Don’t Agree with my Concert Critique?

A Response


2022-05-31 — Original posting
2022-06-09 — Comment on additional feedback


Table of contents


Introduction: A Visitor Feedback

This posting is primarily a response to feedback that I received from a visitor in response to a recent concert critique. That visitor rated my review with “1” (lowest possible rating, i.e., “Not interesting / not useful”). In addition, (s)he added the following comment:

You are deliberately missing to pinpoint artists shortcomings in order just to keep flattering business.You gave 3 stars but the text supposes nearly 4/5.You should leave the fear of reaction and write down the reasons for the stars that were not given, not the stars that were given.

The rating utility in my blog posts offers the opportunity to provide feedback for negative ratings (1 or 2 in a range of 1 – 5). Note that such feedback is anonymous (I don’t know who supplied it, hence I can’t respond directly) and private (to me as the author / editor only). The higher ratings (3, 4, or 5) don’t offer this feedback option. In any case, all visitors can use the comment form at the bottom of my blog posts. Such comments are public (though for any visitor, the first comments needs to be approved by the editor). Needless to say that I welcome any feedback / comment, as long as it is not spam, offending or abusive.


A Response

In general, I don’t feel obliged to respond to reader’s comments—especially if the input is anonymous and private. Here, however, I felt that I should respond:

  • The rating of “1” for the review is of course the reader’s personal opinion, and as such not debatable, as much as I take the liberty of expressing my personal opinion. I won’t argue about that “1”, nor will I suppress that rating, as it is directed at my review, not at the artist’s performance.
  • However, I think that the feedback stems from misunderstandings that I would like to clarify—hence this posting.

Ratings in Concert Reviews

A basic explanation on my 5-star rating scheme is available from “Tech/Legal” in the main menu, under “Typography, Terminology, Conventions“. Moreover, I have posted a lengthy write-up “Ratings — Concerts vs. Media Reviews” about star ratings in my concert critiques and the criteria that I apply. In that latter posting, I have included a detailed section on ratings in concert reviews.

One fundamental error in the above reader feedback is that the commenter makes assumptions about the meaning of my star rating. One must view any rating in media & concert critiques in the context of a given reviewer’s (or a publisher’s) pre-existing reviews (or a published rating policy, such as the one just mentioned). The point is: a 3-star rating is not a priori bad. In my scheme, it implies a “Good, standard/average, or moderate performance“.

Note that I derived the above definition from the one used by Bachtrack, for which I did concert reviews for a few years. Bachtrack explicitly once reminded its authors not use 4- and 5-star ratings too generously.

Truthfulness and Authenticity in Concert Critiques?

In an earlier blog post, I have reflected about the topic “Truthfulness and Authenticity in Interpretation?“. As the above comment challenges my truthfulness (and authenticity) as a reviewer, I felt that an analogy to the above posting would be in place. From the opposite perspective, so to say. So, here it goes:

Flattering Artists, their Agents, or the Organizer?

People who write reviews in order to flatter the artist, his/her agent, or the concert organizer are ill-advised. Possible benefits for these “recipients”—if they exist or are recognized at all—are highly volatile at best. In the end, they will inevitably end up discrediting the reviewer.

In reviewing media, there is usually a certain (“safe”) distance between the author and artists and producer. Concert critiques, however, almost inevitably involve direct contacts with the organizer. And there is at least a chance to “run into” personal contacts with artists—if not directly at the concert, then possibly also in the aftermath, e.g., as response to concert critique, with or without tagging in social media announcements. These contacts may (seem to) endanger the independence of the reviewer.

Beginner’s Fears

No problem of such entanglements in my first concert reviews, as organizing the press ticket and all subsequent interactions were through Bachtrack exclusively. However, I always did my blog reviews in parallel, and the associated announcements did indeed lead to contacts with organizers, and soon also with artists.

I applied the same methodology as for CD reviews (details often remained confined to the blog review, as Bachtrack implies strict size limitations). I did of course realize that concert critiques are not only closer to artists and organizers, but that they may in addition cause controversy with other attendees of the event.

Applying Care and Diligence

I never write reviews lightly. It may be easy to write an enthusiastic concert critique, perhaps also a really bad one (though the latter is no fun, for sure!). However, I find “in-between” reviews most difficult, especially those (like thу one this commenter was referring to) where there is not much to be enthusiastic about, nor much clearly “wrong”. In such cases I try finding a balance between critical and (moderately) positive remarks. The length of my reviews reflects the amount of care and effort that I put into my critiques. I do stand behind my reviews and my ratings—both equally. As the blog title says, it’s all my personal opinion, no more, no less.

Finding a Balance

If you read reviews in my blog, you’ll see that I wrote plenty of enthusiastic critiques with 4- or even 5-star ratings. The particular review, that triggered this note, wasn’t about a recital that made me feel enthusiastic. Still, I tried hard balancing my comments, i.e., not overstating negative aspects, while at the same time also not being too positive. I see a balance between positive and negative comments, hence the 3-star rating. A moderately negative rating overall would be 2.5 stars, only less than that would truly negative.

I don’t want to hurt the artist more that necessary, while trying hard to be truthful to my impressions, both in the text, as well as in the rating. So, I may choose not to spell out criticism more “loudly” than necessary. In this particular review, there were critical remarks! Concrete: to somebody touting “Steinway Artist” in their Web page, the multiple mentions of “loud”, and the remark about the performance sounding noisy may already be close to insulting.

I do want to emphasize that with artists at the beginning of their career I’m usually particularly cautious, possibly less explicit in critical remarks. I don’t want to ruin an artist’s career / reputation. Hence, to some degree, it may then be necessary to read “between the lines”. For example, criticism may (also) consist of the absence of positive comments.

Feedback from Truthful, Authentic Reviews

To my delight, I soon realized that the vast majority of artists appreciate and like critical reviews, as long as they are written carefully, and especially if criticism comes with the appropriate argumentation. I don’t imply that my reviews are (purely) objective: there is no such thing as “100% objective” in music. The reviews remain my personal opinion (as stated in the subtitle of my blog).

Flattering? No—Care and Compassion!

None of this implies flattering. Why should I flatter an artist, anyway? I don’t know the vast majority of the artists personally. In the concert critique that the above feedback refers to, I have ever had personal contacts, and don’t anticipate contacts in the future. And I don’t earn any money from writing reviews. I write critiques because music has always been central to my life. And there is interest in my reviews. I enjoy the live concert experience and writing about it—that’s it. I’m definitely not trying to flatter artists. It actually is my firm belief that I would do the artist a disservice by being too positive and suppressing negative remarks.

One motivation for my concert reviews is that I want to help artists by letting them know how I (as a “normal”—non-musician—listener) perceive their performance and interpretation. By this, I very much would like to help the artists in conveying their “message”.

Reviewing for Friends?

Attentive readers of my blog will undoubtedly note or suspect that over the past years I have entered friendly relationships with several artists (and organizers alike).

  • Note that it’s not that I’m writing (enthusiastic) reviews because I’m friends with the artist.
  • Rather, it’s typically the artist who contacts me after reading one or several of my reviews.
  • And yet, I never tried writing favorable reviews in order to gain such friendships.

I concede that these friendly relationships have been a key motivator in keeping up concert reviewing—which, as you may suspect, is a considerable effort and workload. In fact, it dominates most of my everyday life. I receive no compensation for my reviews, except for press tickets—and the rewarding experience of these friendly relationships.

I’m very much aware of the danger that this affects my independence as critic. However, I do try to stick to journalistic principles by making a conscious effort to stay objective. When I write reviews for such artists, I redouble my efforts in being truthful and detailed also in critical remarks. I do not write courtesy critiques. If I anticipate that a given concert would lead to a bad or mediocre rating, I’d rather avoid that concert altogether.

Avoiding Duplication, Wear and Tear

Please keep in mind that I have now written several hundred detailed, wordy concert reviews, and with every concert critique it becomes harder to write comments that don’t feel like repeats of earlier reviews. Even within one review, I will often refrain from making the same comment (positive or negative) over and over again, hence the text may be “incomplete”, technically speaking, in order to remain readable. With this, the ratio of positive and negative remarks in the final text may not match my overall impression. In such cases, the star ratings may serve as a complement to the description in the text, hence may occasionally appear to deviate from the textual description.

Back to Ratings

Not everything in music, let lone in my reviews is entirely rational. During a concert, I frantically write down my impressions in notes. When I’m finally writing the concert critique post, I rarely alter the star ratings that I wrote down during the performance. Rather, I’m concluding my review by giving an overall star rating for the event, which summarizes my overall concert experience. In doing so, I may occasionally deviate from the arithmetic average of the rating per piece or movement(s). Rarely, the overall rating may serve to compensate for comments which (in the aftermath) seem too positive, or too negative.

Rarely, the overall rating may serve to compensate for comments which (in the aftermath) seem too positive, or too negative. In general, it should reflect the overall impression that I have from the concert experience, i.e., there is more of a personal subjective component here. Please, read the review text and my ratings as an ensemble. Just as it is unfair to pick a fragment of a concert critique to draw conclusions about the entire performance.

Final Remarks

Do not make the mistake of comparing my reviews with concert critiques in print media. Rather, perhaps try reading into my other reviews, in order to get an idea about how I experience music, performances, interpretations, and hence what my reviews mean. In general: always read concert reviews in the context other texts / comments by the same reviewer.

A Follow-Up Response (2022-06-09)

The above input and this responding article have triggered another feedback:

“Flattering Business” is somewhat odd to discuss for an independent writer like you; however, I may agree that – sometimes – your stars and the review text typed do not match. Maybe some more technical reasoning may well serve?

Let me comment on this as follows: my critiques are not “scientific work”. During the concert, I’m frantically taking notes, and in those, I typically add a first / preliminary rating (per movement or per piece). These ratings may change already during the concert, as it may sometimes take some time for me to become aware of shortcomings or positive features / aspects. Back home, when I’m writing up the article, while reaching a clearer picture of my impressions, I may decide to make minor corrections to the rating, while the text comment remains based on my scribblings.

Mathematics?

Inevitably, my scribblings and their initial rating remarks have a strong spontaneous & personal component. Small “local” corrections may partially compensate for this. Of course, my comments and ratings remain my own, personal opinion. And, of course, depending on the length of a movement / piece, the individual rating may receive more or less weight for the overall number of stars.

Finally, when I finished writing up my concert review, I usually give an overall rating (which the first input above was referring to). There, I start off with the mathematical average. However, I also need to keep a new rating consistent with that of my other reviews (of similar concerts). This alone may cause some disagreement between per-movement or per-piece ratings and the overall rating.

Balance / Representation

Finally, remember what I stated above about “Duplication, Wear and Tear“. It is impossible always to keep positive and negative comments in a representative ratio, i.e., in agreement with the overall impression of the rated part of the concert. It is likely that I omit certain comments if they are already present elsewhere in the review (or perhaps even in other reviews for the same artist?). I may sometimes be unsuccessful in moderating overly enthusiastic comments. At the same time (more importantly, perhaps), I want to avoid bashing an artist excessively (i.e., more than “necessary”).

The “take home message” for concert reviews: my texts primarily reflect my spontaneous impressions. The overall rating, on the other hand, while lacking differentiation, has more of a rational basis and should be viewed in the context of the other reviews in the blog. However, needless to say: they remain my personal opinion.

In other words: there can’t always be a perfect balance / equality between comments and ratings. And it may well be that the review that triggered this discussion shows a lack of balance between text and rating. But I stand behind my overall rating.


Acknowledgements

The caricatures in this post are by the German humorist, poet, illustrator and painter Wilhelm Busch (1832 – 1908). They appeared under the title “Der Virtuos, Ein Neujahrskonzert” (The Virtuoso, a New Year’s Concert). The original is from 1865. I took it from Volume I of his collected works, a book with the title “Und die Moral von der Geschicht“, ed. Rolf Hochhuth, Mohndruck Reinhard Mohn OHG, Gütersloh, Germany, 1959, p.286 – 291.



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