Cleveland needs a strategy

My Wall Street Journal piece about the Don Rosenberg fiasco ran today. The link will take you to it.

I said that the Cleveland Orchestra is in a bad position. Many people think they instigated Don’s demotion at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, because his reviews of their music director weren’t favorable. Feeding that perception is what looks like a conflict of interest — the Plain Dealer’s publisher sits on their board. They’ve been denying involvement, even in comments on blog posts, but each time they deny it, they seem weaker and less plausible.

They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. If they don’t say anything, they look guilty. If they deny involvement, they’re widely not believed. 

They need a PR strategy (assuming, which I’ve come to believe, that they weren’t involved). My suggestion was bold — that they publicly ask for Don’s reinstatement, and ask the publisher to step down from the board. I doubt they’ll do those things, and I can see one understandable reason. If they really did stand apart from any interference, how can they interfere now? I might argue that the situation has changed, and that the paper has taken action that makes them look bad. That might give them standing to ask for a reversal. 

But what should they do? They need a PR strategy. It’s an intriguing problem, whatever you think of them. Any suggestions?

(I have personal and professional relationships with many of the principals here, which of course I disclose in my piece. I talked to none of them while I was writing, and anything I put in the piece comes only from me.)

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  1. Laura Kennelly says

    I think you’re on to something (re: your suggestions in the WSJ). The Cleveland Orchestra might consider making a generous gesture here and the organization would end up looking much stronger. I said pretty much the same thing last Wednesday, only with less detail, in the short notice below in Cool Cleveland, a weekly web newsletter.

  2. says

    It occurs to me that one solution would be to print two reviews, one from Rosenberg and one from someone who transparently likes FWM’s conducting and his overall style. They will surely agree at some times, and the ways in which they disagree should be illuminating.

    When you have an issue that is this public, the best thing, I think, is to foreground it, and having two points of view could do that. One could even then add a news article by a reporter who interviews the reporters on the subject of how they wrote their reviews.

    While neither of these suggestions is a long-term solution (and may be really naive on my part), it might serve to regain a perception of fairness and objectivity in its reviews.

    David W. Fenton

  3. Yvonne says

    As I recall, some years ago when the local classical station WCLV first instituted its review spot “Considered Opinions” they were doing something rather like what David Fenton suggests. Namely, two different reviewers (from a pool of three or four) were sent to the same concert, and each prepared a 3-minute review spot that was broadcast and also available in transcript. This was the case for Cleveland Orchestra concerts as well as for performances by other local presenters.

    (Unfortunately, nowadays that spot should be called “Considered Opinion” as WCLV uses just one critic for it.)

    My own orchestra enjoys a situation where our concerts are regularly reviewed in both the city’s broadsheet and the national broadsheet, and within both papers there is some variation of reviewing voices (although there are definitely two principal critics, from whom we hear most frequently). This is healthy. It’s not quite as much fun as reading contrasting reviews in the one publication, but it helps avoid the problems associated with having only one voice reviewing an orchestra 90% of the time, problems that can include perceived bias against or (equally damaging I think) for an ensemble.

  4. Yvonne says

    Since the broad theme of the WSJ piece is conflict of interest, I’m interested in your reaction to this observation:

    Jan Harayda, referring to Zach Lewis’s first feature-profile in his new role, writes: “No less startling than the timing of Lewis’s article was a line in it suggesting that the orchestra paid the bill for the lunch at which he interviewed Welser-Möst for the story. I took many authors to lunch in my 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and if I had allowed any of those sources to pick up the check, I would have expected not to have a job the next day…”

  5. Bill says

    Has there been any response or follow-up by either the orchestra or the paper? To do nothing at this point and hope it all blows over is probably the worst idea of all.

  6. Andy Buelow says

    I would support your suggestion that the publisher should step down from the Board. Yes, publishers typically do serve on Boards, but serving on the Board of a performing arts organization that is the subject of journalistic criticism is never a good idea for a publisher.

    However, I disagree that the Cleveland Orchestra should ask for Rosenberg’s reinstatement, precisely because of your point above: if they did stand apart from any interference, how can they take action now?

    In any case, those who are blasting the Cleveland Orchestra should remember that the person responsible for Rosenberg’s ouster is his Editor, period. Whether or not the Cleveland Orchestra complained about his reviewing (and if it is really true that they didn’t, they showed admirable restraint) is immaterial. The suggestion of some of the letter-writers that they somehow engineered the firing is naive.

    The whole incident raises something I have wondered about for years. I once worked in PR for an orchestra whose music director received similar sustained negative reviewing over a period of years and years from one critic, as has apparently been the case here. It was a two-paper town, and the critic from the other paper was generally more favorable, which led some to think the “poison pen” had an axe to grind.

    While I didn’t share that view, at a certain point it did seem to me that it had reached the “enough already” stage! One wonders if, in such circumstances, a critic might adopt some detachment from his or her longstanding artistic differences with the conductor… kind of roll them into the equation. “Given that this conductor has this style — which I have already stated that I don’t like — what was the performance like?”

    After all, what is the purpose of music criticism? If it’s to lead an artistic dialogue within a musical community, to inform and edify a community of listeners, I think my suggestion has merit. If it’s simply to indulge the critic’s ego with clever, scathing copy about his or her personal taste, it is pointless and ultimately boring.

    Hi, Andy. As you’ll see from an upcoming post, the Plain Dealer makes much the same point you do. Though it all gets tangled — if a critic is responsible (not indulging in slash attacks), and has legitimate criticisms of an artist, why not let that critic go on reviewing? Many people will disagree, but at least everyone knows where the critic stands. Most important, of course, is to give some objective idea about the performance along with saying whether you like it or not.

  7. says

    Everyone is certainly in a tight spot on this one. I wholeheartedly agree that given the circumstances the publisher should absolutely resign from the orchestra board. I don’t think he would have anything to do with the situation, but like you say, appearances are everything.

  8. cembalista del fuoco says

    As a professional musician in Cleveland, I have long felt that what is needed is a concerted effort by a music writer – ideally, Rosenberg – to educate the public regarding the role of a conductor. Why does an orchestra play differently for one conductor than another, etc. For example, many people in Cleveland have the naive illusion that Welser-Moest MUST be a great conductor, otherwise the Cleveland Orchestra would play badly. They don’t understand that a world-class orchestra plays well (technically) even WITHOUT a conductor – the question is whether any compelling interpetation is emanating off the stage and being communicated to the audience. That’s the conductor’s role, and if that’s not happening, the conductor is at fault.

    The orchestra boosters who have been complaining to the Plain Dealer for years about Rosenberg need help understanding that Rosenberg’s mixed reviews (they were not always negative, and never vicious) have little or nothing to do with the empty seats in Severance Hall. An orchestra that chooses to invest its resources in setting up a major residency in Florida, in order to follow the money of its aging clientele, rather than investing in creative audience-building measures in Cleveland, is an orchestra on a short-sighted path. Likewise, pressuring the Plain Dealer to replace the nationally respected music critic with his former Intern is short-sighted and ultimately hurts the reputation of the orchestra, especially since that Intern HAS NO MUSIC DEGREE AND PREVIOUSLY WAS WRITING ABOUT FITNESS AND ROCK-CLIMBING FOR THE “LIFESTYLE” SECTION.

    In short, the problem is one of ignorance. I agree with others who have said that it would be healthy to have 2 critics. In addition though, the Plain Dealer needs to devote some serious space to an educational forum regarding the conductor’s role and the nature of the challenges facing the Orchestra.

  9. G-L Sorbonnagre says

    We had a very fine film critic in San Francisco some years back. One fall, she reviewed and mercilessly panned a whole spate of movies.

    We found out that the theatres complained, and indignantly askde for her removal from the job. But the editor/publisher won’t have any of it. His answer was that the paper had all the confidence in its critic, her expertise, her taste, ands her integrity. She will go on reviewing for the paper.

    Now this is something the CPD should have/could have done under normal circumstances. Of course, with the publisher sitting on the board of the orchestra, the situation becomes not only sticky; legal minds would say this is a conflict of interest…. On the other hand to silence one of the paper’s woefully few brilliant lights, seems something that smacks of Politbureau reaction…