Twenty years ago, I got taken to a convention of music critics in Washington DC. Isaac Stern depped as keynote speaker for a sick Lenny Bernstein and the atmosphere was chummy and convivial until the session was thrown open to the floor and the gripes began flowing thick and fast.
‘My editor wants me to interview pop stars,’ complained one critic from the midwest. ‘My review space has been cut to 300 words,’ grouched another. ‘My boss has never been to a concert in his life,’ chimed a third.
So whose fault is that? I wondered. It occurred to me then that some of the senior colleagues were not keeping up with changes in editorial taste, dynamics and technologies, and a few of them looked well past their sell-by date. But seen from the editor’s seat one could readily understand why US city newspapers were starting to cut back on classical coverage.
As editor, try explaining to your chief executive why you are holding a full staff job to report on an art that never makes news, an art that plays the same old music, year after year, with the same parade of expressionless faces on the platform. An art whose audience is greying and unattractive to advertisers. An art whose music director is an absentee European and whose few glamour soloists will only agree to talk about their new record or hair makeover.
An ex-chief of ASOL, the former trade organisation of American orchestras, asserted recently in this blogroll that newspapers were being derelict in their social duty by firing music critics. As usual, ASOL got it wrong.
It’s not the newspapers that are to blame but the orchestras that over two decades failed to make enough news of any wider relevance to enable editors, many with the best intentions, to retain their music critics. Symphonic stasis is not the sole reason that music criticism is being extinguished across America, but if anyone is pointing fingers the first cause must surely be the stultifying complacency of American orchestras in recent years.