In a critical condition (4)

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.  

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  • Orchestral complacency is not to be denied — but surely arts critics can learn how to find a story in and about orchestras other than how well they perform in concert. I’m afraid music critics are being dismissed because they’re not bringing enough imagination to their tasks, but just criticizing what’s onstage, blind deaf and dumb about synchronicities and larger contexts.

  • I would not be so harsh on ‘expressionless faces on the platform’. The reality is much more simple and obvious.
    Perhaps orchestral performances have known their zenith and have now become the domain of the interested few. Much like say Shakespeare. Certainly an audience exists, but never again could it be mainstream entertainment for the masses. New technologies have seen to that.
    Time has moved forward as it inexorably will, and orchestral performances should know their place…right next to silent films.

  • f you create the excitement, the audience, press, and yes, money will follow! Look at what is happening in Los Angeles – a great new hall, a terrific orchestra (LA Philharmonic), an exciting new conductor (27 year old Gustavo Dudamel). And did anyone notice the world wide press of his Youth Orchestra from Venezuela? And when he conducted the LA Pharmonic recently there was a front page story (not just the arts scetion) about the concert in the La Times!. Again – create the excitement – great musical quality first, a colorful environment, enthusiasm – and you become the talk of the town!
    NL: Er yes, and then again, no. Dudais getting great play in LA, and deservedly so. But he’s the only young blood at the head of any US orchestra. And why, if music is hotting up, did the LA Times get rid of its second music critic the other week? It’ll take more than one conductor to change the trend…

  • It would be productive (perhaps) to have another dialogue sometime about music critics in general and their benefit, or “lack of same” over the years. A lively topic! I’m not sure they have always had the best interests of their local orchestras (and other venues)in their hearts…..and it has nothing to do with good or bad reviews of a particular concert. A hot topic to be sure!

  • fromYoshiyuki Mukudai
    toPierre Boulez
    ccMukudai Yoshiyuki
    dateThu, Mar 6, 2008 at 2:55 PM
    subject[Re] From the House of the Dead
    Originally sent
    From: – Sat Dec 17 06:27:50 2005
    Liebe Pierre,
    All-though I personally filter this message among junks, it seems to be legitimately required to inform you directly on your misled performance in the recording sessions of Mahler 1st symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Orchestra Hall in May, 1998.
    My point is at your ugly move against a bassist in the opening bars of the Funeral March.
    In the subscription concerts – four in five of which were done prior to the recording, you strangely allowed the bassist to play those melodic lines in his own way – a typical “Jewish folk song” style.
    The result sounded extremely curious to me because the rest of the sections in the piece was played in a strict manner of tempi and bowing intonations, meanwhile, the bass solo part in the opening bars of the Funeral March remained dragging.
    Then, in the recording session, you a person of logical thinking ordered the principal bassist that he should have played, on this occasion, in your own way, which was rational one, though.
    It happened on that moment; the bassist seemed so offended and then aggressively protested against your baton. Therefore, he was insisted to leave his colleagues only to play those bars for no more than 10 more takes.
    Every version was harmony of disgraceful frictions between the two. And so is the result despite supervisor’s courageous comments on the result; he told us that he could make it and he failed in the pursuit.
    Meanwhile our eyes met by chance on the corridor and we exchanged smiles one another, I imagined whether or not it was proper to point it out to you to discuss with and found it no worth : That was the way our culture was alive. The recording session was closing, meaningless to talk about it.
    It is glad and brings much sorrows to see how our culture has elaborated since then.
    Let’s forget about that, forever.
    Ganz der Ihrer,
    Mukudai Yoshiyuki

  • Your premises are absolutely false.
    I’m not 100% sure why so many classical
    music critics have been let go, but it
    has absolutely nothing to do with US
    orchestras per se, or what they program.
    American orchestras today play a reper-
    toire of unprecedented diversity. They do
    not just play the same old warhorses,
    but have performed a wide variety of new or recent works by many different living
    or recently deceased composers, as well
    as constrantly reviving long neglected
    This is why it is so disingenuous to
    cite,for example, the New York Philharmonic’s
    recent cycles of Beethoven,Brahms and
    Tchaikovsky as examples of “stodgy”
    programming, because the critics conveniently ignore the fact that this
    much-maligned orchestra has also played
    music by the likes of Carter,Messiaen,
    Lutoslawski,Saariaho,Tan Dun, Adams, Corigliano,
    Rouse, Berio and many other important
    contemporary composers.

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