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The NEA Music Critics Institute and a Cultural Sea Change

It’s again my good fortune to be Artistic Director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Music Critics Institute, which — as was recently announced — will take place Oct. 9 to 19, hosted by Columbia University. I mention this partly in the hope that some readers of this blog may be interested in applying (email: We accept 25 applicants from all over the US. Some call themselves critics, some are bloggers, many do other things as well. Evenings are spent attending concerts. During the day, there are workshops, lectures, and visits of various kinds.
As ever, the institute is scheduled to coincide with the fall’s most auspicious New York classical music events. In season past we have gorged on Valery Gergiev’s Prokofiev, Bernard Haitink’s Mahler, and Jeremy Denk’s Ives. We’ve met with Gergiev and Denk, we’ve watched Gianandrea Noseda rehearse the New York Philharmonic. Our meetings with Peter Gelb, at the Met, and George Steel, at the City Opera, are a study in contrasts. Alex Ross and Justin Davidson are regularly at hand in some capacity
This year, our October dates key on the Met’s new Boris Godunov, conducted by Gergiev, with Rene Pape in the title role and Peter Stein — a great name in German theater — directing. High expectations are in order — and high curiosity. Pape sings words as meaningfully — as tangibly, a gift given to few (Hans Hotter leaps to mind) — as any operatic artist alive; but can he do it in Russian? BAM, the same week, is hosting the New York premiere of Evan Ziporyn’s A House in Bali, based on the glorious memoir and traumatic life story of Colin McPhee, who pioneered in mating gamelan and Western music.
Not the least intriguing aspect of the NEA institute, for those of us who run it (my colleagues are Andras Szanto and Anya Grundmann), is the opportunity to track a sea change in the field. Our first institutes included many newspaper critics whose chief responsibilities included reviewing last night’s concert. A burning issue, at these early institutes, was “objectivity.” Our critics worried about being too cozy with the artists and administrators they critiqued. This “conflict of interest” anxiety, it seemed to me, more shrank than enhanced their sense of vocation: they pursed a narrow mission.
That music critics of this persuasion are a vanishing species does not disappoint me. Our institute debates over “objectivity” vanished some years ago. Our participants are increasingly original. They come with a knowledge base stretching far beyond the confines of classical music. An increasing number are actual practitioners in the arts: instrumentalists, conductors, singers, composers. They understand the fragility of a 21st century community of culture. Had they been the music critics whose jobs and papers are now disappearing, would it have made any difference? I would like to think so.
I sense that the institute is potentially changing from a terminus to a refueling station: a means of transitioning to a post-classical future equipped with websites and radio stations — and even a few newspapers — that vitally serve the culture of the community.
When Dana Gioia, as head of the NEA, ingeniously created the critics institutes in classical music, dance, and theater, he was pursuing an enlightened mandate. Not so long ago, daily papers in small and moderate media markets lacked critics who were adequately trained. Many were generalists whose background was in journalism, rather than the arts. Dana logically envisioned the critics institutes as an exercise in remedial education — and so they were. As it turned out, however, our first participants, and their newspapers, were on the verge of extinction. The institutes wound up servicing different and more dire needs, and seizing more necessary and significant opportunities. As I have lamented in this space before, the “classical music crisis” has little attracted the sustained attention of charitable foundations; concurrent exigencies afflicting arts journalism seem little noticed at all — except by the NEA.
What we have observed at the NEA Music Critics Institute, in short, is a growing chance for cultural conversation, for partnerships in the arts embracing the overlapping activities of those who write, administer, and perform. The newspaper culture of objectivity, which long inhibited such necessary symbiosis, is waning. What — if anything — will take its place?

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