Thursday, October 31, 2019

When is a classical music review not a review?


There has been considerable attention paid to the problem of fake reviews on the travel website 'TripAdvisor', with the UK consumer group 'Which' drawing attention to what it describes as a "hugely suspicious" patterns of comments from contributors. This reliance by the media on user-generated reviews of varying provenance is a consequence of the rise of free online content and the consequent demise of paid-for independent criticism. Citizen journalism, social media and free online content have had a massively disruptive impact on all areas of independent criticism, and nowhere more so than in classical music.

One example is preeminent classical music website Slipped Disc's sudden, passionate and somewhat surprising love affair with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Norman Lebrecht's blog now carries 'exclusive' reviews of every CBSO concert, and to date they have all been raves. Every one of these rave reviews has been written by a critic close to, or in one case connected to, the CBSO. These critics undoubtedly have the best of intentions. But regional orchestras in the UK are like local football teams. They have supporters who are passionate about their teams to the point of blindness, and football fans are not noted for their independence or objectivity.

A classical music review is not a review when it is promotional copy in disguise, regardless of the altruistic intentions of the reviewer. So these days I treat any CBSO review with what the UK consumer association 'Which' tactfully terms 'huge suspicion'. Which is both sad and unnecessary. Because it is already beyond dispute that the CBSO is a world-class orchestras and that its music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is a very exciting emerging talent.

The Birmingham orchestra does not need these raucous chants from its fans on the terraces. What it needs is world-class independent music criticism to complement its world-class music making. Only by being guided by independent and objective critical voices will the CBSO avoid the hero to zero trajectory of other briefly league-topping and remorselessly hyped ensembles such as the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra.

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