1 November 2013

Confessions of a reviewer #3: Being a 'fan'

There are times when I worry that my love for certain orchestras, musicians, conductors and composers makes my reviews predictable and somewhat unreliable. Or perhaps I should rephrase, sometimes I worry that other people may think that they are. I have no prentension of being some kind of 'objective' listener (which is an impossibility anyway) and I  wholeheartedly admit to being a  fan of quite a few musicians. But does this mean that I review with bad faith? That I already know how I'm going to feel about a concert before having heard anything? And that I am so biased towards certain performers that I can no longer tell whether the performance is good or not?

I started thinking about this after meeting one of my musical idols, Yannick Nézet-Séguin after his performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No.13 in London. I would go see pretty much anything he conducts (though I might need some convincing if it includes Mozart...) and have yet to disappointed by any concert he has conducted. Then I worried that perhaps this means that I am not critical enough, which wouldn't be an issue if it weren't for the fact that I write reviews...

However, there is a reason why I love these musicians. There'll have been a time when I saw them play for the first time, and it is usually this first performance that makes such a massive impression on me that  I get the urge to see the musician more often. For example, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Stravinsky's Firebird with the Philharmonia back when I was doing my BA (so probably in 2004 or 2005) and it was the most amazing thing I'd ever witnessed, the energy was tangible in the concert hall and I was buzzing for days afterwards. This made such an impression on me that I went to see more concerts conducted by him, and it turned out that this feeling the first concert gave me was repeated in every single of those performances (and sometimes even much more intensely). There's something  about Salonen's approach, musicality and choice of repertoire that attracted me in this first performance, and it is not surprising that these elements are a part of every single one of his concerts that I have been to. 

Similarly, I have never seen Pekka Kuusisto have an off day (plus he's always hilarious which helps), Nikolai Lugansky nails every piano concerto I've heard him play, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin can turn the most boring orchestral music into a raucous affair. Not to mention the fact that most of the musicians I like best tend to play repertoire that I love, I'm sure that if Salonen focused on early music I would have no interest in him. If the first time I would've seen Lugansky would've been a Haydn piano concerto I also doubt I'd care all that much about it. The music itself is so important, and musicians of course have preferences, and they have their areas of expertise, and it seems only logical that the musicians, and in particular the conductors, I love focus on repertoire that I also love. 

Perhaps the most important point is, however, that when I go to a concert conducted by Salonen or Yannick, my expectations are ridiculously high. They have conducted the best concerts I've ever seen, and so whenever I see them conduct I expect to be that amazed. Sometimes the music doesn't lend itself to quite the same level of enthusiasm but I expect the music-making to be extraordinary. With musicians that I don't know and have never seen before, I think my expectations are reasonable (of course in concert halls you don't expect anyone to suck) but never all that high. But if I take, for example, Yannick conducting Shostakovich's Symphony No.13  I expected it to be one of the best concerts of the year. What with Yannick's talent in choral conducting and the 13th being one of my favourite pieces ever, I expected nothing other than sheer brilliance. Thankfully that's what I got, and that is precisely why I admire him so much.

So how is all this reflected in my reviews? Of course one of the upsides of reviewing for bachtrack is that I get to decide which concerts I go to, and so the lack of negative reviews is mainly because I go see musicians and music I like or think I will like, and the level of classical music in London and in The Netherlands is just very, very high so terrible concerts in big concert halls are few and far between. I think my reviews are as honest, critical and genuine as they can be, and I just hope that that's good enough. 


  1. Great to read this and realize I'm not the only one! Sometimes I worry that my reviews aren't "critical" enough but mostly it's for a similar reason (that I request to review stuff I think I'll like.) Anyway, I am looking forward to seeing (& reviewing) Yannick conduct at Carnegie Hall in December!!

  2. Your comment makes me really happy, because I'm also glad not to be alone! Hope you enjoy Yannick's concert in december, what's on the program?
    x Renée.