”Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at a very small expense. The power of invention has been conferred by Nature upon few, and the labour of learning those sciences which may, by mere labour, be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom Nature has made weak, and Idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a Critic.” – Samuel Johnson.
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” OSCAR WILDE
It may seem an obvious thing to say, but orchestras need critics and vice versa. Amongst the most effective ways of informing people about what we’re up to is to be reviewed or talked about in the press and on line. People need to know about our concerts, recordings, news, etc. and we need to tell ’em. Critics need to be talked about for their opinions to be heard and the news papers need both of us to inform their readers and sell copy. This ‘uneasy’ alliance can come tumbling down like a house of cards, occasionally, especially when the critic ‘slags’ almost everything about his evening out. This can have devastating consequences: a prime example of this was the early closure of Aspects Of Love, on Broadway after being slaughtered in the press by Frank Rich (the Butcher of Broadway). Conversely, a glowing review can be a cause of much celebration. Of late, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and it’s effervescent Chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko, have been on the crest of a wave of unprecedented success; with critics lavishing praise and receiving awards galore. When the odd ‘howler’ from a critic does appear, from time to time, it can prove very irritating, to say the least. Especially if the weight of opinion is almost universally against the opinion of this one person. After sixteen hours of rehearsal, or so, everybody giving their best and a standing ovation: one man out of a couple of thousand is in a bad mood and is in a position to vent his spleen to the whole country! It doesn’t always work out for the poorer and the concert going public, other critics, the musicians and the conductor can rise on mass and give the said critic a bloody nose. Read on…
Last Thursday the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra suffered a terrible savaging from Prof. David Fanning in The Telegraph. This was after a well received pre-concert talk given by the Professor of Music from Manchester University. The orchestra then placed the critic’s remarks on it’s Facebook page and invited comment. All hell broke loose as hundreds of people responded and vied to give David Fanning ‘a good kicking!’ Click here to see his review…
I have seldom seen such a reaction to his, or anyone’s, criticisms. The paying public are baying for his blood (some literally!!!). Have a look at the Phil’s website and see what the discerning Liverpool audience, Vasily Petrenko, other critics and Fanning’s only supporter, Mrs. Fanning (Michelle Assay) have to say about his scurrilous remarks. One concert goer has offered a public hanging and another, a former soldier, has challenged Fanning to three rounds in a boxing ring!
Even heavyweight critic Norman Lebrecht has waded in on the act:-
I also felt moved to say something and posted the following on the RLPO Facebook page:
“…I have been following the ‘savaging’ of what seems like every aspect of last Thursday’s concert experience by David Fanning in the Telegraph, with interest. Apart from Mrs Fanning, Michelle Assay, he would appear to be the only person, so far, who is of this opinion.
For what it’s worth, I have been playing Shostakovich symph. no. 7 up and down the UK for nearly thirty years, with most orchestras and many conductors including other, excellent Russians. Despite being involved in the performance last Thursday myself, I would like to state that I believe Maestro Petrenko’s reading of the work stands alongside any of those other performances; to say the very least. I did not hear the Qigang Chen, as I was not involved, but all my colleagues have expressed a certain amount of delight. In my opinion, The Chairman Dances, by John Adams, is a fabulous piece, by a composer writing at the very top level in his genre. The audience expressed appreciation heartily throughout, culminating in the standing ovation. (Well deserved according to Richard Morrison-The Times). Many concert-goers then bought tickets for Sunday’s concert also, to hear the Shostakovich again.
I believe I have strengthened my opinion after listening to the concert again on BBC iPlayer. The resultant savaging, in return, of Prof. Fanning’s review by outraged concert-goers has come as no surprise to me. Maybe the offer of a public hanging and the challenge of three rounds in a boxing ring are more so.
Of course, being in the business of professional performance, I am happy to read criticism from anyone in attendance at one of the RLPO’s concerts. That’s what live performance is all about. I suppose it is impossible to please everyone, all the time; especially David Fanning, seemingly. On a final, albeit rather amusing note, I would like to ask the ‘wife who piped up, then piped down again’ (Lebrecht), Michelle Assay, whether or not there is any truth in the rumour of Prof. Fanning falling asleep during the performance, or not. Only, you both seem to have attended a very different concert to myself and the overwhelming consensus of the audience.
Brendan Ball (Principal Trumpet-RLPO)
p.s. These views are entirely my own and do not represent the opinions of anyone else.”
One of many, very passionate replies to Prof. Fanning, which The Telegraph has also published, was posted on the Phil’s Facebook page. Former soldier Bryn Gerrard has given me permission to reproduce it here:-
“I feel I have to say something about the review of the RLPO by Prof. Fanning in the Telegraph. This is the weakest piece of journalism I have encountered for a considerable time. I have to wonder about the quality of the Telegraph’s editors if this represents their best.
What did I gain from the outburst of vitriolic bile? Well quite a lot as it happens. Having been a warrior and lived with the tug of death at my sleeve each moment in time gives me a great affinity with art that represents the terror of combat and forthrightness & courage needed to end the damn thing. The Leningrad Symphony represents a pinnacle in artistic expression with regard to that subject, the full gamut of martial will, power and orchestration is there for the warrior to bathe in. Many call the piece propaganda but so what, war is all about propaganda.
But what I gained most was the confirmation of the mightiness of Real artists and the triviality of academics trying to be critics. Prof. Fanning, Who are you to criticise anything?. Your not an artist, what would you know of such things? I am reminded of my dear departed friend Florian Fricke, one time arts critic for Suddeutsche Zeitung. He would often write things like “I went to see such-and-such an exhibition.”, full stop. I used to laugh at him and asked how he could submit such things for publication and get away with it? He said “Who am I to criticise the work of other people? How can anyone pass judgement on the work of artists because it doesn’t resonate with them? I am nobody. That “nobody” wrote the music for Werner Herzog’s films, he was a real artist and not a little academic that comes across as an intellectual dwarf, not that being an intellectual will ever help you become at one with any art.
Vassy Petrenko and the RLPO are a first rate outfit. The reason they get standing ovations is because of the dedication and professionalism of all engaged, including the audience. Their are too many snobs who haunt the corridors of classical music. Elitism is dead Prof. Fanning. Like you, it belongs to yesterday.
Petrenko and the RLPO regularly sell out to a broad spectrum of Liverpool’s community because their performances are dynamic and full of vitality and energy under excellent direction. Music must be dynamic for it to come alive. This can only happen with the live performance. It takes the audience to a level whereby creative listening is possible and the narrative unfolds in an intuitional way that academics will never understand. Vassy & the crew deliver this quality consistently.
Vassy and the RLPO are at the top of their game and should realise that this goes with the territory. People who do great things will always be assaulted by the mediocrities. This fellow is beneath mediocrity and I feel totally affronted by the little man’s scribblings. I feel honour bound to invite him to three three minute rounds of boxing at my local Gymnasium in Toxteth. I will then render three three minute lessons to him on Creativity, Warriorship and the Law of Cause and Effect.
We could erect a boxing ring in the car park between the Belvedere Public House and the Philharmonic Hall. Proceeds could go to fund the RLPO’s work in schools across the city. I don’t imagine any of us will be hearing from Prof Fanning any time soon but as always I live in the NOW and am ready each moment in time.” BRYN GERARD
For all you budding arm chair critics out there, the performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on the BBC iPlayer. Judge for yourselves and let me know what you think.
My old pal and colleague from London, Andrew Waddicor, who has done a few Shostakovich 7’s himself, has contributed the following to the general debate, “… I remember a crit of an RLPO concert we did years ago, when the critic complained in his column that the brass – as always- were too loud in the opening Carmen Suite. It was an arrangement for percussion.”
Finally, some views from well known people on critics:-
From Jean Sibelius : ‘Never pay attention to what the critics say; a statue has never been set up in honour of a critic.’
From Brendan Behan : ‘Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They’re there every night, they see it done, they know how it should be done, but they can’t do it.’
The quote that says it all. Peter O’Toole, when questioned about the critics’ poor response to his first night on Parkinson replied with the line we all use now to keep our spirits up ‘Tomorrow’s chip wrapper’.