Practising Schubert’s E flat trio for a concert tonight, I remembered a delightful moment in a talk Bob gave about Schubert’s chamber music at the Florestan Festival a couple of years ago. He told the audience about the earliest known biography of Schubert, written by Heinrich Kreissle von Hellborn, whom Bob described as ‘Schubert’s first full-length biographer’. After a thoughtful pause, he corrected himself. ‘What I mean is that he wrote the first full-length biography of Schubert, not that he was Schubert’s first full-length biographer.’ The audience started to giggle. ‘I didn’t mean to imply that Schubert had had a succession of short, stunted biographers before that.’
For a few enjoyable seconds I couldn’t help imagining this gathering of pint-sized 19th century biographers, so short that, as my dad would have said, ‘their legs didn’t even reach the floor’.
Several people have got in touch about the difficulty of musicians getting their concerts reviewed by the press. They point out that where they live, newspapers are ‘letting go’ of their classical music critics and shrinking the team of arts critics generally. The space devoted to arts coverage in newspapers is under threat, and in music we have the particular problem that ‘classical’ is often squeezed out by other, more commercially successful kinds. What newspapers call ‘music’ pages these days are often mainly pop and rock, and on some days there’s no classical music there at all. Editors say that this simply reflects the vastly greater numbers of people who follow pop and rock. But of course it’s a vicious circle; the less they write about us, the less we’re likely to be noticed.
I suppose there’s no reason that reviews have to appear in newspapers. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, there’s some very fine arts writing out there on the web. However, at the time of writing it’s not considered ‘bona fide’ in music circles to supply internet reviews when you’re asked for proof of your professional standing. Not long ago I helped to assemble a bunch of reviews for a grant application. We included both newspaper and internet reviews, but our advisors asked us to drop all the web reviews because ‘they don’t look real’. This attitude will have to change, and no doubt it’s already changing. It will have to be acceptable to produce ‘references’ from other serious and well-regarded sources. As we read of newspapers disappearing in print form, and moving online only, we musicians have to prepare for a future in which there will be no hard copies of reviews, ‘not even for ready money’, as Oscar Wilde would say.
Last night the Royal Philharmonic Society announced their 2009 awards for music. One result that I found particularly pleasing was the Creative Communication Award to Alex Ross for his book The Rest is Noise, which has already won the Guardian First Book Award. I gave the book to Bob for Christmas, and ever since then he has been quoting lines and descriptions from it. He says that Alex Ross has an extraordinary gift for the telling word at the right moment.
Last night, by chance, I was playing a concert with the Gaudier Ensemble. Our programme included Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. I had been asked to say a few words about the piece before we played it, and so I had been doing some background research. From all the things I’d looked up, I’d chosen to print out a New Yorker article on this very piece by Alex Ross, and I had tucked into my copy of the score last night so that I could re-read it just before I walked on stage. So it was good to end the evening by hearing news of his RPS award.
Last week my trio played two concerts in Wigmore Hall, one of the world’s premier venues for chamber music. Both concerts were sold out, with people standing at the back and people being turned away at the box office. Yet there was not a single review in any newspaper. These two concerts marked almost the end of a successful concert season in which, however, I don’t think we have had a single review.
Why does it matter, if the audience enjoyed our concerts? It matters because reviews are still used as a proof of one’s standing in the music world. Reviews from respected newspapers are exchanged between promoters, collected by agents, and widely used by performers to show that their own or their managers’ claims about their playing are not just idle chat. On an official level, hard copies of printed reviews are required by certain institutions. If you visit the United States as a soloist, for example, a work visa application requires you to submit hard copies of reviews, in substantial numbers and from publications with a good reputation. How else can you prove to people who are not musicians that you’re held in some kind of esteem, in the arts world at least? But how can you provide the necessary reviews if none have been written?
As you become better known, of course, reviews are less and less essential. But how on earth are young musicians to build up a portfolio if nobody comes to review their performances?
Passing the time between a rehearsal and a concert, Bob and I walk along Wigmore Street. We spot a shop selling all kinds of accessories to do with wine drinking. We pop in for some vacuum corks. Inside the shop is a display of luxurious wine glasses: hand-blown, ultra-thin and balanced on stems so long and fine they look as though they would snap in your hand as you twirled the glass. Peering at the price tag, I see ‘£90′. I ask the salesman whether this is for a set of six? ‘No, it’s the price of a single glass.’ Never have I heard of such an expensive glass, so I ask what is special about it. He explains that it is hand-made from very pure glass with a high lead content, and that this makes the glass slightly flexible.
To my astonishment he then takes a large glass off the shelf, pinches its rim between thumb and forefinger, and presses slightly so that I can see the glass flexing. For some reason this is intellectually disturbing, like the scene in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman where the narrator is shown a series of little carved chests made by policeman MacCruiskeen, each chest smaller than the last until they become too small to be seen by the naked eye. A flexible wine glass is something beyond my ken. ‘Does the quality of the glass have an effect on the experience of drinking the wine?’ I wonder. ‘That is like asking whether a fine violin has an effect on the tone,’ he answers smilingly. But is it?