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A coda for classical music criticism

Published November 14, 2004

Last weekend, I tried something for a review that I had never done before. Normally, I take copious notes during a performance, and refer to them, to a greater or lesser extent depending on how I feel and how much time I have (and if I can make out the scribbling I did in the dark), as I write the review.

But you could argue that note-taking gets in the way of listening. So for a performance of the Bach B-minor Mass by the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and the Florida Orchestra, I decided not to take notes and see if that affected my experience of the music and the way I wrote about it.

In the end, I don't think my little experiment made much difference in the review, which found the performance lacking for the same reasons I probably would have formulated had I been taking notes, but it was a useful exercise.

I was motivated to try a different approach by "Shifting Ears: A Symposium on the Present State and Future of Classical Music Criticism," which I attended last month at Columbia University in New York. It was put on by the Music Critics Association of North America and the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia.

The symposium's message: Classical music criticism has to change.

With more than 100 participants from the United States, Canada, Israel, Germany, Great Britain, France, Denmark and Russia, the symposium was the first occasion when critics, composers, performers and arts executives came together to measure the state of music journalism since a similar gathering in 1947 at Harvard University. For that meeting, speakers included novelist E.M. Forster and composer-critic Virgil Thomson, often invoked last month as a role model.

But this time classical music criticism was considered in the context of a culture that no longer regards its subject matter as necessary or even particularly interesting. Newspapers have cut back and dumbed down their coverage, and full-time staff positions are on the wane.

Conductor James Conlon sounded a recurring theme when he said U.S. classical music institutions were in crisis and needed the help of critics "not just to admonish and correct our bad tempi or poor choice of repertoire . . . but to raise the consciousness of the entire nation" about the value of the arts. Conlon, music director designate of the Ravinia Festival and Los Angeles Opera, argued that the age-old adversarial relationship between artist and critic needed to be traded in for one of mutual support and understanding.

Critic Martin Berhheimer of the Financial Times didn't take kindly to that idea.

"The critic shouldn't be a salesman," he said. "I've always had a problem with being the drum beater and the consumer guide. When the critic has to play both roles, I think there's a problem."

There was another, more nuanced way of looking at the place of criticism in an increasingly marginalized field, according to Alex Ross of the New Yorker. "We're all fighters in a strange guerrilla war, in which the object is not to defeat an enemy but to win a place at the table," Ross wrote in an essay. "This doesn't mean you give up objectivity and become a PR agent for the business. It means, instead, that you write with more urgency, more immediacy. The writing itself becomes crucial. Language is our secret weapon."

Composer Ned Rorem opened the conference with a speech that recycled his 1982 article "13 Ways of Looking at a Critic" along with excerpts from his published diaries and some updating. Part of his diagnosis of the problem with the classical music world - and its critics - was the lack of meaningful attention paid to new music.

"Ours is the only era in history where the past takes precedence over the present," he said. "Don't you get sick of going to the same concert over and over again? Beethoven, Schubert, the Appassionata being played a little bit differently?" Rorem wasn't pushing for more positive reviews. Quite the contrary. "Most new music is bad, and it's a music critic's job to say so," he said.

The symposium provided a self-portrait of sorts, thanks to a survey of 181 classical music critics in North America undertaken by Willa Conrad of the Star-Ledger in New Jersey. Her data revealed a critic not unlike that of the audience for whom he (three-quarters of those surveyed are male) writes: the median age of critics is 52, and only one in 11 is younger than 35; 92 percent are white. (All this fits me to a T.)

The findings led to some stock-taking in a panel discussion of academics. "If we had this meeting again in 10 years, 20 years, who would be in this room? Who's the next generation?" asked Johanna Keller, director of a new arts journalism program at Syracuse University.

Well, the next generation of classical music critics, if there is one, is probably listening to more rock than Bach. John Rockwell of the New York Times is a pivotal figure in that respect, having been the paper's first staff rock critic in the '70s, then a classical music critic, roving cultural correspondent, editor and even an impresario, as founding director of the Lincoln Center Festival.

In "Serious Music Today," his essay for the symposium, Rockwell cited a blog he and other critics participated in on that debated the state of classical music. One of the ideas that kept the blog humming, he said, was "the real action in musical creativity was coming out of the worlds of pop and rock" and that "classical composition was kind of old news."

Nonetheless, Rockwell, former editor of the New York Times' Sunday Arts & Leisure section, had some cautionary words about newspapers' increased emphasis on pop culture coverage, often at the expense of classical coverage. "The people who make those decisions, by and large, know little and care less about music (or films or television)," he wrote. "They want news, because they were trained as reporters. And they want pop culture because they think it will lure younger readers. Which it may or may not do, since young readers usually want to think of themselves as out of the mainstream, and big-city newspapers are nothing if not mainstream."

Joseph Horowitz, author of the forthcoming Classical Music in America, came down on the side of the critic as advocate. He offered historical perspective in an essay that charted criticism's shift from focusing on composition to focusing on performance. Exhibit A was the premiere of Dvorak's From the New World Symphony in 1893.

William J. Henderson's review the next day in the New York Times would be inconceivable today. Not only was it 3,000 words (my Bach review last week ran about 500 words) but Henderson was intimately familiar with Dvorak's thinking and devoted the entire review to the creation of the symphony. There was nary a word on the performance. The name of the conductor and the rest of the program weren't even mentioned. Horowitz argued that the "culture of performance" - which came to the fore with the celebrity of conductor Arturo Toscanini - sidelined critics, not to mention composers, and reduced reviews to little more than nitpicking. He called for a return to a time when the critic was "an organizer, a doer" on behalf of classical music.

Reviews still run long in some European newspapers. A panel that included critics from England, France and Germany made some telling points about trans-Atlantic prose styles. The main difference stems from the competition in multinewspaper cities such as London. "If you're the only critic in town, the writing may be less colorful," said John Allison of Opera and the Times of London. "But with so many papers in London, you can sort of say what you like. Someone else will probably say completely the opposite. It will all come out in the wash."

Contrast the zest of European criticism to what Barbara Zuck of the Columbus Dispatch described as the "Sisyphean task" of being the only classical music (and dance) critic of the only daily newspaper in Ohio's largest city. "With only one paper, you have more power, more responsibility as a critic, but also more isolation," she said. A consequence of the concentration of U.S. media is that criticism has become blandly evenhanded.

The Tampa Bay area, of course, has two daily newspapers, and that provides some critical diversity. Kurt Loft, the classical music critic of the Tampa Tribune, who also attended last month's symposium, gave a rave review to the B-minor Mass, supplying an alternative to my pan.

The symposium wound up with a dialogue between Ross and Justin Davidson of Newsday that attempted to define the classical music critic of the future. They agreed on one thing: the critic of the future will be eclectic, as demonstrated, perhaps, in their own work. Along with his classical music columns, Ross has written about Bob Dylan, Radiohead and Bjork for the New Yorker. At Newsday, Davidson reviews not only classical music but also architecture; he has written on such disparate topics as guns in America and changing definitions of masculinity.

Davidson summarized the prevailing view that emerged from the symposium by taking the classical-music-critic-as-dinosaur metaphor and running with it. "I see two scenarios: one a dim, Darwinian future in which classical music critics die off; the other a world in which we become the cultural equivalent of lizards - related to dinosaurs, but remarkably adaptive."

Ross and Davidson handed out a list of propositions for critics, of which the following are samples:

* Ross: "Classical music has an actual audience and a potential audience. I try to write with both fanatical and unconverted readers in mind. The trick is in finding a language that intrigues both."

* Davidson: "The probability that a concert will be very, very good doesn't necessarily justify writing about it. The question is: What's the story?"

* Ross: "Nothing is more off-putting than the critic who puts down one kind of music in order to praise another. There is no need to mention Britney Spears until such time as Ms. Spears writes her first piano quintet."

* Davidson: "Criticism of any kind needs to get outside itself. Movie reviews shouldn't just be about acting and camera angles. Music reviews should be about more than just notes."

* Ross: "If the big orchestra is playing the same repertory ad nauseam, I don't have to complain ad nauseam. Instead, I can seek out youth orchestras, new-music ensembles, chamber groups playing in inner-city schools. Critics can take the lead in showing where music should go."

* Ross: "There is nothing shameful in unchecked enthusiasm. If I walk out dancing on air, I say it in the review, even if my colleagues smirk."

* Davidson: "I try to write with the same decisiveness and passion that I demand from performers."

Inspiring ideas for someone in the classical music criticism trenches. Let's see what happens when I try to put some of them into practice.

[Last modified November 11, 2004, 12:40:16]

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