Bring­ing you all the crit­i­cism that is fit to print

The Herald - Arts - - OPINION - KEITH BRUCE

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.

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