For the past month or so, I’ve been involved in a wonderful and fascinating writing endeavour, the results of which have been published online by The WholeNote as well as other arts publications (The Dance Current and Opera Canada magazine). The Emerging Arts Critics project, begun by the National Ballet of Canada, now expanded to include the Toronto Symphony and the Canadian Opera Company, selects eight promising arts critics, all people in their 20s, and provides them with reviewing assignments, professional mentoring. and guaranteed publication in major journals. The WholeNote is the venue of choice for TSO reviews, which have already appeared online. I was asked, and was delighted, to be the mentoring individual for the symphony reviewers.
What was stunning about this project was not only that someone recognized that arts reviewing was a discipline that needed mentoring, expertise and development, but that such support would be given to an enterprise which has virtually disappeared from the day-to-day lives of most North Americans. I don’t have definitive figures, but I’m guessing there were more than 100 classical music reviewers employed by Canadian and American newspapers 20 years ago. Today there are probably no more than a dozen left, and it seems half of them work for The New York Times. Here in Toronto, as I know well, having worked as the classical reviewer for The Globe and Mail until just a couple of years ago, the National Post has done away with all classical reviews, The Star employs the redoubtable JohnTerauds on a freelance basis, and The Globe’s musical offerings are almost exclusively devoted to opera. That leaves in the city publications like WholeNote, the website Ludwig Van Toronto and assorted (and very fine) individual bloggers and websites such as OperaRamblings, Schmopera and Barcza’s Blog.
But individual bloggers are no substitute for reviews in a major metropolitan daily, for reasons that are not immediately obvious.
It’s not about the quality of the writing. There’s probably more good writing about classical music today in the world than ever before. And it has nothing, or less than you might think, to do with maintaining the health of the the classical performing scene in the city and region, which seems to me to be exploding with vitality these days, reviews or no reviews. I remember, with great pleasure, actually, one Canadian Opera Company publicist sheepishly admitting to me that my reviews of her company’s productions had no impact on her box office at all, positive or negative.
She was embarrassed to tell me, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Because my feeling always has been that my reviews aren’t and shouldn’t be for the people already going to the classical events. Just do the math. A sold-out run of a seven-performance COC production results in about 14,000 patrons in the Four Seasons Centre. About 7500 for three sold-out Roy Thomson Hall TSO concerts. The Globe and Mail’s daily circulation is about 300,000; the Greater Toronto Area has a population of 6.4 million. A remarkably small percentage of Torontonians in general, and Globe readers in particular, are interested in attending classical music events.
So why devote precious space to a review of them? Because reviews of art events are not just for the people who go to them. They are for everyone. They are for all the citizens of a healthy society concerned about their communal life. They are for everyone because they offer an opportunity for a society to train a critical lens on itself. Going to a concert is not just another hobby, like joining a bridge club or a ballroom dancing class. It is a public expression of fundamental values, central to a society, even if hidden beneath a polished and slightly off-putting surface of formally attired men and women playing music written, mostly, centuries ago.
The key to discovering the real purpose of a “critical” review is tied up in the history of the word itself. Our word critical comes from the Greek kritikos and the Latin criticus, meaning one who judges, one who discerns. Not one who constantly finds fault, by the way, as the word has degenerated to mean, but one who looks inside, evaluates, reveals. And we’ve kept a vestige of that original classical meaning of the word to this day when we talk about something being a critical feature of an enterprise or situation, meaning a component that is uniquely and vitally significant (as in the analogous medical term “critical condition”). This is the real source of the critic as reviewer – someone who analyzes the critical components of a work or a performance – the essence, the tipping point, the hidden heart of the work and the world.
The work and the world. That’s the other secret of arts, and especially music, reviewing, that newspaper editors counting clicks to digital articles spectacularly fail to understand. It’s not just the artistic world that the critic investigates – it’s the whole world. And that’s because music is such a deeply social, deeply communal activity. The move from a discussion of music to a discussion of society is impossible to avoid. That’s what a music critic does when they’re at their best – intercut and interweave musical and cultural perspectives so that the discussion of one becomes the discussion of the other. Arts reviews can then be places where a society questions and interrogates the things it believes in, the things it values. That’s why reviews are for everyone, because they illuminate issues in which everyone has a stake.
Or at least they should. That’s what I was trying to tell the young critics I was mentoring in the Emerging Arts Critics program. In the end, once they’ve mastered the elusive language with which we describe music, once they’ve figured out the structure and pacing of an 800-word review, once they’ve learned to navigate the boundaries between personal and impersonal judgments, they’re left with the task of creating a draft set of values for their readers to absorb, debate, reject, or accept. Should a performer like Barbara Hannigan be more important than the music she performs or the other way around? What can a Brahms concerto teach us about the relative value of the individual and society in our lives? What happens when a cynical, cold composer (like Dmitri Shostakovich) is performed by a radiantly intensely human performer (like Alisa Weilerstein)? Whose character should prevail? (A life issue as well as a musical issue)
Those are the kinds of questions muscial reviewers should tackle, I believe – questions that begin with notes and phrases and dynamics and expand to fill the longing space we all have for value in our personal lives.
It seems that the venues for addressing these kinds of critical questions are shrinking today. We are instead inundated, drowning, gasping for breath in a Twitterverse full of the other form of criticism – disparaging, negative, demoralizing. But we can’t and won’t stay there forever. I’m sitting here, hoping against hope, that the talents and skills that our Emerging Arts Critics are learning will once again, someday, be useful to us all.
Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.