I am more than just mildly annoyed. Annoyed not because someone “hated it.” I’m annoyed because instead of a review, The Times decided to publish a pretentious hate-piece designed to insult musicians and audience alike. It worked.
I am referring to the review of “Music for a While” at Wigmore Hall, published by the Times. Here is the online version: [x]
The piece is written to emotionalize. It is not only giving an opinion; it is judgmental, and tries to breed hate. There is no neutral description to be found, from the “noodling cornetto descant” to the “coffee-chain chaconnes.” The review mingles matters of personal taste with factual critique, and dishes out one for the other.
I see what you did there. I too have read Schopenhauer (his “Art of Being Right” is an indispensable resource for a page admin):
“If the conversation turns upon some general conception which has no particular name, but requires some figurative or metaphorical designation, you must begin by choosing a metaphor that is favourable to your proposition. For instance, the names used to denote the two political parties in Spain, Serviles and Liberales, are obviously chosen by the latter.“ ([x], page 10)
The review only mentions the undeniable qualities of the performance as a last sentence pun.
“The playing was faultless, the singing blithely exquisite, the applause ecstatic. I hated it.”
So what the author is really saying is: “The audience that night were all ignorants, their tastes less refined than my own, and obviously, they were a lot less cultured.” By the flawless logic installed by the sentence, everyone who disagrees must be an idiot.
But what if they really hated it?
So they hated it. Alright. Let me pick one band that I really do not like. Scooter. I am sorry. It is mainstream Techno, and if someone likes that kind of music, I don’t think we could be friends.
So what would I do if I was to write a review of a Scooter concert? Would I write how awful it was, how I physically suffered, how my life sucks for having to go this concert, and generalize the audience as members of the aged Love Parade generation who failed to close an embarrassing chapter of their lives for good?
People like it, they pay for it, and it might totally not be my thing, but to each their own. I would write how the sound was like, if the concert was good concerning objective standards. I would ask people who have seen more than a handful of Scooter concerts for their impression to see what matters to them. My own point of view I would put into a separate paragraph, or into my personal blog, because that is where it belongs. It’s pretentious if a reviewer equals their opinion to gospel. Just a little humility is sometimes a good thing.
To hate Jaroussky and L’Arpeggiata for delivering exactly what was to be expected if one had bothered to listen to the CD is like going to a Turkish steam bath, and complaining afterwards that it was hot, and damp.
The diction police is here
The only point of substantial critique is about Jaroussky’s diction. The review, foreseeably, uses it as a hook. It is a trick; you start with the one indisputable fact (in this case: Jaroussky’s English diction has room for improvement), and thus get the reader’s consent. Then you go on and use this one solid element as a kind of a wire frame to drape all less founded claims you have to make over it.
The author has done the exact same thing before. For comparison, 2010, by the same author:
“What a difference a vowel makes: from the setting of the Seine(?) to the bidding of the three grey seas…er, Gracies? Oh, Graces…Dryden and his contemporaries took a terrible pummelling in the recital of Purcell airs and duets by Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky.”
“A light dusting of ’Allo ’Allo! English was inevitable from the seraphic French singer, turning the clogs and dogs of Twas Within a Furlong into clocks and docks, the snakes of Music for a While into snecks, …”
What the reviewer had to say about Jaroussky’s pronunciation would fit in one sentence. “The English diction was horrific,” or similar. Instead, a considerable portion of valuable space gets wasted on it. I won’t try to understand the “why,” I just want to show how inadequate this is. The part bears no more factual information, at all. If instead, the reviewer had decided to describe Jaroussky’s jawline as elaborately, they would be perceived as slightly unhinged maybe. If it is pure hating with no additional information, that makes it alright? The overly focus gives the observation the notion of a pet peeve; it has a neurotic quality to it.
Why this picking on diction – in a way that is designed to ridicule – fails to grasp the essence, I’ll try to show with some different examples – all of them excellent singers.
Fleming and Graham should give more attention to the sounds of the vowels. “Gähn” means “yawn.” Makes sense in the context even, somehow.
Coote should give attention to the different “ch” sounds in German.
Kathleen Ferrier … Very British. “In durr ish lebbe” …
John Marc Ainsley … The “ch” sounds, the end-syllables, the sounds of some vowels, most specifically, the o’s …
Iestyn Davies, as well at Wigmore Hall. #11 “Meine Seele hört im Sehen.”
Good, but just as the others, he instantly gives himself away as not a native speaker. “Meine Seelä herrt …”?
Let me clearly state again: All of the singers above do a terrific job trying to bend their vocal tracts around the peculiarities of the German language. It shows a love for the music by German composers, and for our culture, so why should I point a finger and mock their brave efforts?
Hate makes blind, you say in German, and often, an overly focus on mistakes obscures the perception of the whole, and of the qualities.
I only took American and British singers as examples; I can’t remember any of them being ripped to pieces for their German diction by any newspaper, the British included, like it happened to Jaroussky for his English in The Times. Even if it had been within the reviewers’ range of competence to actually judge the quality of their German diction, they would probably have omitted it.
In parts, this might be due to national resentments of some. (Obviously not of the ones who gave the performance an “ecstatic” applause.) I could go back to the Napoleonic wars to highlight the bravery it takes to sing Purcell as a French person, in London, and dare to even have an accent. I would have been surprised if no review had bashed him.
Do your research
What went unmentioned is that the CD “Music for a While” featured four singers. The concert I went to in Ludwigsburg featured three singers – Raquel Andueza, Vincenzo Capezzuto, and Philippe Jaroussky. The concerts at Wigmore Hall, in Paris, and a few others, Jaroussky had to do alone. I think a little praise is due to the hero of the day who took over some pieces that were decided to give others on CD and in other concerts – for good reasons. To my knowledge, he cancelled none of his concerts so far this year, no matter how tight the schedule and how adversary the circumstances. I think it deserves a little acknowledgement.
The art of self-reflection
The level of hate displayed in the review reminded me of YouTube comments. Often, people have very personal reasons for hating something they paradoxically choose to devote much of their time to.
This in turn reminded me of Stephen Fry. “The Tatler and Sex,” more specifically, from the collection “Paperweight.” There, Fry writes a furious hate-piece about … sex. He claims it was dreadful, unhygienic, superfluous, destabilizing relationships, and he highlights the issue with eloquence and considerable brilliance. By the end of page two, even I begin to see his point, and of course, at the same time, begin to wonder why the persona (not quite identical with Fry) chooses to delve this deep into a topic he assures us to abhor.
However, the article closes with an anticlimactic afternote: “Besides, I’m scared that I may not be very good at it.” I can’t even begin to express how lovely this sentence is. All the elaborate reasoning before, the careful rhetoric, the structure of arguments, all the admirable skill used to tell people that what they enjoyed most, maybe, was worthless, and disgusting, is made invalid with this sentence. The whole piece was a farce, we see. In the last sentence only, Fry is completely himself. Not concerning his assumed skill in … sex, but in teaching careful self-assessment, and consciousness about the difference between opinion and universal truth. Also, he shows the reader how easy it is to lead others into perceiving one for the other.
The piece isn’t available for free on Google books, but here’s a youtube rendition:
Whether it is sex, or L’Arpeggiata’s Purcell; it’s easy to make others hate even wonderful things. However, I don’t think the review is going to harm Jaroussky in any form. When pigeons are shitting on a statue, it is the natural course of events; it doesn’t diminish its value or justification.