Every once in a while in the life of a critic, something one does on one’s beat comes to define them for some time to come. I had one such moment this spring. To the outside eye, the choice may not have seemed that momentous. I did not review the Washington National Opera’s production of “The Barber of Seville.”
The outcry that this decision provoked was as heartwarming as it was unexpected. Heartwarming, because it demonstrated, to me and to the many other people at the paper who had to field calls and protests, that people still care, passionately, about classical music. Unexpected, because I have to make heart-wrenching decisions to leave concerts unreviewed several times each month, and this “Barber” is the first time so many people have noticed.
What is the purpose of a review in the newspaper? It’s something that all newspaper critics, in every genre, ask themselves as we face a palpable decline in reader interest. Reviews, be they of television or classical music, are not as widely read as other kinds of article by the same authors: opinion pieces, reported features or news items. And whenever this subject comes under discussion, someone comes out with the common misapprehension that the main purpose of a review is to attract people’s attention to an event and to sell tickets. A one-off concert, according to this argument, isn’t as review worthy as something that will be performed for many nights in a row.
I see the point. Yet it’s an article of faith to many of us that a review is about something more: that it’s in the paper because it’s newsworthy. The point of having staff critics is to cover a beat: a particular area of human endeavor that is deemed worth our readers’ time. And because there’s more on each beat than it’s possible to cover, we have to decide how to give the best and fairest sense of an increasingly rich landscape. Sportswriters never have to wonder whether a one-off game is worth writing about. Documenting such games is central to their jobs. Reviews play a similar role in arts coverage — allowing readers to keep abreast of a field that seems to be growing every year, drawing attention to notable players, young and old.
It often happens, especially on a weekend, that there are four or five significant concerts, and The Washington Post can cover at most two. Once in a while, after I’ve made the assignments, I ask readers on Facebook or Twitter which two concerts they would have chosen. I seldom get many of the same answers. You can make a strong case for most of them. The wonderful local group that offers innovative programs year after year deserves attention, but so does the international superstar trying out something slightly different in a solo recital. An eminent string quartet comes with a program that seems routine; is that more review worthy than soloists from the NSO playing chamber music?
Other considerations factor into the decision, as well. Which critics are available for and interested in a given performance? Which groups have we already reviewed this season? And how many other reviews are coming in on a particular day? On some Mondays, when there’s always a bottleneck of classical, dance, theater and pop music reviews, sometimes only one classical review makes the cut. On Saturdays, our space is more limited — which makes it tough for Thursday night concerts.
The weekend that “The Barber of Seville” opened, there were three other concerts: a recital by the rising violinist Paul Huang; a performance by the legendary Jordi Savall and his ensemble; and a recital by the baritone Brian Mulligan with the world premiere of a song cycle by the composer Gregory Spears. And I could cover two of them.
Spears is due for a Post review. When his one-act opera “Paul’s Case” had its world premiere here a few years ago, we gave it a small review, but I was unable to attend; the opera went on to get considerable national notice. Last year, his next opera, “Fellow Travelers,” was even more acclaimed, and I didn’t make it to that one, either. I didn’t like the thought of missing yet another world premiere, right under my nose. Furthermore, Huang was also playing a world premiere — a piece by Conrad Tao, who himself gave a piano recital the week before that I had wanted to review, and couldn’t. I decided, therefore, to write a combined review of two world premieres by composers with burgeoning national profiles. This also allowed me to squeeze an extra concert into my two-review quota.
Jordi Savall, a magical musician whose concerts are generally memorable, doesn’t often come to Washington, and he was playing in an unusual venue: a church on Capitol Hill. You could argue that he’s gotten plenty of coverage in The Post. However, of those four events, I, and my editor, thought the least newsworthy was the WNO opening of a very well-known opera in a production that I already reviewed when it was new. Thus it was that I did not assign a reviewer to cover “The Barber of Seville.”
Here’s how it played out. The reviewer to whom I had assigned the Savall concert had a family emergency and, at the last minute, couldn’t attend. The baritone who was singing the Spears world premiere got sick and had to cancel at the last minute (it’s rescheduled for September). Thus it was that we had only one classical review in the paper that Monday, of Huang. And we didn’t cover “The Barber of Seville,” which everyone assures me was wonderful.
In the Solomonic judgments about which concerts to review, the final factor is that you can never tell when something is going to come together. Indeed, part of the joy for lovers of the performing arts is when a performance that looks routine on paper — a Tchaikovsky Fifth, a small-scale “Aida,” yet another “Barber of Seville” — turns out to be magical. There’s a lot of magic to be found in many of the concerts The Post doesn’t get to cover enough: the innovative programming of Cantate Chamber Singers, the 21st-Century Consort or the Washington Master Chorale, and the fresh look at the historical canon, and historical instruments, of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society. I’m happy for everyone who gets to see something wonderful I missed — and perpetually wistful that I’m not able to cover all of it.