Another Rosenberg "executed"
I was only seven years old in 1953, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death for having allegedly passed information about the US's nuclear bomb program to the USSR. Fortunately, Donald Rosenberg, chief music critic of Cleveland's daily Plain Dealer and no relation (I presume) to Julius and Ethel, will not be given "the chair" for his frequently negative criticisms of the conducting of Franz Welser-Moest, the great Cleveland Orchestra's music director since 2002. But, according to the Baltimore Sun's music critic, Tim Smith, this Rosenberg will no longer be allowed to review the orchestra's concerts for his newspaper.
Let me state up front that I know and like Don Rosenberg, but I also know and like Gary Hanson, the orchestra's executive director, and I have had a couple of friendly chats with Welser-Moest, who strikes me as a highly intelligent, hard-working musician. The issue here, however, has much more to do with principles than with personalities. As a native Clevelander who has lived most of his adult life abroad, I can testify to the fact that the Cleveland Orchestra is the only local institution that is known and revered all over the world, although the city has several other vibrant classical music performing organizations and series. A famous pianist told me a few years ago that foreign music-lovers familiar with the aristocratic performances of this ensemble, but not with its home town, picture Cleveland as a sort of Paris-on-Lake-Erie -- and indeed it is fair to say that in cultural circles around the globe, the Cleveland Orchestra keeps the rest of the city on the map. To prevent Cleveland's main music critic from reviewing the orchestra's concerts is simply preposterous. What if Milan's main music critics were banned from covering La Scala because they criticize the house's artistic directorship? Or, back at home, what if the Plain Dealer's chief sportswriters were banned from covering the Indians, Browns, and Cavs because they give the teams' managers a hard time? Unthinkable.
In New York, where I've been living for the last two years, the Times's music critics regularly take Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic's music director, to task for his interpretations; I'm sure that neither Maazel nor the Philharmonic's executives are delighted by the reviews, but life goes on. The obvious difference is that New York also has the Met, City Opera, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, important concert series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the 92nd Street Y, the Morgan Library, the Frick Collection, etc. etc. etc. -- all major artillery -- whereas Cleveland's major artillery in the field consists of the Cleveland Orchestra, period.
But there is a less obvious difference, too. Maazel, whatever one's opinion of his interpretations may be (mine is negative more often than not), has been a major international podium figure for over forty years and is much in demand by most of the world's major orchestras and opera ensembles. On the subject of music critics, he may well concur with the remark another famous conductor made to me many years ago: "A fly can annoy a thoroughbred racehorse, but a fly is still only a fly." Welser-Moest, on the other hand, has not achieved similar stature, despite the fact that he is now slated to become General Music Director of Vienna's State Opera in 2010, concurrent with his Cleveland position, which was recently extended to 2018. Reviews of his work by several London critics, by the exceptionally fair-mind Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times, and by many other reviewers have been mixed. (My impression, based on observations made over several years at two or three rehearsals and perhaps seven or eight concerts, in repertoire that included classical, romantic, post-romantic, modern, and contemporary repertoire by Austro-German, French, Russian, American, and Chinese composers, is that he is an extremely well-prepared, serious musician who rarely achieves real intensity -- the quality that can make a fine performance into a memorable one.) Perhaps he, or the orchestra's management, are not merely annoyed but seriously offended by negative criticism. Or perhaps there are practical reasons to explain why a costly Rolls Royce of an orchestra in a city in considerable financial difficulty would like to have the person who reviews its work function more as a cheerleader than as a purveyor of opinion. Such considerations would be understandable but, I think, wrong-headed and ultimately counter-productive.
I'm a guy who believes that most music criticism is utterly useless, although I, too, indulge in it and occasionally even fool myself into thinking that what I say may be of interest to someone. In any case, it seems to me that the only music critics worth reading are those who, to the best of their ability, accurately chronicle what they've heard, who know music thoroughly (Rosenberg, by the way, was a professional musician before he became a critic) and care about it passionately, and who somehow manage to make readers understand that the opinions they, the critics, state are not purveyed as Truth but are meant, rather, as expressions of individual points of view.
Judging from a distance and without having discussed the matter with any of the parties involved, I see Rosenberg's virtual demotion as a humiliation, not to him but to his newspaper and, if external pressure was exerted, to those who exerted it. I imagine he knew that he was laying his job on the line by continuing to criticize what he felt demanded criticism, and this fact alone ought to give his opponents food for thought.
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