13 April 2013

Critics In Residence

Various art galleries and institutions retain the services of an occasional Critic-In-Residence to offer informed educational support to those who wish to enrich their understanding of the visual arts, but I have not previously come across a similar position within a musical organisation.  True, in 2011 the Cleveland Orchestra appointed Enrique Fernandez as its Critic-in-Residence.  His job was to write a blog commenting on, rather than offering criticism of, their performances while the orchestra itself was in residence at the Arsht Center in Miami.  As such Fernandez was a critic and he was in residence, but he was more an Observer-in-Residence than a Critic-in-Residence.

Given the over-riding need for a critic to be impartial, perhaps the very concept of a Critic-In-Residence is flawed.  When it was launched the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra flew in a London-based critic in the hope that he would send back home glowing reports of a fine new orchestra breaking on to the world scene.  He did (and, to be honest, he could not have done otherwise; this was a brilliant new orchestra on the world scene - a fundamental fact with which no serious person could disagree), but his comments were undermined by the fact that he was paid to do that very thing by the orchestra itself.  I, myself, have been in a similar position, and in recent months there has been some discussion in the pages of the UK press about the validity of music - and in particular opera - critics who have accepted travel and accommodation from those who are the subject of their criticism.  We can all boast (and justifiably so) that despite the financial incentives we remain impartial; but do the public really believe that?  Is not a critic immediately compromised by such an association.  Whenever I comment on the Malaysian Philharmonic I am immediately accused of bias (a suggestion that they might not be as great as they once were invariably encourages a certain lady within the hallowed walls of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur to write anonymously that I should shut up as my views are worthless); and perhaps I am, although I try so hard not to be.

For my part, I make a point of remaining detached from those who I review or who I am likely to review; I do not see how it is possible to remain wholly impartial when you have built up friendly relations with the subject of your criticism.  Not for me the rush backstage or the patient wait by the stage door for the artist to emerge in order to seek out some inside and privileged information on the performance.  I am there to be an informed member of the audience and to base my opinion on what everyone else hears; not to show superiority or voice the performer's views by association.  Others do that, and are quite comfortable with it: I cannot, so I slip quietly into the background and try to remain anonymous.

So when I was invited to become a Critic-In-Residence for a Hong Kong organisation, my immediate reaction was to refuse.  However, more details were provided and I began to see that this might be quite interesting.  Eventually I accepted, and having recently completed my first (and hopefully not my last) week "in residence", I see that this has been a very worthwhile and valuable experience not just for all concerned but for the artistic environment in Hong Kong generally.

It was neither an orchestra nor a concert-promoting organisation which ran this innovative project, but an educational institution allied with an arts magazine; the latter keen to improve the standard of its published criticism, the former keen to encourage students to develop greater critical listening.  Given the pretty appalling state of music criticism in Asia generally, this seems a most enlightened and sensible idea.  After all, the market for classical music is both relatively new and also expanding, and the critic performs a much more vital educational and promotional role here than he does in the west where audiences are more ready to form their own opinions.  So, how did it pan out?  On the whole it went well.  A handful of students attended and we had some very worthwhile discussions.  The quality of the resulting criticism still left a lot to be desired, but such things take time and one can already see a few green shoots emerging from the customary crop of cliches, meaningless use of pseudo-technical terms and stock statements of the obvious.

But one thing really worried me, and that was the lack of experience shown in those who aspired to be critics.  A chance encounter in Singapore with someone who not only remembered my early criticism for the Musical Times (for whom I wrote extensively in the 1970s and 80s) but had studiously kept copies of it all, found me revisiting what I had written in those far off days.  How terrible it was, oozing ignorance and shallow opinion.  There is no doubt that to comment effectively on others' performances, one needs to have accumulated a wealth of experience.  I do not believe that critics necessarily need to be trained musicians or seasoned performers - indeed, that can be a disadvantage - but I do believe that critics need to have spent many years sitting in audiences, listening to recordings, reading avidly and honing their literary skills before their opinions are either worth reading or even readable.  Look at the appalling comments that appear on websites under the terrifying heading "Customer Reviews" and you know what I mean.

Recently booking a hotel I was directed towards "Customer Reviews" on a travel website.  It seemed that the hotel in question had attracted a disproportionately large number of semi-literate and incoherent visitors, all of whom had axes to grind which were totally irrelevant to me.  Why a hotel in a quiet coastal location should be castigated by a visitor because "its not near subway's and taxi's cosst FORRTUNE", is a mystery, but the sad fact is a lot of silly people take this kind of thing seriously, apparently unaware that so many good reviews are written by the hotel management themselves and so many bad ones by those with a vested interest in bringing about the hotel's commercial ruin.

With sites like Amazon positively encouraging the incoherent, illiterate and ill-informed views of those with no critical experience or ability, the time has certainly come for a serious move to be made to foster intelligent and impartial criticism.  We expect from our professional musicians a high level of training, experience and ability; why do we not adopt similar standards from our critics?  If more of these Critic-In-Residence projects could be run by those who publish criticism, the public might be encouraged to listen more seriously to music and, as a result, be more likely to recognise and respect true performing quality.

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