the media in 2017 made its way into our cozy classical music world?
When Jurowski made his remarks, it was the first time I heard a musician respond to a critic in a concert; usually such discussions take place online. Patricia Kopatchinskaja collected bad reviews for 10 years on her website, in a section called the “Trash Bin.” She recently stopped, writing, “The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.” (The “dogs” are the critics who wrote negative reviews.) Facebook and Twitter are where most of the disagreements occur, and where the tone of the conversations often turns uncivil. When VAN published an article on the decline of Deutsche Grammophon, we attracted criticism, some of it deserved. However, on a public Facebook thread by the pianist Igor Levit, a commenter referred to us as “eunuchs,” and the old standby came up frequently: critics are failures, bitterly frustrated wannabe musicians.
Never mind that of all VAN staff members, I’m the only failed classical musician. (Others have backgrounds in techno, international economic development, advertising, and other fields.) Even if we were an editorial team composed entirely of second-rate instrumentalists, that wouldn’t necessarily be a good reason to discount us. Failure is a route to wisdom and maturity; it’s how you learn about life. What makes great writers is their bad experiences, the terrible jobs they worked in, their struggles in love. As banal as it sounds, it takes some setbacks to write about anything, and music is no exception.
Critics are frequently accused to not having a clue about music. A Twitter exchange between the composer Thomas Adès and the Telegraph critic Rupert Christiansen is instructive. Adès corrects Christiansen’s use of the word atonal from a review of Berg’s “Lulu,” adding passive-aggressively, “but I’m not a music critic.” It is a simplification, but by no means “nonsense,” for a writer to call the piece atonal. How is any journalist with a word limit supposed to write about a profoundly complex work, for a lay audience, without a shortcut here and there? And how is a lay audience supposed to speak about the work in the bar later, if the words they might turn to, from the reviews written for them, are written off as nonsense from on high? There’s an element of condescension—“How could a critic possibly understand what we musicians do?”—that is deeply unappealing. Same with Nico Muhly’s blogged responses, from 2016, to some admittedly pretentious questions from a writer. The journalist asks about bland neo-classical music, which is definitely a thing, and the composer responds with, “I mean, there’s more bad music in the world than good music, but I don’t feel the need to extrapolate some kind of grandpa-ass world view about it,” as if every negative act of criticism is synonymous with “back in my day” sentimentality.
I’ve encountered widespread mistrust of journalists from musicians and their agents and publicists, when setting up interviews. Like Ginny Dougary, who wrote about “copy control” recently in the Guardian, I’ve been asked by publicists to add their words to artist interviews. (“I’m grateful for my fans.”) I’ve also been told to send questions in advance as a condition for an interview. The implication of these requests is that music writers are not to be trusted, and have the power to ruin a musician’s career if they catch them saying something stupid. (They don’t: Vasily Petrenko made despicable comments about women conductors, and his career has continued unabated.) Any field benefits from the kind of honest dialogue of which some musicians appear afraid, but which is impossible without independent critics, even those without professional classical music training.
It’s related that criticism of music journalists often makes the “clickbait” accusation, which, as far as I can tell, is applied to any article that anyone has bothered to read. The violinist Daniel Hope responded to an article by Jens F. Laurson, “The Real Top 10 Bach Recordings,” which quite reasonably referred to Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman’s CDs as “dated, sentimentalized mess[es],” by writing in a public Facebook post that “it demonstrates the egregious level to which certain internet music journalism has sunk.” In my experience, the supposed decline in music journalism is often simply linked to anything negative: as our contributor Rebecca Lentjes has pointed out, it’s not uncommon for musicians to believe that music critics exist to cheerlead. (Musicians still post positive reviews on social media.) One conductor told me in an interview that “without us, you wouldn’t have a job,” which is true, but also a tautology. Of course if there were no musicians there would be no journalists who write about music: it’s like saying that if there were no sheep, the shepherds would all be out of work. Presumably we’d find something else to do.
Classical music journalism as a way to make a living is unquestionably in decline. In the U.S., there are only a handful of jobs left where critics earn enough to survive at it full time; the same is true in Germany, where there is more government support for the arts, but fewer people and therefore fewer newspapers. An average concert review at a large Berlin newspaper pays around 30 or 40 euros, so talented critics often write for glossy opera house booklets and programs, building relationships that make them less independent for their next review. Musicians who play in major concert halls and attract newspaper coverage often easily earn 100 times what a journalist makes per concert (and both have to prepare in advance); for real stars, it can reach 1,000 times more. Clearly, musicians should earn more, even much more, than reviewers—but add the payment discrepancy to the fact that musicians are far better known than journalists, with more clout on social media, and it’s not hard to feel that famous musicians who attack reviewers are punching down.
Would classical music be better off without the critics? In an attention economy where the most negative statement frequently has the most reach, it’s to be expected that musicians and journalists are at odds more now than ever. Yet consider this: the critic’s profession is important precisely because it isn’t to advocate for the musician. It’s to advocate for the music as an art form. It’s to discuss what, if anything, is worth hearing about Mahler’s Beethoven arrangements; to question Daniel Barenboim’s orientalist statements; and pursue sexism in music. A critics’ job is to remember why they fell in love with hearing this strange art, even as musicians get to the point in their careers where they care about chauffeurs, restaurants, flights, and fees. Critics may be occasionally wrong, often misguided, and frequently cynical. We’re still worth preserving, because at least we’re hungry for the truth. ¶