Music criticism : why and how?

A primer for school workshops on music criticism. Absolutely & definitely not exhaustive!

Why write about music?

Let’s start with the fundamentals. First and foremost you are writing about music because you love it. For me there’s an unashamed element of evangelising: I think that music matters, I want it to be thought about, argued about and enjoyed by as many people as possible. So my aim is to write about music in a way that means something to other people who already love it — but also in a way that might make someone who has never gone to a classical concert think, “hey, that sounds intriguing, maybe I’ll go along next time.”

That said, music criticism is not cheerleading. As a critic you shouldn’t be afraid to criticise and you shouldn’t swallow marketing hype. Offer an opinion that is honest, well-informed and clear-headed. Not every performance is great and not every new piece of music works; it’s crucial that you’re able to say so and to discuss why. A negative review is a vital contribution to any cultural ecosystem – as long as that review has been thoughtfully written.

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Interview: James Weeks on Exaudi

First published by Sounds Like Now, May 2017

EXAUDI turns 15 this year, and — so often the way with birthdays — its cofounder and director James Weeks is taking stock. “We’re in a position to influence a considerable swathe of contemporary vocal writing and possibly make a tiny but noticeable dent in our corner of music history,” he ventures. “What are our values, and our vision of the human voice?” A recent anniversary celebration concert at the Wigmore Hall in London offered a fairly good answer to those questions. The programme contained 16th century Italian and Franco-Flemish madrigals by Arcadelt, Marenzio and Giaches de Wert as well as works by Sciarrino and Weeks himself.

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Interview: Christian Lindberg on trombones

First published in The Herald on 21 June, 2017

“I’m not sure why,” said Sigmund Freud, not usually one for ambivalence, “but trombones make me very uncomfortable.” Poor old trombones; there are so many quips. The advice purportedly given by Richard Strauss to young conductors: “Never look at the trombones – it only encourages them.” The devilish glint in the pen of critic-playwright George Bernard Shaw, who wrote that “a taste for brass instruments is hereditary. My father destroyed his domestic peace by immoderate indulgence in the trombone. My uncle played the ophicleide – very nicely, I must admit – for years, and then perished by his own hand. Some day I shall buy a trombone myself…”

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Interview: Steven Osborne on music & meaning

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First published in The Herald on 14 June, 2017

“I’ve always loved extremes,” says Steven Osborne, barefoot in his Edinburgh living room, sun streaming through the New Town windows, none of it very extreme. “I have big reactions!” he protests. “Strong passions! I have an antipathy to nice music. I just don’t see the point.”

The Scottish pianist makes me a coffee and folds himself into an armchair across the room from a compact modern grand piano. The interview was nominally arranged to talk about the summer schedule he has coming up: a visit to the St Magnus Festival in Orkney next week for a solo recital (Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Debussy) and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra; the same recital at Music at Paxton in July; the world premiere of new concerto by Julian Anderson at the BBC Proms with Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; the Lammermuir Festival in September for another solo programme (Feldman, Crumb) and a duo recital (Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms) with the cellist Alban Gerhardt.

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CD review: Bojan Cicic plays Carbonelli

First published in the Guardian on 8 June, 2017

Carbonelli:  Sonate da Camera nos 1-6
Illyria Consort / Cicic (Delphian)

Lest we pretend the UK had any purebred indigenous baroque music, here’s another reminder of how much we owe to Europe and the free movement of musicians. Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli – or John Stephen Carbonell as he later styled himself – was one of umpteen virtuoso violinists imported by Italophile rich Brits in the 18th century. Some went home, others stayed to lead our orchestras and create a distinct Italo-Anglo repertoire. Carbonelli eventually made a name as wine merchant to the royal court, but he was classy enough as a violinist for Vivaldi to write him a personalised concerto (‘Il Carbonelli’) and his own music is stately, taught and elegant in the hands of Bojan Cicic (a UK-based Croatian violinist) and his excellent Illyria Consort. They sound effortlessly stylish in these six chamber sonatas — Cicic makes even the high-wire showy stuff sing with a lyricism that is shapely, aerated and totally unforced.

CD Review: Jonathan Dove’s In Damascus

First published in the Guardian on 8 June, 2017

Jonathan Dove: In Damascus etc
Sacconi Quartet/Padmore/Owen (Signum)

“My heart is a black lump of coal,” writes Syrian poet Ali Safar. “My heart is a full stop on a page.” This is an excerpt, translated by Anne-Marie McManus, of Safar’s A Black Cloud in a Leaden White Sky, or Death by Stabs of Sorrow, which details personal responses to the Syrian war and provides the text of Jonathan Dove’s In Damascus for tenor and string quartet. The beauty of the piece is its restraint. It doesn’t sensationalise, doesn’t get maudlin, doesn’t moralise or politicise. The words are direct and the music respects that. The performance does, too: clear, focused playing from the Sacconi Quartet and lucid, unswerving narrative from tenor Mark Padmore. The rest of the disc is lighter but always with that trademark Dove economy: the Sacconis sound relaxed and bubbly in the 2001 quartet Out of Time and pianist Charles Owen joins for the Piano Quintet, intense and light-filled.

CD review: Aldeburgh’s Strauss Metamorphosen

First published in the Guardian on 8 June, 2017

Strauss: Metamorphosen, Serenade Op 7, Symphony for Winds
Aldeburgh Strings/Aldeburgh Winds (Linn)

Metamorphosen makes me seasick in the wrong hands. Written by an 85-year-old Strauss in the months after World War Two, the relentless swell and tug of the grief-thick harmonies need players who see past the next wave and steer a course through half an hour of stormy waters. And it really is up to every single player – Strauss wrote 23 solo string parts rather than clumping instruments together, and that makes the skill and judgement of the young Aldeburgh Strings led by Markus Daunert doubly impressive. Their sound is lithe and rich, their trajectory isn’t thrown off course at every squall but they coalesce into broad, gutsy gestures when they want to. It’s a sophisticated performance. Strauss’s late wind ensemble pieces get similarly intelligent treatment from Aldeburgh Winds under oboist Nicholas Daniel: charismatic individual voices, sturdy group textures and a lot of thought and care shaping every phrase.

What’s happening at Cottier’s?

First published in The Herald on 7 June, 2017

It is customary for this column to celebrate what’s happening in Scottish classical music rather than dwell on what isn’t, but this week we ponder a conspicuous (and hopefully temporary) hole in the 2017 calendar. There will be no Cottier Chamber Project this year. Opening night of the Glasgow West End music and dance series would normally be happening round about now, but, alas, “the festival will be taking a break,” reads a statement on its own website.

A bit of context before we get to the whys and wherefores. Since it snuck onto the scene in 2011 — originally as part of the West End Festival, then as its own organisational thing — this low-fi and tremendously plucky operation has become a much-valued annual gathering for musicians (and latterly dancers) based in Scotland and their international colleagues. Six years of gung-ho, slapdash and at times astoundingly high-calibre programming ran on a shoestring and provided artists with a safe space to try things out, get things wrong, play to an appreciative home crowd.

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Interview: Bartosz Woroch

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First published in The Herald on 31 May, 2017

Bartosz Woroch is talking devastation. “For example,” says the Polish violinist, detailing a kind of sliding scale of devastation in the music of various Slavic composers, “I find it really easy to get into the horror of Shostakovich’s music. That comes naturally. Whereas Dvorak? He wrote about homesickness but was brave enough to finish things on a joyful note every time. Now that is a challenge. To give so much and end up somewhere uplifting… The Polish way,” he grins, “would be utter devastation.”

On Monday the Scottish Ensemble launched its new season, and once again the emphasis is on collaborations: a co-production with theatre company Vanishing Point featuring the music of Arvo Part; concerts with percussionist Colin Currie, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, early music vocalists I Fagiolini; more tours for the courageous Goldberg Variations dance project with Swedish company Andersson Dance; a multi-media piece with poet Jackie Kay and artist Graham Fagen for this summer’s Edinburgh International Festival.

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CD review: Ives Ensemble plays Laurence Crane

First published in the Guardian on 25 May, 2017

Laurence Crane: 6 Trios, 2 Solos and 1 Quintet
Ives Ensemble (RTF Classical)

Laurence Crane’s music does so much with so little. The gestures are frank and ambiguous, bemused and sincere, self-deprecating and alert, unadorned and unpretentious. Take 2011’s Piano Quintet, the central work on this lovely new disc from the Ives Ensemble. It starts as a lumpen waltz, as endearing as awkward dancers who don’t give a damn, then subsides into little phrases that tug repeatedly, now hopeful, now fretting. The means are simple but the impact is deep. In his booklet notes, Crane points out that this collection spans three decades.“What has changed in the intervening years?” he asks of his own creative evolution. The answer seems to be about scale and structure – longer movements, more complex ways of organising material – but the uncluttered courage of those early pieces is still there. It is all performed with a clean graciousness that sounds way easier than it is.