Programme notes and ethics?

Last Saturday I gave a 90-minute talk to around 100 people on “Programme Note Writing”. Crammed into a poky room in the deep bowels of the Petronas Twin Towers it was not the ideal setting, but the audience seemed fairly interested and there were some unusually pertinent questions at the end. It would be nice to think that I was able to reveal something of both the value of programme notes and the art/skill involved in writing them. It matters to me that programme notes are well-written and useful; not least because they support (especially in the case of the MPO) a world-class orchestra whose musical performances deserve only the very best support in written materials; let’s face it, when it comes to supporting publicity and marketing, the MPO gets a bum deal and no mistake.

In my researches for my talk I looked at a number of programme notes from around the world and came across something very strange and disturbing; programme notes which seemed completely unsuited to the target audience; intense technical terms for children’s concerts, kiddie-talk for refined string quartet performances, and the like. My pet thing is that the programme note writer must know his audience and their background if he is to communicate effectively with them. What’s the point, for example, of an American telling a Malaysian audience that “this is the kind of thing you hear every Sunday in church”? Some of the programme notes I came across had, quite obviously, simply been lifted off the internet by those too lazy (or mean) to commission something original, but some seemed simply bizarre. And then the penny dropped (or the cent, sen or pfennig, depending on my audience). These notes were in return for favours given.

A peculiarly blatant piece of Americana for an Asian audience was by the same man who had written a puffy piece of praise on an online music review site about the orchestra some months earlier. A weird piece of Australio-centric tub-thumping (for a different Asian audience) was by a man who had been chairman of the panel of judges which had given the orchestra’s conductor a prize. And a smarmy piece by an I’m-much-more-clever-than-you-yoiks Englishman for a concert in the Middle East, seemed neatly to tie in with the same writer’s highly complimentary article in an international investors’ magazine about the quality of music in that same Middle East country.

Much closer to home, I recall when the MPO got off the ground and publicity was being desperately sought, a critic was flown from London (at the MPO expense) in order to write a piece about the new orchestra. Surprise, surprise! It was highly complimentary. I recall, also, a previous Marketing Manager asking me for a list of writers who might be induced to compile a laudatory piece in various magazines across the globe in return for an expenses-paid trip to Malaysia with, perhaps, a weekend on Langkawi thrown in. And I am well aware that critics who write nice things about recordings of some orchestras often get invitations to go and hear them in the flesh (at the orchestra’s expense, of course). I’ve had them – and I’ve turned them down.

It seems harmless enough, I suppose, but is it? As a critic, I am conscious of the risk of a conflict of interest being perceived to colour one’s judgement. I’m absolutely sure that none of my professional colleagues (I can’t speak for the amateurs who adorn local newspapers the world over) allows this to happen, but perception, as they don’t say, is nine-tenths of the law, and if it looks as if something might have happened, in many peoples’ minds, it has. I don’t think any editor has ever told me in 40 years of music criticism not to write about any organisation or event in which I have an interest, but my personal ethics don’t allow it. And, as a result, I miss out on a lot of freebies, but sleep well at night.

Programme notes may not afford the same kind of personal assessment on the performers as does a piece of criticism, but by offering them to those who have no real perception of the demographics of the audience, the concert-organisers are selling their own audiences short; giving them the second-rate when they deserve the first-rate. There again, does it matter? Programme notes are ephemeral and most who read them don’t even bother to look to see who wrote them let alone question their impartiality. But if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, and if that isn’t a maxim which affects every aspect of music-making, then we’re in the wrong business.

But I do have a confession to make which possibly undermines everything I’ve just written. Several months ago Gramophone sent me a disc of vocal music for review released on the Melba label. I duly did my piece, which was unusually (for me) complimentary, concluding that Melba was a “distinguished Australian label”. Even as that was going through the sub-editor’s hands, I had a call from an agent asking if I could write as a matter of some urgency notes on Bach’s Trio Sonatas for organ for a CD due for imminent release. I did so, and sent them off with a request that the disc be sent to me on its release. It came the same week that the issue of Gramophone with my vocal music review was published. Only then did I realise that I had written notes for a Melba disc and that my Gramophone piece might be seen as an attempt to curry favour with the people responsible for commissioning notes. I hang my head in shame not for any wrong-doing but for giving rise to the possible perception that my critical praise could have been coloured by personal gain.

Anyway in for a penny in for a pound (or cent/dollar, sen/ringgit, pfenning/mark, depending on my audience). The Melba vocal disc (songs by Vierne and Chausson with Steve Davislim, the Queensland Orchestra and Guillaume Tournaire on MR301123) is a stunner and, without any prompting from me, got an Editor’s Choice accolade in December’s Gramophone. The Bach Trio Sonatas disc (with my good friend Christopher Wrench playing his fingers and feet to the bone on MR301125) is notable for the excellent notes (both written and played) and I’ve added a link to the Melba site for good measure. If the Queensland Orchestra want to invite me, in return for my kind words about them in Gramophone, to write concert notes for them, giiving me an all-expenses paid trip to Brisbane with a weekend on the Sunshine Coast thrown in for good measure, then I’ll say yes; the die has already been cast. And while I’m in the throes of destroying my own hard-won reputation for impartiality, if Melba wanrt me to write more notes for them, they only have to send the blank cheque. Who cares about serving the musical piblic ethically?

4 Responses to “Programme notes and ethics?”

  1. January 28, 2010 at 10:26 am

    Excellent thoughts on programme note writing. It is a refined art that is often taken for granted. I’ve always loved your notes for SSO and MPO – lots of interesting anecdotes and sly humour which is chuckle-inducing (not the best thing to do when the orchestra is playing some slow movement or quiet piece!). Keep up the good work!

    On the issue of sponsored trips, I was once invited to Japan to attend and write about an opera on the subject of the samurai and their (blind) faith. The piece I wrote for The Arts Magazine derided Japanese atrocities of WWII in the name of the Showa Emperor. Needless to say, I wasn’t invited back!

  2. 2 SJ Ong
    February 1, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Once again, wonderful post. It is nice to know that there’s some amount of thoughtfulness involved in the writing of programme notes (or at least in the MPO’s). It is indeed a delicate act trying to convey enough information without causing information overload or simply insulting the intelligence of the intended audience, and it is a delicate act of balance here.

    Am glad to know you’re not one to be given into less ethical practices, although I cannot help but to wonder how much of a gray area this whole ‘gift-giving’ issue is. On one hand, I laud your standing on remaining impartial and to critique/write as objectively as possible, but on the other hand, it is still essentially part of the business and I wonder if it will jeopardise the relationship between the parties involved if one were to reject on such a basis? (After all, in some cultures, there’s the whole issue of ‘giving face’, and a rejection of one of those ‘gifts’ may be seen as impolite.) Just being curious here.

    Nonetheless good to know that there’s someone out there who’ll still stick to their principles!

  3. 3 Chee Meng
    February 5, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    I’ve always loved your notes for MPO, wish you can do it with us at Thailand Phil sometime!

  4. 4 vincent4wang
    February 23, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Thanks a lot for your excellent notes for SSO and MPO concerts, also the insider view of the criticism system.
    One question has been in my mind for long time, how do you select the reference recordings on SSO programme notes?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

January 2010


%d bloggers like this: