Overflow: September 2008 Archives

My previous blog entry, on music critic Donald Rosenberg's virtual demotion by Cleveland's Plain Dealer (he is no longer allowed to cover performances by the Cleveland Orchestra -- the city's only internationally celebrated classical music ensemble), provoked several interesting comments, including one from Gary Hanson, the orchestra's executive director.  Hanson reports that the orchestra's administration never exerted pressure on the newspaper's staff to muzzle Rosenberg, whose reviews of the interpretations of Franz Welser-Moest, the orchestra's music director since 2002, have often been negative.  His statement sends the ball swiftly into the Plain Dealer's court.  How could such an anomalous decision -- one that is so embarrassing to the newspaper -- have been made, and by whom, and why?  It is clear that the newspaper's editors do not consider Rosenberg to be incompetent: were that the case, they would find a way of letting him go completely rather than simply removing him from the orchestra beat, and they would be acting properly in invoking the right to refrain from explaining their decision.  But they surely they know that Rosenberg is not only respected by his colleagues but is also the author of the most comprehensive history of the Cleveland Orchestra ever published.  Under the present circumstances, invoking the right to not explain themselves makes them look like two-bit opinion censors.

I apologize to commenter (and friend) David Kettler for my ill-advised, smart-alecky reference to the Rosenberg execution.  To commenter H. C. Yourow: I believe that if you look up any of Rosenberg's Plain Dealer articles you will find his email address.  (Try www.cleveland.com and take it from there.)  And with "Claveciniste du feu" I would politely debate the opinion that "conducting symphonic concerts requires a different level of emotional commitment between the conductor and the players" than conducting opera demands.  Some conductors may be better in the pit than on the concert platform, or vice-versa, but the ideal level of commitment is always As High As Possible.

Speaking of opera.....  I don't normally attend opening night galas anywhere because I don't like the atmosphere and because I feel about as comfortable in a tuxedo as I would feel in a clown suit, complete with purple wig and red lightbulb nose.  Also, the last such event I attended -- the 2004 re-opening of La Scala after the venerable house had undergone major renovations (I was covering the first night for the New York Times) -- was followed barely a month later by Riccardo Muti's resignation as the ensemble's music director, and I don't want to jinx any other arts organization.  Nevertheless, I did attend this week's Metropolitan Opera opening night -- a showcase for soprano Renee Fleming, who has long been and is still a great favorite with American audiences.

The program began with Act II of La traviata, in which Ms. Fleming was partnered by tenor Ramon Vargas, who was in fine voice, and baritone Thomas Hampson, who sounded rough-edged.  Before I first heard Ms. Fleming as Violetta, a season or two ago, I had assumed that she would fare better in the first act than in the more intensely dramatic second and third acts.  I was precisely wrong: there was some insecurity in Act I during the performance I heard, but better technical control and, I felt, more emotional communication in the rest of the opera.  In short, the choice of Act II was a good one, although Franco Zeffirelli's lurid set for the second scene always makes me say to myself that this is how Kitty in the old "Gunsmoke" TV series would have decorated her saloon/brothel if she had had a million bucks at her disposal.  Tony Tommasini was right when he commented, in his New York Times review, that conductor James Levine's taut, energetic interpretation of this act reminded him of the 1946 Toscanini recording.  (In case anyone is interested: like Toscanini, Levine also cut the tenor and baritone cabalettas and had the violins play the accompanying figures in "De' miei bollenti spiriti" with the bow instead of pizzicato.)  Fleming was similarly effective in the third act of Massenet's Manon (so was Vargas) and in the final scene from Strauss's Capriccio, but I confess that my appreciation of both of these operas is severely limited.  And the nice thing about a blog entry, as opposed to a real review, is that one is free to comment only on things about which one knows and/or cares a lot.

I can't say that La Gioconda, with its insane plot and sometimes mediocre music, is one of my great loves, either, but the Met's performance of it on Wednesday evening was a vocal feast, at least with respect to the three important female parts.  Deborah Voigt in the title role, but especially Olga Borodina as Laura and Ewa Podles as La Cieca, provided one wonderful moment after another.  (Voigt seemed to take some time to warm up, and her Italian pronunciation isn't always clean.)  Carlo Guelfi (Barnaba) was impressive as both singer and actor; Aquiles Machado (Enzo) sang commendably but has a metallic edge to his voice and is not convincing as a stage presence; and to this listener Orlin Anastassov (Alvise), in his Met debut, seemed barely adequate.  The dancing of Letizia Giuliani and Angel Corella in the third-act ballet (the Dance of the Hours, rendered unforgettable in the USA by Walt Disney, not to mention Spike Jones and Doodles Weaver) was absolutely extraordinary.  Daniele Callegari conducted serviceably.  Margherita Wallmann's old production was restaged on this occasion by Peter McClintock.

September 25, 2008 11:45 AM | | Comments (0)

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)

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by Overflow in September 2008.

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