July 22, 2005
It's all in the stars
The idea of exploring 'alternative historiographies' in a 350-word same-night review for the Evening Standard makes me giggle and would certainly get me the sack, probably quite rightly. It doesn't mean we're not aware of changing attitudes in musicology but it's an ephemeral and secondary past-time compared with trying to understand the music itself. I don't think Allan is trying to be pure at all; he just wants to concentrate on the matter in hand and put his energy into saying fresh things about a score or performance instead of chasing gossip. I couldn't agree with him more about the tediousness of 'music business' issues, while accepting the need to know what's going on. I'm sorry the blog has been dominated by Baltimore matters which have made me glaze over somewhat though I can see it's politically intriguing. Fortunately I am relieved, most of the time, of the need to write about such things having the master of the form (yes yes I mean Norman) as my colleague. Previously, at The Observer, the arts reporter covered these issues except the major stories which needed comment. That worked fine.
One issue not yet raised: star ratings. Hugh and I are almost alone in the UK press in not having a star system attached to our reviews (that is, to the quality of the event not to our writing...). They encourage an extremism, ie very good or very bad whereas most things are somewhere in the middle but that's considered dull criticism. It also saves you the bother of reading the attached text. It's fine for recordings but not live performance. I don't know whether that happens elsewhere but it discourages exploratory debate or, perish the thought. subtlety. It's just another demonstration of the trend to treat reviews chiefly as a consumer service.
Incidentally, in London we have a Critics Circle, struggling to survive beneath a stampede of apathy. Most of us belong but don't/can't attend meetings. In the time I've been a member, the most memorable debates have been about car parking space at the South Bank and second tickets Covent Garden. (You get my point.) It got a bit more lively when a member ended up in prison but unfortunately I missed that meeting. Maybe we're just not a clubbable lot. The fact is we all have to fight our own space battles with our editors and we can only do that alone.
Posted by fmaddocks at July 22, 2005 01:48 AM
It might be that Norman Lebrecht’s commentary that music critics are out of touch with the larger social forces of society is overstated, but I still think there is something to his point. It was very ironic to read one panelist’s comment about anti-Semiticism in 19th century Vienna and its limiting influence on the music journalism of the time.
As if all of that were just something of a distant past.
Let’s look at an astounding example in today’s Vienna and consider whether music journalists are out of touch. Until recently (June of 2003 to be exact,) the Vienna Philharmonic forbade membership to all people of color, since they felt such individuals would destroy the orchestra’s image of Austrian authenticity. This policy of exclusion was especially directed toward Asian musicians, since many have obtained degrees at the Wiener Musikhochschule, have reached the highest professional standards, and live in Austria. In 2003, the orchestra hired its first person of color, the Japanese tubist, Yasuto Sugiyama, but his appointment was controversial, and he has since been fired. The ensemble is once again the only all-white major orchestra in the Western world.
Is this not something to write about?
The Vienna Philharmonic’s racial employment practices have been thoroughly documented by two highly recognized sociologists at the University of Vienna. [See: Dr. Elena Ostleitner, Liebe, Lust, Last und Lied (Wien, Bundesministerium fuer Unterricht und Kunst, 1995) p. 6, and Dr. Roland Girtler, "Mitgliedsaufnahme in den Noblen Bund der Wiener Philharmoniker Als Mannbarkeitsritual", Sociologia Internationalis, Beiheft 1 (1992).]
And yet not one of the distinguished participants in this panel has ever spared a single word about this overtly racist practice. Why? Are we supposed to think this sort of racism in the world’s most famous orchestra is irrelevant? Or are you sometimes a little out of touch with important social issues in music?
It is very fortunate that there has been a sea-change in musicology. Social issues such as sexism and racism in music are now closely studied, because they deeply affect the ways we create and perceive music. This is one reason the Marin Alsop story has been followed, and why journalists now have a body of information at hand about sexism in orchestras to which they can refer. (In his Washington Post article about Alsop’s tribulations, for example, Tim Page quoted from one of my articles.)
And needless to say, these social issues in classical music are of great interest to the public. Articles about them sell papers.
This comment by Fiona Maddocks is thus especially astounding:
“It doesn't mean we're not aware of changing attitudes in musicology but it's an ephemeral and secondary past-time [sic] compared with trying to understand the music itself.”
The first irony is that, so far, she is the only woman participating in this panel – a lone Queen Bee among a hive of men. But, of course, musicology’s concern with sexism is just an ephemeral pass-time…. [As I was about to post this, I saw Ms. Midgette’s belated posting, though that hardly changes the obvious imbalance.]
If journalists think they are above reporting about overtly sexist and racist practices in music, then one must ask what value they have. Music journalism is enormously valuable because it reaches to broader social and aesthetic concerns of music that are of special interest to a general readership. You create a bridge between music and the world, and musicians and the public, that is vitally important. This requires a special kind of expertise. Musicianship can be important for your work, but there are better resources when it comes to score reading and such. Your value lies in addressing the larger social and aesthetic meanings of music for laymen. Without this vital function, classical music could hardly exist.
So when you avoid, and even refuse, to write about newsworthy issues like the Vienna Philharmonic’s astounding racism, you are neglecting basic professional responsibilities toward informing the public of issues that are deeply relevant to us all.
It is no wonder that Norman Lebrecht is probably the world’s most famous music journalist. For one thing, he has risen above the elitist and limiting perspectives of Anglo-American cultural plutocracy. And for a second, he has shown the courage to tackle difficult and controversial issues, even when it has entailed considerable risk.
Bravo to you, Mr. Lebrecht. And may the rest of you learn something from him.
 For more information about the Philharmonic's racial ideologies see: “Symphony Orchestras and Artist-Prophets: Cultural Isomorphism and the Allocation of Power in Music: at http://www.osborne-conant.org/phrophets.htm See also: "The Special Characteristics of the Vienna Philharmonic's Racial Ideology" at:
http://www.osborne-conant.org/posts/special.htm)] There are also two publications in German by Austrian sociologists that document the orchestra’s racism: Elena Ostleitner, Liebe, Lust, Last und Lied (Wien, Bundesministerium fuer Unterricht und Kunst, 1995) p. 6, and Roland Girtler, "Mitgliedsaufnahme in den Noblen Bund der Wiener Philharmoniker Als Mannbarkeitsritual", Sociologia Internationalis, Beiheft 1 (1992).]
Posted by: William Osborne at July 22, 2005 10:57 AM
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