Recently I heard that the culture editor of a newspaper somewhere in the US had been told about me, as someone who could give him ideas about improving newspaper coverage of classical music. I don’t know if this person will ever contact me, but I started thinking of what I’d say, if he ever did. And here’s what I came up with. Everyone talks about covering classical music in a livelier, more accessible way. But while I think that’s certainly a good thing to do, I don’t think it’s the main problem. I think the main problem is that — from any serious journalistic point of view — classical music isn’t covered at all.
Here’s what I mean. Suppose this person were the culture editor of the San Diego paper. (He’s not; I picked that city because I don’t know anyone at the newspaper there, or in the music scene, except that I’ve met Jahja Ling, the music director of the orchestra, a couple of times.) I’d start by asking if he knew how the San Diego Padres are doing. Probably he’d say yes (especially today, when they’ve got a one-game playoff for the National League wildcard). If he’s any kind of baseball fan, he’d know where they were in their division, and at least approximately what their won and lost record is. Very likely he’d also know how they stack up against the league at each position, what their manager is like, how their general manager is doing, and what kind of ownership they have. If he didn’t know these things, more serious fans certainly would. They’d all be written about on the newspaper’s sports pages.
Then I’d ask if he — or anyone at the paper — knew equivalent things about the San Diego Symphony. Here the answer almost certainly would be no, in large part because these things aren’t covered in the paper. But I think they should be. The orchestra, just like the baseball team, is an important civic resource. Plus it gets taxpayer money, and is out in the public arena every day of the year, raising money. The public, therefore, has a right to know what kind of organization it is, and whether it’s as good as it should be.
How would a newspaper determine that? The key, pretty clearly, is to compare the orchestra to others of its size. How does it stack up? I’ll admit that there’s nothing tangible to talk about, nothing like the won-lost record any sports team has. But orchestra professionals can rank the orchestra for you. They might not always agree, but you’ll get at least a general idea. Go around the country and ask musicians and orchestra managers how the San Diego Symphony rates. Also send your critic around to hear comparable orchestras, and see what the critic reports.
But there’s more. I said that baseball fans in San Diego know how the Padres rate at each position, how their second baseman, for example, rates against all the other second basemen in the league. The orchestra, too, can be examined that way. How’s its oboe section? How are its trombones? How well do the violas play? Again you can ask musicians. Find an oboist in some other city to talk to. Find several oboists. An objective picture will emerge. Orchestra professionals are very definite about such things. And this is a serious discussion, with real consequences. If the principal trumpet isn’t good enough, shouldn’t all of San Diego know it, and shouldn’t something be done?
Now classical music coverage begins to get interesting. Something’s at stake — civic pride, professionalism, human interest. There’s a story here, maybe several stories. I know one major orchestra where for quite a while the principal clarinet just wasn’t cutting it. Any musician could hear that. Was that ever written about, in that orchestra’s city? I don’t know. But when the New York Philharmonic’s first violin section wasn’t as good as it should have been, and Kurt Masur was taking very strong measures behind the scenes to get the weak violinists to quit, I don’t think that was ever mentioned in the New York press. It should have been. It was an important story, one of the main things going on in the orchestra.
And then what about the front office, as we’d say in baseball? What about the orchestra’s management, its president or executive director, and its board? How well do they do the job? Again, people in other orchestras will give you a good idea, if you can get their confidence (off the record, of course). So will people in other San Diego arts organizations. If the board is weak, what’s being done? I’ve heard several times from well-connected people in the arts in New York that the New York Philharmonic can’t attract A-list board members, or at least not many of them. The best people, or so I’ve been told, want to go to the Met Opera, the Met Museum, or MOMA. Is this true? It’s a devastating and important story, if it is. I’ve never seen it covered anywhere. (I’m not vouching for it, by the way. I’m only reporting what I’ve been told.) The Cleveland Orchestra, conversely, has long said it has the best board the business, the board that’s most qualified, works hardest, and best understands its role within the institution. Is this true? Certainly it’s important news if an institution thinks this. Certainly they’re letting their view be known among prospective board members, in order to set the requirements for board membership very high. So shouldn’t the public know whether the institution’s view of itself is really true? (From what I’ve seen in the past, Cleveland’s view of its board has very likely been right.)
Finally, there are tangible stats. How are the orchestra’s ticket sales? Over a ten-year period, what’s their trend, if there is one? Up or down? And how sharply up or down? Likewise for their fundraising, and for the size of their endowment (which depends, at least in part, on how well the endowment funds are managed). Why shouldn’t the public know how orchestras are doing by these measures? I think newspapers should demand to see these numbers.
Why don’t they? Aren’t these numbers especially important to know, at a time when it’s the conventional wisdom that orchestras, as institutions, are doing poorly? I’m sure some people in the business, some who might even be my friends, will be shocked to see me saying all of this. Orchestras need the best press they can get, I may be told. They don’t need anyone prying into their private business. What will donors think, if the press reports there’s trouble? Well, what will donors think if the press doesn’t report this, but the trouble is real, and the orchestra doesn’t talk about it? I don’t see why orchestras shouldn’t have the press keeping them honest, just as government and business does. Not to mention sports teams. If they don’t have anything to hide, why should they mind the scrutiny. I’ll end with two major New York stories that the press, as far as I know, isn’t covering. One is the notable success the Philharmonic has had in the past two years, selling tickets. The numbers, from what I hear, are really good. Why shouldn’t the public know this? Especially, as I’ve said, when it’s assumed that orchestras are doing badly. And what’s the reason for the solid sales? Are they likely to continue? Are they the result of anything that other orchestras can emulate? Aren’t these questions that would routinely be asked about a business that lately had been doing well?
The other story is about the Metropolitan Opera, which I’ve heard is running major deficits, despite all of Peter Gelb’s success. I’m not saying that these deficits are disastrous. In fact, I think they’re surely necessary. Peter, unlike many people who run large classical music institutions, isn’t afraid to invest money in the institution’s future, as a private business would do, if it had been in trouble, and needed to improve. But at the same time, the deficits raise a question, which I’m sure Peter would be the first person to acknowledge. What’s the Met’s financial model for its future? What does it need to put itself in balance financially, to get income and expenses in a ratio that’s sustainable? I think this all is very reasonable — and surely important — for the press to cover.
And I can’t believe that it would put the Met in danger. Since the Met is clearly making progress toward the kind of public presence other classical music institutions would kill to have, and since it’s selling more tickets, wouldn’t responsible coverage of its financial situation actually make people sympathetic? “Look how forceful and how daring this institution is! We should support it.”
One more footnote. I’ve head of places where the board of a classical music institution complains to a newspaper about what they think is unfavorable coverage, and the newspaper, to its shame, crumples under these complaints. The offending coverage — which in one case I know about was very sober, thoughtful criticism, the kind any institution should consider itself lucky to get — was suppressed. This, to me, is just about despicable, though I’ve run into things like it many times. Long ago I was asked to be on the advisory board of a magazine that would cover new classical music. I suggested that the magazine write about the controversies that then existed in the field. (This was the late 1970s, so that would have been angry disputes between “uptown” and “downtown” composers.) Oh, no, I was told. We can’t do that. We have to present a united front. Wrong! If you don’t — and this goes double or triple for mainstream newspapers — report a human-seeming world when you write about classical music, a world where people have the same human failings they have everywhere else, no one will believe what you write. Or, if they don’t react strongly enough to disbelieve it, they just won’t care.
Do we want politics, sports, and business covered in the normal style of the American press, while classical music is covered as if we lived in North Korea? OK, I’m exaggerating, but I don’t see how it does anybody any good for the press not to try to find out the truth.
Final footnote. I know the coverage I’m advocating would be hard to do. Nobody’s prepared for it, because it’s never been done. Critics, for the most part, aren’t equipped to do it. Generally they aren’t hardnosed reporters. But just because it’s hard, is that a reason not to try it? It’s a newspaper’s job, for God’s sake.