In June, Dan Gingrich, acting principal horn of the Chicago Symphony, performed Mozart's Horn Concerto #3 with the CSO. We were at the Friday night concert. The Mozart was elegant, tasteful, Mozartian, and flawless, truly a pleasure to hear.
I read two reviews of the concerts, one in a newspaper and the other online. While both were positive reviews of the Thursday night concert. both mentioned that Dan bobbled a note. One note in a three-movement concerto. This the horn we're talking about, the most treacherous of instruments. Why would two critics feel it necessary to include a single chipped note in their reviews?
This got me thinking, again, about the purpose of critics. I, along with many other people, read movie and play reviews to see if I want to spend my time and money on them. It's a public service of sorts, though I also ask my friends what they think because I have enjoyed many movies that were panned by critics. Music reviews are also helpful in learning about works and performers, beyond a single performance. These are benefits to me, a reader of reviews.
Laura Collins-Hughes wrote an interesting review recently in the New York Times of a play that deals with the place and purpose of critics. The reviewed play was "The Kritic" by Brenda Withers, and is, in Collins-Hughes' words, an "exhilaratingly impassioned, many-layered challenge to critics, delivered with unusual sympathy." The lasting wounds of harsh comments, the question of boosterism in reviews, and support for artists versus telling the truth as the critic sees it are some of the ideas explored in the play. What Collins-Hughes concludes is that while telling the truth matters, how critics communicate negative criticism -- problems and failures in a piece -- is important. A character in the play argues that reviews are important for artists to learn and improve, and Collins-Hughes concludes with extending that argument to critics as well, that feedback from readers should help them "learn how they could do better, too."
I like that vision of critics. I would phrase it as telling the important truths about a performance or artwork in ways that will help both the ticket-buying public make informed choices and give constructive feedback to artists, along with the critic's personal take on the performance and works. With that in mind, I believe that pointing out one missed note in an otherwise wonderful concert does not fall into that definition.
Beethoven gets the last word: "To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable."