Cleveland ideas

Yesterday, in my Juilliard class on music criticism, we talked about the critic mess in Cleveland. And two of my students, Vanessa Fralick and Ethan van Winkle, had really good ideas.

They noted, as we all did, that it’s really disgraceful for the Cleveland Plain Dealer to demote Don Rosenberg, its respected classical music critic, just because they’re uncomfortable with his negative reviews of the Cleveland Orchestra’s music director. The fullest, most plausible defense of what they did is in a column by Ted Diadiun, the paper’s reader representative. He wrote:

[The music director's] contract extends to 2018. Rosenberg has

made it clear, over and over, that he believes the conductor

routinely fails to get the most out of the orchestra, a view

he seems unlikely to change or mute. It is fair to wonder,

then, whose interests would be served by 10 more years of

unrelenting criticism on the same point. Just as we would

not assign a book review to a critic who is already on the

record as loathing a certain author’s style or genre,

is it reasonable to continue assigning a music critic to

review performances by a conductor whose leadership he is

unlikely ever to approve?

Leaving aside what I think is an idealistic view of book reviewing, this isn’t unreasonable. Though we could just as well conclude that, yes, it’s perfectly appropriate for the critic to continue, if his views are responsibly expressed, and not out of line with mainstream opinion (which they’re not). And, again, it’s disgraceful not just to look for alternate opinions, but to demote the critic. An uncomfortable situation, which certainly existed, is one thing, but to blame the critic for it — which is the message sent by a demotion — is just about scandalous. (Especially when your paper’s publisher sits on the orchestra’s board.)

Enter Ethan and Vanessa. They had the best ideas I’ve yet seen, for other ways to resolve the problem, certainly better than my ideas (in a piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal). I’m happy to post them here, with Ethan and Vanessa’s permission.

They had two ideas. First, the paper could have addressed the situation publicly, and recruited other critics, even from other cities, to contribute guest reviews that would run along with Don’s. They’ve already appointed another critic, Zachary Lewis, to take Don’s place, and review the Cleveland Orchestra, but the thought here was to put Don in a national perspective, and show Cleveland readers where his reviews might fit on some kind of national spectrum. Lewis, of course, could be one of the other critics.

The Plain Dealer wouldn’t be likely to do this, and not just because so much public self-examination by a newspaper — or any other institution — is (to put it mildly) rare. Newspapers are losing circulation, and losing money. Classical music isn’t popular with the younger readers they want to attract. So why would they devote more space to it? And pay more money?

In this case, there’s an answer. They’d attract a lot of attention by such a bold, honest, and also provocative move. And at least in the short run, they’d also attract readers. How long they’d continue would be something to decide as time went on, but they could always put additional reviews on their website, freeing space in the printed paper.

Second idea, less dramatic, but much simpler: Don’t demote Don, but simply alternate him and Zachary Lewis, when the music director conducts. After Don reviews a concert, Lewis reviews the next one. That way, you protect Don’s honor — and your own — while giving readers more varied opinions.

These are terrific ideas. Thanks for them, Vanessa and Ethan. And thanks for letting me put them in the blog. I’m going to e-mail Ted Diadiun, and see what he thinks.

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Comments

  1. anastasia p says

    Indeed those are great ideas. I love the idea of providing more opinions, not fewer. As it is, poor Zachary Lewis will be forever walking a tightrope, and his opinions will always have an asterisk in some peoples’ minds, no matter how diligent he is. There will always be that thought of, well, how much is he influenced by the need to keep the orchestra happy. Unfortunately, I don’t think e-mailing “reader representative” (e.g. management apologist) Ted Diadiun will make much difference; he is there largely to justify and make excuses for everything management decides.

  2. anastasia p says

    Indeed those are great ideas. I love the idea of providing more opinions, not fewer. As it is, poor Zachary Lewis will be forever walking a tightrope, and his opinions will always have an asterisk in some peoples’ minds, no matter how diligent he is. There will always be that thought of, well, how much is he influenced by the need to keep the orchestra happy. Unfortunately, I don’t think e-mailing “reader representative” (e.g. management apologist) Ted Diadiun will make much difference; he is there largely to justify and make excuses for everything management decides.

  3. Laura says

    Good ideas. Or, better yet, let’s have a website (like, say the Bravo shows for designers or cooks) so the audience could vote after each concert. Oh wait, maybe the audience isn’t wired–OK, let’s just pass out little pictures of thumbs with each program and after the concert, audience members would put the little thumbs in either the “up” box or the “down” box. Then we’d all be even; all critics. No one would be “more equal than the others” in 2008 and on.

    Absurd situations should be treated as the absurdity that they are.

  4. Yoash Wiener says

    There was a fair and honorable solution to the Rosenberg controversy. It was entirely in his hands. It simply required the recognition of the following facts:

    1)Over the last 6 years very few of R’s reviews of WM performences were positive. His assesments were harsh, persistent, and after a while, quite predictable.

    2) At the same time period, especially in the last 2-3 years, most of the published reviews about WM and the CO in the rest of the musical world were very strong. There were few indifferent pieces ( mainly in the US. Do we see here, at least in part, the unconscious influence of the highly regarded local reviewer? ). Many reviewers made the point that under WM the CO has kept its prominent position as one of the world top orchestras.

    3) WM has had a remarkable success in transforming the Zurich Opera to one of Europe’s best. He was also appointed to lead the Vienna State Opera-one of the world great opera houses.

    4) The Cleveland musical public as a whole seems to like WM and to reject R’s negativism ( based on letters to the Cleveland PD).

    5) The CO management decided that WM is the right person to continue to lead the Orchestra into the future. WM agreed to extend his contract until 2018.

    Since R has given no sign of flexibility in his view concerning WM suitability to lead the CO, recognition of the above facts must result in one conclution: No one will benefit from 10 more years of the same negativity. On the practical level- WM is not going away. On the artistic level- by now everybody is aware of R’s musical point of view.

    MR. Rosenberg should have recognized this predicament and recused himself from further reviewing of WM performences. Such a move would not have signified capitulation. Rather, it would have pointed at conviction and strength. And it would have been honorable. Sadly the past cannot be undone.

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