Wednesday, February 7, 2018

critics, performers, and moral responsibility

An article on the moral responsibility of restaurant critics regarding writing about chefs accused of assault caught my interest. Should they take that into account when choosing which restaurants to review and what standards they evaluate them on?

As a reader of restaurant reviews, I'd say no. I want to read a review of the food, not of the chef. I think the real problem here is the desire not to steer business, through praise or awards, to reprehensible people, and I can understand that; though I should also point out that, unless they're currently imprisoned, even reprehensible people deserve the right to earn a living.*

But what really interested me was one provocative chef putting some of the culpability for the culture on the restaurant critics themselves. Anthony Bourdain says: "Chances are, in this very small pond, where 'access' is often so important, the overwhelming likelihood is that they have known and heard and observed things and kept silent. They, as much as anyone, are responsible for creating and sustaining a Hollywood-style star system that has been almost entirely male."

And I thought, does that apply to me as a music critic? I'd object. That type of "access" critic is not me. I go to the concerts, but I'm not part of the culture. I don't hang around backstage; I know very few professional musicians personally; I rarely have even the opportunity to share gossip about performers. Most of what I know about their lives comes from public sources, and not much of that, as I don't read heavily in that field. I believe my integrity as a critic depends on keeping a polite distance. Bourdain says that "many other factors other than the merits of the food and service have influenced supposedly impartial restaurant reviews for so long," but mutatis mutandis that's not true of classical music reviewing as I know it or practice it.

One other factor more specifically pertinent to performing arts is involved. I once wrote a piece on classical record collectors dividing them into three specialties, and I think the same division applies to attending performances. The three types focus on repertoire, on performers, and on sound quality. I'm emphatically a repertoire person. When I'm asked to attend a concert, my question is what's being played, not who's playing it. I compare a performance to my previous experiences hearing the same work, not the same performer. In fact, if I wish to form a mental image of my own evaluation of a performer in general, unless I hear them very regularly I have to go into my files and see what I wrote about previous concerts by the same person. I don't carry around such images of performers in my head, not the way I do for every single composer in the repertoire, literally hundreds of them.

*In the process of Googling the performers at one irregular concert in search of photo links, I found that one of them was a registered sex offender. I didn't mention that in the review; it seemed irrelevant to the performance, and it would have been tough fitting it into a 650 word review anyway.

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