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.

September 21, 2008 10:11 PM | | Comments (6)


Sir :

Do you have an e-mail address for Donald Rosenberg ?

I'd very much like to send him a missive of solidarity and support.

Thank You !


I wish that my old and good friend, Harvey, had repressed his initial impulse to bring the Rosenberg execution into the story, but he was just a kid at the time. Lots of us older folks did not doubt that they had spied but were nevertheless outraged by the cruel sentence--which was designed to do a lot of things that had nothing to do with justice. Some things are never fit for banter.

I agree of course with the principled opposition to this infringement on the rights of criticism, but I feel a flash of sympathy in mitigation for the dilemmas of an editor in a one-newspaper town, where so much civic pride is invested in the orchestra, not to speak of the helplessness of the loyal public (and orchestra musicians) in the face of management's decisions. Sometimes managers of orchestras just fall in love. Happens in the university business too.

David Kettler

Perceptive, illuminating, and fair as always Harvey. I have also weighed in on this if you or any of your readers are interested, at

All best wishes,

Andrew Patner
98.7WFMT Radio Chicago and
Chicago Sun-Times and

In recent days, the music writers’ blogsphere has been rife with assumptions and even accusations that the management of The Cleveland Orchestra engineered personnel changes at Cleveland’s daily newspaper, The Plain Dealer. These accusations are false.

I want to set the record straight: I was completely surprised by the news last week that Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg has been re-assigned and will no longer cover The Cleveland Orchestra for the newspaper.

A half dozen critics have called or emailed me this week asking if I met with the newspaper’s editors to lodge complaints. The answer is I have never met with them to protest Donald Rosenberg’s opinions. In the normal course of business during my tenure with the Orchestra, I have spoken with every editor, past and present, about the newspaper's coverage. In those meetings I have delivered compliments and concerns about their news and feature coverage as well as their editorial positions and decisions. But in every case I have also said, very explicitly, that the Orchestra’s management understands and respects the paper's and the critic’s role in expressing opinion about our artistic activities. And whether or not we agree with the opinion we fully accept and support their right and responsibility to publish it.

Donald Rosenberg has written about The Cleveland Orchestra for decades. I worked directly with him for many years, especially during my early tenure here as Director of Public Relations. In that role, I opened the Orchestra archives to him for research on his comprehensive history of the Orchestra “Second to None.” I very much enjoyed the productive and professional relationship we’ve shared. I appreciate and admire a great deal of his work on the subject of the Orchestra and I am grateful for his dedication to regular and comprehensive classical music coverage. Over the years we have agreed and we have disagreed. All the same I will miss working with him.

I agree that it was wrong to dismiss Rosenberg merely for expressing his opinions in writing. I haven't heard much of Welser-Most's work in Cleveland except for a couple of PBS broadcasts, so I can't make a sweeping judgement about his work there, but I have several CDs of his , such as a Bruckner 7th and Franz Schmidt 4th with the the London Philharmonic and the Korngold symphony with the Philadelphia orchestra, and these are excellent.
But critics have NOT always been so fair to conductors as Tommasini and Rosenberg. Some, such as as Alan Rich and Peter G. Davis, can be absolutely vicious and even downright slanderous.
The way these and other critics treated the vastly underrated and unjustly maligned Zubin Mehta when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic was absolutely disgraceful, and a blot on the history of music criticism. It was as bad as conservatives slinging mud at Barack obama.

Thank you, Harvey, for your intelligent comments. As a professional musician in Cleveland, I must say that there is *Great* discontent amongst the musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra, due to the Music Director's inability to communicate his interpretive ideas in a clear and compelling way.

It is not Rosenberg's fault that so many of the Cleveland Orchestra musicians have resigned in the last 2 yrs - including principal players. They are deeply frustrated by having to play concerts that lack meaningful interpretive force from the podium.

FWM is a very fine opera conductor, but conducting symphonic concerts requires a different level of emotional commitment between the conductor and the players. FWM has not figured out how to communicate on the emotional level with this American orchestra.

Rosenberg is a perceptive musician, a nationally respected critic, and a journalist of integrity, doing his job. The Plain Dealer caved in to political pressure, and thus the newspaper's reputation is now tarnished. None of that is going to help the Orchestra.

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Me Elsewhere


Ensemble for the Romantic Century

(These are two organizations that any music lovers in the New York area should get to know.)

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Overflow published on September 21, 2008 10:11 PM.

How about ignoring Norrington? was the previous entry in this blog.

The Rosenberg Case again. And the Met reopens. is the next entry in this blog.

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