Classical music criticism

One of the best things about being me is that I have a very cool grandmother

who takes me to Glyndebourne every

summer. (She herself hasn’t missed a season since she first went at some point

in the 1930s, I believe.) We have something of an annual ritual: every Christmas

the booking form comes out, and together we work out which operas we want to

go to, and when.

Recently, Glyndebourne’s been a little bit boring: for the house which was

always at the forefront of pushing new music in the age of Britten, we reached

the point in 2003 where the composer list ran to Wagner, Mozart, Johann Strauss,

Puccini, Mozart (again), and Handel. Not a hint of a Britten or Janacek, and

certainly nothing new, unless you count Peter Sellars turning Idomeneo

into a piece of anti-war agitprop.

This year, we’re a bit more fortunate, with Rossini, Mozart, Smetana, Handel,

Verdi, and the British composer Jonathan Dove. Dove’s Flight is coming

back to Glyndebourne, and if the reviews

posted on his publisher’s site are any indication, it could well be a great

opera to go and see. That said, I’d love to hear from anyone who has actually

seen this piece: is it really as fun and accessible as it seems? My granny,

I’m sure, is going to be a little bit wary of going to any new opera,

having been dragged along to one too many Stockhausen performances by her husband

in the 70s and 80s. If she likes Britten but not Berg, will she be cool with


I feel I have to ask this because there seems to be something of a conspiracy

in music-reviewing circles, where very difficult works are rarely outed as such

in print. I’m not just talking about new music, either: I remember reading a

whole stack of unanimously rave reviews for some rare Monteverdi opera at Covent

Garden once, and actually going to see it as a result. Boy was that

a mistake. It seems to me that reviewers get so excited at the fact that an

opera house is doing something out of the mainstream that they censor themselves

a little, refusing to give their readers the crucial information about why

it’s out of the mainstream. The Monteverdi in London was, I’m sure, one of the

best Monteverdi productions the world has seen in decades, but the fact remains

that the majority of music lovers will get nothing out of it except for extreme

boredom. A responsible reviewer, I think, should bother to mention that between

praising the artistry of the singers and the authenticity of the orchestra.

Or take the new production of Richard Strauss’s Daphne at New York

City Opera: the general critical reaction has been that the production might

be seriously flawed, and the singers a little bit weak, and the orchestra maybe

not quite up to the demands of late Strauss, but hell, this is a super-rare

opportunity to see this work on stage, so we’re going to praise it as highly

as we can. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross is an exception. "The Daphne left

me feeling totally dispirited — it was miles away from what I’d hoped

for," he writes

on his blog, saying that therefore he wasn’t going to review it at all. "I

hope to write up City Opera on a happier day," he concludes.

I’m a little bit suspicious of the implied "if you can’t say something

nice, don’t say anything at all" philosophy behind this, but I feel that

it probably follows from the necessarily evangelical nature of most music critics.

If you spend your life listening to the sort of music which most people haven’t

heard of and most of the rest have no interest in, you’re generally going to

start feeling that part of your job is to help guide people to new music, to

help enthuse them about the kind of stuff they might otherwise never encounter.

Negative reviews won’t do that, while "a quick round-up of recent CDs"

– the thing which Ross wrote instead – just might.

The problem is that even fans of new music, like myself, will admit that most

of it isn’t very good. (I’m sure that most music of any era isn’t very good,

either, but the advantage of old music is that time has managed to do a reasonably

good job of winnowing out the dreadful stuff which no one would ever dream of

performing. If you commission a new piece, on the other hand, you’re obligated

to perform it, no matter how bad it is.) For every amazing performance

of an amazing piece, there are half a dozen underrehearsed cacophonies which

achieve little beyond making the audience feel proud of themselves just for

making it all the way through to the end. But critics never say that, so it’s

very hard to tell what the really good stuff is.

Personally, I like taking risks, and if I go to a new opera and don’t like

it, no real harm is done. When it comes to my grandmother, however, I’m a lot

more risk-averse. I want to know this thing is good and that she’s

going to like it, and failing that I’ll probably fall back on the safety of


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One Response to Classical music criticism

  1. A.C. Douglas says:

    “I want to know this thing is good and that she’s going to like it, and failing that I’ll probably fall back on the safety of Otello.”


    Not so safe these days. No opera production is.


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