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Critics and "Users"

A postscript on the evergreen topic of the role of the critic: in last week’s discussion (Do Critics Matter?), the question of whether or not a critic’s role is to be a consumer advocate became a central focus. The fact is that, whether or not we like it, critics are not, in fact, consumer advocates. In a private e-mail, one respondent brought up a study I’m well aware of, but that certainly merits mentioning here: a 2007 survey by (this link downloads a file with the survey results) showed that consumers overwhelmingly turn to websites with user reviews in preference to published reviews in a newspaper.

Granted, the people who answered this survey were already using a website to access entertainment, so they were predisposed toward Internet use. Still, it reflects a significant societal trend. Though I myself am (of course) a regular newspaper reader, I often browse reader reviews on, or skim through the ratings on a film website, before making a purchase. (My standard response to people who are afraid that blogs are going to dilute the ostensible purity of critical discourse is to point to the Amazon reviews: people are generally able to tell the serious ones from the stupid ones, and by the same token will generally be able to distinguish the good blogs, like the good newspaper reviews, from the bad ones.)

This means that a single voice has less and less power to influence consumer habits. (When I was at the New York Times, I often heard publicists say ruefully that even a great Times review or advance piece of a Lincoln Center performance no longer actually led to a spike in ticket sales, as it once had done.) Certainly, critics are writing for consumers, and we are saying what we think about a production or performance. But to expect everyone to follow your opinions is unrealistic in this day and age.

And in fact, such advocacy has never been the role of great critics. Virgil Thomson, Pauline Kael, Andrew Porter: they’re still read, and still valuable, because they were writing about a lot more than whether or not their readers should bother to buy tickets.

[For the record, I edited the links in the original post to make it easier to find what some of my colleagues had to say about this issue.]

By Anne Midgette  |  July 7, 2009; 7:35 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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I'm somewhere in the middle on this issue, as I think you are. Critics and reviewers really shouldn't be the doorkeepers of culture, but their opinions and comments are rightly influential -- sometimes in ways they hadn't expected. Certainly the description of a new work or new recording may lead to the conclusion that it should be heard -- or avoided. And sometimes, as the reader comes to know the likes and dislikes of a given critic, the best course can be to go the other way.

I remember one movie reviewer, now retired, whose recommendation of any comedy was the kiss of death for my wife and me. Anything he found funny we found annoying. His reviews were very useful to us.

Those of us who love classical music, and attempt to consume mass quantities, draw on all sorts of sources in determining what to attend, listen to, and buy. Sometimes I read the Post review of a Thursday NSO performance to give me a baseline against which to measure the Saturday performance I'll be attending. Often I find myself in agreement after the performance; often I don't. The review is a useful starting point, but I trust my own judgment. The review is one more item of information to be processed.

Best of all, of course, is when a review (or more extended article) sheds new light on something. I'm an enthusiastic amateur, and I am still learning from the professionals. That includes new approaches to works I thought I knew well. You folks know so many things that I don't. I'm so grateful for what I learn from you.

The Web has somewhat compensated for the drying up of so many media outlets (does anyone else remember the glory days of Stereo Review?), but what's gone is gone. Fanfare magazine remains a great help, but I buy CDs and downloads almost exclusively online, and I get most of my info about recordings online as well. That includes sites where professional and semi-pro reviewers post, but also Amazon readers' reviews, which for far-out repertoire is usually the only game in town. Still, there's nothing like sharing the thoughts and ideas of someone trained in the art (as I most definitely am not).

So, yes, we need critics -- good ones -- to expand our view of the art we love. If part of the process is to discover performances or recordings that might otherwise have eluded us, so much the better. When I know everything there is to know about classical music, I'll stop reading critics. Until then, thank God for them.

Posted by: BobL | July 7, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, and Lindemann777, for the clarifications as to the earlier link.

I’ve now read the brief manifestos of Ann Hornaday, Ron Charles, Peter Marks, and Tom Shales. (Mr Shales gave me my lunchtime laugh. Mr Shales, you are no Tom Hanks! [nor Michael Dirda]...)

The statements seem fairly lightweight to me, and it wasn’t -- in my opinion -- that the WP was attempting to treat the subject of print criticism and culture very seriously.

There were only twelve generally short comments posted in response to the four critics (six to the long-serving Mr Shales), and the tenor or quality of the comments were not comparable – in my opinion – to the dozen or so posted to Anne Midgette’s subsequent attempt to point the spotlight on music criticism and classical music.

Maybe the editorial staff was saving Sarah Kaufman (dance), Blake Gopnik (visual art), Anne Midgette (classical music), and Philip Kennicott (culture) for a second week.

(Or maybe the powers that be at the WP were, in fact, making a judgment on classical ballet, avant-garde visual art, opera and classical music, and ‘culture’ vis-à-vis movies, books, classical theater, and television.)

Finally, your mention of music critic Andrew Porter did remind me that his review, in the New Yorker, of George and Gene Rochberg’s 1982 opera 'The Confidence Man' (based on Herman Melville), did save me a very long drive out to Santa Fe that summer. (I also recall that Andrew Porter loved John Eaton’s orchestral and electronic operatic setting of Shakespeare’s 'The Tempest' for the Santa Fe Opera, three years later. I, for one, hope that the Washington National Opera stages John Eaton’s 'The Tempest' before it stages Thomas Adès’s newer 'The Tempest'.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 7, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Oops ... I see now that Andrew Porter wrote the libretto for John Eaton's "The Tempest", so it must have been another music critic who admired (impartially) the John Eaton/Andrew Porter "The Tempest" so highly. I am now quite certain that it was the TIME magazine classical music critic of 1985, whose name now escapes me.

My apology.

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 7, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

As I recall, Michael Walsh was TIME magazine's classical music critic when Eaton's opera premiered.

Posted by: bobkingston | July 7, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Bob.

I did not have time last night to seek out the volume in my library in which I recall I stuck Michael Walsh’s 1985 TIME magazine review of Eaton’s The Tempest as well as his excellent earlier 1982 TIME magazine review of the American premiere by Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's “sprawling, eclectic but ultimately unsuccessful serialist opera Die Soldaten (The Soldiers)”.,9171,922768,00.html?iid=digg_share

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 8, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Nice to see a plug for Michael Walsh - he played a considerable role in my becoming a music critic.

As for "The Tempest," I've always wished some summer opera company would do a "Tempest" festival: "The Tempest" by Lee Hoiby, by John Eaton, and by Thomas Ades, plus one of the 18th-century operatic treatments of the play. It would be awfully hard to sell tickets, though.

Posted by: MidgetteA | July 9, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Maybe not if the summer opera company had OperaLove. But she/he has bigger fish to fry, currently, at the Washington National Opera, figuring out how to market post-Gershwin American opera on an annual basis.
(I am assuming that the Washington National Opera has no current plans to co-venture with Wolf Trap Opera for a thematic three or four opera June-July summer season, similar to San Francisco.)

(The CDs for the Royal Opera [London] Thomas Ades "Tempest" are now available, but not the earlier promised DVD. The CDs for the Christopher, Thulani, and Anthony Davis "Amistad" opera are also available, as recorded at the Chicago Lyric Opera, but again, not a DVD.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 9, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse

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