Tuesday, September 4, 2012

800 Words: W(h)ither The Critic?

I am the perfect audience which every classical music critic claims exists to his newspaper editor without a shred of evidence other than me that it does - a thirty-year-old upper-middle class businessman of a progressive political bent, well-read and well-informed, and a passionate believer that Leonard Bernstein is (almost) as important a figure to the cultural history of our country as Bob Dylan or Kanye West. I don’t see classical music as a niche among a thousand musical niches, I see it as music history itself – taking within it the best music of every period and place (including our own), and therefore the ONLY music worth covering in a good newspaper. But as it currently stands, there is a lot of crap that gets covered, and as much of that crap is covered from ‘classical’ desks as are covered from the ‘jazz’ or ‘popular’ desks. The major papers of America clearly believe that there is a sizably passionate audience for classical music still young enough to see the print of their papers, or else they’d have fired all their critics on the day the ‘Greatest Generation’ started dying out. And yet, the only evidence I’ve ever seen for the necessity of their continued employment is that I want to read them.  

Allan Kozinn was a classical music critc – he is no longer, he is now a ‘cultural critic’. I suppose that’s meant to sound like a promotion, but some people (if Norman Lebrecht counts..) seem to view that as a demotion, ergo I guess it’s a demotion. To me, Alan Kozinn is a New York Times byline whose name I recognize instantly without it ever occurring to me that he’s a different person than Anthony Tommasini or James Oesterreich. The world of the New York Times coverage is not my world: I’m lucky if I go to one out of every thousand concerts the New York Times classical department covers, I don’t pay for New York Times coverage, and if I’ve thought about getting a subscription, classical music is somewhere between numbers thirteen and eighteen down the list of reasons I would get one. Apparently Kozinn was a great expert on contemporary music, on early music, and on The Beatles. I wouldn’t have known that without reading that from Norman Lebrecht (always a trustworthy source..), and if I didn’t know that, I can guarantee you that there are maybe a hundred non-music professionals in America who don’t either – and that may or may not include his mother, whom I’m sure is a lovely person.

There are a gaggle of classical music writers whose work I cherish – who formed so much of what I know and believe about this field which I love passionately: even (especially?) when I disagreed with them. Among more recent examples, some of them were simple newspaper reviewers - if what we call ‘classical music’ were sufficiently respected in America, then Alan Rich and Tim Page would have been critics to mention in the same breath with Pauline Kael and Robert Hughes. Others are academics – Richard Taruskin and Joseph Kerman work in the dreary world of academic publication and show that if you have real respect for ideas, you advocate and debate them in intelligible prose with real force, and you especially advocate against those ideas which you feel are destructive. Others, like Edward Said and George Steiner, were enthusiastic intellectuals from outside the music world who simply loved classical music too much not to write about it. Still others, like Greg Sandow and Joseph Horowitz, have left the world of music criticism and become advocates for the change their writings longed to see.  All of these writers had one thing in common – they were unapologetically individuals who made no effort to conceal their biases. Hell, even Martin f)(*^%$ Bernheimer was valuable compared to the timidity that came after him.

A critic does not exist to tell you what to think. A critic is meant to be disagreed with, even while the critic is educating you. The dialectic is as much a battlefield as a classroom, and we are all members of it on equal footing. Just as the best teachers will engage you as an equal even if the teacher clearly knows more than you do, a critic truly enthusiastic about the subject will advocate a point of view with sufficient force to create a space out of which you will be able to disagree if you like. There is something deeply condescending about the notion that readers are so childish that they can’t be trusted to think for themselves against a critic’s appraisal. If a subject is not worth becoming passionate about, why should a person write about it, or even learn about it?  A critic should never be unnecessarily belligerent, but neither should a critic ever shy away from a fight he or she deems necessary. Critics often worry about being held up as the idiots of posterity. But need we remind?...Posterity remembered them! They’re remembered because the ideas they debated mattered, and while the judgements of Hanslick and Virgil Thomson may seem silly to today’s readers, they’re critics whose names are remembered today because they made important points that are relevant to any discussion of the great music they judged, even if they judged it wrongly.

It doesn’t say much to say that the next generation of eminent critics is simply not holding their own against the people who preceded them. One can’t blame them too much, a major critical appointment in today’s involves as much politics as it does actual criticism. But even the best of them, like Alex Ross or Anne Midgette, see themselves too much as ambassadors for classical music at large to be mere individuals within the field. It often feels as though these writers have no tastes and preferences of  their own. Both Ross and Midgette are so busy trying to appear magnanimous and appreciative of people’s efforts that they’re compromising their individuality. It’s clear that Anne Midgette is trying to find a million ways to get around saying that she can’t stand Christoph Eschenbach’s performances with the National Symphony, why doesn’t she just say already that she thinks Eschenbach sucks? It’s clear that Alex Ross thinks Peter Gelb’s a self-aggrandizing schmuck, so who does he think he’s fooling by trying to find the specks of good within the bad? And these are just the two best (that I read regularly) among today’s major critics. So many of the rest clearly are more concerned with getting the coverage they need that they won’t say what they think. And no better evidence exists for that fact than the fact that I can’t think of a single particularly iconoclastic or strong judgment of theirs. Everybody knows that Anthony Tommasini didn’t much care for Lorin Maazel and likes Alan Gilbert (even if he likes him less now than he once did), but aside from that and declaring that Bach is the world’s greatest composer, is there a critical judgement of his so memorable that anybody remembers it more than the fact that they remember that he’s the chief classical critic of the New York Times and therefore needs to be impressed? It was not so when the Times had Harold Schonberg or Olin Downes. Perhaps he, or Ross and Midgette, or any number of other critics worry that they must be nice and generic or else risk courting the kind of controversy that causes heads to role, and with controversy may come the fate of Donald Rosenberg.
At least with the case of Donald Rosenberg, there were clearly ethical questions to be asked in his being taken off the Cleveland Orchestra beat. Donald Rosenberg said what he thought about the Cleveland Orchestra’s performances under Franz Welser Most, and he thought they were mostly terrible (and for the record I disagree with him). But because of his opinion, he was fired from a newspaper who wanted a cheerleader more than a critic. But Allan Kozinn’s case is very different, and the lesson taken from his ‘demotion’ will probably be precisely the opposite of what it needs to be.

Kozinn was the New York Times’s classical music workhorse. I may not know much about him, but I do know that if I wanted to read a review of some out-of-the-way “you’ve probably never heard of them” classical ensemble making a trip to New York, it was usually Kozinn’s name on the byline. He clearly was there to do the unglamorous (for a NYTimes critic) work of the performances nobody else wanted to review (which were usually the most interesting). And my uneducated guess is that there’s somewhere between a 80-120 % chance he was ‘demoted’ because the New York Times didn’t want to devote so much space to the coverage of a musical niche truly miniscule in its relevance when compared to genres which are granted far less space. So instead of cutting reviews of every Met revival and New York Phil performance of Mahler 1, they’ll cut reviews from Kozinn’s beat: the regional new music ensembles coming to New York for their first performance or the European early music groups who play lost music we never hear in America. And classical music coverage in major publications will grow that much more straight-laced, assembly-lined, and stupid.

In the coming days, other critics will bewail the fact that nobody cares about their profession; and they’re right that nobody does. But rather than using the final few organs of mass publication guaranteed to stay afloat like the New York Times to broadcast a more proactive, confident point of view, the remaining critics will grow still more politic, still more timid, still more generic – as though the position of a New York Times critic is anywhere near as threatened as that of one from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. And in doing so, they will justify their own firing when the time comes. The paid critic, like the newspaper itself, has a future as questionable as its value. The idea of an ‘expert’ of erudition and judgement so sound that we can trust this expert’s oracular pronouncements alone to report what happened was neither a particularly viable reality, nor was it ever what newspaper critics were meant to do. In the era of Olin Downes and Virgil Thomson, the most debates were carried out on newspaper pages. Seventy years ago, there were enough newspapers in any city that a well-informed person could trust his or her education on any given issue to what they read. There were so many source through which readers could filter their perception of the event being reported that each reporter of quality felt an obligation to be better than his alternatives.

Where do we get this same sense of competing judgements? Where do we get to take in a scene large enough that our sense of what’s really happening will be filtered? Obviously, the only answer can be blogs. By at least one standard, we live in a true golden age of criticism. Never have so many people, knowledgeable and passionate people, ever had more occasions to make their voices heard – the only requirements are a computer, knowledge, and the enthusiasm to keep plugging away. Has there ever been a time when there were so many good music critics? We have invaluable blogs from musicians like Stephen Hough, Jonathan Biss, and Leonard Slatkin, all of whom can write beautifully. A known but minor-league pianist like Jeremy Denk can write beautifully, and the world suddenly awakens to the fact that he’s a major league pianist. A critic like Steve Smith can maintain a blog given for insights that are equal or better to any that he gives in published form, and a critic like Tom Service can keep a blog that’s a hybrid of blog and newspaper review. We have amazing content in blogs from the point of view of a musician in an eminent orchestra like Michael Hovnanian, and a still more amazing one from the point of view of a less eminent conductor like Kenneth Woods. We have fantastic opera blogs like La Cieca which deal in gossip, or Opera Chic which deals in the fashion world of opera, or the blogger at Likely Impossibilities from the one person who has the endless amount of money it takes to review performances around the world. If you want to read about new music performances in New York, you read Bruce Hodges at Monotonous Forest. If you want to read about traditional orchestra and opera performances in London, you read Mark Berry at Boulezian. In order to get the proper links for any major classical event, you go to Lisa Hirsch at Iron Tongue of Midnight. Hell, even John Adams has an amazingly written blog!*  But even in this world of blogging ‘giants,’ any number of lesser known can compete in erudition, entertainment, and interest with those who broadcast to much more massive followings, and do work just as great. Any number of bloggers with smaller audiences who respect one another’s work can meet up when the occasion presents itself and speak in person as they do online, as I did with Dondou Tchil when I was in London this summer (the only blogger I’ll link to in this article, because she’s now an actual person instead of an anonymous grouping of words).  But the limitations of blogs should be as obvious as the benefits. Leaving aside any of the usual questions of accountability for inaccuracy, there is a far more pressing concern at work that can destroy the value of blogging in embryo.

How can a writer know how to challenge a large public to think more deeply if there is no large public to address? No writer can operate for too long in a vacuum, and even if a blogger has a thousand reliable readers, it’s far from enough to make for truly compelling reading. Eventually, most blogs become so narrow and redundant in their focus that they can’t be worth reading for too long, or too often. When you click on nearly every one of the blogs I just mentioned, you know exactly what you’re going to read on each site. Because every blog fills a particular niche and confirms a particular set of prejudices, you lose your capacity to be surprised by what you read. At least the great critics had to sit through those performances they didn’t like and complain bitterly about it afterward. But in today’s world, bloggers can simply avoid those performances and events about which they know they won’t have anything nice to say. So rather than a dynamic new world of interconnectivity, blogs have made the classical music world still smaller, still more balkanized, still less of a force in the larger world to be reckoned with. It’s a shame, because there are some truly wonderful writers working within it.

As always, we live in a world in transition. Perhaps there will come a time when bloggers appear that are so universal and erudite in their knowledgeable coverage of events that they will be read endlessly by all people who desire to accumulate knowledge and wisdom. What the world needs is a Shakespeare of blogging – or at least a George Bernard Shaw that will maintain a healthy interest in classical music. But until that day comes, blogs are still a small world while the elephantine world of newspapers – along with their professional reporters and critics – exhales its final breaths. So for the time being, how do we facilitate a transition that makes our world of grand musical tradition something more than an insular dinosaur?

All too simple…all professional critics should quit their jobs tomorrow. All classical music organizations should declare, unanimously, that they refuse to be reviewed in major publications. Nothing will establish classical music’s ‘underground’ bona-fides and give it something resembling a ‘badass’ aura more quickly. If classical music wants to facilitate a new era in which it plays by new rules, then it has to give itself over to new media. If a blogger wants to become the critical ‘king’ in such an environment, this blogger will have to cover all the different sub-genres, particularly those which he doesn’t like or doesn’t know a lot and throw himself into the exercise wholeheartedly. Then, and only then, will we get an ecology that can create the great critics from Hanslick to Martin f@#$%^&&* Bernheimer.

*And please come back Fredosphere!!!


  1. I tried to write a poem by rearranging the words from the first paragraph of your blog post. I had to leave off a few short words, which I included at the end of the poem, for transparency. Happy labor day!


    Every classical music critic claims
    a niche among a thousand musical niches
    and as much of that crap
    as Bob Dylan or Kanye West
    exists to his newspaper editor
    without a shred of evidence.

    But as it currently stands
    I don’t see classical music.
    The only evidence I’ve ever seen
    of every period and place
    (including our own)
    is that I want to read them,
    The major papers of America.

    Leonard Bernstein is dying out,
    covered from the ‘jazz’ or ‘popular’ desks,
    covered from ‘classical’ desks,
    covered to see the print of their papers,
    covering a passionate believer.
    I see it as music history itself.

    A good newspaper,
    well-read and well-informed
    taking within it a progressive political bent,
    started the cultural history of our country
    The ‘Greatest Generation’ fired all their critics
    And yet, for the necessity of a lot of crap,
    A sizably passionate audience
    clearly believes that there is
    a thirty-year-old upper-middle class figure
    that gets classical music.

    Therefore the best music is (almost) as important
    as the ONLY music worth their continued employment.
    Which businessman does it, other than me?
    The day is still young enough.
    I am the perfect audience.

    that it - of , and that t a to.,– and
    in., there, a are. for, or else they’d have on..

  2. If we do this thing... maybe we can do some stuff where you write song lyrics and I set it to music.