Wednesday, November 3, 2021

when critics disagree

First you need to read Lisa Hirsch's post about the reaction to two negative reviews of a popular classical recital singer.

Then you need to read Joshua Kosman, one of the critics, responding to the reaction.

Then I need to clarify that I myself have no opinion on the particular issue, having little experience with recitalists and no knowledge of the tenor Jonas Kaufmann, the singer in question. Though I have had the experience of failing to see the appeal of some wildly popular performers, Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang being two.

So here's my reaction as a reviewer.

Yes, critics have different opinions. I myself feel uncomfortable being the only published reviewer of a particular concert. I feel it imposes on me an obligation, even if I don't succumb to it, to be authoritative: to reflect the consensus view and avoid expressing what I know are my own eccentricities. If others are reviewing it, I can say what I really think and it's relieving if others think something else, particularly when it involves observations of things I hadn't noticed.

But also, it's more than "gut-level satisfaction" to read a review you entirely agree with. It was reading reviews of concerts I attended, reviews that made me think, "Yes! I noticed that. And the evaluation agrees with what I was already thinking," that convinced me I had the chops, the capacity to judge and discriminate, to become a professional reviewer in the first place.

People who complain about reviews - it's always negative reviews, they never complain about positive ones - yes, I've had that. Sometimes they say bizarre things like stating the reviewer has no right to judge the quality of the performance. What? That's what reviewing is all about. What does this reader want, program notes? You've already got that. I sense what Kosman senses, that what these complainers mean is "... not if your opinion is different from mine."

What I've never had is the classic "You must have been at a different concert." (It's possible. A couple times I've attended multiple performances of the same program. Yeah, they were different.)

As for the fellow critic who was so exasperated to have told Kosman that he should never be allowed to review anything at all, Lisa H. is shocked that someone would express such a view over a single disagreement, but I'd guess that this response, though extreme, was probably not over a single disagreement but was the result of long-accumulated exasperation with Kosman, a reviewer easy to get exasperated with. (My candidate for Kosman's low point was a review of Carmina Burana which was devoted entirely to how much he hates the music. I once let my bias show in reviewing a work I purely hated - it was Mahler's Ninth - but I put that up front and spent the rest of the review on the impact of the performance on my views, which was easy to do because it was an outstanding performance. I think I was more professional than Kosman in this particular set of reviews. But that was a unique occasion. The rest of the time I simply keep my biases to myself in my professional reviews. I reviewed Zemlinsky's The Mermaid and bit my tongue the whole way. But I do let them hang out in my blog and am willing to defend them, as one of my readers recently learned.)

I'd prefer it if the Chronicle had more reviewers and didn't rely purely on Kosman, just because, as I noted, multiple voices are good. But if Kosman is sometimes exasperating, he can also be illuminating and judicious, so his voice is worth having among the chorus, Jonas Kaufmann or no Jonas Kaufmann.


  1. Thank you for being a reasonable, humorous and honest bloggar. I don't always agree with you but usually enjoy what you have to say and occasionally even learn something.

  2. I eventually found out who that critic is. It's someone who doesn't live in the area and who is focussed entirely on opera and singers. I am doubtful that he reads Joshua K on a regular basis. I have read some of his reviews and let's say that there are people with his interests whom I would consider more reliable.