The pianist vs. the critic


And now for the latest bit of excitement to emerge from the ever-frothy world of classical music — a case of artistic integrity, critical judgment and free speech.  To which we might add the head-explodingly confusing differences between American and European law.

The parties are Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić (above), an uncommonly interesting artist I played many times on the radio, and had the pleasure of presenting in concert once with the equally intriguing cellist Pieter Wispelwey, and the Washington Post‘s Anne Midgette, one of America’s “must-read” classical music critics and writers.

As recently summed up by the Post‘s Caitlin Dewey, Midgette published a somewhat negative review of a Lazić recital in 2010.  Now, in the spirit of the European Union’s new “right to be forgotten” law, Lazić has sent the Post a request to have the review taken off the internet.  Before moving on, take some time to read the linked material, including Midgette’s offending review, her own take on “l’affaire Lazić,” and the pianist’s expansion on the reasons for his request (found at the top of his website.)

All set?  Good.  Let me give you my take.

As for Lazić’s “right to be forgotten,” fuhggetaboutit.  Not only is the law obviously unenforceable in this case, but his request represents an affront both to free speech and artistic judgment.  If he would have welcomed a positive review, the kind which musicians quote in their publicity materials, he should have put up with the negative review.  Praise is meaningless without the possibility of criticism.

But there are further issues here worth discussing, of which I will concentrate on one: accountability.

Musicians, of course, are subject to review by critics, including those few remaining critics will access to major publications — like Anne Midgette and the Washington Post.  And in all but the rarest of cases, of which this is one, the critics will get the last word.  If a musician wants to reply, he/she of course can request space in the same publication, with no guarantee that such access will be provided.  Or, the musician can publish a reply on his/her website, which reaches a small fraction of the major publication’s readership.  Few do either, basically conceding final judgment to the critic.

But who critiques the critics?  And to whom is the critic accountable?  “I write for the audience, not for the artist,” writes Midgette,  “and I always encourage artists to do their best not to read reviews at all, since even the most kindly-meant write-up may contain a line or two that can lodge in the subject’s brain and fester.”

As for the first part of that sentence, I would ask how Anne Midgette or any critic knows what the audience and her readership want from his/her reviews.  When I read the most prominent classical music critics still writing for the major papers, I’m impressed with their knowledge and writing skills, as well as their willingness to call ’em as they hear ’em.  I couldn’t do it nearly as well.

But to speak very generally, I don’t get the sense that classical critics are in very close touch with the general classical audience — the 99%, if you will — or that they value this audience’s perspective very highly.  Indeed, especially in the writings of the New York Times‘s Anthony Tommasini and Boston-based critic Lloyd Schwartz (most recently seen in the late, lamented Boston Phoenix), critics tend to view the audience’s perspective as one to rise above, or even to protect the art of music from being sullied by.

While poor would be the musician who panders to the audience (and the audience who wanted to be pandered to, which they generally don’t), poor also is the classical critic who looks upon audience approval and disapproval with snobbish disdain.  I’m afraid there’s still too much of that around, even from otherwise excellent critics who should know better.

As for the second part of Midgette’s sentence (“and I always encourage artists to do their best not to read reviews at all…”), who is she to recommend such a course of avoidance* to the artists?  I strikes me as a presumptuous request for undeserved last-word authority.

In past blogs, I’ve both praised and criticized Anne Midgette on the score of responsiveness to the classical audience and modesty about her critical judgments.  Not that she should care, or even read, what some obscure blogger up here in remote New England and with too much time on his hands has to say.  My perspective is no doubt shaped by my career in public radio, where we had to go directly to the listeners — the audience — to pay the bills, thus instilling a sense of accountability in us.  Since we ask them for so much money, at least we could be responsive to what the audience wants.  Not pandering — accountability.

I wish this sense of accountability were more widespread throughout classical music, including its critics.  The music would be in healthier shape for it.

*The original phrase read “who is she to thus instruct the artists?”  Thanks to volunteer copy editor Scott Belyea (see comment below) for this improvement.

3 thoughts on “The pianist vs. the critic

  1. “… (“and I always encourage artists to do their best not to read reviews at all…”), who is she to thus instruct the artists? ”

    “Encourage” is hardly the same as “instruct.” Sort of sloppy writing there …

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