Well, I’m joking a little. I mean reactions to my “shocking proposal,” which really wasn’t so shocking. The real shock may come in something else I’ll post today or tomorrow. There’s a bad moon rising about tax deductions for donors to the arts — a lot of people, some quite distinguished, are starting to believe that these tax deductions aren’t warranted. What would that do to classical music?
But more on this later. My shocking proposal was that classical music institutions be written about, in newspapers, the way real journalists write about everything else – that, for instance, newspapers should demand that orchestras reveal their ticket sales, so that we’d all know how well or badly they were doing. Now, the most devastating comments thoughts about this come at the end of this post.
But Gene Carr — who runs Patron Technology, an e-marketing firm — points out that we need regional and national benchmarks before we can understand those sales figures. And of course he’s right. As he wrote to me (and of course I’m quoting him with his permission), “When Dell’s sales go down 5% and the industry goes down 10% they celebrate. So what if your orchestra is down 5% if the rest of your colleagues are down 15%?”
So we need benchmarks. But where are we going to get them?
Music journalists should demand — in the loudest voices possible — some solid data. Or else, they could say, they’d deride orchestras (and opera companies, and even poor little chamber music groups) as spin machines. OK, I’m pushing this a little far, but really! Anyone covering Dell or any other business firm has all the information needed to interpret any new development. While in classical music, the great, immortal art form, no such thing is possible right now.
Then Brian Bell, with some praise of me for past writings, e-mailed this (quoted with permission, as always):
Finally, I fear what you have written could be wildly misinterpreted. Yes, Boston is learning that Levine likes to challenge the listener with new compositions. [Brian was comparing the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa and under James Levine.]
Letters to the editor abound. People are suddenly talking about the orchestra again, debating the merits/demerits of Ameriques. But the benefit here is not that there has been “negative” coverage. Far from it. There has been more light than heat.
Elsewhere, trashing individual players/conductors won’t help matters as much as WHY the concert wasn’t the success it could’ve been. WHY was the concert boring? Too often in the past I’ve read critics who roast a concert, but don’t adequately explain why. Mindlessly generating controversy isn’t the answer. Grappling with how the composer wasn’t served well, will.
I’d mildly say that I’m not interested in trashing anyone, but in helping communities understand how good (or not so good) their orchestra actually is. But Brian raises an important point, which is that the overall artistic profile of the orchestra (or a local opera company, or chamber music series, or new music series) needs to be talked about. And, to get back on my hobby horse, compared to similar profiles elsewhere. An organization afraid of doing new music should — just for instance — be told about similar organizations elsewhere that thrive on it. Or rather the community that supports the organization should be told.
Maybe if critics had a stronger idea of what’s going on nationally, the New York Philharmonic wouldn’t be so ritually abused. I’m not saying that the Philharmonic couldn’t be more creative. It has miles — light-years — to go in that regard. But it’s also not as bad as people like to think. Yes, we can do the kneejerk comparison to Los Angeles or San Francisco — so ritually famous for their creative programming — but so what? Maybe the Philharmonic has something to learn, but maybe, on a national scale, it’s not as uncreative (compared to all large orchestras) as people think. I’ve always thought it got a bad rap, though, damn, in New York City , of all places, there ought to be very little limit on what it might try.
And now we come to the devastating comments I promised. Three people have posted comments on the blog comments here and here, though you’ll have to do some scrolling to find them), in which they say that their local critics aren’t any good. These people — those posting comments, not the critics — work with major orchestras, at least one as a musician. Sample excerpt:
In my city the music critic has rarely written a word I agree with and not just about us. He is an informed person but his ignorance, at least in my opinion, has made me laugh out loud frequently. Coincidentally, he has started in with the personal attacks with players he doesn’t seem to admire. So whose opinion should go down in print?
Sometimes we behave like a critic’s column is like a box score, as though it is an accurate record of what transpired on stage. As a player in a full time orchestra I feel we are the real experts. I wasn’t surprised to read this, because I’ve heard similar things from orchestra people, and other classical music professionals. And I know it can be true. So I was naïve — talking about what critics (or classical music journalists generally, whether they’re critics or not) should do, without stopping to ask whether they’re fully competent to do it.
Which raises a serious question. I said that classical music journalists should look at orchestras (and of course other classical music organizations) far more sharply — and thoroughly — than they currently do. But who’s going to look at critics and journalists? Think about it — they’re the only ones in the classical music food chain who aren’t going to be rated in public, the only ones immune from criticism (unless yo count letters to the editor, which don’t carry much force). Someone’s sure to say that musicians don’t like critics because they don’t like reading bad reviews, but I haven’t found this to be true. In fact, I’ve seen musicians either laughing or aghast at critics because a performance had been terrible, and the critic liked it.
So how could musicians in any town sit in public judgment on their critic? I’d suggest a standardized test, which ideally would be developed nationally, and would consist of musical excerpts to listen to, and questions to answer, both about music and about how the music business works. The excerpts would include common faults in performance, sloppy rhythm and bad intonation, for a start, things musicians are normally unanimous in hearing. But the rhythm shouldn’t be too sloppy, or the intonation too unpleasant. Let’s see who hears subtleties. Critics would be asked to take the test, which remember would be given all over the country. And their scores would be announced.
Musicians could be asked to take it, too, just to see how they’d do. And at last — though I’m sure my scheme is way too optimistic — we’d maybe have some objective recourse, when a musician wants to tell the world a critic doesn’t know what he or she is hearing.
And yes: I’d volunteer to take the test.