A newspaper critic, not a blogger, is Canada’s potshot king


(Caroline de Léry photo.)

It’s best not to speak ill of other people, but…

On Sunday morning, Claude Gingras, Montreal’s last full-time classical music crtitic, on staff at French-language daily La Presse practically since the days of the Quiet Revolution, published a chronicle of his concert adventures during a one-day musical marathon organised by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra the day before.

La Virée classique (which translates as “a classical turn,” but officially rendered as “A Cool Classical Journey“) presented 20 45-minute concerts in the various halls and spaces that make up Montreal’s downtown Place des Arts, including the orchestra’s new Maison symphonique home. The fun began at 11 a.m.

Tickets were priced from $10 to $30 for serious programming that featured the MSO, its new Chamber Choir and guests, including the New Orford Quartet, the Canadian Brass, violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellists Tanja Tetzlaff and Stéphane Tétrault, pianists Lars Vogt, Olga Gross and Marc-André Hamelin, and sopranos Aline Kutan and Marianne Fiset.

Gingras’ account started with a positive flourish: 15,000 people had attended, snapping up 95 per cent of the tickets. The critic noted that audiences at the 10 concerts he popped in on were made up mostly of older people, but populated with younger faces as well. More importantly, listeners were notable for their silent attention.

At this point, a critic faces some choices. Print space is always limited, so the practical solution is to produce an overall picture, focusing on one or two particularly fine (or awful) musical moments, providing some context for what made them so. Alternatively, the critic can write out a list that, by its nature, is not very descriptive.

Gingras chose the latter, turning his day’s musical promenade into the critic’s equivalent of a series of drive-by shootings. When my head stopped spinning, I was furious.

Fans of traditional print journalism accuse bloggers of impudence and lack of depth, but the bloggers I know and follow would be ashamed to cast out smears camouflaged as criticism. Yes, Gingras liked some performances, but didn’t explain those occasions any better than the ones he hated.

Here are some examples:

The Tetzlaffs and Vogt in Dvorák’s Op. 65 Trio played “with the best intentions, but without convincing me, as do musicians from the Slavic tradition.”

Le Bal masqé by Poulenc was “a nullity,” its text “absurd” and the singer “a sub-Souzay” (what’s that supposed to mean?).

Hamelin’s transcription of a Bach G-minor Prelude and Fugue for organ was “heavy and useless.”

Later, he returns to the Tetzlaffs in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (with Vogt), dismissing their playing with a word that can translate either as gnashings or creakings.

If you can read French, help yourself to the full review here.

If this is what print reviews have come to, then bring on the bloggers.

I know that M. Gingras is not representative of the vast majority of professional critics and reviewers. So I have a few questions for you, gentle reader:

Do you secretly love to read scathing reviews?

Would it have been preferable for Gingras to focus on one or two things and, perhaps, just accentuate the positive? Or is a quill dipped in a tincture of vitriol part of what keeps criticism vital?

Please let me know what you think, either by leaving a comment or sending an email to suchacritic at gmail.

John Terauds

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10 thoughts on “A newspaper critic, not a blogger, is Canada’s potshot king

  1. Alors, pourquoi avez-vous focussé sur Gingras puisqu’il existe de nombreux autres critiques (exemple Christophus Huss, Earl Arthur Love etc…)?

    • C’était l’exemple le plus récent et le plus direct, lié à un évènement célébratoire qui aurait pu donner inspiration à une critique beaucoup plus évocative de la journée et de la réaction des publics.

      • d’accord, je comprends! Permettez que je vous signale le bonheur que ce moment de réjouissance a apporté aux coeurs des visiteurs. ” La foule a le sourire aux lèvres…cet événement nous a fait oublié les affres de la vie en nous plongeant au coeur de l’amour musicale”. Il n’y avait aucune discrimination des classes sociales, ni des générations…tous étaient invités à cette grande rencontre de la musique. La sélection des artistes, des oeuvres et des activités gratuites animées par des personnes professionnelles…..par exemple je pense à Françoise D’avoine de Radio-Canada, son émission en directe, les récitals et entrevues tout cela à permis de sortir la musique classique en la rapprochant du grand public tout en conservant la qualité. Bravo aux organisateurs.

  2. Last full-time classical music critic hey? The worse ones are always the last to go. I’m gonna try to stop right here.

  3. I have absolutely no problem with Gingras’ comments. In the end, they are just HIS opinion. Reviews are seldom objective and if his comments lack detail they still make their point .In fact, even when reviews are full of descriptive details, one can never match the description to any particular piece of music – if the piece were not identified, you could substitute any piece of music for the one being reviewed and the review would not change. Adjectives only color sentences but they do not tell you the “what” of anything. If I say the work was “subtle, luscious, gorgeous, witty, fleeting, complex, sweet, introspective, emotional, intellectual, etc.., whose music am I talking about? Bach’s, Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, Bizet’s, Poulenc’s, Stravinsky’s, Tchaikovsky’s, Prokofiev’s? Reviews are mostly written for entertainment. That’s just MY opinion.

  4. Very interesting post, and responses thereto…Personally I don’t enjoy scathing reviews at all. (I am squeamish!) I suppose if the performances were that bad, it makes sense to say so, but it does seem churlish. It is difficult to respect the opinion of a writer who does too much trashing, or too much cheerleading.

  5. I consider a reviewer to have some expertise, more than I do. Accordingly, I expect to learn something from his review. I’m fine with a scathing review so long as it informs me as to how the performance deviated from the reviewer’s standard or expectations. I may not agree with his expert opinion, but I can enjoy a sound argument. Simply throwing out woolly adjectives isn’t a review.

  6. The language that Mr. Gingras uses throughout his review suggests to me that he skimmed through the concerts another as easily as one flicks through tunes on an iPod. If he’s jumping from one concert to the next, I can’t imagine that he’s listening with any depth that would be needed for a sincere review.

    As for vitriolic reviews, I have no time for them. That is not to say that I disapprove of unfavourable reviews. Besides music, I have a very serious love of movies, and one of my favourite critics of film is Roger Ebert. This may seem a little to obvious since he is to film criticism as Stephen Hawkings is to physics, but I feel he has become remarkably successful in his field for a reason: no matter how sardonic Ebert’s language can get, you still get the sense that he approaches each film review with a strong sense of empathy for the people that made the whether, whether he likes the film or not.

    Mr. Gingras does more to highlight his achievement of cramming in as many concerts as he can in one day, and passes off the efforts of the musicians with a few choice adjectives. I don’t get the sense that he really loves music, and I don’t get the sense that he has any empathy for the performers. If he doesn’t care about what he’s writing about, why should I care to read it?

  7. Gingras seems to love labeling people, in a way that’s borderline offensive and racist. I remember reading a review where he referred to a cellist colleague as a Jewish English-Canadian. Hmm, what does that have to do with his cello playing? Perhaps he assumes that none of us English-Canadians understand French or read La Presse…

  8. Oh, great post, John. I am coming out of vacation (not to sound dramatic) to reply. Re: your question “do we secretly love scathing reviews?” – I’d say no. But I DO like an informative, researched, and enthusiastic review, be it for something great or awful. And if the result was feeling indifferent, that’s okay, too, if the review reflects that.

    It seems the issue here is that Gingras merely provided an opinion, as opposed to a review, the requirements of which you covered in your post. I do appreciate the fact that you reviewed *him*, and demonstrated how a review ought to be written. 😉

    Liz

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