Having endured the opinions of critics since the age of nine, this pianist has a few criticisms of his own.
Ebullient. As a nine year-old, the word meant nothing to me. Was I good or bad? Had I pleased my masters? The word burnt itself into my synapses. My playing had just been described as “ebullient” by critic Fred Blanks. Frantically I looked up the word and found it meant: “bubbling up like a boiling liquid”. I knew Blanks was a scientist by day, so I feared momentarily there had been some mix-up in the press room. But underneath was another definition: “exuberant”. This was my first review from a critic, those sepulchral high-priests that lurk at the back of concert halls. The “ebullient” review comes from my early Con days. I played well on this occasion. In future years, I would not be so lucky.
At age 17, I encountered that famously nasty period every artist must endure: the transition between childhood and adulthood, when reflexes must become nuances, intuition must become erudition. Blanks didn’t seem to think that I had made it. “He needs to get off the publicity bandwagon,” he chirruped after a concert. My comments to the audience were “condescending” and my playing “superficial”. It closed with the old chestnut that I needed to go to Julliard or Curtis. I don’t have a copy of the review anymore (can you blame me?) but it was quite a diatribe. Blanks then took the curious step of posting a copy of the offending crit to my manager Patrick Togher, marked “for your attention”. In response, Patrick rang Blanks himself. Simmering tensions boiled over into a slanging match. Patrick then submitted a letter to the paper entitled “no Blanks fired over Tedeschi review” and the war was on, with me as the confused bystander. Fred passed away shortly afterwards.
Critics are a much-maligned bunch. I asked a few of my esteemed colleagues what they thought. I won’t repeat their responses. Here’s my take. Critics are as colourful and varied in personality as the musicians that they mirror. Some are rancorous oddballs, sleeping soundly through a concert but still able to write with remarkable acuity as if they had actually been there. Others are stuck in a strange academic funk-hole, writing as if afflicted with nasty sniffles at birth that they can never quite shake off. Yet others come from an impoverished musicological background, and usually have a pre-set yardstick everything is compared to.
Less commonly, there is a critic whose head and heart are in unison, armed with a critical facility that is instructive and direct, yet never postured or mirror-gazing.
One thing that binds artists together is that they are constantly looking forward, eternally dissatisfied by the chasm that exists between what they can and should do. It is this relentless but expressive torment – the much idealised “artistic temperament” – that drives artists. This is why, I propose, most artists are not conservatives: they are driven by an unappeasable force of psychic energy, unhappy to accept the status quo. In contrast, critics are high culture’s peeping Toms; fated to covet but not create, given the unequal task of using language with all its hang-ups to deconstruct that which is essentially beyond the vagaries of form.
In this current intellectual dark age, where Big Brother and the Kardashian brood pulverise us with white noise, artists are also casualties. They are often heavily packaged entities, replete with backstories and social networking campaigns. And I fear that musical criticism, with its well documented hostility to new and audacious sounds, has been party to this stultifying conformity.
But do I speak too soon? Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Perhaps artists and critics are unwilling partners in a symbiotic dance. Throughout history, by slamming the true pioneers in music (Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy to name a few), have the classical music police inadvertently cemented these artists’ places in history? For the future’s sake, I hope so.