When everything shut down a year ago, orchestras found their entire seasons canceled, soloists lost their engagements, and musicians lost their work. Predictably enough, written reviews of classical events evaporated almost entirely.
I know this well, because with little or no reviews, I paused the longstanding Week in Reviews column on Violinist.com, our the weekly roundup of reviews that we'd been doing for more than a decade. Even when musicians started performing more formal online concerts, reviews of those performances were scarce.
So I found it heartening when, on Monday, I read one of the first high-quality classical reviews that I've seen in the last year: a review by John von Rhein of violinists Paul Huang and Danbi Um's North Shore Chamber Music Festival recital Saturday with pianist Amy Yang. (Click here to read it. Also, you can still see the livestream of that concert here.)
You might wonder why I find this review so momentous. Does a written review of a concert even matter, in this day and age? Newspaper journalism has been on the decline for many years, and the classical reviewer -- heck, even just the arts reporter -- was a position that many newspapers eliminated with little hesitation. These days (or at least in the days before the pandemic), reviews in papers and magazines are most often done by stringers, paid by the article on an irregular basis. Many of the country's finest arts reporters have been relegated to stringer status, if they even chose to stay in the field. Others write for speciality websites.
Von Rhein's review appeared in the Chicago Classical Review, a website created by former newspaper classical music critic Lawrence A. Johnson in 2009 in the vacuum left by decreasing coverage by major publications. Johnson also created Classical Review sites in South Florida (the first), Boston, New York, Texas, Washington D.C. and Utah.
Von Rhein is retired from the Chicago Tribune, where he was a classical music critic for 40 years. I remember him from my college days in Chicago. At the time, I was studying music criticism at Northwestern University with his Chicago Tribune predecessor, Tom Willis, who also enjoyed a long career as a classical music writer.
Saturday's concert allowed just 25 seats for in-person viewing, and one of those precious seats went to von Rhein. Apparently the event's organizers (who happen to be the well-known violinist Vadim Gluzman and pianist Angela Yoffe, a married team) prioritized the presence of a knowledgeable reviewer at the concert.
There are some good reasons for doing so. For one, our art does not exist in any real way, unless people pay attention to it. For people to pay attention to something, they need knowledge, context, excitement - even affirmation. Marketers will spend considerable time and money to get people to come to a concert, then once the concert is over, they move straight to the next one. But for the people who attended the concert, a review gives affirmation that the event was worthy. Ideally, it reminds them of what they witnessed, adds more context and knowledge, and provides a viewpoint. They might not agree with the view presented, but it fosters a conversation that can continue.
I can remember attending the numerous concerts and recitals that happened in Bloomington, Indiana, when I went to Indiana University. My arts journalism teacher, the prolific writer Peter Jacobi, wrote about nearly every concert, and I always wanted to read what he had to say. I didn't really care whether I agreed with him or not - I just wanted to tap into his enthusiasm, the consistency of his voice, and his knowledge of both the music and the community in which the music was made. His consistent coverage helped affirm the importance of the classical music scene in that community.
Of course, he was the real thing, as is John von Rhein.
We all know about the existence of bad classical music coverage and bad-faith, downright ignorant music criticism. There's the old saw, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." When a writer has no real love or knowledge of classical music, no connection with the community, no sense of the history, a poor ability to write - then it becomes a useless and even harmful exercise.
What could be worse than that? Well, silence is worse.
If we are wise, we will recognize that the conversations around our classical music events are as important as the events themselves, when it comes to building an enthusiastic community for classical music. It's time to start supporting and training those who would lead those conversations, to bring quality arts journalism back into the mix. When done well, writing about music is an art in itself. As we rebuild from this pandemic time, we need to support existing arts journalists and also to train a new generation in this art.
You might also like:
* * *
We wanted you to read this article before we make our newsletter pitch, unlike so many other websites. If you appreciate that — and our efforts to promote excellence in string playing, teaching, performance and community — please click here to sign up for our free, bi-weekly email newsletter. Thank you.Tweet
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.