10 February 2020

Stifling the (Bassoonist's) Argument

Picture the scene.  Two elderly music reviewers - one of them dozing in a post-lunch stupor, the other muttering to himself about the vagaries of a Singapore public obsessively buying up toilet rolls and noodles in case the Coronavirus suddenly mutates to cause bouts of diarrhoea and extreme hunger -  sit on a bench inside the air-conditioned lobby of Victoria Concert Hall awaiting an interesting afternoon concert of Chinese orchestral music in which both have a professional interest.  Suddenly a young lady known to both as an eager up-and-coming bassoonist on the local circuit comes up to us with a cheery greeting.  Disturbed from our respective reveries, neither of us is in the best of moods when she proclaims that she read my review and wanted to respond, but wasn't sure whether she dared.

It took a bit of deeper digging to discover she was referring to a review I had published in the Straits Times earlier in the week about Singapore's new Concordia String Quartet.  "I wasn't there", she told us, "But I felt very strongly about it".  Quite what her feelings were neither of us had the courtesy to enquire, both of us suggesting that if she wasn't there, possibly she would have had nothing worthwhile to say. We left it at that.

In retrospect, I felt we were both rude and I have since had a big pang of guilt.  Surely a review is not intended for those that were there or heard the concert, but for a wider audience to increase awareness of a city's musical environment or to trigger discussion on musical matters.  I must confess that, even as I penned my review, I had hoped someone who was not there might have been interested enough to ask a question or post a comment; yet here I was scoffing at precisely the kind of response I was wanting.

So I apologise wholeheartedly and unreservedly to our our bassoonist friend, and urge her to put up her views in public whenever she feels like it; the views of every performing musician or serious music lover are always relevant, be they positive or negative,

The problem is, the anonymity of the internet leads to those who normally live mundane and pointless lives, who would jump on a chair at the sight of a cockroach or turn the other way if they saw a disabled person in need of help, suddenly feel empowered to become offensive, abusive and super-critical of those whose bravery in speaking out they envy.  Thus serious musicians, politicians, writers, critics and even health care workers all come in for horrible abuse simply because those who abuse them have neither the skill nor the intelligence to emulate the work they do.  Amazingly, I even get death threats for having suggested that so-and-so was not able to walk on water or raise the dead (musically speaking).  People who would not know a treble clef from a treble whisky frequently castigate me for not knowing what I am talking about or for grinding some kind of personal axe.  For that reason anonymous comments are usually erased from the blog - although one or two do fall through the net, especially if they trigger interesting discussions online.  But I welcome all and every considered comment from someone with the courage and brains to put their name where their typing fingers are.

So why should critics not only accept but take seriously comments from those who were not at the performances they reviewed?  The simple answer is that a review, while reporting on what happened historically, also offers an opinion about the wider issues in music.  You did not have to be at the Concordia String Quartet concert to take the point from my review about the legitimacy of externally created string quartets or the wisdom of national ones; and if I can spark a discussion around those two points (and many of the others subliminally referred to in my review), I am happy.

It seems that the age of polite, informed discussion from radically opposing standpoints has died in music; how I long for someone to argue against me without being offensive, or to support my argument without being sycophantic.  Hopefully despite my face-to-face rudeness, Ms Bassoon can buck the trend and add her worthwhile voice to the discussion.

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