Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Category: Music

Ethics in Opera Reviewing

The latest contretemps concerning ethics in reviewing comes not from science fiction or computer games, but opera.

Earlier this month, the National Post pulled their review of a Canadian Opera Company performance of Rossini’s Maometto II after a COC public relations manager, Jennifer Pugsley, wrote the Post to complain about a couple of points in the review. Rather than standing by their reviewer, freelancer Arthur Kapitainis, or making the corrections requested, features producer Dustin Parkes apologized and pulled the review.

Kapitainis quit (inasmuch as a freelancer can do so); his review was reprinted at Musical Toronto before being restored, sans an offending sentence, at its original location.

In the email exchange between Pugsley and Parkes (reprinted here), Parkes noted that performing arts reviews “simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content.” (He went on to ask about getting tickets. Ahem.)

As for the news coverage of this incident, the Washington Post focuses on the role, and importance, of arts criticism in journalism, whereas  this Maclean’s piece looks at the economics of arts reviews in leaner, meaner times: reviewing the performing arts in mainstream publications has never been viable; it’s just that newspapers used to have money enough to subsidize it.

As I see it, critical integrity is beside the point in cases like these. I suspect that performing arts coverage has always been filed under civic boosterism (the tickets are part and parcel): covering the event, rather than critiquing it, is what’s important. No one, after all, wants to read that the local orchestra can’t play worth a damn—what good would that do?

Valentina Lisitsa and Artists’ Social Capital

Here’s my take on the Valentina Lisitsa affair.

Lisitsa, a Russian-speaking, Ukrainian-born classical pianist, was scheduled to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last week, but she was dropped by the TSO over a series of offensive tweets about ethnic Ukrainians and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Lisitsa has a social media presence—her reputation was basically made on YouTube—and the inevitable online shitstorm ensued. That shitstorm swallowed up Stewart Goodyear, the pianist tapped to replace Lisitsa, who had to bow out in turn. (More at Musical Toronto and NPR.)

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Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph

beethoven-swaffordI’ve read Beethoven biographies before, but Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is in a different category altogether. For one thing, it’s a thousand pages long. But despite its length it maintains an analytical coherence that can mark the best biographies, regardless of their length, whereas the worst just muddle through anecdote after anecdote. Swafford, who’s also written about Brahms and Charles Ives, sketches two distinct threads—the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and his precarious health—and examines how those two things had an impact on Beethoven and his work.

That examination benefits from the book’s length and Swafford’s perspective on Beethoven’s entire life (rather than a specific work, say the Ninth). Beethoven’s encroaching deafness is often related to his work with no real insight; he was, in fact, plagued with a number of illnesses, mostly due to lead poisoning and alcoholism. And it’s impossible to understand the political and philosophical core of the Ninth Symphony without understanding how Beethoven grew up in and related to the Aufklärung, the Napoleonic Wars, and the increasing political repression of Metternich-era Austria that led to the Biedermeier period.

Swafford is a composer himself and spends considerable time—whole chapters, for some pieces — analysing Beethoven’s music in considerable detail. If you’re not a musical sort you can skip past these sections, the way that a lot of readers might gloss over the songs and poetry in The Lord of the Rings, but I found his analyses quite illuminating when they covered a piece I’d studied and new very well.

More importantly, he’s better able to describe what the hell Beethoven was doing, particularly in relation to the trends of the time and his peers. It is, in other words, valuable to have a composer’s perspective, rather than a classical music devotee’s—all the difference between the perspective of an oenophile and a winemaker.

It makes the book much more about the music and less about the personality. Yes, it’s a biography, and as such has to be about the personality, but we wouldn’t be reading about a violent and unhygenic misanthrope if he wasn’t producing some of the best music in human history.

I’m not at all surprised it took Swafford twelve years to write this thing; he’s produced something very close to the authoritative biography on the man.

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