Whatever you may think, or whatever others may tell you, being a classical music critic is an immensely tough gig – one that I have only taken the first few steps of an infinite journey in mastering. It presupposes a huge wealth of musical knowledge: repertoire; orchestration; history; theory; and, amongst a long list (that probably also has no conclusion), an empathy with – an understanding (and, hopefully, multi-dimensional experience) of what it means to stand in the varied shoes of – those who perform it. Should these people become your friends, then perhaps the hardest part is being critical (in the way most people would understand that word) in a less-than-positive – although desirably constructive – way.
I have touched before on some of these issues – and it may be worth your while to click on that link, before reading what follows… – but two tenets, above all, govern my attitude to such writing:
Cardus gave me two tips… One was: don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face, and the second was: never write out of a bad mood. I’ve tried to stick to those principles.
– Michael Kennedy
I may have temporarily misplaced the latter, recently – although I would claim (of course) that this was justifiable and/or in a good cause – especially as I do not expect that addressee ever to catch sight of it. However condemnatory, though, I would have said the very same things to the conductor-in-question’s face (presuming he would have listened; or someone had provided me with handcuffs…); and, every time I pen a review (such as this – or that one…), I try to imagine the impact my words will have on the receiver of them – although I cannot go as far as extrapolating their reaction: as this depends on character, of course.
There are also the late nights… – although regular review readers will have noticed a recent propensity for deferring my evaluations (as with this) until the day is soaked with light. Prior to today, though, I have always – on returning home – committed a substantial first draft to pixellated paper: capturing thoughts that – although I was unlikely to forget them – I hoped possessed a certain ‘newness’: obvious in its shininess to even the least discriminating viewer (should such a person exist).
But, today, I procrastinated beyond belief. I washed the bed linen, and hung it outside to dry. I did the same with a large bundle of clothing. I read many pages of the Observer (remarking, aloud – ironically, perhaps – at the host website’s alarming paucity – and staleness – of “classical music & opera” interest and reportage). And even emptied the recycling. Only then did I commence writing. And, as you may have noticed, evaded anything approaching a verdict (hoping that either inspiration would strike – if being a critic is hard; then inscribing first lines is its most difficult component… – or that the act of writing itself would help me spiral inwards towards some sort of cunning plan).
I knew what I wanted to say; and had rehearsed it with The Good Lady Bard (today’s photographer) on our twilighted journey home. I just didn’t know how to say it… – that is, in a way that would not appear arrogant to those who do not know me; or unusually negative to those who do.
I hope it is obvious from my previous “generous” (© David Curtis 2015-2017) reports that I hold Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra in the highest possible regard. And, no, this isn’t going to be followed by the biggest “but” you have ever seen… – more an understanding that, yesterday, they were confounded by circumstance (but still gave their astonishing, almighty, all). In a nutshell – and this is all I will say on the matter – I think they were far, far too good (and too complex, too cogent) to be directed by someone without the apparent necessary experience or collegiate, communicative approach (and simply beating time is never going to suffice for something as complex as William Walton’s masterpiece, Belshazzar’s Feast, anyway).
You could reply to this that any orchestra worth its salt adapts to whatever conducting style they are presented with: but, as recent events have proven, there are limits to this – especially when the usual act can hardly be bettered – usually in the simultaneous extreme number of dimensions being governed: i.e. tempo, dynamic, coordination (of entries, as well as mood and speed), explicitness, accuracy… and so many others. Being such a leader (of women and men) is a tough job (even harder than a critic’s (phew)): and I know from experience that you can be the best choral conductor under the sun, but not be able to transfer enough skills to be similarly commanding in the management of a large symphony orchestra.
The attempt, here, was immensely brave, and hit many of its marks; and it would be unfair of me to say that it did not come, therefore, with any rewards – because it did: the rendition of George Butterworth’s astounding rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad, being at once convincing and heartfelt (enough to have me in spate, tear-wise, from first bar to well into the interval). The invocation of the English landscape, with its hints of most dreadful war, was spine-chillingly at hand; its beauties (all shades from gentle, sentimental, to vicious and sharp) explicit. Here was a confluence of musical minds (with additional kudos due to the CSO’s plangent strings) writ large; its overwhelming sensibilities seemingly in tune with – and rising above – the reverberative acoustic.
That last word brings me on to the other – probably more major – complication: the venue. Having sung and played (and conducted) for most of the first half of my life in a modern cathedral with – on a good(?) day (and with full organ) – a ten-second-plus echo, and substantial lag from altar to west porch, I am well aware of the advantages and disadvantages such a space presents. It flatters the individual voice (when aware); and gives tremendous atmosphere to complex alla capella renditions (especially of the works of Byrd, Gibbons, Tallis, and the like) and chamber ensembles.
But such reverberation is immensely selective: the CSO’s martial (and miraculous) brass section having the best of it, last night: cutting cleanly through any audile fug… – especially in the many passages where musical balance was not as it should have been… – often to the detriment of Tewkesbury Choral Society, who they were accompanying (and for the first time).
What I think astonished me most was learning that “the splendid setting of Tewkesbury Abbey” was the choir’s customary venue. If so, perhaps they have never performed before with an orchestra of this size and seemingly effortless, infinite volume; or perhaps the partnership needs some bedding in. It may even be – as I know all too well – that they have never received such detailed feedback, before: non-professional musicians suffering more (even) than most in the contemporary (and constantly waning) lack of media coverage; that a voiceless member, or admiring friend, sitting in the audience, has not reported back; that it has been forgotten, in rehearsal, how crucial it is to wander around, scrutinizing, probing, the acoustic from all vantage points; that they have simply become inured to their home from home.
All I know is that the impact of the Walton – a work I know well; and one I would rate as (at least) the equal of The Dream of Gerontius, or A Child of Our Time – manifestly suffered… – with two caveats. Firstly, the unaccompanied singing was startlingly good (although I struggled with choral enunciation). Secondly, Andrew Mayor – the cruelly underused baritone soloist – was sharp and sonorous as a freshly-whetted steel blade: the biblical libretto sparkling from his tongue as so much “gold and silver”. Each word, phrase, line was laden with meaning: “And the souls of men” simply devastating in delivery. Here was obvious talent, melded with a communicative expertise that used the acoustic to maximum effect. A great voice, too; and the undoubted star of the night.
And, on that positive note, I think I will end. Sometimes I wonder if my wide-ranging experience and knowledge narrows my critical focus, rather than expanding it. But there is only the one of me (despite rumours of elfish minions, ruled by the lash…); and all I can use to render judgement is what I know, what I continue to learn….