For those who haven’t heard about this, the story is HERE.
Howard Reich wrote in today’s Chicago Tribune that the critics responsible for Ms. Hatto’s fame should not be held accountable, claiming “The critics who applauded Hatto’s alleged recordings indeed were recognizing great performances by estimable artists. They were doing, in fact, precisely what critics are supposed to do: discern artistic excellence.”
This is all well and good, but completely misses the point. You would have to be an idiot not to recognize the brilliance of the recordings! As Mr. Reich knows from experience, being a classical pianist is perhaps the most hopeless career choice a musician can make. Countless thousands pass through music schools annually with no jobs available save to go back to academia and begin the cycle all over again. The select few rise to the level of superstar performer, and many others (still a small fraction of the total) make estimable recordings. The real question, then, is why was Joyce Hatto singled out for praise rather than many of the virtually unknown pianists she stole from? Could it be because she was a recluse dying of cancer who had not been seen performing in public for almost 30 years? Oh, perish the thought! Critics don’t care about life stories, only “artistic excellence!” Hah.
Perhaps there is another, darker motivation involved: the desire to be the one who discovers “the next big thing.” The role of critic as Kingmaker is quite prevalent, and one often hopelessly at odds with discerning “artistic excellence.” What better way for a critic to be known then by championing the cause of someone few people have ever heard of? Thus we get lines like this: “Her legacy is a discography that in quantity, musical range and consistent quality has been equaled by few pianists in history,” from critic Jeremy Nicholas of the London Guardian and “Joyce Hatto must be the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of,” from critic Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe. The key words here are “history” and “no one has ever heard of.” By invoking history, the critic sets himself above and beyond, giving praise where none before existed. Here finally is his raison d’etre!
Indeed, this scandal exposes the tendency of many critics to espouse their beliefs independent of any true research or questioning. Did it not occur to anyone why earlier live reviews weren’t overly positive? Or why earlier collaborators didn’t make any notice of a supposed genius in their midst? Or how it was possible in the first place for a sick old woman to create flawless masterpieces of nearly the entire classical piano canon?
Unfortunately, a critic with both humility and remedial investigative skills is a rare commodity indeed. We see it in the jazz community all the time. Why is it so difficult for critics to ask questions? Why do many critics assume the genius players deserving of great attention (say, 5 articles within 6 months) must have some sort popular acclaim? Doesn’t it make more sense to search out players who consistently have a plethora of musicians in the audience hanging on every turn of phrase? This seems obvious, of course, but we live in a bizarro world where someone can garner over the top accolades without having any knowledge of swing, jazz harmony, or real jazz feel, let alone the respect of his peers. Perhaps the answer lies with the fact that you can’t make someone a king if he has already been crowned!
Last night I stopped by Pete Miller’s in Evanston to see one of the only true jazz geniuses in Chicago, Ron Perrillo. Gathered about the stage, at midnight on a Saturday night, were almost 20 musicians, including several of the most talented artists in the city. Every once in a while one would exhale and give a knowing look to his friend. For me, that look came when Ron grabbed onto one plaintive note of the horn player’s solo with his comping, re-harmonized it, and played a complementary descending figure that was so perfect it was staggering. This is unteachable. This is genius. It’s also virtually ignored by the jazz establishment in town, who throw an odd bone to Ron every once in a while, but save their prime space for hothead egoists posturing about the stage.
Critics most certainly are responsible for their unverified praise of Joyce Hatto and anyone else who turns out to be a fraud. If they want the praise and self-satisfaction when they throw a dart and hit on the right person, they must also accept the consequences when the King turns out to be a pauper.