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July 21, 2005

Baltimore counterpoint; In Search of Lost (press) Time
by Lawrence A. Johnson

There's already been a wealth of wide-ranging observations on the blog, so I'm going to add just a couple points on issues raised by colleagues.

I agree with many of Allan's comments, particularly on the mutability of reviews. I disagree with him on the long-term impact of the Baltimore imbroglio. Even if calculated, I can’t see how the ongoing Marin Alsop/Baltimore Symphony saga has been anything but a public-relations debacle for the orchestra. The fact that they were appointing a woman as music director, and one as well regarded as Alsop, would have been sufficient to get headlines and good press without any kind of devious web-spinning. The players may well have had worthy artistic grounds to object to Alsop; I wasn’t a fan of her recent Brahms recording either. But by barreling ahead without getting the musicians on the same page, the BSO management created an international embarrassment for a fine conductor and ensured that a cloud will hang over Alsop's tenure for years to come.

On the desirability of assigning different writers for advances and reviews: probably 80% of us are the only people handling our beats at our papers. Without the staff or resources available, we wind up covering nearly all aspects of the music beat---news, obits, arts reporting---ourselves. I can’t say this is a bad thing. True, there are times when one is chasing a hot story and regular music coverage can suffer, but that’s part of what makes journalism unpredictable and exciting. Shortly after I took up my present post the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra went on strike---hopefully, there was no connection---and I was effectively a labor reporter for two months, which was draining but rewarding. I think being forced to wear an assortment of journalistic headwear teaches versatility and a certain mental discipline (or, perhaps, as Allan said, “schizophrenia”) when one writes a positive feature on an artist and then must dispassionately evaluate their performance in a review.

I wonder if anyone feels that the trend towards increasing tardiness of reviews appearing in print has the effect of making classical music coverage seem irrelevant, both inside and outside of the newsroom. When I was a freelance critic for the Chicago Tribune in the 1990s the paper had an Overnight Page on the back of the A section, which was full of reviews, many from the previous night, often with live color art. That page and the concept of overnight reviews in general seem to have gone the way of the dodo bird. There's a vigor and freshness to next-day publication that make the arts beat exciting and the paper more attractive to readers. That edge gets dulled when a review runs 3, 4, or 5 days after an event. I can get reviews posted more quickly on our website. But by going to the web to provide readers with timely coverage, we inadvertently accelerate the demise of the traditional, hard-copy newspaper. Who wants to read a stale review of a Friday night concert in Tuesday’s paper when you can get it online by Saturday noon for free?

Posted at 06:45 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)

A "school" with few students
by Robert Everett-Green

I’m struck by the slowness with which the changes of outlook that have convulsed musicology in recent years have made themselves felt in daily criticism. I’m thinking of the attention paid in academe to alternative historiographies, “subaltern” narratives, the emancipation or suppression of the body in art, sexual identity, and power relations within and around the making and consumption of music now and in the past. In short, the whole bundle of concerns known as postmodernism. These subjects have mostly been reflected in journalistic pieces about the more titillating allegations of some scholars – that Schubert was gay, for instance. In the main, I think critics have stuck with the Great Master paradigm and the notion of a timeless art that is endlessly renewable. I know of only one avowedly feminist classical critic: my colleague Tamara Bernstein at the National Post (Canada).

As I mentioned in a response to reader Barbara Scales (below), classical critics are professional Platonists, who relate what they hear to an ideal – a score and/or a “definitive” performance of the past. I think Allan Kozinn’s preference for criticism that operates in complete personal isolation from musicians and producers - a preference I don’t share - is a logical consequence of this view. The critic makes himself pure to contemplate the pure work of art.

As for differences across the Atlantic, I think European critics may be a bit more aware of the continuing political implications of the high-art music tradition. These have been obscured in the USA by the arts-for-all ideology that was necessary in order for an art-form developed for aristocrats to be transplanted into an officially egalitarian society.

Posted at 03:02 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)

Critics: more different than similar
by Andrew Druckenbrod

Allan Kozinn is on target in his comments about power. However I, too, want to return to the blog’s original subject.

Try all you want to discover differences in classical criticism between countries -- you will fail to find generalized meaningful distinctions other than language. Not only are classical critics too small a statistical number, but this is an extremely individualistic field. The vast majority of music critics in the world know much more about the field than their editors or publishers, giving us an enormous amount of latitude compared to other members of the press – even columnists or critics in other departments. This has engendered individual approaches everywhere to covering the scene. No two daily staff critics run the classical beat or critique concerts the same way. Not in the way a sports report or a film review are written. The classical critic is the institution. There are probably more differences within the London critics as there are similarities; likewise in New York. There are critics in London and Vienna I have looked to for inspiration and technique as much as any in the U.S.

Topics that are important to one’s region – and even Carnegie Hall or the Barbican fall into this category – shape one’s coverage. But there aren't any critical "schools" these days, are there? The true difference is in individual taste and makeup. Our training is so varied! I study scores every chance I get, but I know critics whose only qualifications is avid listening. Some of us have academic backgrounds; others have performed at a high level. Some of us are opera buffs; some prefer instrumental genres. Some of us write eloquently; some write bluntly. Some have high IQs; some EQs. Some of us like to please people; some revel in dispensing pain. We are markedly different from each other.

I am not praising this situation or decrying it, it’s just the reality. I sometimes think we should come up with a licensing board for critics, one that demands a passing of a test or display of knowledge, but that would never work because this is a broad field – there are more ways to write a good review than play a Chopin Etude. This doesn’t mean we aren’t accountable, but we should recognize how varied that can be accomplished.

Posted at 11:51 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)

London and US
by Allan Kozinn

Hugh makes a number of good points about the economic differences between criticism in London and in the US. Friends of mine who freelance for British papers tell me that in terms of payment, the phrase Dickensian mite is still operative, and that explains the potential conflicts of interest that you describe. In truth, over here we've often been struck by the coziness between many English critics and organizations that we tend to (and in many cases are required to) keep at arm's length. Present company excepted, obviously.

I would not say, however, that we feel compelled to support the home team, either because it's the home team or because negative reviews might have economic ramifications. Ticket sales are the organization's job and problem, not ours; ours is to call it as we hear it.

We also feel, or at least I do, that the power we supposedly have is far less than people think. If we had any, would Lorin Maazel be music director of the New York Philharmonic? From the time his was announced as a candidate, the Times critical staff did everything it could to argue in print that this was a bad idea, and although I feel we've been fair in the sense of pointing out the things he does well, I think the general tenor of the reviews has been negative. If we had any actual power, would the Philharmonic have renewed his contract til 2009?

But I also don't think the job is about power, or should be. The power talk is just for people who want to complain about it us. We just listen and write.

One more thing about Baltimore: I was thinking about this. I ended my last post on the subject by saying that the orchestra guaranteed that we'd all be looking again at the end of her first contract. How shortsighted (or maybe longsighted) of me: they've actually written the Baltimore critics' assignment books for the next three years. First year, apart from the close reviewing the concerts would naturally have gotten anyway, there'll be a need for the "After The Fracas, How Did Her First Year Go?" piece. But of course, chances are her first season will include some programming residue from the Temirkanov years, so the second will have to begin with a close look at Alsop's first totally-in-control season, and will have to end with "After Two Years, What Changes Has She Wrought?" And then there's that last season, with the looming contract renewal (or not). Seems to me the PR department can just book itself a long vacation.

Posted at 10:05 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)

US versus Europe
by Hugh Canning

We seem to be getting away from the original questions asked by Doug - are there fundamental differences in which US and European critics see their roles? I'm not so sure if there is, although I know from discussions with my friends, John von Rhein and Scott Cantrell, that they - naturally - feel obliged to offer general support for the home teams. As a body London critics don't - and porably shouldn't - have such loyalties. It is there newspapers who are paying them to write as objectively as is possible. I don't make a habit of accepting work from orchestras, opera and record companies in this country because I feel personally that one is bound to be compromised at some level. Other colleagues think differently, but are then subject to insinuations that, of course, they are in the pay of such-and-such and orchestra, record or opera company. It's a tricky one as most music critics in London do not earn big salaries and have to supplement their income with freelance work and the number of music magazines here is strictly limited (and most of them don't pay well either).
My feeling is that the music profession expects too much of its critics. It asks for "constructive criticism" which, in my experience, is merely a euphemism for good reviews. Then there are complaints that music critics here don't engage with the music as much as they used to in the glory days of Andrew Porter (Financial Times), William Mann (The Times), Desmond Shawe-Taylor (The Sunday Times) and Peter Heyworth (The Observer), but the space for the single-event review has diminished drastically since their days. One can only look with envy at the column inches the New York Times and most of the big-hitting German daily papers still accord to important opera openings or headline concert events. But the fact is, surely, today, that fewer and fewer musical offerings are headline events. A lot of what we hear in London is routine and, unlike the American and European critics, we are writing about events (except opera of course) which readers have no opportunity of catching up with as concerts in Britain, with rare exceptions, tend to be one-offs. The subscription idea has never gripped the imagination of the Brits, or at least Londoners, in the way it does Europeans and North Americans. In the US, I suspect, it is partly a legacy of the European, and specifically Germanic, immigration to the States. On the whole, American orchestras and opera companies seem to have been founded by German musicians and patrons in an attemp to replicate something of their European experience.
The organisation of concerts in London certainly effects the way critics write about it - you don't have to pull punches when you know your review is not going to effect box-office revenues (except of course in the case of opera, but opera fans usually book their tickets far in advance these days, especially at Covent Garden or Glyndebourne where stars are on offer).
Equally editors, particularly of Sunday newspapers, feel that one-off concerts are old news almost as soon as they have been played, so critics have to pick and choose the events they think are likely to have a longer-term resonance. The fact that the London Symphony and London Philharmonic Orchestras now have their own record labels and are actively preserving their work online may well change the way in which classical music is viewed in the editors' offices. Recently, the BBC offered downloads of live recorded concert performances of the Beethoven Symphonies by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and their dynamic young Italian principal conductor, Gianandrea Noseda(a rising star but hardly a household name yet, even in Britain) and they were astonished to get over 600,000 downloads, vastly more than most symphonic CDs can expect in the first week of their release. Not everyone is pleased, of course: a big-name record executive bent my ear on the subject over lunch and his view was that it is commercially unethical for a subsidized institution such as the BBC to give away music free when his company has to pay artists. I don't want to get into a long discussion about the future of the record industry, but it illustrates that there are factors other than purely musical ones which critics need to take on board and occasionally refer to in their reviews. My editors expect me to write for what they call "the general reader" rather than musically literate or specialist audiences, so the days of "academic" and scholarly music criticism may well be over in the UK. There simply isn't space for it and I know of one colleague whose services were dispensed with because his editor didn't understand what he was writing about. It's a tricky one, attempting not to dumb down while also hoping to preserve some kind of standards - and there is always the question of subjectivity. Critics all over the world have their favourites and established stars that they don't rate: in the US, I gather Simon Rattle has never had a great critical following, while over here a lot of us don't see the point of Lorin Maazel or Renée Fleming. I have had long arguments with my friend Thor Eckert - former critic of The Christian Science Moniter - over the virtues of Josephine Barstow, whom he has never much appreciated. Some people - critics AND public - hated the sound of Maria Callas's voice and others dismissed Renata Tebaldi as boring. To some Valery Gergiev is a musical god, but not all of my colleagues are looking forward to him taking over from Colin Davis at the LSO from 2007. I am glad I live in a city where a multiplicity of views are printed and no-one prevails. We don't have any Claudia Cassidys over here (although Norman Lebrecht possibly comes close).

Posted at 03:24 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)