A critic should not live in the real world. Discuss.

A critic should not live in the real world. Discuss.


norman lebrecht

June 21, 2015

In an article of serene unreality, the New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini responds to comments by a former head of Lincoln Center, accusing him of ignoring financial failure while extolling artistic success.

Tommasini sets out his credo in response to the charge:

His comments got me thinking about whether critics should take financial realities into account in writing about the arts. Should they dig through the details, or imagine what could be?

As I see it, imagination should win out. In-depth coverage of budget battles and managerial incompetence is better left to arts reporters. A critic is empowered to dream, to provoke, to foster excitement. The challenges facing classical music, the performing art most fixated on the standard repertory, demand that critics stand up for principle, even at the risk of seeming bent on a cause or unrealistic.

Read the full article here.

My personal view of this statement is that it is intellectually dishonest and professionally lame.

A critic’s job is to report and engage, not to campaign for a better world. If a critic were to pursue dreams, most review space in the New York Times would be taken up by esoteric productions in lofts and colleges, rather than at the major orchestras and opera houses whose full-page advertisements sustain the newspaper’r culture department and indirectly pay the critic’s salary.

To ignore these priorities is not just myopic. It runs counter to the raw instincts of journalism, which are to be curious about all aspects of any matter which you are reporting or reviewing. A journalist in an opera house needs to be alert to all prevailing circumstances. A pack-horse wears blinkers, not a music critic. Tommasini, in this credo, disables his vocation.

I can readily imagine what his streetwise forbear Harold Schonberg would have made of it.


harold schonberg


  • Ross says:

    I completely agree with you Norman!
    Tommasini is one of the few music critics in the world who has an agenda which consistently hinders his hometown arts organizations. It’s no surprise that reader comments are not allowed for his garbage articles. Most people I know only read his articles to be amused by how extreme he is in trying to further his agenda.
    Bravo Norman!

  • Cross-Eyed Pianist says:

    No harm in a critic or reviewer offering commentary on these issues from time to time, especially if related to a particular production, concert etc. But I agree with your assertion, Norman, that the critic’s primary role is to “report and engage”. There are plenty of commentators out there to fill unused column inches and blogs with their opinions and crusades and to encourage debate on these issues

  • John Borstlap says:

    The task of the Music Critic is to do his job so well that posterity dedicates a statue to him/her in the central square of the town. The conspicuous absence of such statues may indicate that the profession has other objectives…. or that posterities have drastically different opinions about music criticism as soon as common sense sets-in. The only territory where critics sport mutually exclusive opinions is performance, so maybe there is still some life there, in spite of the decreasing space where report and debate can take place.

    Interestingly, criticism about contemporary music shows a very different picture: almost ALL reporting of new music – of whatever performance whereever in the West – is positive and well-meaning, often praising with the vehemence otherwise found in TV commercials. History shows that the more negatively music critics reported, the more chance that the opposite was true. But negative criticism of new music does no longer take place. The blandness of so much new music finds its counterparts in the critical support, which begs the question… where is the real commitment of music criticism that, in the past, provided fuel for debate and audience interest? Nowadays, most audiences merely react with an ‘Oh yes, new music…’ reflex on the OOMP (Obligatory Opening Modern Piece) and applaud duly, like the critics, and know they will be rewarded by their Tchaikovsky which will follow it. Surely music critics have become streetwise and give new production the benefit of acceptance, as to avoid appearing in the new edition of Slonimsky’s ‘Lexicon of Musical Invective’ which catalogues the hilarious failures of music criticism to spot the important works which got iconic status in due course. The result is, that composers desperately hope for negative reviews which they can use for their promotion, but alas, they have become very rare. That is why some of them try to provoke reactions with the wildest nonsense, but alas, nothing works.


  • Paul says:

    Sometimes I think Tommasini has never heard a new piece that he didn’t like. How many of these pieces are ever performed more than once. And who among the public, except for a tiny coterie of specialists, is clamoring to hear more new music, given the rather sad quality of what is being produced today. This is part and parcel of letting “[his] imagination…win out”.

  • Has been says:

    How do you balance the demands/requirements of ‘journalism’ with the job of reviewing a performance ? Seems to me there are two separate disciplines.

  • Nurhan Arman says:

    I completely agree with Mr. Lebrecht. A music critic needs to be a journalist who can balance his or her opinions with all the relevant conditions under the work is produced. Many arts organizations are in survival mode. To judge them with an uncompromising idée-fixe would be unfair both to the public and artists.

  • william osborne says:

    That critics should avoid the genuinely creative art happening in alternative venues (lofts and colleges, or wherever) and focus instead on the conveyor belt culture of the orchestral and operatic undead, is the best description of the death of music journalism I have yet to read. No wonder the web is killing newspapers, and especially arts journalism. R.I.P and good riddance.

    • william osborne says:

      OTH, the NY Times has this odd policy of critics only writing reviews while “arts journalists” write about the actual workings of the arts world. This separation disembodies art and renders it impotent.

  • David Rowe says:

    Norman, I could not agree more with you! From my perspective (as a representative of chamber music ensembles), the issue is only slightly different – instead of institutional budgets, the lifeblood for touring musicians is obviously performance fees. While I acknowledge that alternative venues (bars, living rooms, and the like) are interesting and worthwhile venues for (perhaps?) bringing classical music to new audiences, the unabashed love-affair which the press has with these “hip”, “trendy”, “innovative” spaces never seems to mention the other side – that there is essentially zero income to be had for the musicians! This is not limited to the NYT – although the number of classical events they review at Le Poisson Rouge seems highly elevated compared to their minuscule proportion of overall classical events in NYC – but media nationwide have taken up the mantra that “see, classical is COOL….right?”
    I honestly believe I am fairly open-minded on all of this, and am not suggesting that coverage of alternative spaces/productions/initiatives should be abandoned. But I agree that the traditional venues remain where the lion’s share of the very best art is taking place, and to deliberately slight those because of a belief (some would call it an agenda) that these more traditional events & venues are moribund is really myopic, not to mention unhelpful to the field at large – especially those talented individuals who have dedicated their lives to creating the art. They deserve to earn a living somehow!

  • Musicmatters says:

    Anthony Tommasini’s shameless quest of his own agenda is totally unprofessional. He uses The New York Times as his bully-pulpit, from which he issues exhortations and edicts that are based solely on what he likes or doesn’t like. He scolds the Metropolitan Opera and NY Philharmonic, telling them how they “should” run their organizations, including what they should program and who they should engage – and his “shoulding” often demonstrates ignorance of fiscal realities and practicalities. He “shoulds” on performers, berating them for not devoting their efforts to living composers. He’s convinced that the NY Times disproportionate coverage of new music will magically cause the public to rush to the concert halls (because, after all, HE likes it!). The sad fact that perhaps 90% of these “world premiers” are in fact the final performances of these works seems not to occur to him. Certainly a critic’s passion for new music and well-run organizations is to be admired, but arrogance is not a tool of constructive criticism.

    • william osborne says:

      Many people champion Tommasini for promoting new music. He’s at least one prominent voice countering NYC’s embarrassing parochialism. The Met’s budget is twice that of comparable European houses, as is the Phil’s over comparable European orchestras. They have the money to be more creative. At issue is a lack of sophistication and musical intelligence.

      • Colonel Mustard says:

        Their budget is larger? Do you know what city they are operating in? Do you know how much their operating expenses are?
        Why are they both constantly experiencing a deficit?
        And funny enough, both of them have been doing plenty of new music lately, which should hopefully appeal the musical intelligence of people like you.
        Tommasini doesn’t seem to realize the simple fact that he attends several concerts a week and that most audience members attend a few a year. A lot of them want to hear music that they have already heard and decided that they love, and not hear a bunch of random, forgettable noise (while spending over $100 for the evening for tickets, parking, dinner, drinks, etc).
        Tommasini needs to get it through his thick head that NOBODY is sick of hearing the works of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Rossini, Verdi, et all. These ‘standard’ works number in the hundreds, maybe thousands. We don’t hear any of them very often, unless we listen to it on a cd player or iPod at home every day (which only shows that we love it).
        Indeed a culture has formed where listeners are confused and berated by “experts” for wanting to hear old music, and made to feel that something is wrong with them for not enjoying a bunch of ugly, random noise.
        Want me to keep coming back, buying tickets, donating money? Play me something beautiful. Please don’t make me sit through 30-60 minutes of noise. Please don’t have a composer come strolling out on stage before the performance to have a pretentious chat with the conductor about what the piece means.
        Play good music and we will come. Take constant “risks” and maybe we won’t feel like RISKING hours of NYC time and money to experience the culture of snobbery.

        • william osborne says:

          Your passionate rejection of new music reminds me of some famously wrong reviews collated in “Lexicon of Musical Invective” by Nicolas Slonimsky:

          “I suffered more than upon any occasion in my life apart from an incident or two connected with ‘painless dentistry.’ To begin with, there was Mr. Bartok’s piano touch. But ‘touch,’ with its implication of light-fingered ease, is a misnomer, unless it be qualified in some such way as that of Ethel Smyth in discussing her dear old teacher Herzogenberg – ‘He had a touch like a paving-stone.’

          “The Pathetique Symphony threads all the foul ditches and sewers of human despair; it is unclean as music well can be. One might call the Zola’s Confession de Claude set to music! That unspeakable second theme may tell of waht Heine called ‘Die verschwundene, susse, blode Jugendeselei’: the impotent senile remembrance of calf love.”

          “Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather a disease? He contaminates everything he touches – he has made music sick. I postulate this viewpoint: Wagner’s art is diseased.”

          “If Mahler’s music would speak Yiddish, it would be perhaps unintelligible to me. But it is repulsive to me because it acts Jewish. This is to say that it speaks musical German, but with an accent, with an inflection, and above all, with the gestures of an eastern, all too eastern Jew. So, even to those whom it does not offend directly, it cannot possibly communicate anything. One does not have to be repelled by Mahler’s artistic personality in order to realize the complete emptiness and vacuity of an art in which the spasm of an impotent mock-Titanism reduces itself to a frank gratification of common seamstress-like sentimentality.”

          • John Borstlap says:

            I think, though, this is an apt description of the awful second theme of the 1st mvt of the Pathétique symphony:

            >That unspeakable second theme may tell of waht Heine called ‘Die verschwundene, susse, blode Jugendeselei’: the impotent senile remembrance of calf love.”<


        • John Borstlap says:

          It may be that Colonel Mustard’s military expertise directs him right to the sour spot of contemporary music: so much of it merely sounds ugly and nonsensical. I sincerely hope he understands that, like all generalizations, it is not entirely true, but – also like all generalizations – there is something in it. The cult of ugliness which had set in after WW II, surrounded by pretentious preaching, may reflect the general ugliness of modern times, but some modern depictions of contemporary ugliness is actually quite beautiful (Morton Feldman, creating depressing pieces supporting the shrink business). More serious is the observation that the cultivation of aural ugliness has opened the doors to people lacking the basic musicality to be able to compose music at all, and that is why there are so many ‘composers’ around these days.

          A message to the colonel: french composers Nicolas Bacri, Richard Dubugnon and Karol Beffa write a new form of traditional, classical music, and the results are beautiful:


          May this music sooth the soul wounded by the bullets of 20C contemporary music.

      • Russophile says:

        Bullying is neither sophisticated nor intelligent, nor is the presumption that a newspaper writer knows infinitely more than the artistic administrators of the music industry. Yes, budgets are larger on this side of the pond, but America has higher wages & strong unions to contend with, not to mention the lack of government support. Critics are conveniently unburdened by such realities; and thus they are free to rant irresponsibly about what “should” be.

        • william osborne says:

          It is rather naive to think any music journalist in the USA is in a position to bully. Ha! The arts are funded by a cultural plutocracy where rich people have overwhelming power political, social, cultural, and financial power. Donald Rosenberg’s firing under pressure from the Cleveland Orchestra’s backers shows who the bullies are. It’s courageous of Tommasini to stand up to those people — though in reality he’s not really that assertive.

  • herrera says:

    Tommasini may not care about the economics of the arts organization he reviews, but I am SURE he cares very much about the economics of his OWN articles. I am sure he follows very closely all the statistics of his articles: which articles get the most views? most comments? most emailed? most tweeted?

    Otherwise, was there any reason for him to write, I don’t know, 3 articles on “The Top 10 Composers”. If there ever is a fluff piece in classical music criticism, that is bound to generate clicks and comments and artificial controversy, it is a wholly stupid piece on “The Top 10 Composers”. And that is exactly what Tommasini did.

    There you have it, what classical music critics really do, and what they do to justify the economics of their jobs. So if bashing the Met generates clicks, he will bash the Met. If writing the “The Sexiest Composers in History” will generate comments, he will surely write 2 articles on the subject.

    • Brian says:

      I actually liked Tommasini’s Top 10 because it did something many of his other articles don’t: it generated a healthy discussion about the merits of composers themselves. All too often, newspaper critics would rather pontificate from above than engage with readers.

      It’s also true that new music will always have a very narrow appeal (plenty of audience research confirms this) and most orchestras and opera houses are at a point where they have to think seriously about their bottom lines if they’re going to survive.

      I hold out some hope that the new Times classical editor, Zack Woolf, will bring a more common touch to the department. Time will tell.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The subject reminds me of a piece of 19C music journalism about Wagner, in which the author scornfully informed the readers that Wagner ‘hated the press’ – because of the very many negative reviews fired-off to his operas, in spite of the increasing audience appeal. Upon which Wagner sent a letter to the editor to have this rectified: he did NOT hate the press, he said, but held them beneath contempt. Which was duly printed.