Glass-Jawed Maestro or Glass-Jawed Critic?

Jonathan Bellman

Some days ago, the New York Times ran a story by Daniel Wakin about Donald Rosenberg, the main classical music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who was taken off the Cleveland Orchestra beat, after a six-year period of largely unsympathetic reviews of the Cleveland Orchestra’s current conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, and reassigned to be an “arts and entertainment reporter.” Rosenberg was quoted as saying “They’ve taken my career away from me.”

As usual, there are two sides to this story. Other opinions of Welser-Möst are mixed; Europeans largely pro and Americans largely con. Rosenberg had been a persistent critic of Welser-Möst, obviously in excess of the tastes of some. The newspaper denied outside influence.  Richard Kessler found it to be another symptom of the chilling effect on the American press. And so on, and on.

As an outsider, it’s hard for me to have an informed opinion about this particular case. I feel strongly that major city newspapers ought to cover classical music, but also that critics do not have the right to be narcissists. The NYT article provides some quotations from Rosenberg’s writing that certainly lean toward the pissy, although it’s hard to imagine how one would avoid that, writing year after year. The risks of the professional critic are great, in reality. For example, Wakin quotes Harold Schonberg—among the most self-satisfied of the species—gleefully skewering Leonard Bernstein in a tone of supercilious bullying. The question such writing raises is whether the removal of funding, when it happens, really does constitute taking away a career. Do critics have tenure? Should they? If the product of the poison pen makes for amusing reading and fills a market need, OK—but does that mean critics should somehow get a pass to do that as long as they’d like? Plus, reassignment is not firing. Would Rosenberg like to try his hand on the market as a full-time critic elsewhere?

I remember well when Hewell Turcuit, a dyspeptic reviewer for one of the San Francisco papers, reviewed a performance that didn’t happen. He wrote insulting things about some numbers on the second half of a ballet program…numbers that were cancelled because of injuries to the cast. If memory serves, when informed of the—ah—disparity between what he wrote and what had actually happened, he had some kind of attack, was hospitalized, and claimed to remember nothing of the incident. I recall that he was let go, but also that a lawsuit resulted in his getting a salary. Perhaps the Iron Tongue can fill in the details? Another case was when San Francisco Examiner critic Allan Ulrich, in the mid-1980s, reviewed a Murray Perahia recital, waxing eloquent about the opening notes of Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata (in D Minor, Op. 31/2). The only problem was that Perahia had changed the program from the stage and played Op. 31/3 instead. Oops. The Examiner apologized for getting the number wrong, conveniently ignoring the fact that their reviewer had been caught engaged in the most unprofessional behavior it is possible for a critic to engage in (unless we are talking about taking bribes).

The critic’s position is an odd one, but it is not a holy one. Fearless honesty and intellectual freedom are required, but so is integrity and the genuine desire to teach. Rigorous self-scrutiny and an allergy to self-indulgent writing have never seemed to characterize classical music critics, but they are qualities that should; intellectual freedom does not mean that you can piss on people with full impunity and then scream bloody murder when a change is made. Rosenberg was reassigned, after all, and not fired; in this economy that seems a substantial difference.

I guess I’m on no one’s side, particularly: performers can be needlessly vulnerable to critical venom, and critics can be vulnerable to the bullying of symphony boards or their employers. Perhaps, deep down, I wonder if being a classical music critic ought to be a full-time occupation; the only real protection would be not depending on that activity for the balance of one’s income, and mixing criticism with other kinds of activity—be it writing, teaching, performing, composing, or anything else—might militate against the self-satisfaction that leads to the habit of the poison pen. What strikes me most about this story is the predictability: the major paper, the possibly wronged critic, the predictable stories about the changes in the press and the chilling effect, the possibly too-prickly feelings of the musician in question, and so on. I feel like I’ve read this story several times already, with different names.

Again: the best protection for the critic is probably a diversity of activity.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Glass-Jawed Maestro or Glass-Jawed Critic?

  1. David Cavlovic says:

    With very rare exceptions, such as Alex Ross, and yes Harold Schonberg writing about pianists, I believe that critics fall into Woody Allen’s maxim: Those who can’t do teach and those who can’t teach, teach gym. Bad reviewers are like bad gym teachers: cruel bullies.

  2. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Regarding Tircuit, I think what you say is correct, Jonathan, but I don’t personally remember the incident, which happened when I didn’t have a Chron subscription. I can tell you that a reviewer I know and trust was at the ballet performance and saw Tircuit there during the second half. He says Tircuit was on medication that messed him up. I have no reason to doubt this. By me, if you’re not fully present, you should withdraw and not review.
    The Ulrich incident I hadn’t heard of. I sit amused: he didn’t know the difference between those two sonatas?? He didn’t catch the announcement? He wasn’t there?
    Regarding FW-M, the London critics hated him when he had a conducting post there, so I would not say European critics are mostly pro. Don Rosenberg has said W-M is best in opera and from what I’ve read and heard elsewhere, that’s the case. Note that I have never heard W-M conduct myself.
    I do think that if the music director of one of the greatest American orchestras is a mediocrity, critics should so note it. The Cleveland BoD’s two extensions of FW-M’s contract have been quite extraordinary. There is the appearance of a conflict of interest in the situation; Greg Sandow covers the issue on his blog at http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2008/09/cleveland_strategy.html#comments and in the WSJ article he references.

  3. roberto occhipinti says:

    Lisa Hirsch writes “Note that I have never heard W-M conduct myself.” refering to the Cleveland Orchestra . I have never heard a conductor, conduct , only an orchestra perform with a conductor.

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