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On Being On The Receiving End

August 5, 2008

Those arts critics are an unscrupulous bunch. I should know -- I should know: I'm a professional theatre reviewer.

It was interesting, therefore, to find myself at the receiving end of a review for the first time since I started working as an arts journalist. Last Saturday, my a cappella vocal ensemble, San Francisco Renaissance Voices, staged the opening night of our Indian dance and music-infused "fusion" take on Ordo Virtutum, a 12th century musical drama by the German Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen. San Francisco Classical Voice sent a critic, Jason Victor Serinus, to review the show.

The review was kind of mixed: the critic didn't much like our unorthodox approach to the material from a theological perspective: "While no Reader's Digest summary can do justice to a complex belief system and way of life that embraces ideologies of reincarnation, karma, and spiritual liberation, it seems safe to say that Christianity and Hinduism offer different paths to God. Throw Celtic music, rooted in the pagan tradition of Goddess-based nature worship, into the mix, and you have a very confused spiritual cosmology that trivializes Hildegard's faith."

But Serinus seemed to enjoy the musicianship: "On a purely musical level, San Francisco Renaissance Voices excelled."

I played the role of Anima, the soul who gets seduced by the Devil and then returns, repentant, to the true path. I don't mean to sound like the universe revolves around me, but the fact that the critic didn't have anything to say about my performance is a bit troubling. Failing to talk about Anima is a bit like writing a review of Hamlet without talking about the actor who played drama's most famous Danish prince.

Makes me wonder. Very often, if I steer clear of talking about a key actor's performance, particularly in a smallish production, it's because I don't have anything positive to say...

Anyway, I'm intrigued at how unfazed I'm feeling about the whole thing. I'm just happy to be part of the work. And what do I take away from the experience of being reviewed as a critic? The main thing, I think, is a greater awareness of how much people involved in a production care about what's said about them -- even if it's just being said by some random guy in a local, online classical music publication. The sheer number of emails that have bounced around today between various members of my group is staggering. I always knew critics at the New York Times and The Guardian could influence productions. I didn't think San Francisco Classical Voice would make such an impression.

This experience will, if nothing else, remind me of the power of words.


  • Now you know why we have such a love/hate relationship with those words. They are powerful. They are trusted. They give us artists legitimacy in the publics eye if the words a good or glowing.

    At the same time we'll say, "But they didn't get it!" Or "That's their politics they need to leave that at the door." Followed by "Ah who cares what critics think!"

    We artists don't care....until you talk about us...especially if it's nice. It's a dysfunctional little relationship now ain't it?

    By Blogger Christian Cagigal, At August 6, 2008 at 10:24 PM  

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