Friday, April 4, 2008

To Review or Not To Review

It’s a challenge every week to decide what performances to cover with my reviews in the Los Angeles Times – given the wide number of choices. I’m well aware of the significance that coverage in a major periodical can have, even if it’s not completely positive. Every critic has seen the only laudatory words in an otherwise negative review resurfacing -- in bold face and 16 point type – in a press agent’s release.

But I’m also aware of the emotional impact that reviews can have, of the importance to a performer of “getting” what they do. I recently wrote, in celebratory fashion, about a performance by the great, veteran jazz singer, Ernie Andrews. And when I saw him a few weeks later, he was very nearly in tears as he thanked me for the sort of words that he should have received decades ago.

All thoughtful reviewers recognize the potential for that sort of impact, and the attendant responsibility that goes along with it. Every performance, after all, is a cliff-hanging experience for the artist, the risks and fears of crashing to the ground juxtaposed against the possibility of soaring weightlessly across the sky. Every plastic CD box I receive is packed with dreams and hopes and anticipations – with the irrepressible thought that this might be the time to actually catch lightning in a bottle (or a plastic box).

But what about the established performers – those whose CD sales are counted in the six figures and beyond, or whose iconic reputations are so well established as to place them beyond the perils of critical evaluation? Are they impervious to negative or positive remarks?

The fact is that I’ve seen every kind of reaction, from those who tell me they never read reviews to those who seem to have instant recall for every word I’ve ever written about them – dating back for decades. One of the most honest, and most whimsical responses I’ve had was from songwriter Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Pippin,” “Wicked,” etc.).

“I actually don’t remember the good reviews for very long,” Schwartz told me. “But with the bad ones, it feels as though every word is written in blazing lights on my forehead.”

(It wasn’t hard for me to relate to that, having once received a, shall we say, less than laudatory review for an off-Broadway musical I wrote. The critic, who will be nameless, writing in a New York weekly newspaper, which will also be nameless, described the show as “Shakespeare without poetry, Wagner without music.” Funny thing was that I actually thought the line was so cool that we should use it in the advertising. The producer demurred.)

All of which leads me to another slant on the “To Review or Not To Review” perspective -- something that happened just this week, in one of my more unusual review, or perhaps I should say non-review, experiences.

After receiving a press release from the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theatre (REDCAT) announcing a two night booking by Herb Alpert and Lani Hall, I immediately added their first night’s performance to my review schedule. I’ve always respected Alpert’s commitment to the sustenance of fine music (he recently donated $30 million to the UCLA School of Music, which is now named the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music). And I’ve long felt that Lani Hall, his wife, was one of the underrated vocalists of the last few decades.

I scheduled the review, however, with a question lingering in the back of my mind. A few months ago, Alpert and Hall also performed for two nights at Vibrato – the Bel Air restaurant and jazz club Alpert has been financially supporting. But when I called the club’s music director to make a reservation, I was told that the room was completely sold out, primarily to Alpert’s friends and acquaintances.

So when I contacted REDCAT to arrange my coverage for this performance, and was informed that no reviews would be allowed for the shows “at Herb’s request,” I wasn’t especially surprised. At least not by the announcement, that is. But I was surprised that REDCAT would accept such a limitation. And even more startled that Alpert and Hall -- whom I’ve known and written about for decades – would be so resistant to a performance review. What, I wondered, were they afraid of?

But then I remembered that Alpert is one of that very select group that has sold records – as noted above – in six and even seven or eight figures (back in the days of the Tijuana Brass, that is). And who parlayed his early performing successes into the much larger successes of A & M Records, eventually selling the company for a reported $500 million dollars to Polygram.

Does that give him the option of refusing to allow reviews? Apparently it does. And since the show was reportedly sold out, I was unable to do what any good journalist would do – buy a ticket and show up to do a review, anyhow, with or without permission. Alpert and Hall are scheduled to perform in May at venues such as Joe’s Pub in New York City, Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. and Yoshi’s in San Francisco. Will they attempt to stifle reviews in those rooms, as well? And if they do, will they manage to control the situation effectively enough to prevent an enterprising writer from finding a way to reveal what it is that the Alperts prefer not to expose to critical review?

I hope not. And I look forward to reading the informed commentary of my esteemed East Coast or Bay area colleagues.


Anonymous said...

The UK magazine Jazz Review in its April-May 2008 issue, published this week, has this news item:
"Saxophonist John Zorn was very happy to hand out press tickets to a recent run of New York performances, but on condition that journalists who attended did not write about the event."
Perhaps it's a new trend - but it won't stop the hundreds of 'amateur' reviews that appear in blogs and internet forums - some with thousands of readers daily.

Anonymous said...

Good and honest article. As a journalist, it made me take a bit more thought of the performer, as well as the audience, in context. George Harris All About Jazz LA/

Howard Mandel said...

A continuing trend, indeed -- here's my blog post re Zorn and his request that he not be reviewed that the Jazz Review must have referred to:

And here's a second post I wrote, expanding on the issue.

I spoke to Zorn at length following these posts, and he made the point that he takes every comment very, very personally, that negative comments can derail his productivity for months, and he denied that he was trying to control anything other than what happens to the few guest tickets he was afforded by the venue (St. Ann's -- the performance in question was this large Brooklyn space's season premiere). I took his guest tickets, but did not write about the music, as per his request -- he was upset that I hadn't given him a heads up that I was going to write anything at all, even about the issues raised by the requests. He had asked Nate Chinen not to review for the New York Times, but Nate bought tickets and wrote about the concert. I turned down an assignment to review in order to accept his request not to be written about, but to attend for my own elucidation. Though he has not been as commercially successful as Herb Alpert (who has? Quincy Jones?) , Zorn has been acclaimed and supported as well as criticized by the press, and though he's a MacArthur fellow, he has invested his personal $ and intense energies in projects such as The Stone recital room and Tzadik Records, which he labors to maintain as self-supporting.

James Hale said...

This attitude by professional musicians would be strange at any time, but just bizarre at a time when the Internet is full of amateur reviews – posted to blogs or fan sites.

If you're charging a fee for your performance, you should accept the fact that you could be reviewed.

I have no problem with artists – or promoters or venues – denying comp tickets to reviewers, but requesting no reviews just begs the question that you rightly pondered about Alpert and Hall: What have you got to hide?