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:
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