Thursday, August 31, 2017

reviewer talk

I've been mostly offline for a few days because my computer was in the shop.

And I was out much of today to ensure I was up in the City in time for the early-evening start of an SFCV staff writers' meeting.

I like to go to these because our work as reviewers is so solitary. It's soul-feeding to have an occasional tangible reminder that I'm part of a team who are all doing the same thing, and not just by reading their work.

This one, besides the social chatter, took the form of a round table discussing the journalistic aspects of our work. It's useful for those of us who've never worked in traditional journalism - my professional writing training was exclusively that of an academic historian - to learn a little from those who have had that experience.

A few points of particular interest to me, which I note here mostly for my own reference:

One advised us to write our reviews as soon as possible, to preserve the immediacy of the reaction. Another advised waiting, to let the thoughts jell. I find myself more and more tending to jot down phrases between pieces and at intermission, preserving the immediacy that way, and then writing the review the next day basically by stringing those phrases together. I wonder if that's really a good way to write, but the reaction was, "If it works for you ..."

I am concerned about vocabulary. Alex Ross says writing about music is easy, but he's Alex Ross. The rest of us aren't. I tend to think of only a small percentage of the words I actually know. Often I find myself using a thesaurus, but not to find said-bookisms, just to remind myself of other words I know that might fit. That wasn't deprecated, but one who has taught English suggested that finding yourself overusing one word is a clue that you need to rethink what you're saying: useful advice if you have the time and wit to take it.

How much allowance should we make for the imperfections of non-professional performers? Should they not be held to standards they're not claiming to achieve, or are the standards of music absolute? SFCV's editorial policy is not to review non-professional groups that don't meet professional standards, and to drop them if they fall below that - something I could have reported on in a couple cases where I wrote with kid gloves in the review itself. But it's tougher for me since my other outlet has a beat with only two professional venues and a lot of prominent non-pro groups, so I have to review them all the time. My policy - of always mentioning their non-pro status and judging them by how far above or below a fairly tight interpretation of that standard they fell - seemed to receive approval, though one doubted that such groups should be reviewed at all. Not in prominent outlets, perhaps, but my other outlet is a local free paper. I write there to let the readers know what's going on musically in their community, and to give the performers a chance to accumulate press clippings.

Talking afterwards with our top piano reviewer, he said that he reserves strong criticism for professionals who play sloppily or make dumb mistakes. I agree, though I lack his chops to discern technical problems beyond a certain level except in pieces I know well. I judge performers by the emotional impact they make; to me a bad performance is one where the player is just "phoning it in."

Lastly, there's structuring of reviews. One recommended the "layer cake" approach of alternating between background and present-day matters, but that's mostly useful for opera and other cases of single-work concerts. For concerts with 3-5 works, my usual beat, I try to avoid the "and then they played ..." approach and present the works by some theme that's the backbone of my review, which may not be the order they were played in. With a large program - e.g. a guitar recital which may have 17 pieces - you don't have to mention everything. Pick out some highlights or themes and concentrate. Even with fewer pieces you can do that. (Closest I came to that was when I reviewed a concert with a premiere of a concerto when I knew that's what I was there to cover. I tucked the rest of the program into one brief paragraph at the end.) True enough that the one time I reviewed a gala potpourri with 20 different pieces, I managed to at least name-check every composer on the program, but that was before the word limit was cut. Actually leaving part of the program out of the review is a big step I'd have to brace myself to take.

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