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Another classical music critic is sent into the night … and this time it’s me.

DPS at a recent Carnegie Hall reception. Photo by Heidi Waleson

Life in the newspaper world these days can’t help but feel like Russian Roulette.

With every wave of layoffs, my position has seemed that much closer to its end. And I’m surprised that I lasted as long as I did. But as of December 8th, after 17-plus years, I will no longer be on the Philadelphia Inquirer fine arts staff.

I will continue to freelance for the Inquirer, but how much, and what that looks like, remains to be seen.

I’ve seen this day coming for years – that’s one reason why I moved back to my old, 1990s home in Brooklyn two years ago and have been commuting to Philadelphia ever since. Losing a job of 17 years is tough, and on when it happened I wanted to be among my home community.

Luckily, my commitment to WQXR’s blogs has been growing, and Opera News magazine has me profiling singers such as Iestyn Davies and Klaus Florian Vogt.

That doesn’t mean I’m cleaning out my Inquirer desk with a smile.  No no no.

The current fine arts staff at the Inquirer is first-class; these professional associations are some of the best in my history there. I will still be working with them, but not like before.

And my departure wasn’t exactly by choice. The company announced that it was offering buyouts, with a quota of 35 or so; if that quota wasn’t met, layoffs would begin, without the settlements that come with a buyout. Early on in this process, I was told by our union that I was on the list of people most likely to be laid off were the quota not met. The message: Jump or be pushed.

The Inquirer isn’t necessarily de-valuing its arts coverage. That could not be – ever. The Philadelphia Orchestra and Philadelphia Museum of Art are as much a part of the city’s identity as the sports teams. The paper is clearly having to make tough choices about its allocation of resources.

From a distance, one could conclude that the Inquirer has two classical music critics – Peter Dobrin and me. Close up, we are two busy guys on distinctly different paths. Yes, we both review classical-music concerts, but he does a huge amount of institutional reporting – not just on the orchestra and the Kimmel Center, but also the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Museum of Art, music in the Philadelphia schools, and so on.

I focus, along with reviews, more on interviews and features; I sometimes double as a theater critic and reporter and have a particular emphasis on opera. (Note that Philadelphia has become a serious opera city with the arrival of Opera Philadelphia’s O17 festival.) I’ve also made a point of getting beyond the Kimmel Center, covering both early and cutting-edge new music.

Amid shrinking resources, the newspaper industry is moving towards being the kind of information hub that can be can be accessed by smartphone. Arts coverage can be a part of that, but not in the way that it was when newspapers were predominantly a print medium. Your typical staff writer is becoming an independent producer. These days I write my own headlines and often shoot my own photographs and even video.

The future – both for me and for newspapers – feels opaque. I’ve worked on a few documentary films – including David Amram: The First 80 Years – and I’d love to do more. My radio voice is in good shape. Or maybe I’ll become a hospital chaplain (I do well with sick people). As for the news industry, it’s often speculated that newspapers must go away before The Next Thing emerges. And when it does, I will be ready.

 

 

Comments

  1. Karl Middleman says:

    Dear David,
    I am greatly saddened by this news. Surely, this is a terrible day for arts and literature in Philadelphia. You are a superb critic and your regular columns will be deeply missed. For many years I have regarded your informed commentaries as salutary pushbacks against the stifling dilettantism that increasingly afflicts contemporary arts coverage. Where other critics merely pass judgement, you elucidate. Where others bog down in programmatic or identity issues, or they simply have nothing to say, you inspire with your clarity, incisiveness and references to past aesthetics and performance traditions. Your recent piece on Der Rosenkavalier was just one of innumerable instances where you showed impressive breadth available to few others. Far from being stuck in the past, you show great perspicacity and sympathy for the contemporary music scene. Man, you’ve got a lot of lattitude! I have also admired ways in which your careful choice of language puts across points and opinions without engaging in bloodsport. You are an arts advocate as much as any performing artist. Keep the light on and stay the course. We need you now more than ever.

    • Ah thanks…perhaps an underlying difference between myself and some other critics is that I don’t consider an artistic failure to be a felony. Sometimes an endeavor works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Nobody wants to put bad art out there….
      I’ll still be freelancing. All the best….

  2. Leave it to an experienced journalist to cover his own departure with such a wise and even hand. What’s happening to newspapers is horrible for the arts industry, but we’re not alone. Stearns has always been one of the best critics in the classical music field, and the range he has acquired to work in the related arts, and in media other than print, not to forget photo and headline creation, should put him in an ideal position to contribute his eminently worthy opinions as arts coverage evolves.

  3. David, your words of departure (for lack of a better word…) are elegant and dignified. For that I salute you. And I wish you a positive and fruitful process of re-invention. I always will read you and admire your fine writing. But I still feel saddened by the state of arts criticism in our country.

  4. Robert Levine says:

    David, you will be fine. You’re smarter and more efficient and honest than ………….
    It’s just that you have wisdom too, and that’s no longer needed.

  5. Frank Lee Speaking says:

    Any news organization that fires David P. Stearns but permits Will Bunch to remain is doomed, You’re better off strikingly out on your own.

  6. Pelham Pearce says:

    So sorry, David! It has happened in Denver and will likely happen everywhere. I am bolstered by the fact that more and more people are enjoying the type of art we both love, Opera. So, the need for information will not be going away. How it is provided has already shifted.

    I have always enjoyed your writing and look forward to continuing to do so. Good luck!

    Pat Pearce
    Central City Opera

  7. Dale Basham says:

    You have influenced so many. I number among them. Thank you, David. I’ve so enjoyed your work and following your career since your time in Muncie.

    Dale Basham

  8. Anthony Creamer says:

    HUGE loss for Philadelphia.

  9. Kathryn Hellerstein says:

    So sorry to hear this bad news. Your reviews are essential!

  10. Mark Thomas Ketterson says:

    Elegant and eloquent. You rock.

  11. John Parfrey says:

    You will be missed. Every best wish on your next chapter. I hope your voice will be out there somewhere in the years ahead. Every best wish.

  12. Sarah Weber says:

    I will miss reading your Philadelphia Orchestra reviews. We usually attend Saturday nights, and I would look up your reviews ahead of our concert to see what you had to say. I’m not a music critic, so seeing what you paid attention to and commented on gave me perspective and enlarged my musical knowledge.

    Last night we attended the opening night of The Seasons and I was wondering as I sat there if you were in the audience and what you would have to say about it!

  13. “Jump or be pushed” is pretty much what arts writers at newspapers around the country are being told. And that sucks. No other way to put it. Increasingly, arts writers are going to have to meet arts fans at the online sites where they congregate. And that’s not going to be with the daily papers, unfortunately.

    I wish you well and will continue to look for your writing here and elsewhere. I’m sure you’ll find outlets for your considerable talents.

  14. David, whatever the Inquirer does, they cannot have someone like yourself (unless it is yourself) who speaks about the music, the expressiveness of the performer and historical facts as you do. I personally will miss your insightful comments and reviews.

  15. I am really sorry to hear this, David! I echo the previous comment as well. I look forward to reading, hearing, watching your new innovative adventures as you embrace this as an opportunity as opposed to an end.

  16. Richard Russell says:

    I’m sorry to hear this David. I’ve always been an admirer and know that you’ll thrive, albeit in a different way. It’s sad that this would happen at a major paper in a major city. Wishing you all the best.

  17. Sending strength and possibilities during this time of transition. Glad to hear you will continue to write, speak, care for the sick, and more wonderful ways you will contribute your talents with the world.

  18. David: this is very sad news. Philadelphia readers/listeners are going to miss you. You are an enthusiastic, articulate advocate for new music, opera, musical theater, and all the “spaces” between these genres. May the path to Reinvention be exciting, fun and provide you with a good paycheck!

  19. Tony Origlio says:

    David, good luck in your future endeavors. I am sure many things will come your way.

  20. Ed Dougherty says:

    So many sensations on hearing this, sort of a ‘the mind, the heart floods on hearing this’ moment. For one, David, ever the observer, ever the reporter, gives about the most spot-on account of that steps and gradations in the continual decline / adjustment / reinvention of these media entities. Somewhere in the basement is a large box with newspaper clippings, with parts highlighted in yellow, and David’s folder might be the thickest. I am most certainly recalling a time when the paper was a dominant speaker and arbiter in this city’s life. And so David’s account of the steady and adjustment and decline of his institution – first the Philadelphia Inquirer, then the morphing in to Philly.com – is about the best I’ve read, and surely could have been echoed by any of the writers dedicated to these niche beats – like cars, like real estate, like even business. But in David’s case, the debt that at least this one dedicated reader feels to him for the way he has shaped my worldview, my ear, is simply not fully expressible. His contribution is a side-by-side thing with the very musicians he was writing about. While I knew that something profound had just happened in such and such a hall, I’d await his words the next day or so to tie feeling and sensation to the experience. It was his words, his articulations, that subsequently gave meaning to the experience that hit my ears and enveloped me. And it was his words that would shape my understanding such that I had at least a puncher’s chance to be better prepared, more informed, the next time around. All of my wording here has a past tense quality to it when, in fact, I’ll follow this writing anywhere. To my mind, one of the great classical music critics anywhere, in any time. And just a major, major contributor to the now-flourishing art scene in Philadelphia. A staggering loss here.

  21. Leslie Kandell says:

    You are a talented sensible writer and a reasonable person. I support you and am confident that the music world joins me. Leslie Kandell

  22. Marianne Caven says:

    This is very sad news. As one who appreciates fine music and theater, with an ear not half as keen as yours, I’ve depended on your notes and reviews for many years. I always read your reviews of performances I’ve attended. If you give an artist or performance high marks and I have an opportunity to appreciate the same, I do. With your incredible expertise and admiration in the arts community, why would anyone consider ending or diminishing your voice???

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