Press Ups and Downs

Mark WigglesworthFri 8th February 2013

A performer’s relationship with the critics is complicated but unavoidable

Ask musicians if they read their reviews and they either say yes, or they say no, or they say no and mean yes. It’s a slightly taboo subject but, like it or not, criticism is a fundamental part of the music world. The relationship between performers and critics is symbiotic, an intriguing equilibrium hovering somewhere between wary respect and circumspect appreciation. Performers have the power to move thousands. Critics can validate it to thousands more. Or not.

It’s unfortunate that a critic’s job description carries with it such negative connotations. But without disapproval, approval has no context. No one wants universal castigation, yet there’s also something disturbing about constantly gushing superlatives. Perhaps it’s true that the most interesting performances are those that divide the critics completely.

One of the biggest dangers for performers is to become self-conscious, and though there are things one can learn from what are normally unbiased reactions, over-engaging in reviews makes it harder to avoid that. And opening yourself up to the influence of any number of different opinions can confuse and dilute your own view. Most performers are their best, and certainly harshest, critics and the wider scale of other people’s observations, whether good or bad, shouldn’t out-weigh the value of one’s own personal opinions. There’s plenty to gain from discovering what someone thinks of your work, but in the end there’s probably more to lose.

Unfortunately, avoiding reviews is difficult. Even if curiosity, or vanity, doesn’t prevail, you tend to discover how your performances have been received. It’s funny how there are always plenty of people who mention your good reviews, yet no one lets you know when the opposite is the case. The ominous silence in the days that follow some concerts tells its own story. And however much one can be encouraged that there’s never been a musician who hasn’t been lampooned at some point by someone somewhere, negative criticism undoubtedly has an effect. ‘I pay no attention to anybody's praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.’ That’s easy to say if you’re Mozart. After a bad review it’s hard to agree with Oscar Wilde that it’s ‘better to be talked about than not talked about at all’. Most performers are insecure. Self-doubt is a pre-requisite to discovery. But there’s a difference between asking questions of yourself in private and having them answered by others in public.

Nevertheless, dealing with criticism is a small price to pay for the privilege of performing and the two have always gone hand in hand. I doubt Aristotle was being original when he said the only way to avoid criticism is to ‘say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.’ Hopefully one develops a skin sufficiently thick to stop the jibes getting in, yet thin enough to allow one’s own feelings to still get out. To combine sensitivity with insensitivity and to remain relaxed about the judgements of others isn’t easy. But it’s a worthy goal to have - whether you’re a performer or not.

Mark Wigglesworth

Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)

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