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July 17, 2005

One view from New York
by Allan Kozinn

I'm not sure the critical conversation in New York is quite that one-sided. Admittedly, it's not like the days when there were a half dozen broadsheets, but we still have a handful of daily newspapers, And although the Times clearly has the greatest commitment to covering music (in terms of having a critical staff rather than a critic, and in terms of the amount of space devoted to criticism and other kinds of coverage), several of the papers do offer serious criticism, and there are weeklies with estimable critics as well.

While it's generally true that we don't tend to engage in hand-to-hand with our colleagues, it does happen, at least in a comparatively genteel way. Within the staff at the Times, we have differences of opinion that sometimes find an outlet in the paper, although we try keep it from seeming like squabbling. A few years ago I wrote a Critic's Notebook, occasioned by a performance by the new-music ensemble Eighth Blackbird, that extolled the virtues of performers playing from memory – a fairly uncontroversial topic, I'd have thought. Six months later, my colleague Tony Tommasini wrote a Critic's Notebook saying that the insistence on playing from memory was an unhealthy, anti-musical idea. So there you go!

Tony and others have squared off against Norman Lebrecht once or twice in our pages, and of course, Norman has had his say about us. So the possibility of transatlantic debate clearly exists. And I believe there have been times when one of us has referred to something written by a colleague elsewhere as a jumping off point for an essay of some kind.

It's true that this doesn't happen a lot, and I'm not entirely sure that it should. We read what each other has to say, and we agree or disagree, but basically, we have our own arrows in our quivers. And for the most part, we're reviewing performances that have half-lives of nano-seconds: we write our reviews, and then we're on to something else, because, fortunately, there IS something else. It's unlikely that a dissenting opinion from a colleague will cause us to stop in our tracks and take up a debate – and I'm not sure the readers would find such an exchange as interesting in practice as it might seem in prospect.

Having said all that, I agree that the field would be livelier and healthier if there were more papers offering more diverse views. And I agree with Joshua Kosman: those days are gone. Except, of course, on the internet. We don't get eight papers delivered to our doorsteps. But we can now quite easily read what any of our colleagues have to say anywhere in the world.

Posted at 09:22 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

One Voice Per Beat
by Joshua Kosman

Norman Lebrecht has it exactly right (and there's a sentence I didn't think I'd ever write): The character of music criticism both here and abroad is fundamentally shaped by the profusion of press outlets, or lack of same. Writing for the one newspaper in town (or let's say the one large-circulation daily), as I and most of my American colleagues do, has a determining influence on how and what I write. It means that I have to be aware of the effects of what I write while remaining scrupulously honest. It means that my personal opinions will taken by the more credulous as The Truth, and that some readers (out of silliness or malice) will even imagine that I intend them to be. It means, as Doug says, that the possibilities for real dialogue are kinda limited.

I wish to God it were otherwise. There's a line somewhere by the midcentury press critic Robert Benchley about being horrified, on opening his front door, to find on the doorstep a quart of milk and no fewer than eight daily newspapers; the milk, of course, had been delivered by mistake. That's my idea of Eden, and I get an envious glimpse of it, or at least a scaled-down version, when I'm in Europe. But in this country, the days of "His Girl Friday" are never coming back, and there's nothing we can do to change that. So we play the cards we're dealt.

Posted at 07:02 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)

Geographical differences?
by Donald Rosenberg

I'm glad Doug used quote marks when he made note of the "second cities" of America. It points out the extent to which music criticism tends to be regarded in the global sense outside the acknowledged centers of U.S. artistic activity - New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles. Take it from one New York-born and East Coast-trained music critic who has spent his career in music criticism west of the Hudson and east of Lake Michigan: those of us who toil on behalf of classical music in the "nether" regions of the country are no less devoted to our craft than those who live in the metropolises with oodles more activity. Nor are we less likely to cover our local arts organizations with the scrutiny, depth or enthusiasm/despair that can be found wherever the music we love is explored.

Excuse me if I boast: Here in Cleveland, I have the privilege to cover an orchestra considered by many to be one of the two or three or four best in the world. It deserves to be treated with utmost seriousness and respect, while also being held to standards established decades ago by Artur Rodzinski and George Szell. Despite what some may believe, critical discourse exists in the region. Cleveland may be a one-newspaper town, but thoughtful voices can be heard from nearby Akron, where the Beacon Journal's fine music critic, Elaine Guregian, covers the orchestra comprehensively, and from several other sources, including weekly papers and radio. The debate may not be as extensive - or, indeed, political - as in London or Vienna, but the public can partake of numerous passionate arguments as they confirm the importance of music in their lives.

That said, we are both loved and reviled. No matter how much experience or knowledge or affection or literary poetry we invest in our efforts, there will be those who see things otherwise. Amen. When people say they aren't reading us, of course, they are. So let's keep things lively, responsible and penetrating. Let's respect what our colleagues say, even if we violently disagree. Maintaining - and, we hope, increasing - the presence of classical music in print and online is a mission to which we must mutually pledge, with edited thanks to Thomas Jefferson, our lives and our sacred honor. I leave out "our fortunes" for obvious reasons.

Posted at 06:34 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)

The Critic's Role(s)
by Lawrence A. Johnson

I think with the English music scene largely centered in London, the discourse resembles a conversation because most critics are going to the same venues and hearing the same performers. Whereas in the U.S., most of us are spread out in different cities, each with its unique history, circumstances and organizations, which mitigates against debate on what are locally oriented beats.

I'm not a fan of trashing fellow critics in print because 1. it's nasty and non-collegial and 2. we're all embattled enough as it is dealing with shrinking space for classical music coverage without blood-letting among each other.

That said, I think Doug is on to something when he mentions a "detached" quality to music reviews in the U.S. I try to provide as much "counterpoint" as possible from reader letters and e-mails, which is an imperfect solution.

I think it's also the case that many of us err on the side of safety and not making waves in reviews----with a lofty Olympian nod of the head to performances that are really nothing special. It's a fine line to walk to be encouraging without becoming a cheerleader.

One also sometimes encounters a kind of clubby, "we're all friends here" attitude, which can be disastrous. If an opera company has lost its artistic moorings or the juice has gone out of a music director's relationship with his orchestra years ago, we have a responsibility to say so unequivocally or else we're colluding in keeping the mediocrity going.

Clearly, one doesn't want to bring out the heavy artillery daily just for the sake of a good punchline. But along with the advances, interviews and upcoming event briefs, it's essential to have passionate reviews and trend pieces that say what needs to be said even if it infuriates some people. If my editors don't get several calls a season from some outraged administrator or musician demanding that I be fired, I'm probably doing something wrong.

Lawrence A. Johnson

Posted at 05:27 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)

View from London
by Fiona Maddocks

Plunging in from London, I don't entirely recognise the idea that critics specifically answer artists or vice versa except in extreme circumstances: a high-profile event like an over-hyped new opera that's made headlines, say. The large number of British daily and Sunday newspapers carrying music reviews - even in reduced column inches compared to years past - means in effect there's already a constant sound of different voices without needing to resort to dog-eats-dog, or maybe that's not quite what Doug meant.

When and where you write makes a difference. I am the opera critic for London's daily evening paper, so always have a same-night deadline. This means rushing to pronounce within hours of the curtain falling. So my response is adrenalin-driven, unfiltered by sleep or discussion and with no time for second thoughts, which of course I sometimes live to regret next day when I'm already in print.

Previously writing for The Observer, a Sunday broadsheet, I was aware of the task being entirely different, more digestedand long-distance. Sometimes that meant taking into account the general mood of reviews already published, especially if that mood was loudly opposite to one's own, but that's rather different from taking issue directly with other critics. That's the view from here.

Posted at 02:31 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)

Critics - Pick A Role
by Douglas McLennan

In the city in which I live, we have two daily newspapers, and each has a music critic. The critics' jobs consist of writing reviews, weekly previews, and, when it's something big, news reports about local music institutions. Neither critic ever acknowledges in print that the other exists. Neither appears to regard criticism as any kind of dialogue with others or with the art form itself.

Most American cities have only one newspaper. Most have only one music critic. Opinions are launched, usually left hanging, and are rarely challenged in print. The tone of these stories is often curiously detached, and even seismic shifts in the arts world get only a story or two before everybody moves on.

As Norman Lebrecht has pointed out, the British press is much more of a gaggle of competing opinions, and it's not unusual to see one critic take on another in print. Indeed, some of the best culture sections seem to go out of their way to argue with themselves in print. It's also not unsual to see a paper print rebuttals from other critics or artists who feel they have been unfairly attacked.

We seem to take as a given that a healthy society needs vigorous debate. American political coverage is full of raucous, passionate opinion. Sports too. So where is that debate in culture? In music?

So I guess I'm wondering if it's a fair characterization that critics in the UK see their role as being part of a conversation while American critics see themselves more as opinion dispensers?

Posted at 08:04 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)