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July 18, 2005

the world revolves, music criticism stands still

I’m not going to argue which side of the Atlantic has better music criticism. It seems to me incontestable that a city with six daily broadsheets has more going for it by way of musical debate than a one-party town like New York where you need the skills of a Kremlinologist to detect distinctions of tone among Pravda’s critical team.

But that’s not what worries me most about the present state of music criticism. Almost 20 years ago I dropped in on a convention of US music critics in Washington D.C. Isaac Stern was guest of honour in place of Lenny Bernstein who was having some personal crisis and the general tone was one of helpless struggle against the forces of darkness – a bit like Harry Potter, really.

Someone stood up and said her editor was cutting review space and demanding that she write features about girlie soloists. There was much tut-tutting. The blessed Harold Schonberg, sitting beside me, was beside himself with mirth.

Harold, unlike the rest, was a real journalist - of the kind who knew what newspapers needed. He had started out as an ambulance chaser on the city desk before they found he played piano and sent him to review Horowitz. That’s how music critics used to be made. Michael Kennedy is another. As well as being music critic (and biographer), he was Northern Editor of the Daily Telegraph. When the southern edition was hit by a strike, he brought out the whole paper with the help of one other executive. Michael has just given up at the age of 79 and I fear we won’t see his like again.

I work with some outstanding music critics, brilliantly perceptive, dedicated to their craft. Just don’t ask most of them to think outside the box. Music critics, like the art they review, have turned timorously inwards, unable to fight their shrinking corner effectively because they have such little understanding of the pressures facing the editors who employ them.

They need to get out more – out of the concert hall and into the newsroom and features conferences where decisions are taken about the space they occupy. They need to bring to the table more knowledge of the world than is gained from sitting, night after night, in the best seats in a concert hall or opera house. It is no longer enough, and maybe never was, just to be a good music critic. Newspapers are morphing faster than ever and music critics cannot afford to keep their heads down.

Posted by nlebrecht at July 18, 2005 01:55 PM


Norman Lebrecht is misinformed regarding the number of daily broadsheets offering music criticism in New York. It is not a "one-party town," as he put it, hasn’t been ever since the launching of the estimable New York Sun a little over three years ago.

The Sun’s principal music critic, Jay Nordlinger is, for my money, as good as any critic writing today and better than most. When I read a review of a concert that I have not heard I want two things from a critic. One is new and interesting insights about music—about music itself, about the piece under review, about performing and the performer, and so on. The other is enjoyment, the sort that comes from reading a well-written account of what touched (or annoyed) an informed listener of kindred sensibility. Often he gives me both.

Since the role of critics is one of the themes under discussion this week, let me recommend “Who Cares What Critics Say,” a talk that Mr. Nordlinger gave two years ago under the auspices of the American Friends of the Salzburg Festival. Anyone who enjoys reading music criticism and who cares about its state today, especially (of course) readers who are not music critics themselves, will want to read what this critic has to say on the subject. Near the end he reveals that in preparing his talk he had “a good deal of fun.” It shows.

Look for it at , or search at Google by entering “American Friends of the Salzburg Festival” (in quotes) followed by “Who Cares What Critics Say” (in quotes).

Louis Torres
Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

Posted by: Louis Torres at July 19, 2005 05:06 PM

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