Reviewing the Reviews

Reviewing the Reviews

We asked Stephanie Eslake, the editor of CutCommon Mag, about what she looks for in a review - whether she's reading review submissions, or writing them herself. 

Stephanie Eslake
Sydney, Australia

Reviewing the Reviews

We asked Stephanie Eslake, the editor of CutCommon Mag, about what she looks for in a review - whether she's reading review submissions, or writing them herself. 

We asked Stephanie Eslake, the editor of CutCommon Mag, about what she looks for in a review - whether she's reading review submissions, or writing them herself. Here's what she told us:

The three things I look for when considering a review for publication are

  • Setting the scene.

It can be tough to imagine what a concert sounded and looked like without having attended. So it's important for a reviewer to take the reader on a journey. Don't just tell us that the horn was out of tune, or the strings sounded great. Force us into the experience. Make us relive the occasion, make us feel transported into the concert hall. Here's a beautiful introduction from our reviewer Lucy Rash, who wrote about a Melbourne opera gig. Not only does it set the scene, but it includes key information while doing so:

The first thing I notice about any production is its audience. A delightful cohort of immaculately dressed punters buzz about the foyer of Melbourne’s State Theatre for the season opening of Opera Australia, and the opening night of its production of Rigoletto. Conversation is flowing, champagne is being downed, and crisp dinner jackets adorned with the freshest of flowers are getting about like it ain’t nobody’s business. The esteemed costume designer Tracy Grant Lord steps past me on her way to the auditorium. So tangible is the warmth of the atmosphere here that I’m sure she has tailored this too.

  • Honesty.

If you don't like something, don't be afraid to say so. But tell us why. If you thought the balance was off, why was it? What do you think was the cause, and should something have been done differently? If the acoustics were terribly mismatched for the ensemble, we need to know. If all the negative aspects are filtered for fear of offending, it's not worth reading. That said, it's very important to be respectful - and constructively critical. By sharing both positive and negative aspects of an event in your review, you will grow confidence as a writer, you will be honest with your audience, and you will be providing a credible opinion that may actually help an ensemble or musician grow. Samuel Cottell reviewed a performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde by the SSO, and expressed his mixed opinions with eloquence:

Isolde, performed by soprano Christine Brewer, soared above the orchestra in full force. Brewer took some time to warm up during the first act, but by the second was executing lines with vivid emotion, exploring all that Wagner set out for his singers. Her final moments on stage in Act III (the famous Leibostold) were performed with a powerhouse of emotion and sensibility, the only shame being that she was at times drowned out by the orchestra in front of her. 

  • Personal Voice.

A review might include all the information we need to know as readers, but it will lose its strength without a distinct personal voice. While it's pretty easy to make a list of what you hear and see, I also want to get a sense of who you are when I read. Because ultimately, that's what breathes life into any piece of writing. Ben Nielsen's introduction to a review of Opera Australia's performance of Tosca is simply bursting with character:

“Have we seen this before?” a man mutters to his partner, in the ill-timed quiet of Act I. While I might usually turn my head to shush him (and almost consider doing so when he proceeds to noisily unwrap a boiled sweet), this time I suppress the urge to respond, “Yes, we have all seen this before. The entire summer season consists of revivals”.

Some things to try before you start reviewing:

  • Read reviews.

Read as many reviews as you can, and know the style of the publication for which you'll be writing. If it's conversational in tone, like many magazines are, then you'll need to match it. A review in a newspaper might be more formal in tone, and the amount of information you can introduce may also be restricted by space limits in print. Writing reviews for online magazines affords a lot of creative freedom in this way. So know the character of the publication, and know the audience.

  • Listen to music.

Listen to past recordings and YouTube videos of live concerts featuring the works you're set to see. You'll have a greater idea of the different approaches musicians might bring to the work, and when you become familiar with the elements in a piece it's easier to make your own judgement in the concert hall. You'll pick up little elements you may never have thought to consider.

  • Write as much as possible.

Grab a CD out of the cupboard, chuck it in your player, and just write what you hear. It isn't for any publication, it's for you. It's important to become comfortable with your own words and confident in your style, and this can only come from regular writing.

While it may seem the primary reason you're reviewing the concert is to let us know how the music sounded, the importance of describing the non-musical aspects shouldn't be underestimated. I once attended an incredible performance by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra as part of last year's Dark Mofo festival, and I was so inspired by the visual experience that it provided me with plenty of material to write about and share with readers. The event took place in the Federation Concert Hall and featured Gregorian chant by candlelight (yep - it was stimulating). What a night it was! The singer was dressed in a "ghostly white gown" and had delivered her melody from behind the orchestra - how unusual. At one point, it seemed the audience collectively held its breath until the end of the piece when the conductor's arms, "poised in the air, finally collapsed and released us". 

These simple observations aren't musical at all. But they do add colour to a review. When you open your eyes as well as your ears, the entire concert experience will become richer - not only for you, but for your readers.

Would you like to be involved with CutCommon reviews? Whether you're a writer looking to have your words published, or a musician or group looking for coverage of your gig, email Stephanie at editor@cutcommon.com. Keep up to date on reviews at www.cutcommonmag.com.