Can one bad review kill off a career?

Can one bad review kill off a career?


norman lebrecht

December 29, 2014

The fine Irish pianist John O’Conor tells a wonderful story about Claude Frank, who died this weekend. John remembers Harold Schonberg, the New York Times chief critic, approaching Claude at the Leeds piano competition and asking why he’d only played once with the Philharmonic.

Claude never raised his voice but gently answered ‘Because of your review Harold I was never invited again.’

Well, si non e vero, e ben trovato and we’d be the last to ruin a good dinner-party tale. But let’s consider the facts.

1 Claude Frank was a terrific pianist and teacher, but he was never a box-office draw.

2 The New York Phil, as a monopoly operator, exercises huge power in its market, but is limited in the number of concerto slots it can offer.  American soloists do not figure high in its lists. Hilary Hahn, definitely popular, went 10 years without a call.

3 Harold wrote blistering reviews about Bernstein for years without affecting Lenny’s position in  NY.

4 One bad review can’t kill a career.

Can it?

harold schonberg

Well, here’s what really happened.





  • Martin Bernheimer says:

    >One bad review can’t kill a career. Can it?

    Ceratinly hope not, and certainly think not.

  • john humphreys says:

    All but finished off mine….

  • Halldor says:

    Lang Lang seems to have survived the critics.

    • sdReader says:

      It’s his joie de vivre.

    • Ellingtonia says:

      Perhaps that is because Lang Lang has real talent whilst most music critics are usually failed musicians or composers who have an axe to grind. Thankfully most of the music appreciating public disregard the critics “artistic ramblings” and are capable of making up their own minds.

  • Gregor Benko says:

    Musicians have suffered from this flavor of paranoiac and/or self-delusional thinking ever since concerts began to be reviewed. I doubt that the New York Philharmonic decided not to hire Claude Frank again solely because of Schonberg’s review. If the mission of the critic is to tell the truth as he or she sees it, Schonberg did the right thing: the Schumann piano concerto is one of the most romantic of all concertos, requiring a romantic performance style, a certain idea of tone production. No one ever accused Claude Frank of being too poetic.

    Here’s the quote from the review

    April 3, 1964 review of a Schumann concerto with New York Philharmonic:

    “… Mr. Frank’s business -like playing was skimpy in poetry. Much of this deficiency, it is to be suspected, was in matters of tone. The big, hard tone that Mr. Frank produced had little nuance or color. Like so many American pianists of his generation, he looks on the pedal as if it had a heavy electric charge in it, to be touched gingerly. Clarity is fine, but not at the expense of everything that goes into the romantic period. A case in point was the splintery sound of the chords leading into the last movement. These should be wrapped in mystery, not played xylphonelike.”

    There was a critic in New York at that time who did regularly hurt careers (perhaps even killing a few) just to get off a glib, negative phrase. That critic was Irving Kolodin, who was much more heartless in his writing than Schonberg.

    Gregor Benko

    • Malcolm Kottler says:

      A breath of fresh air to see the facts of the particular review in question.

      It would be interesting to see reviews by other New York critics of the same performance by Claude Frank, if there were any.

    • Malcolm Kottler says:

      The beginning of the Schonberg review of the Claude Frank performance is as follows:

      “Claude Frank, who was a Schnabel student and in re­cent years has been active with Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro Music Festival, can, on the basis of his Schumann performance last night, be described as a junior‐execu­tive model of an American pianist. In one respect, his performance of the concerto was quite good—technically clean, musically and rhyth­mically dependable, textually faithful. It was efficiency personified.

      “But from another respect, the performance was disap­pointing. The A minor Con­certo is nothing if not poetic; and Mr. Frank’s businesslike playing was skimpy in poetry.”

      The rest of the Schonberg review of the Claude Frank performance is in Gregor Benko’s posting.

  • Wet Toast says:

    Harold Schonberg wielded a huge amount of influence in those days and people listened to him when it came to instrumentalists. One had to be a truly great pianist to overcome it. Schonberg hated Pollini’s playing, for instance, and gave him horrible reviews but his manager, every year, presented him in recital at Carnegie until Schonberg backed off (or sent in another critic). And, of course, the audience knew better.

  • Brian says:

    And it’s worth mentioning that in 1959, the Times was hardly the only game in town. Though I have no idea how the other critics received his NYPh debut.

  • Keyboarder says:

    Bottom line, Claude Frank was a good pianist & solid musician who enjoyed a good reputation, and he had a good career that was commensurate with his abilities and stature. Objectively speaking here, it is clear that a “great” career eluded him, and that’s because he was not in the top tier with the likes of Arrau, Rubinstein, Schnabel, Serkin, or Horowitz. Fine pianists have fine careers, great pianists have great careers – yes, there are some exceptions – but for Claude Frank, this sums it up accurately.

    • Daniel Farber says:

      Just wondering: did you ever actually HEAR Claude Frank play? Or were you too busy with your “greats”?

    • Daniel Farber says:

      Just wondering Mr. “Keyboarder”: Did you ever actually HEAR Claude Frank perform? Or were you too busy following the “greats”? Or did you get the greats mixed up with the late recordings of the “great Joyce Hatto”? Frank had no “charisma,” except in his playing. His career had no “story”. He was not readily “marketable” and, hence, not “great”. He was merely “good”, except if you listen.

  • says:

    Frankly in my very long career in artist management and now in orchestra management I neither sent reviews our read them. Managers off course only send the good ones. So if you believe the good ones you also have to believe the bad. I rather soak with colleagues that I trust. There are many major cities today that don’t have critics any longer.

  • Mark Shulgasser says:

    Answering the question: “Did one bad review end Claude Frank’s relationship with the NYPhil?” is far from answering “Can one bad review kill a career?” For one thing, Frank had a long and fine career. All that can be said is that one bad review may have changed his career’s course. A widely seen bad review is invariably quite inconducive. But c’est la guerre!

  • mikeinnyc says:

    “American soloists do not figure high in its lists..” Really, Norman? Emmanual Ax? A regular presence. Three of the four soloists in the Verdi REQUIEM coming up in a few weeks are American.Yo-Yo Ma appears later this season. Leila Josefowicz will be playing a new John Adams piece. Jonathan Biss.
    There’s lots you can criticize about the NYPO [for example, why they keep arch-homophobe Alex Baldwin on as spokesman], but ignoring American soloists is certainly not one of them.

  • Robert Levin says:

    Why are negative reviews and unkind comments being posted here so soon after the death of such a wonderful man and great musician? I find it to be rather tasteless and totally unwarranted. What is the matter with people today??

  • Erwin Poelstra says:

    Claude Frank’s repertoire was, not unlike his biggest influence Artur Schnabel with whom he studied, centered around the Viennese Classics (Schubert, Mozart and especially Beethoven) and Brahms. I can imagine that his Schumann was less attractive for some critics. But I don’t think that Schonberg’s review had much influence on Frank’s career worldwide: during the mid-70s he was giving at least 70 concerts per season on three continents.

  • Will Moseng says:

    Mr. Benko’s catty remark about Frank’s supposed lack of poetry (if Baudelaire writes poetry, then clearly Ezra Pound is no poet, seems to be the attitude) is in particularly bad taste given his standing in the community.

  • Will Moseng says:

    It’s apparentLy too much trouble to ho yo the NY Phil archives to see whether it is in fact true that American soloists are given short shrift with the orchestra. Even a cursory glance at Shaney’s history shows this has frequently not been true. Hahn may have fallen foul with Maazel, masur never favored American born artists, but the whole article puts a sakes proposition forward: that not reappearing with this orchestra damaged his career. There were an enormous number of native pianists, and a limited number of dolts. Artists like Watts, Frager were hired to the exclusion of many others during Frank’s career. Who talks about their playing nowadays? Yes, Serkin and Rubinstein were hires every year, but I don’t think Mr. frank placed himself in that category, similar to Moravec, who bridled at comparisons to Richter, which he found absurd. Perhaps it’s simp,er: Bernstein preferred Graffman, watts, Istomin, etc., and simply never felt the need to hire him. Careers are subjective.

    And yes, a bad review from a major critic can hobble a career. The NYT ended the careers of Levine protégés at the Met with single reviews (beck with, Keenan, Crawford) or singers (Angelina Reaux). It only takes one formanagement to withdraw support.

  • Keyboarder says:

    Conversely, rave reviews – even from Harold C. Schonberg in his prime – are no guarantee of a career. See Schoenberg’s over-the-top rave review for Claudette Sorel’s 1959 Met Museum recital, of which he said “put her in the front rank of American pianists” – but her career tanked shortly afterwards.

  • john says:

    Now here’s a chimercal thought – a good career by a nondescript pianist as a result of a bad review (or two) by a famous critic (or two)?!

  • P. Amos says:

    It must be borne in mind that Schonberg was one of the last music critics to wield enormous influence in the U.S., and this raises a broader question. Critics of the 30s-50s, and some still later, were mostly adherents of the Toscanini/Horowitz school, and all conductors and pianists were measured against them, the two benchmarks. If Schonberg could not end a career as John Simon did those of playwrights and actors, he and others could surely influence what an audience, in the hall or via radio, was supposed to expect of a ‘good’ or ‘great’ performance, and thus what they demanded. His prejudices are all too evident in his book, The Great Pianists. The result was at least the deprivation of American audiences of great performances wholesale. Wilhelm Kempff visited the U.S. once — he thought the NY reviews so ridiculous he just didn’t bother going back. Prejudice and ignorance constitute something of a vicious circle. I’m no Glenn Gould fan, but Schonberg’s comment (having also heard Bernstein’s silly opening speech) that Gould played the Brahms D minor concerto so slowly because he didn’t have the technique to play it ‘properly’ (at that time, in the manner of Fleischer, predominantly) was truly ignorant of piano technique and of how that concerto was played in Europe or anywhere outside the U.S., for that matter. He may not have ended a career, but he surely had a baneful influence on musical knowledge in America.

    • LaChance says:

      There was no artistic value to Gould’s pathetic Brahms Concerto performance with Bernstein. Gould’s playing was just as silly as Bernstein’s speech.

    • Tom Melody says:

      I wouldn’t call Schonberg “a baneful influence” but he could, at times, be an out-and-out jerk. Aside from such stuff as his over-the-top “Dear Ossip” review of the Gould/Bernstein Brahms First, he never hesitated to throw in other “facts” on musicians he didn’t like which had nothing to do with the music: in his chapter on Brendel and Pollini in the 1987 revision of “The Great Pianists” Schonberg felt obliged to point out that Pollini was a “former member of the Communist Party” who was involved in protests during the Vietnam War and had once read an “anti-American manifesto” prior to a concert (no date or city name given). If you don’t like the man’s musicianship, just say so and leave it at that.

  • Brian says:

    Having looked over Frank’s career recently, I sense that he was on track to a bigger celebrity as a concerto soloist up through the mid-70s, then something happened. It was at that time that he started teaching at Yale and his daughter was growing up. From there on out he was sticking closer to NYC and doing more chamber music and solo recitals, mostly in mid-sized venues like the 92nd St. Y or Tully. It may have been the limitations of his repertoire, his un-showy personality, a desire for a quieter lifestyle, or a combination thereof. But Norman is right in that he was a very fine pianist but never a box-office draw.

    • piano man says:

      As any experianced artist manager can tell you, an average pianist’s career ends by age 40, a good pianist’s career levels off by age 50 (Claude Frank turned 50 in 1975) and a top-level pianist’s career can continue beyond age 60 or 70.

  • JAMA11 says:

    The New York Phil is a monopoly operator only insofar as it’s the only full-time professional symphony orchestra in New York City that’s called the “New York Philharmonic.” It also has a monopoly on the use of Avery Fisher Hall (not even the city’s best performing venue) on the dates it wants.

    But of course, New York is a metro area of many orchestras, from the American Symphony Orchestra to the Met Opera Orchestra to the Orchestra of St Lukes to the Brooklyn Philharmonic (oops they went bankrupt) to any number of freelance operations, not to mention the orchestras that play for the Ballet and for City Opera (oh wait, they went bankrupt too), not to mention the venues like Carnegie Hall, Symphony Space, Town Hall, and others that attract ensembles from around the world all year. Plus there are many smaller operators like the NJ Symphony Orchestra, the Westchester Philharmonic, the Caramoor Center, and so forth.

    If this were the St Louis Symphony or Cleveland Orchestra I would agree that they essentially have a monopoly on symphonic music in their market. But in New York this couldn’t be further from the case.

    Just saying.

  • Of course he did produce one of the best Beethoven Sonata cycles recorded, even if RCA marketed it in that crappy Victrola Dynaflex garbage.