Musicological Musings with a smattering of Miscellanea

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Critiquing the Critic: The Don Rosenberg Ordeal

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that we agree 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…(Review of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, London, 1825—See Nicolas Slonimsky: Lexicon of Musical Invective, 44).

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 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 of this is my opening salvo to, what I hope, is a springboard for further discussion and dialogue surrounding the Donald Rosenberg case. I will offer several links in this piece to people who have been covering this conflict from the beginning, but will give a quick snapshot from the New Yorker for those who may not be familiar with the case:

The Cleveland Plain Dealer created a scandal when it demoted its staff classical-music critic, Donald Rosenberg, to general arts-reporter status because of his overwhelmingly negative reviews of the Cleveland Orchestra-specifically its conductor, Franz Welser-Möst. Now Rosenberg is suing the conductor, the Plain Dealer, the orchestra, and specific staff members of both organizations, detailing a conspiracy in which the orchestra put massive pressure on the newspaper.”[1]

In a nutshell, the lawsuit happened, and Mr. Rosenberg lost. Read Anne Midgette's (Washington Post) take here. In an engaging and all-too-brief TweetChat last night, Peter Friedman (law professor at Case Western Reserve) commented on the frivolity of the lawsuit from a legal standpoint. 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 One-Minute Book Reviews). Several other “tweeps,” including this writer, also chimed in. The discussion can be tracked/read on Twitter using the hashtag #DonR. Friedman has admirably covered the legal issues, or lack thereof, and has offered his opinions on the aforementioned at his blog.

While I tentatively concur, given my admitted lack of legal expertise, that Mr. Rosenberg did not 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. WANTED: Music Critic JOB DESCRIPTION: To give subjective and ‘informed’ evaluations of music and the performances thereof. This is an over-simplification, I realize. I also don’t know what the Cleveland Plain-Dealer’s job description looked like. But my point is this (and it has been made by others as well): Is the success of a critic based solely on giving good reviews? Certainly, if a critic seems to have an unreasonable 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 last night: “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, who has also blogged about the situation, offered another suggestion: “You could even [arrange] live encounters (Ali v. Frazier) and employed recordings of various versions of the music,” implying that even negative criticism can provide an opportunity to enlarge engagement with the arts.

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. One point that did not get addressed in last night’s 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.

I am “connected” to multiple organizations in Boston: 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. 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 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 have the right to control the nature of the reviews?

Don Rosenberg was not alone in his dislike of Franz Welser-Möst’s musical leadership. Two letters to the Editor of the CPD supported Rosenberg’s general assessment of Welser-Möst, claiming “When he conducts, the performances are below dull and boring on the classical music scale of excellence” and “[Welser-Möst] gave Debussy's "Iberia" an uninteresting, perfunctory, metronomic performance. He's out of synch when conducting the music of Debussy and Ravel.”[2] 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.”[3]
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. Ostensibly, 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 naivete. If, as I wrote in the TweetChat last night, 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.

[2] See letters by William Farragher and Roger Gilruth (accessed 10 August 2010).

[3] Donald Rosenberg, Review of Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall, October 11, 2007. (Posted 12 October 2007). (accessed 10 August 2010)

Note: A slightly revised/edited version of this post has been published at the Boston Musical Intelligencer


Peter Friedman said...

Rebecca -- thanks for the kind words and for the thoughtful post. I agree entirely with you that it is about what we can and do expect from our critics. It's a very difficult situation. Barry Johnson, who also kindly participated in last night's twitter chat, has a very thoughtful post too about these issues here:

I think Barry does a very good job of representing the views of those, including myself, who grew a bit tired of Donald Rosenberg's repeated negativity about Franz Welser-Most, a negativity that, while shared by others, was also contrary to the views of many others too.

But you focus on the much more profound and difficult matters -- what can we expect from our critics, especially when we realize where they're coming from (or at least who their paymasters are)? And who will criticize the critics?

And I really do think it is an issue larger than criticism of the arts. All of our journalism is criticism subject to the power of its paymasters and its subjects. And, of course, we always need to report on our reporters.

I'm grateful to people like you who recognize the profound difficulties of these questions and nonetheless face up to them.

Rebecca said...

Thank you for your thoughtful insights and generous comments. I did link to Barry Johnson's post, but without the comment it deserved. Thank you for bringing attention to it here.

PMG said...

Fascinating stuff!

I'm trying to think about how to put this in a larger historical perspective. I mean, at this moment, it's hard not to think that both the institutions here, the "world-class symphony orchestra housed by a post-industrial midwestern city" and the "full-time classical music critic at a daily paper" are at best past their prime, and quite possibly on their way out, permanently. There's a certain element of fighting over scraps at work. I mean, given the state of the newspaper industry, odds are that the Plain-Dealer itself won't be around much longer.

What I find encouraging is the development of peer-produced criticism like the Intelligencer, or like the San Francisco Classical Voice. Not only do these sites feature amazing expertise and insight, but by reviewing a much broader swath of a city's musical community than one person can hope to cover, hopefully they will avoid the institutional centralization that plagues classical music.