What's a Reviewer To Do?

Here is a comment posted in response to my review of the Florida State University production of La Bohème:

Dear Steve,

Thank you for your review of La Boheme. I attended the same opening night performance and agree it was a splendid show. I hope your positive review contributed to the packed house on closing night that I attended as well.

However, I cannot believe your comment about the orchestra "... at its best..." Dough Fisher is a fabulous and experienced conductor but that orchestra was not following him in Act II (one of the most difficult acts of rubato in the repertoire). It was sloppy at best.

It would help raise the level of artistic product if the only music critic in Tallahassee would raise the bar in reviews and call it like it is.

Does the Tallahassee Democrat just want flowery positive reviews? (we are so great Tallahassee?)

Charles Witmer
Director of Music
Grace Lutheran Church
M.M. The University of Michigan
First, let me say that no one at the Tallahassee Democrat has ever tried to influence the content of my reviews. Never.

Second, I missed the details Mr. Witmer describes. I don't know the opera, so I just missed them.

I want to address the issues brought up by Mr. Witmer's closing parenthetical: "[W]e are so great Tallahassee?" I see the job of the provincial music critic as somewhat different from a metropolitan or national writer. (Believe me, despite the presence of FSU's outstanding College of Music, Tallahassee is provincial. Motto--Tallahassee: 250 miles from anywhere!)

Performances of local artists are the bread and butter of my beat. That's how the paper wants it, and I think that's how it should be as well. Part of my job is, I believe, to help shape the musical culture here, by reviewing local artists and institutions. This is done through praise and pointed, targeted criticism.

It's tempting for a small-town critic to overpraise visiting artists because we don't want to scare them off, and local artists because it's personal. In addition, a particularly pernicious aspect of the small-town syndrome is the subtle lowering of standards. We don't get many world class performers here, though recently the Artist Series has brought in some very good string quartets. (FSU has no faculty quartet!) The ear gradually, imperceptively, involuntarily, and inevitably begins to adjust and to lower standards. Recordings do not help, because a recording just isn't the same as a performance.

I don't think the answer is to point out in every review that we are not seeing the Met or hearing the Boston Symphony, but it may be a good idea to include a periodic reminder.

What do you all think?


  1. This is an incredibly urgent point. How do you call attention to that which is “not good” without personal or professional damage in a small town? And on the other hand, if you were brutally honest with TSO, USO, opera, percussion ensemble, etc., do you think the conductors and students would improve in light of your commentary, or take things more seriously because they’re used to hearing “you’re the greatest” and now someone tells them different?

    Perhaps. Perhaps not. Nothing would clean up ears around here like having some professional ensembles come through on a regular basis—-something I hope happens when the new hall is built.

    Standards. Tough to come by, tough to impose.

    Of course, Charlie is a friend, and I would hate to read a review of one particular night where I wasn't in top form with his ensemble!

  2. the only music critic in Tallahassee

    Put that way, it sounds an awful lonely job, Steve!