Jem Muharrem

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Archive for the tag “classical music”

Infallible judgement: Dave Hickey, classical music and the critical state

TWO old ladies were overheard in the lift going down to the car park of Sydney City Recital Hall following a performance of Hartmann’s Concerto Funèbre by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. One said to the other, “I enjoyed that. I think it was good…but let’s wait and see what the critics say tomorrow.”


The American culture critic Dave Hickey quit the art world this week. He told The Observer that art editors and critics had become a courtier class, hostage to rich collectors “who have no respect for what they are doing”. Mr Hickey said that more collectors are employing arts consultants to tell them what is great art, instead of relying on their own opinion.

“What can I tell you? It’s nasty and it’s stupid. I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party. I quit,” he said.

dave hickey

Hickey said that the art world had become self-reverential and money-obsessed

Mr Hickey’s particular reasons for quitting, and his opinions on the “calcified”‘ state of modern art have been well documented (see the full article here). What I am concerned with is the role of the critic, and what it is that we might be losing in such a figure as Mr Hickey.

I am going to list a few questions playing on my mind.

Critics…Who are they?  Do we rely on them? Should we? What are their motives?

What is Mr Hickey’s motive in being an art critic? What does he want to achieve with his write-ups? Occupying that hallowed junction where expertise meets taste, does he want to be an arbiter? Is it his place?

A critic cannot be a blind initiate; this can lead to mere hagiography or advertorial. Even when it is severely negative, the scathing review is itself a kind of passion for the art-form which the reviewer feels has been marred by the work in question. But Mr Hickey has gone a step further in his throwing in of the towel. It is not a dislike of an artist or a work, but a wholesale rejection of the entire art world. It’s a pretty serious state of affairs for the doyen of US critics to say, and I re-quote: “I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party. I quit.” He says that collectors have consultants tell them what is great art, instead of relying on their own opinions…or should it be his?

What has been lost? The art is still going to be there, isn’t it? So we’ve lost a point of view, an erudite and deep one, but one person’s opinion nonetheless…Will art suffer? Will our appreciation or even our ability to appreciate it suffer? Will his quitting affect the creation of art and its future trajectory?

There have been a lot of question marks in this introduction, mostly rhetorical, and I hope they’ll make your synapses buzz as much as mine have been.

With art and the case of Hickey, what I admire is that the very genre is being questioned, even repudiated. In the classical music sphere, there is no such similarity. When is the last time a music critic stood up in such a way? Unquestionable, the genre is king…Can this be termed the “calcification” of music?


ernest newman in 1905

Newman believed in the ‘infallible judgement’ of the critic to arbitrate on new compositions

Musical criticism has moved towards a differentiation between general music criticism and performance criticism. Historically, reviews often concentrate on judging (mostly new) compositions. Here is Ernest Newman’s take on the Proms in 1931:

“Programmes are mostly given up to works of the most familiar kind. There has been during the past week a Wagner night, a Beethoven night, a Brahms night and a Tchaikovski (sic) night; and as none of these composers have written much lately, there have been no new works for the critic to exercise his infallible judgement upon.”

The goalposts certainly have changed. Today, the decline in the performance of contemporary music has led critics to concentrate on performing artists; earlier, music was heard fresh from the composing desk, often performed by the composer themselves.  Thus critics would concentrate on the work, not its execution. Then, it was OK to say what you liked about music already accepted into the canon, but now that works are performed canonically, critics aren’t expected to praise Schubert or excoriate Tchaikovsky (like when Hanslick said that Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gave “for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear”) but to focus on the performer.

As the canon of classics calcified, thanks in part to music critics, repeat performances highlighted the extent to which each performer contributed uniquely to the experience of the music. Nowadays, critics with axes to grind or with personal theories about the music itself aren’t taken seriously. The performer and the performance are the things to be scrutinised, not the work. It is accepted, and correct, that the performer adds his or her thoughts and personality to a work, and all are worthy in their own way; the concept of the canon is unequivocal, and is here to stay. Just like art’s deification of certain individuals – Hirst, Emin, et al – music, driven with critics and the media, creates it own pantheon; where, in certain circles, a rich, high-demand “star” might not be the most talented, the most profound, but seems to keep people’s attention.

Is this calcification of the canon good or bad for music? Of course, visual art and music are not the same, but music, canonically, is no longer questioned. This perpetuates absolutes, and this then squeezes interpretations, viewpoints, perhaps even the creation of new works into a fixed space, perhaps precluding the opportunity of breaking these bonds and discovering new vistas. Therefore, Mr Hickey, I applaud you.


It is certainly a time of change for specialist critics these days. The New York Times recently removed Allan Kozinn from his position as music critic and reassigned him as general cultural reporter; over the past few years, critics’ jobs have been eliminated, downgraded or redefined at papers across the world.

classical twitter

Social media has certainly impacted not only critics but cultural consumption in general

The role of social media, which thrives on argument, not consensus, has certainly impacted the critic. A twitter feed of professionals and non-professionals who freely trade opinions with rapier-speed and passion moves away from the burden of traditionally proscribed cultural consumption. The critic of old did not enter into dialogue, and we no longer accept the authority of critics unless they engage with us. No longer can thousands of words be lavished on a concert review, but 140 characters still can…Can you image George Bernard Shaw being re-tweeted?

Criticism involves having a reaction to a work of art, and then trying to understand and account for that reaction. There’s something hauntingly sensual about this performance – what is it? This piece gives me a feeling of the eternal – why?

Directly engaging with others, whether through the review or the tweet, will help us find maybe not consensus, but more questions and thus an expansion of our ability to listen, analyse and appreciate.


Plebs: Classical Musicians and their audiences (It’s not just Andrew Mitchell…)

Classical musicians must cultivate relationships and understanding with audience members at a personal level if they want their art-form to thrive

I think deeply about the relationship between classical musicians and their audience.

Unlike folk or jazz  audiences, whose interactions – clapping, singing, dancing, heckling –  go a long way to giving those forms a living identity, a context, an ethos, forging links between performer/audience member, our audiences are often altogether excised from the act of performance. The no-man’s-land between the symphony orchestra and the first row is ineffably bigger than just a few feet.

The audience are expected to sit reverentially, silently, and to politely (not too enthusiastically, please) applaud after often nearly an hour. They are then scowled at (I have seen this often) by a row of grim-faced violinists raised begrudgingly to their feet by the conductor at the end of the performance. It is no wonder that a gulf seems to exist between us.

A colleague told me about when she once played as an extra with one of the top London orchestras. The orchestral manager came out to brief the musicians, and after the requisite information was given, the manager congratulated the musicians on a fabulous concert the previous evening and said that “the audience just loved it”. A principal woodwind player said out loud, with relish: “What do we care what they think?”

I have also been guilty of laughing with colleagues about innocent questions or comments made by earnest, less-informed audience members during the interval or after a gig. I have seen musicians roll their eyes after being congratulated by a member of the public. And ex-Conservative chief whips aside, I have often heard non-musicians described as plebs…

In difficult economic times, music and the arts suffer, as does everything else. Musicians, after dedicating a substantial part of their life mastering their craft, feel underrated, underpaid, misunderstood; funding is being cut, jobs are being lost. I was on trial with the Scottish Opera in 2011 just after their working year got cut down to just 26 weeks. I met the then principal trumpeter on his valedictory tour, after which he was stepping down following decades in the job to start an entry-level office job outside of music, just to be able to provide for his family. Times are hard…

This is exactly the time to coax out an attitude change.

During times of uncertainty, it can be very easy to begin to resent the amorphous, hundred-headed mass that sits out there in the dark watching us during our work hours.

Classical music is elitist: so goes the adage. This is normally said in reference to audiences – often older, richer – and to the whole nineteenth-century ethos, from our garb to the strange rituals and the frowns you get if you cough; that’s a whole other matter that I won’t expand on here. Yet if they’re not careful, the musicians themselves can put up barriers with their own audience. I am not tarring all with the same brush, but it is fair to say the attitude is prevalent.

There are many, many initiatives and organisations out there that try to bring audiences closer to music. My own beloved Southbank Sinfonia has regular rush-hour concerts most Thursdays at 6pm where entry and alcohol is free; the orchestra are at ground level with the audience and members of the orchestra stand up and introduce each piece, giving a human, personal touch to each work. This is a wonderful, inclusive ritual, and I know first hand that the audience love it.  This is one of myriad initiatives by arts organisations to bring in audiences. It fosters knowledge, understanding and empathy and above all, loyalty in the punters.

The author with George Salter of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields at a Southbank Sinfonia rehearsal, 2010

What classical music needs is for its practitioners – the rank-and-file string players, the second clarinettist, the freelancer playing the triangle, all – to develop a deeper respect for the audience. After all, if they didn’t come to watch, there would be no work for us.

My fiancée is a Classical Music PR Account Manager. As part of her mandate, she briefs her clients on how to treat journalists: how to interact with them; how to consider their own work from the journalistic perspective; what to say and how to say it, in order to maximise exposure and build ongoing relationships. When the right balance is struck, everybody can benefit: the paper gets a great spread, the radio station puts out a stimulating package, the player gets more coverage. This media training is invaluable to success and to lasting relations.

If musicians, not just soloists, but every member of every orchestra, as part of organisational training, were briefed on interacting with audiences – on representing and being the voice of their organisation, nay their artform – the positive effects would surely manifest. Audience figures, regulars and newcomers, would rise, as would coverage and reputation. Reciprocity is the key.

Yesterday, I took part in an intriguing talk and demonstration about trust and leadership in music by the conductor and broadcaster Charles Hazlewood. It was part of a corporate seminar about branding, future trends and customer service at Speakers Corner at the Mermaid Theatre in Blackfriars.

Here is a video of a previous performance of Charles’s exact same talk.

It went down a treat with the audience, made up of businessmen and women, and gave them an alternative take on trust and leadership in the workplace, albeit a more ephemeral one. The musicians, of course, had doubts about the placement of this talk in a business seminar about “being the brand” and sniggered when an audience member exclaimed that Charles Hazlewood “clearly had great product knowledge”. Well, the chap was right, he does.

Branding, future trends and customer service. If they are to survive and thrive, do classical musicians – wholesale – need to stop sniggering at the ‘plebs’ and start thinking about these things?

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