Bringing you all the criticism that is fit to print
SIR John Eliot Gardiner’s characteristically erudite and bold programme note for the Edinburgh International Festival performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion bemoans the fact that we have no idea how the congregation of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche in the 1720s took to the epic musical setting of the Gospel story.
“We have no contemporary reaction to it – not the smallest shard of evidence of what people thought about the work at the time,” he wrote.
For great interpreters of classic musical works, like Gardiner, or Glasgow University’s professor John Butt who directs the Dunedin Consort, or theatre makers re-interpreting the works of Shakespeare, or Scottish Ballet tackling the canon of choreographer George Balanchine, this is important. Whatever notated version of the art that has come down to us, specifics of the creator’s intention remain obscure. In the case of the St Matthew Passion, conductors have no information about the size and composition of the vocal and instrumental forces Johann Sebastian had under his direction three centuries ago and concerts in our own time have experimented with a vast range of possibilities, all of them with their own champions and detractors.
Being on one side or the other of that fence is, in part, what myself and my colleagues are doing in Edinburgh at the moment. We call it criticism, but it is also old-fashioned reporting, a basic skill that alters not a jot – or a Pitman’s New Era shorthand outline – no matter on what “platform” the words appear.
Young people from Edinburgh schools are now attending performances at the Festival to make their own attempts at that discipline, having had the benefit of a seminar with one of The Herald’s arts writers about writing a review, in a longrunning partnership this newspaper has with the EIF’s learning and outreach team.
In Monday’s Herald you will be able to read work by pupils from Royal High and Broughton High Schools who have been at performances by Scottish Ballet and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and a week on Monday, students at Portobello High School will be passing judgement on the eagerly anticipated new production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. When I spoke to the Porty youngsters in June I told them that they should bear in mind that the bulk of the audience for their work will not have had the advantage of seeing the show, and most will have no intention of even trying to do so.
For many readers of The Herald, the closest they come to the Edinburgh Festivals is reading about it, so conveying a sense of the occasion is just as important as imparting an opinion of it. A review is not merely a description of a performance, but a substantial part of what it should accomplish is just that.
Which is why one of the talking points in Edinburgh this year has been the absence of people engaged in that task. I am aware that drawing attention to this in print may be perilously close to pumping bullets into my own pedal extremities, given the appetite for costcutting and staff reduction among managers of media organisations, but the lack of coverage of what has been an extraordinarily vibrant August in the Scottish capital this year in sections of the London-based print media is a matter of some concern. There have been major concerts at the Usher Hall, for example, where the only working newspaper critics in the complimentary seats have been those from The Herald and the Scotsman – for the first time in my experience.
We live in straitened times, but I am proud that this newspaper is keeping faith with that service to its readers.