In the twenty-five years or more that I’ve been a professional music and theatre reviewer, none of my reviews have been censored. Some have been slightly edited due to space constraints, but none actually censored – until now that is!
Yes, there have been many face-to-face comments from friends, acquaintances, colleagues and others, and a few private correspondents who have agreed (mainly) with my published reviews and acknowledged my insights. A few people have said they don’t agree with everything I’ve said or written about any particular performance, but only one, a certain Melissa Lo (whose pronouns and age I can only guess at – so I won’t), who, in the comments below my Theatreview review, disagreed with my appraisal of a production of the musical Wicked so vehemently that all rationality was abandoned by presuming my pronouns, skin colour and age, and ‘guessing’ (Melissa’s word) that I was “a bitter old white male who didn't understand the magical world of Oz”. Melissa went on to declare: “I wasn't at the performance and plan to see it this week,” and continued “I don’t doubt that I will be cheering for the whole cast and crew for their amazing performance”. I resisted the temptation to assure Melissa that, unlike he/her/them, I write my reviews after attending a performance, not before.
And I don’t think anyone who knows me would call me “bitter”. Some of my other reviews might help to change Melissa's mind, so perhaps my review of another contemporary musical from the same directors might be a good place to start. But maybe Melissa is right about my not understanding the “magical world of Oz”, a land in which author L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), as reinterpreted in Wicked by Gregory Maguire, sees life through fairy-tale analogies and parables to assist our grasp of the mysteries of life, even if we can never fully understand them. But it seems that Melissa is much more confident of having a thorough understanding of that "magical world". Personally, I need to draw on a much wider range of experience, knowledge and associations in order to assimilate my published responses to performances.
From time to time a musician or music organisation (rather than the usual print, radio or online news media) commissions me to write a review for their own promotional or online platform in the hope that it will then be more widely published, which it often is. Several years ago, the late Christopher Marshall, whose Christopher’s Classics series has reached its twenty-eighth year of providing Christchurch audiences with the very best of Aotearoa’s musical talent, asked me to review the concerts in his series, which I have been doing now since 2017. These days, most newspapers and other media in New Zealand no longer allocate budgets to pay professional reviewers, so most of those reviews have been published on Christopher’s Classics own website – an increasingly common scenario. Christopher always knew that I would maintain my honesty, integrity and unbiased views. He understood that, while some reviews would be politely positive, others might be glowing raves and a number would contain reservations. He often talked to me about what he agreed or disagreed with, but he always valued and respected my knowledge and perceptions. After all, a reviewer is just an individual with an informed opinion, and a different individual will always have their own personal response. All we can do is react to what we see and hear, to describe that response and to say why we have arrived at a particular point-of-view. As a performer myself, I have learned a great deal from others’ opinions, especially when they diverge from my own.
But earlier this month, for the first time in my reviewing career, Christopher’s Classics chose not to publish my review of their latest concert featuring cellist Andrew Joyce and pianist Rae de Lisle. They paid me as usual, but I now realise that I could have earned my few dollars by being far less considered, telling the performers and promoters what they wanted to hear, and by taking less trouble than the three hours of writing, research, refining and polishing. I have no problem with them disagreeing with me – I’ve often disagreed with other reviewers’ comments myself; but to fail to publish the review without giving any reason, let alone communicating with me at all about their decision, is surely discourteous and disrespectful at best, and censorship at worst.
As I said above, a review is just my own opinion. Every individual member of an audience responds differently to any given performance, and I sometimes wonder if, say, the person in front of me, applauding with vociferous enthusiasm, has genuinely found the music-making as stimulating as I have found it lacklustre, or, when I am moved to the core by a performance, whether anyone around me has shared the same, sometimes life-changing experience.
A renewed era of censorship has emerged since the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. Certain Russian musicians have been censored and censured; some musicians have removed Russian works from their programmes (e.g. see my previous post regarding the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra) while others have added Russian pieces to their programmes, especially by composers like Shostakovich who could be said to have written the book regarding musical censorship and political oppression.
In this regard, my role as a music reviewer once again came under attack when, back in March, I criticised NZ Chamber Soloists for dropping Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 1 from their concerts because, according to them, it “celebrates Russia as a superpower”. I was contacted by the Christchurch Press, as one of their reviewers, and my disagreement with NZ Chamber Soloists’ decision was quoted along with similar comments by others. As it happened, the group’s Christchurch concert was scheduled to be hosted by Christopher’s Classics who, in an email to their subscribers, expressed their disappointment in The Press article and named me as one of the offenders. My review of the ensemble’s concert in June was as subjective in my personal response and as objective in my analysis of the music and its performance as always, but the replacement of Shostakovich’s trio by a rather innocuous and conventional work by Armenian composer, Arno Babajanian, remains, in my view, an insidious example of the growing ‘cancel culture’ style of censorship which is becoming an increasingly worrying trend.
Tony Ryan has reviewed Christchurch concerts, opera and music theatre productions and many other theatre performances since the mid 1990s.
Tony has presented live and written radio reviews of numerous concerts, opera and other musical events for RNZ Concert for many years. An archive of these reviews can be found at Radio New Zealand - Upbeat
His reviews of opera, music & straight theatre and numerous reviews of buskers and comedy festival performances are available at Theatreview
An archive of Tony’s chamber music reviews is held at Christopher’s Classics
He has also reviewed for The Press (Christchurch). Links to Tony's Press reviews are listed below:
A Barber and Bernstein Double Bill – Toi Toi Opera
The Strangest of Angels – NZOpera
Will King (Baritone) and David Codd (Piano) – Christopher's Classics
Ars Acustica – Free Theatre
Truly Madly Baroque – Red Priest
The Mousetrap – Lunchbox Theatre
Iconoclasts – cLoud
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
An Evening with Simon O’Neill NZSO
Catch Me If You Can – Blackboard Theatre
Brothers in Arms – CSO
Fear and Courage – CSO
Sin City – CSO
Don Giovanni – Narropera at Lansdowne
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Funatorium
Weave – NZTrio
Tosca – NZ Opera
Sister Act – Showbiz
Broadway to West End – Theatre Royal
Chicago – Court Theatre
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 – CSO
Homage – CSO
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
SOAR – NZTrio
Pianomania – NZSO
Rogers & Hammerstein – Showbiz
Songs for Nobodies – Ali Harper
The Beauty of Baroque – CSO
Travels in Italy – NZSO