Monday, April 04, 2011

Caveat Lector

When you read a music review, you hope that you're getting an accurate view of what one reviewer heard and saw at a given concert on a particular day. By and large, that is what you can expect, though as we all know, five people can go to a concert and come away with five different opinions of what they just heard.

If you read the reviews on the web site Bachtrack, though, you should be aware that they have a policy of not publishing strongly negative reviews. I found out about this because I was asked if I'd like to review for them. I asked a few questions about this policy, which they stated up front, and then told them no, bad fit. They also don't think it's helpful to comment on the "minutae" of a movement, which I didn't ask about, or by severely criticizing a performer. 

Let's put it another way: the email exchange from Bachtrack made it clear that they want to publish reviews that will generate enthusiasm in the reader. Folks, that is not the purpose of reviews. The purpose of a review is to provide a record of what happened at a performance and to evaluate what happened, whether the reviewer heard greatness, horror, or mediocrity. Evaluation is what sets a reviewer or critic apart; a reviewer theoretically has enough knowledge and experience to support the opinions they form about a performance.

I usually don't quote email directly, but in this case, you need to see what the situation is. Here's the initial comment about negative reviews:
We don’t want overwhelmingly negative reviews because we don’t think they help anyone. We’d rather not write up a review of a concert that’s a disaster so I simply ask a reviewer to email me and let me know so I can have a quiet word with the promoter.
I asked for more details and they told me that they want to "support the classical music world" and that reviews will be on their site forever. They also said that negatives within a neutral review are acceptable, but reviews of irredeemably awful concerts would not be published. I asked what that meant and this was the reply:
You go to an orchestral concert and you think the conductor can't hold the orchestra together, the tempo is too slow, the soloist can't make himself heard and there's nothing good to say about the event. (We don't publish). 
On the other hand there's a slow start as the orchestra and conductor find their feet, the odd wobble but some very good moments. As long as you are happy to start and end with a positive, you can add some negatives.
That's the point where I told them what I'd been thinking from the first email: no way. I will not be subject to any preconditions of reviewing and I certainly won't guarantee a positive review. I believe what they're doing is actively harmful, in fact, to the very style and institutions they think they are supporting. 

Here are the many, many reasons why:

Performers give bad performances; directors sometimes suck; productions can be very bad indeed. This is just the way the arts work. They should be covered as such.

Music and audiences don't need to be protected from bad reviews. It's not bad reviews that keep people out of concert halls. (If anyone out there thinks this the case, with the exception of the occasional bad review of an opera with a long run, I would like to see solid data supporting that view. I mention that SF Opera did well with Madama Butterfly last year despite a majority of poor reviews of the performers and production.)

Bachtrack essentially guarantees concert presenters a positive or mixed review, and evidently they are aware of this policy. Journalists should not collude in that way with the subjects of their coverage.

Readers can't trust that they're getting an honest perspective from Bachtrack. They do not know what the site isn't reviewing or why.

Reviewers' opinions differ. I might hear an unmitigated disaster where someone else hears charming eccentricity.

The policy assumes that a bad review of a performance is a turn-off. That's just not the case - people love reading negative reviews, which are often more fun and more sharply written than a positive review. Anyone out there read The New Yorker? Some of the reviews I remember best are Anthony Lane dismembering bad films.

Assuming that a bad review of a performance is a turnoff assumes that the performance and the music are so strongly identified that readers will confuse them or be turned off from a work by a bad review. That's a bad assumption. People can tell the difference between The Marriage of Figaro, the opera, and a poor performance or dumb production of The Marriage of Figaro.

People develop their own ears and standards of judgment by listening to many works and performances, and by reading a wide range of reviews, including multiple reviews of the same performance, hopefully taking in a range of opinions. I can point to any number of concerts with reviews that strongly diverged from each other. That is useful to readers.

Negative reviews certainly are a help: to people in deciding what to see and why, whether it's now or next year. They can help presenters decide who not to hire or invite back. They act as a counterweight to what publicists say. They help readers figure out what a reviewer's likes and dislikes are.

Honest reviews are important for the historical record. If a performer sang like a pig or the conducting had no momentum or thrust, the review should so state. And that review should be published.

I'm actually surprised that Bachtrack even approached me, given their review criteria. I try to be fair to performers and I don't write viciously about them, but it should be clear from what I write here, perhaps less so in my SFCV reviews, that I can be a crank, that I have my own axes to grind, that there are performers I never go see because they are bores or annoyances, that there are composers I just can't stand. I put my dislikes out there openly because anyone reading me should know about them and take them into account when reading me.

Bachtrack has the admirable goal of getting more people to listen to classical music and to attend concerts. But they're seriously misguided in going about it this way.


Mark said...

How utterly weird! The site, I mean. I agree with all your comments. Now if they said they were a promotion site, I'd buy it. But reviews?

Maybe this is just our century's version of reviews paid for by performers or their agents that used to happen in the 19th century (if I'm remembering this correctly)

-- Mark Winges

Lisa Hirsch said...

Sigh. Mark, yes, it is very strange.

Anonymous said...

I'm aware of publications, respected ones, that review books, and don't publish strongly negative reviews. Their argument is that they have a limited amount of space (even online publications can be limited in the amount of material they can digest) and that there are too many good books to waste time on bad ones.

I report this view; I don't endorse it. My feeling as a reader is that, by their cutting off part of the spectrum, it's hard for me to calibrate how they really feel about the rest of the spectrum.

Fortunately, as a music reviewer, I'm rarely presented with something that bad. It's been over ten years since I've been to a concert by professionals that would have deserved a killer review. When I was reviewing novels, I wrote killer reviews all the time, and I'm much happier now.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I agree with what you say about the book publication.

I've written some negative music reviews, but no really killer reviews, though I've been tempted once or twice.

Anonymous said...

Great post, and too true.
On my blog I would post reviews of the local orchestra from when I would go to their concerts, just to get my thoughts out (I've certainly never been paid for a review!).  One of the concerts I reviewed was a concert given in preparation for an upcoming recording, and my review was totally enthusiastic (still is...the CD, of Britten's most famous orchestral works, is great, and the concert was phenomenal.
I ended up being contacted by the Executive Director of said orchestra who expressed a desire to have me write further reviews, although in what capacity, I'm not sure.  I invited him to look at some further reviews of the orchestra's performances, most notably the review of a concert with the Nielsen Helios Overture and Mahler 1, which had taken place between the time he contacted me and the Britten affair.  My thoughts on the Mahler concert were less effusive, but certainly could be described as "mixed," (the finale of the Mahler was flawlessly executed by the conductor, a detail I mentioned in the post).  I never heard from him again.
I know this has become something of an issue with the former critic of the Cleveland Orchestra, and their "critic" in Miami.  It's a shame, because criticism can be a great vehicle for finding new paths to tread.  I've found myself generally in agreement with many film reviews of Roger Ebert, and so I will check his site if a new film is out that I am interested in to see how he felt about it.  It's a great jumping off point for further exploration.
Thank you for your principled stance.  It's important that someone maintain a sense of integrity in a business that seems perilously close to flying off the rails altogether.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Jeez. yeah, it's weird when an organization tries to hire you to write reviews, I mean, "reviews." They apparently don't understand that a critic writing for and being paid by an organization has no independence and can't be trusted.

The Cleveland "critic in residence" isn't really a critic, as I understand it. They should not be calling him that.

And thank you for the kind words.

Martin Fritter said...

There are circumstances where withholding a negative review, or muting the criticism, might be appropriate, that is in performances of semi-professional and armature artists. I live in Boulder, Colorado and we have our own Philharmonic which is not very good with a professional conductor who is not very good and with programming that is not interesting. Ticket prices are quite low. So why bother to criticize?

Now with name artists and market prices, if it's a bad job, then of course.

Lisa Hirsch said...

There is a definite art to reviewing semi-pro and community groups, and it's appropriate to apply different standards to Big Seven orchestras and community or semi-pro groups.