in: News & Features

August 20, 2010

Critiquing the Critic: The Don Rosenberg Ordeal

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Let us agree, for the moment, that music criticism (and arts criticism, in general) is, in itself, an art. Certainly it takes a measure of creativity to mold “It stinks….” into:

While we are enjoying the delight of so much science and melody, and eagerly anticipating its continuance, on a sudden, like the fleeting pleasures of life, or the spirited young adventurer, who would fly from ease and comfort at home to the inhospitable shores of New Zealand or Lake Ontario, we are snatched away from such eloquent music, to crude, wild and extraneous harmonies…

This review of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony appeared in 1825, the year after the symphony was completed, in the London Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review; the review is also discussed in Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective.

While we might chuckle at the historic evaluation of a Beethovenian masterpiece as “crude,” there is certainly no question that the reviewer is engaging in the act of music criticism. The critique is an expression of his opinion — in the above example we learn, in addition to Beethoven’s Ninth, the writer is also not disposed toward the shores of New Zealand.

All this is my opening salvo to, what I hope, is a springboard for further discussion and dialogue surrounding the Donald Rosenberg case. Here is a quick snapshot of the particulars, which have been covered extensively elsewhere: In September 2008, music critic Donald Rosenberg of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was asked to step down from his position as primary staff music reviewer but was kept on staff as a general arts reviewer. This decision, according to Rosenberg, came about as the result of pressure from the Cleveland Orchestra to demote him for overwhelmingly negative” reviews of the orchestra and its artistic director, Franz Welser-Möst. Rosenberg filed a formal suit alleging age discrimination against the Plain Dealer and its editor, Susan Goldberg, and of interference and defamation against the Musical Arts Association, the governing organization of the Cleveland Orchestra.

This past Friday, the jury dismissed all of Mr. Rosenberg’s claims for lack of evidence to support age discrimination or an infringement of contract. The case has set off a firestorm of commentary in the major newspapers throughout the United States and the blogosphere. In an engaging and all-too-brief TweetChat recently, Peter Friedman (law professor at Case Western Reserve) commented on the frivolity of the lawsuit from a legal standpoint.3 The chat, conducted on the social networking site Twitter, formally featured Friedman, Tim Smith (classical music critic at the Baltimore Sun), and Janice Harayda (novelist and editor of the blog, One-Minute Book Reviews). Several other “tweeps,” including this writer, also chimed in. The discussion can be tracked on Twitter using the hashtag #DonR.

The ramifications of this (and other similar cases) are frightening in an age where arts criticism is being cut from publications at an alarming rate. While Mr. Rosenberg was found not to have legal grounds to file suit against the Cleveland Orchestra and Plain Dealer, I do think the larger issue bears examination by anyone interested in arts criticism, either from the reader’s perspective, the writer’s perspective, or that of a performing organization. Mr. Rosenberg does indeed have the “right” to criticize Maestro Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting. The Cleveland Orchestra also has the “right” not to like it. No one questions the “right” to have opinions, or at least, I hope not. But what happens when your occupation is defined by your ability to give your opinion?

Let’s remove the sense of “art” from criticism and look at it as a bare-bones employment issue. We pay critics to do the “job” of musical criticism, but evidently that occupation is heavily defined by parameters lying well outside what musical criticism should be. Is the measure of a good critic his or her ability to provide criticism, or is it the positive/negative qualities of that criticism?  If the former, it really isn’t clear why Rosenberg was “re-assigned”/”demoted.” Is the success of a critic based solely on giving good reviews? “Of course not” is the obvious answer.

Certainly, if a critic seems to have an axe to grind with a specific performer or organization, it might then be best to divide the criticism responsibilities, as Tim Smith suggested in the TweetChat: “I hate to second-guess an editor, but SG [Susan Goldberg] could have gone all Solomon and divvied up Franz reviews between Don and Zack [Lewis].” Barry Johnson offered another suggestion: “You could even [arrange] live encounters (Ali v. Frazier) and [employ] recordings of various versions of the music,” implying that even negative criticism can provide an opportunity to enlarge engagement with the arts.

One point that did not get addressed in the chat was the fact that the publisher of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer sits on the Board of the Cleveland Orchestra. This brings us to the next wrinkle: conflict of interest. Most of us in the Boston music scene (and elsewhere) are “connected” to multiple organizations, mine being two conservatories, a chorus, and a handful of others in a less direct way. I am sensitive to the conflict-of-interest issue, and I decline opportunities to review certain concerts because of it. However, the Boston-Musical Intelligencer, for which I write, and which has received initial support from the Harvard Musical Association, is ostensibly far more “connected” to myriad music organizations in the greater Boston area. I would venture less than six degrees of separation between most of the large organizations and our editor Robert Levin, publisher Lee Eiseman, and executive editor Bettina A. Norton. Does this mean we should avoid negative reviews of these organizations? Should we not review them at all? The Intelligencer’s goal, as stated on the website, is “to review as many [concerts] as possible, especially those deemed most important and unjustly neglected by our editors. Our reviewers are to be drawn from Boston’s most distinguished musicians and musical academics under the leadership of Robert Levin.” As with most journalistic publications, the editors make the decisions about what should be covered— no surprises there. That is the right of the publication. But does a publication or organization have the right to control the nature of the reviews? While the reviewers at the Intelligencer are not paid per se, we do receive free tickets to the events we cover (as is standard practice). This, however, as I’m sure most arts organizations would agree, is not a guarantee of a positive review, as that would constitute paid-for promotional advertising rather than genuine music criticism.

And what of validating one’s opinions? Don Rosenberg was not alone in his dislike of Franz Welser-Möst’s musical leadership. Two letters to the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer supported Rosenberg’s general assessment of Welser-Möst; one claimed “When he conducts, the performances are below dull and boring on the classical music scale of excellence” and the other, “[Welser-Möst] gave Debussy’s “Iberia” an uninteresting, perfunctory, metronomic performance. He’s out of synch when conducting the music of Debussy and Ravel.”4 Rosenberg’s criticism, to be sure, was unflinching in its dislike of Welser-Möst’s “non-interventionist” approach in a review of a 2007 performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony: “When [Welser-Möst] wasn’t pressing the orchestra toward ear-shattering harshness, [he] dropped dynamics to a whisper that sapped the music of all character. Even the serenity of the second movement was compromised as the ensemble toiled to maintain rhythmic unity. The third-movement Scherzo held no terror, and it was treated so rigidly that the marvelous trumpets had little space to sing.”5 I fail to see unsubstantiated invective in this particular review, although I do admit I am not a regular reader of Mr. Rosenberg’s work. It does lack any sugar-coating, that is for certain, but Rosenberg has also made sure to make his own expectations clear: “serenity” in the second movement and “terror” in the third.

Listening to music is such an extraordinary endeavor precisely because it can be such a contrasting experience for two different listeners. Music criticism, whether it is an art or a task, is not objective. If that were the case, the world would only need one über-critic to meet all our needs, and that would be that. A good review isn’t one with which you necessarily agree, but one that presents both an opinion and the subjective background for that opinion. In the case of a professional music critic, the critic’s credentials testify to their own subjective background as well as their qualifications for the job. But the critic cannot give voice to the same sorts of artistic evaluation that so freely flows in letters to the editors, blog posts and comments, if he/she is going to be subject to “re-assignment” (or worse) over negative reviews. That is, in effect, impeding the ability of the critic to do his/her job.

So, we must decide for ourselves, and as a supposedly “cultured” society, whether or not arts criticism is a valuable endeavor and component of the arts. The over-arching problem of politicization of the arts is a topic too large for this article, but I am aware that it lurks in the background, threatening to squash all my ideological naiveté. If, as I wrote in the TweetChat, all we expect are “pandering, fluffy reviews,” then I think we are headed to a sorry place in our cultural history, where music performance and appreciation thereof will become the work of automatons whose ears receive musical input that is merely thrust back out, bypassing the heart and soul completely.

Author’s Note: for further reading, consult the following:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/07/arts/music/07critic.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

Friedman blog: http://blogs.geniocity.com/friedman/tag/donald-rosenberg/

Letters by William Farragher and Roger Gilruth at http://blog.cleveland.com/letters/2007/11/rosenberg_is_right_about_cleve.html

Donald Rosenberg’s “Review of Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall,” October 11, 2007. (Posted 12 October 2007). http://blog.cleveland.com/reviews/2007/10/cleveland_orchestra_welsermost.html

Ed. Note: An earlier version of this article appears on Rebecca Marchand’s personal blog, Musically Miscellaneous Mayhem

Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculties of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.

12 Comments

  1. Well, if it were one of those “Advertiser” newspapers that is mostly a vehicle for P.R. pieces from the local businesses, then what else would you expect? Of course he would be let go. Is this what the Plain Dealer has become? It was once a highly-respected newspaper.

    Comment by Mark Lutton — August 20, 2010 at 6:08 pm

  2. Rebecca, I would take an atypical for me stand. Ironically I am not on the Don Rosenberg’s side, even he did nothing wrong on my view and I am in way do understand the newspaper/orchestra. The newspaper chickened out – what else to expect from them? But the orchestra or conductors have to have some mechanism to defend themselves. We obviously will not see a conductor or orchestra PR person to be engaged in a debate with a reviewer and to defend their position. However, an experience indicates that if one side has option to defend itself then results are worth to observe. The famous case of Bose, Inc vs. Consumer Reports Reviewing that ran to US Supreme Court in 80s would be just one of the illustrations. Sill, is not practicable too much to battle revisers and the most important that Cleveland or any other SO have no mechanism to do it in a dignified fashion.

    If to look history of terrorism then it is very obvious that if somebody’s mouth got restricted than somebody hands got un-tight. The CO got rid of Mr. Rosenberg but I feel that they did it OBLY as they had no other ways to express own disagreement or announce. Mr. Rosenberg had his parley to express whatever he wanted to express on the subject but CO and Franz Welser-Möst did not have this option. So, they strike an administrative action – very sad indeed but what other option they had?

    Here is a question to the editors of this publication: how it might be done in Boston. BMI does not publish negative reviews – BMI just prefer do not mention them. But if BMI had a objective to review EACH event that happen with let say BSO and BMI’s writer behave similarly-critically to what Mr. Rosenberg did then what might be BSO reaction? I am so sick and disgusted with the gutless and unfortunately predictable reviews that saturated our media that I do not know how about you but I would love to see some blood. Of cause the SOs and conductors feel that it is beyond them to voice opinion publicly in defense of own interest, but I would ask why not? I think if Cleveland had a REPUTABLE mechanism how to deal with Mr. Rosenberg opinion then they would use it.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 22, 2010 at 3:23 pm

  3. Well, if it were one of those “Advertiser” newspapers that is mostly a vehicle for P.R. pieces from the local businesses, then what else would you expect? Of course he would be let go. Is this what the Plain Dealer has become? It was once a highly-respected newspaper.

    Mark Lutton, I do not think you are right blaming the businesses side of story. No one read classical music reviews without understanding what they read and orchestras do not fill halls based upon those those reviews. Those reviews are not car reviews and they do not drive sale. They are not PR or anti-PR issues but they are subject of egos, egos pure and simple. Egos is an artistic impression are perfectly normal – let them to be.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 22, 2010 at 3:30 pm

  4. It’s ridiculous to say that BMInt doesn’t publish negative reviews. Just ask Sasha Cohen or the Kuss String Quartet or Paula Robison (last January)or the Boston Opera Collaborative or WGBH what they have thought of some of our pieces. Even the BSO gets called on certain of its work.

    You’ll have to look elsewhere for blood though, because our reviewers, having been drawn from the musical community, wish to be constructive with their peers.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 22, 2010 at 5:44 pm

  5. Lee Eiseman wrote: It’s ridiculous to say that BMInt doesn’t publish negative reviews. Just ask Sasha Cohen or the Kuss String Quartet or Paula Robison (last January) or the Boston Opera Collaborative or WGBH what they have thought of some of our pieces. Even the BSO gets called on certain of its work. You’ll have to look elsewhere for blood though, because our reviewers, having been drawn from the musical community, wish to be constructive with their peers.

    Lee your reply just gives more credit to my observation the fact that BMInt tends do not publish negative reviews. Do you know how many very concerts took place between last January and now? Did you even read about them at BMInt? You’re very much admit yourself that BMInt reviewers are part of Boston musical establishment and they would like to stay conformists to the insider’s status quo. Where is a borderline between the “wish to be constructive with their peers” and a plain and simple patronage to mediocracy? Tem me if you know.

    What is ridiculous is that you deny that BMInt tend to step around the sharp corners or musical criticism. I can name many examples from this season that were very bad and BMInt never raised a voice about them. OK, let have some fun and bring some parallels. The Cleveland media outlet fears to annoy Cleveland SO and get rid of a reviewer with uncomfortable views. The Boston media outlet is trying to maintain a good relational with peers and have a tendency do not review bad performances. I am sure that is the world of “ridiculous” no one would see associations but in my world of the “Feline Truth” I recognize is as the same comfortably-numb bloodlessness.

    In a large scale I do not think that anybody needs to pretend to be surprised by the actions of the Don Rosenber’s newspaper – this is how INSTITUTIONS behave.

    The Cat

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 22, 2010 at 6:21 pm

  6. We don’t reward or celebrate mediocrity. We have standards- and we don’t wish to bore readers with pap.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 22, 2010 at 6:49 pm

  7. Lee, I do not think that this dialog would go anywhere. I just would mention that any serious reviewing a person does for him/herself, never for readers….

    Comment by Romy the Catf — August 22, 2010 at 7:44 pm

  8. This contretemps reminds me of the old Boston Globe / Michael Steinberg days. MS wasn’t a big Charles Munch (or Leinsdorf) fan and let this be known in a series of columns the likes of which Boston had never seen. I defended him in a series of letters, two to the Globe and one particularly to Henry B. Cabot, President of the Board, from whom i heard back in February 1965.

    “[Mr. Steinberg wrote of] Mr. Munch misrepresenting Berlioz in last year’s performance of the Fantastic Symphony; Steinberg, as I remember his criticism, did not like certain [aspects]… Where I disagree with Mr. Steinberg is in this — that no one, not even Mr. Steinberg, can be absolutely certain of Berlioz’ intentions… I further believe that, when it comes to familiarity with Berlioz, Charles Munch possesses a great deal more familiarity than does Michael Steinberg. Therefore I do not think it is proper for anybody to say that Munch misrepresents Berlioz…

    “If he does a similar job on Mr. Munch this February, I am greatly afraid Mr. Munch will refuse to come back to Boston.”

    Well!

    I sent a copy to Michael and got this in return:

    “Once again I am indebted to you for entertainment as well as encouragement. Let me begin by thanking you for the letter to the Globe printed some weeks ago, and then I am of course very interested in your correspondence with Mr. Cabot. I think it marvelous to have in writing his statement, “I do not think it is proper for anybody to say that Munch misrepresents Berlioz.” And I like your answer to him. I only hope — although I am not really optimistic — that he understood your two paragraphs on “the style and method of written criticism”.

    More recently my old friend Derrick Henry, alas now deceased, a stringer at the Globe during the Richard Dyer era, was hired by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as chief music critic, and criticize he did. And five years later found himself writing obituaries, he did.

    Comment by clark johnsen — August 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm

  9. And apropos of Henry Cabot and critics, I was present when Mr. Cabot stood up in the audience during one of Michael Tilson Thomas’s Spectrum Concert introductions and said, ” Young man, shut up and play the music.” Thomas’s contract was not renewed after that season.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 23, 2010 at 6:42 pm

  10. Romy wrote: “Do you know how many very concerts took place between last January and now? Did you even read about them at BMInt? ”

    The answer is far too many to cover all of them. This would be an unrealistic expectation of any news source, especially one with unpaid reviewers. Many of the concerts are covered or not due to the availability of the BMInt reviewers. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. In fact, this past Spring, a concert that included three BMInt reviewers (two in prominent roles) did not get covered due to lack of reviewer availability.

    Speaking only for myself, I am not afraid to give negative criticism. Do I think I need to back it up and provide some sort of foundation for it? Certainly. As a performer, I have received plenty of negative criticism, but I have been lucky in that it has been in the spirit of constructive criticism, rather than belittling or pedantic invective, which, in that case, is very much about the critic and not the performer.

    Romy also said, “…any serious reviewing a person does for him/herself, never for readers….”

    I might ask then, why bother reading the reviews here or anywhere else? When I write a review, I do have the readers in mind in that I try to communicate clearly and to present my opinion both for comparison with their own and as an alternative viewpoint. If I just spew hateful criticism without a thought, neither of those goals will be accomplished. I don’t care to listen to that kind of talk or read that kind of writing, so why should I assume that of anyone else?

    As a teacher, it is sometimes very challenging to craft criticism into something constructive when what you really want to say is: “This is terrible!!! Why are you wasting my time!??” But I would fail as a teacher if I did not take the opportunity to say “You are focusing far too much on diction, and not enough on intonation (just as one example).” Critics have the opportunity to be teachers too. I’ve certainly learned much from critical reviews of my work–both positive and negative. Performance does not happen in a vacuum…otherwise we should all be content to sing to the four walls of our showers.

    Growth requires some sort of feedback mechanism. Music criticism is just one of the methods. But I do not believe, nor will I ever, that hurling thoughtless insults is serious reviewing. It is merely an opportunity to vent one’s own cynical and self-serving worldview.

    Comment by Rebecca Marchand — August 23, 2010 at 7:33 pm

  11. Rebecca,

    I think we need to differentiate critiques that come from a teacher and directed to growing individuals and critiques between seasoned professionals. Growth requires a feedback mechanism; maturity requires reassessment of reference points. I think musical criticism is one forms of reference points self-evaluation and exchange. My beloved Thomas Mann wrote on his “Joseph…” that any person, more or less consciously, bares in itself some beloved ideas that serve a source of his or her secretive pleasure and feeds the person awareness. In context of this subject I think most of the non-accidental in classical music people do have own vision how this or that particular piece have to be performed. Sure the exceptions are frequent but they are just highlight the general principle – sometime we face individual or events with much more evolved reference points and they redefine our horizons of what is possible. So, in my view a reviewing is a mechanism of matching a contender level of reference point to a reviewer’s internal “beloved secretive idea”. Plus ego. Within a proper perspective egos are normal tools of expressivity. It is no surprise that Stravinsky admitted that whatever he ever composed in his live was driven exclusively by his ego….

    Ironically reading reviews, would it be musical review or any other type of review, I absolutely no bothered by any ego or attitude from reviews as the only thing that interest me to discover what reference point the person has and what target s/he is shooting to. So, the best reviews I read were when reveries wrote about themselves in context of the expended horizons under an influence of a given performance.

    Ugly enough we frequently do not have honest and non-sugar coating reviews. We go to smoke a cigar during intermission, we talk to each other and we admit that the whole trip to Concert Hall for this concert was another tremendous waste of time. The next day we read another politically-correct, unfertile review, staffed with oval words that is basically the words mingling about nothing. I do not like this whole practice and this is what I am against in musical reviewing.

    Still, admitting that we do not need one Don Rosenberg but we need an army of Rosenbergs I also have to admit that other side must have teeth and have a socially-acceptable ways to defend itself. We do not have this either. Shout we have it (“or something that Lee Eiseman would call “blood environment” :-) then some feathers would be certainly disturbed but also, our music would be played more interestingly. Isn’t what it shall be all about?

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 24, 2010 at 8:11 am

  12. Lost in this discussion, perhaps, is the fact that by general agreement W-M makes a hash of anything he conducts and nearly ruined the Cleveland Orchestra. W-M did good work at Zurich Opera; he should go back there.

    Lee: How wonderful to have been there at that punctum saliens for MTT. Lucky San Francisco!

    Comment by clark johnsen — August 24, 2010 at 2:20 pm

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