I woke up this morning realising that Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra is trying to put me out of business.
A professional modern art-music critic is not supposed to criticise, but act as a sort of docent, gently explaining the history and cultural context of music and how it — if it’s new music — or specific interpretations — if it’s old music — fit into that scheme.
Much of this work starts well before the concert, in interviews with artists or programmers to find out how a particular concert programme or opera production has come about, what inspired it, what it’s challenges and insights are, for example.
So much of what constitutes success or failure in the actual performance is about the integrity of this preparation.
What Tafelmusik has done is to take all of this background information — the history, the contextualizing and the getting inside an artist’s head — and made it accessible to anyone who visits its website, or, in the case of the printed programme, anyone who has attended the concert.
We find out about the composers, there are interviews with artists participating in the programme, there is news about the organization itself.
In the cast of this week’s Baroque London programme, there are background notes by R.H. Thomson as well as an interview with him in the booklet. This is exactly the sort of material I would have covered had I asked for an interview with the actor for an advance story on the concert.
Tafelmusik has provided so many layers of access and points of entry that no one need approach the concert — nor leave it — feeling that there is something inaccessible or hard to understand about it. On the other hand, none of this extra information intrudes on the enjoyment of those concertgoers who want the programme unmediated by docents.
This whole approach is, I think, more brilliant than the concert I heard last night — and I mean that as as compliment.
Where does that leave the critic?
For me not to go out of business, I need to make sure I’m not just writing an overview of cultural context; I need to present a critical assessment. But finding the right balance between context and opinion is quite the challenge, especially with a mixed programme like this week’s Tafelmusik bill.
One can go on describing individual pieces of music in great detail, but I’ve never been convinced that this is really what a review reader is looking for.
Your insights are welcome.