Magazine editor proclaims a leading composer ‘useless’

Magazine editor proclaims a leading composer ‘useless’


norman lebrecht

February 01, 2019

A review of two releases in the American Record Guide by its owner and editor, Donald Vroon, caught the eye of BIS label owner Robert von Bahr.

The review went like this: ‘A completely uninspired composer whose music is stultifying – and just gets worse as the years go on. Vroon.’

That’s the entire review of two full-length records, one by the Berlin Philharmonic Winds, the other by the violinist Renate Eggebrecht. That’s all the ARG had to say.

The composer under discussion is the prolific and eminent Finnish symphonist, Kalevi Aho.

Robert, who has produced much of Aho’s music on record, wrote a gentle rebuke to the editor.

Here’s what he got from Vroon by way of reply:

It is a sort of “editor’s privilege” to write a brief and dismissive review. Since the readers know me–and my loves and hates–they know how to read them. I think Aho is a useless composer of ugly, unbearable music. Naturally he has fans, because there are all kinds of idiots out there that think one has to like new music–or who think that commissions prove worth. But most sensible people know that nothing he wrote will last and that 99% of everything being written is crap. The emperor has no clothes. I warn our readers not to waste their money. It’s a service. 

This is what passes for classical record criticism in Donald Trump’s America.

Aho’s on the left. (No idea of his politics.)



  • boringfileclerk says:

    I admit this composer isn’t my thing, but he’s at least more inspired than, say, Philip Glass. Philip Glass, Philip Glass, Philip Glass, Philip Glass…

  • msc says:

    American Record Guide has been for far too long dominated by a few critics with eccentric and excessively narrow tastes, not to mention odd prejudices (such as the one critic that proclaimed no Englishman could conduct Tchaikovsky because they are all emotionally stunted). Its reviews are a joke for the most part. At least Vroon was honest about his bias, but he should then have given someone with an open mind a chance to review the disc.

    • Bill says:

      Maybe no one else wanted to! I haven’t read ARG (or any other review mags) for some years, but I recall other reviewers reviewing stuff Vroon had also reviewed, and not always rubberstamping it.

    • Windsor Terrace Gremlin says:

      I agree msc, as Vroon states, readers know his likes and dislikes so they already know he hates this music. Thus, his review has no real value to anyone. Norman, you know that Vroon’s review has nothing to do with Trump. Music criticism has a long history of vitriol, from Hanslick vs. Bruckner to Thomson vs. Sibelius.

      • Bruce says:

        Ironic factlet: most of us have never even heard of Hanslick except for his nasty reviews.

        In fact, the history of the arts is littered with critics who are remembered for no other reason than their rejection of this or that famous poet, composer, painter, etc.

        This guy looks well on his way to becoming another one of them.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Every new edition of Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” is a threat to critics of new music, who are therefore almost always very wellmeaning to ANY new music. But this one obviously sees entering its pages as his only chance to escape oblivion, which won’t work because he does not give any arguments or elaborations. Only when a critic lays bare the extent of his complete lack of understanding and knowledge, furnished with ample proof, can he enter the walhalla of ignorance as created by Slonimsky.

          • BrianB says:

            I believe Henry Pleasants was the first to point out what one might call the ‘Hanslick Syndrome’ back in the 1950s by which every critic is loath to adversely criticize even the most empty and vapid piece of modern/avant garde music for fear of being tarred with Slonimsky’s brush. The only way to play safe was to slam any piece of music that was “too tonal” or tonal at all (e.g. Barber).

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Actually, slagging-off new music is the path to immortality for a music critic. If you aren’t in Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” then nobody will ever remember you after you have gone.

        • Tom Moore says:

          if people would actually read Hanslick, they would realize that he is articulate, perceptive and fair.

          • Windsor Terrace Gremlin says:

            Tom, I read Hanslick’s review of the premiere of the 8th: He begins by stating that he finds the 8th as he finds Bruckner’s preceding symphonies, repugnant.
            Articulate, yes; perceptive and fair well…you decide based on the following quotes from his translated review:
            “Bruckner begins with a short chromatic motive, repeats it over and over again…until the listener is simply crushed under the sheer weight and monotony of this interminable lamentation.”
            “Thus, tossed about between intoxication and desolation, we arrive at no definite impression and enjoy no artistic pleasure.”  “Everything flows, without clarity and without order, willy-nilly into dismal long-windedness.”
            “At long last, the Finale – which, with its baroque themes, its confused structure and inhuman din, strikes us only as a model of tastelessness.”

            Perceptive and fair? How about dismissive and biased?

            Pleasants, Henry, trans. & ed., Music Criticisms 1846-99  Eduard Hanslick, Penquin Books, 1963, pp. 288-290.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Why do you have to bring Trump into this? Vroon has been like this ever since he took over ARG decades ago. He is generally dismissive of contemporary music and usually proven to be right. For the record, I like Who’s contrabassoon concerto. Enough political baiting!

  • Jean says:

    😀 😀

  • Stuart says:

    The reference to Trump is idiotic. I do not read the American Record Guide, but Vroon has been the chief editor since 1987, across the presidencies of Reagan, Bush 1 & 2, Clinton and Obama. It is well known that Vroon doesn’t like recently written music (meaning the last 120 years) and he is entitled to his opinions (or does that just apply to you and your blog?) Fanfare is the only music publication that I read. I dropped Gramophone as it was just too boring.

    • Bert Bailey says:

      So, by your say-so, this man’s entitled to his opinion that “classical” or art music is strictly about the music composed only up to 120 years ago–yet he edits an art music magazine?
      He’s _entitled_ to his antiquarian perspective? Surely not. I’d think that narrow view should disqualify him.
      Concert halls are already quarter-filled with snow-topped seniors, and otherwise empty, but I guess you don’t trouble yourself about the prospects for the art form, career path, and business?

  • The View from America says:

    Mr. Vroon’s pedantic/dismissive reviews long predate Donald Trump and will likely outlast him as well.

    What’s more, misery loves company it would appear, as several other ARG reviewers are just as nauseating.

    I know very few people who take ARG reviews seriously.

  • NYMike says:

    Can we leave the orange idiot out of this……

  • Dennis says:

    Dislike his stance on much modern/contemporary classical music if you want, but to blame it on Trump is just shallow and gratuitous mud-slinging.

    I have no idea of Vroon’s politics, nor do I care in this context, and many would agree with his take on much modern/contemporary classical music regardless of one’s politics.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Given the level of most contemporary music, Aho is a sensitive and really musically gifted composer… It seems that this critic associates any dissonant sound immediately with the nonsense which uses dissonance to underline its aggressive posing. But Aho is something totally different:

  • Mike Schachter says:

    This approach is not unique to classical music. The great physicist Wolfgang Pauli once wrote the following entire review of a scientific paper: this is not even wrong.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The shortest review ever was by BErlioz, writing about the premiere of a large piece by mr X: simply a latin cross, which one adds after the name of a deceased.

  • David says:

    ‘a statue has never been set up in honour of a critic!’ -Sibelius

    • Cyril says:

      Maybe he was unaware of the bust of Eduard Hanslick in Vienna.

      • John Borstlap says:

        But Hanslick was more than a mere critic. He was a musicologist and a music philosopher who wrote the first rational treatise about music as an abstract art form: ‘Vom Musikalisch-Schönen’, as an alternative to blown-up romanticism and sickly instinct mongering. His reviews of Wagner productions, especially about Parsifal, are apt and also hilarious where he describes Wagner adepts going off the rails in their absurdist writings.

  • Larry W says:

    From a CD review by NL (1/4):
    “[Rebecca Clarke’s] viola sonata is not helped here by being played in a cello version by Natalie Clein. Four pieces by Clarke’s fellow-violist Frank Bridge are not appreciably more cheerful. The redeeming feature comes at the end in Six Studies in English Folk Song by Ralph Vaughan Williams, doing exactly what it says on the tin and expansively rendered by Clein and her pianist, Christian Ihle Hadland.”

    Terse and non-informative. This is what passes for classical record criticism in Teresa May’s United Kingdom.

    • will says:

      although I loath the lady’s politics, at least afford her the courtesy of spelling her name correctly, please:
      THERESA, OK?

      • Larry W says:

        So sorry, good will. To my dis-May, I got the H out of there. At least I know who Lurch is. He’s in the Addams Family– with two D’s.

      • Harrumph says:

        At least afford the Queen and her English the courtesy of spelling the verb LOATHE correctly, OK?

  • Marc says:

    What has this to do with “Donald Trump’s America”? And what makes you think that the U.S. somehow belongs to the Orange Cheeto?

    • Viola da Bracchio says:

      In Europe, we are used to seeing elected political leaders (of all leanings) attend major cultural events – Glyndebourne, Bayreuth, Venice Biennale, Covent Garden, Verbier. They are a barometer for what educated, informed, and intelligent people do with their time. The events benefit too, from the show of approval they gain for their activities. They show our leaders *leading* – correctly dressed, meeting other guests as equals, behaving decorously and speaking carefully. They set the benchmark. Sometimes they are invited, but often they buy their own tickets with their own money, and are proud to be seen supporting the Arts. I’ve (coincidentally) sat behind a government minister at the Royal Festival Hall – just there as a private individual, and clearly relishing the fine performance.

      NL is absolutely right here. It is hard for us to envision Gomez, Morticia, Lurch or Uncle Fester attending any such event. Their crass behaviour, monolingual philistinism, and limited intellectual grasp marks them out as the very antitheses of how leaders should comport themselves.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Thank goodness someone is calling this sort of so-called music what it is. The guy is just saying what most people outside a certain circle think about this sort of junk. Why give him a hard time?

  • Tristan says:

    Why Donald Trump’s America? This publication has been spewing this kind of “criticism” for decades. Wretch though he is, not everything bad on the planet is Trump-related. There’s plenty enough that is.

  • James says:

    I think a Big Lebowski quotation is appropriate here: “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an a**hole.”

  • Augustine says:

    Music criticism of the form given by Vroon and his American Record Guide is irrelevant.

    With streaming services such as Spotify Premium, Idagio and Qobuz, one need only to listen. If the music moves you you can choose to buy it or continue listening to it in your favorites collection. If not you move on.

    Aho has over 43,000 monthly listeners on Spotify Premium. It hardly matters what Vroon has to say.

  • We privatize your value says:

    Is it ageism to state that Mr. Vroon was born in 1942 and may be suffering the beginnings of dementia, like too many people of that generation?

    • Robert von Bahr says:

      Yes, it is – Donald Vroon knows exactly what he writes, which makes it all the more pitiful. He is obviously entitled to his opinions, but he shouldn’t call 2 lines describing 2 full, different records, a review. It isn’t – it cannot be. However, opinionated, respectless, curmudgeony, utterly conservative, insulting and unprofessional, he’s got all his marbles intact.
      Robert von Bahr, born in 1943.

  • William Stahl says:

    I subscribed to ARG years ago but gave it up after becoming tired of Vroon’s crank tendencies (often showing up in editorials on political, social or cultural topics) and too-often facile musical opinions. The episode with Aho is typical. To his credit, Vroon has kept a classical music recording & performance review publication going on a string for many years without selling its editorial soul in the manner of Fanfare Magazine.

  • Dave T says:

    “This is what passes for classical record criticism in Donald Trump’s America.”

    Donald (Vroon, that is) had already been dispensing cranky, curmudgeon-y pronouncements as far back as when the other Donald was… I dunno, in bankruptcy court. Nothing new here, that’s why we love him (again, Vroon, that is).

  • Barry says:

    I’m sure Mr. Vroon wrote nothing but long, thoughtful reviews during the Obama presidency.

  • hullexecutive says:

    What does Trump have to do with this? I am sick and tired of musical commentary blaming things on politics that have NOTHING to do with politics.

    • Novagerio says:

      “Blaming things on politics that have NOTHING to do with politics.” Good one! 😀

      • norman lebrecht says:

        Have you not read Marx? Everything is political.

        • Novagerio says:

          Norman: Oh, you mean that pamphletist from Trier who died in London you mean? The guy who never had “a real job” in his entire life and wrote so much pamphletism against the “Capitalists who oppressed the Masses”, while he himself was being financially supported by his 2nd wife Jenny from the Noble House of Westphalen?

          Great! You still believe in the “Glories” of Socialism?…
          I bet you bring old Karl flowers once a week at Highgate Cemetery!…

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Since I reviewed for Fanfare for some 15 years (long, long ago) I am of course not the best choice to cast stones at ARG, which I did read and enjoy, although it is some time since I saw a copy. Vroon did a better job running a magazine than reviewing recordings, in my honest opinion, and at least at one time he had a darn good stable of writers, like or hate their viewpoints or writing styles.

    Back in “my day” the one thing Joel Flegler of Fanfare (who very rarely himself wrote a review) would do rather often would be to assign the same recordings to two different reviewers, particularly if he sensed or knew that one or the other would have a predictable or extreme point of view (this by the way did not always make best buddies out of the reviewers!). And of course we had no idea of what our colleague had written until we saw it in print.

    That is what Vroon should have done. But it is his magazine. The readers are hardly unaware of how it is run.

  • Wai Kit Leung says:

    I once found in the American Record Guide a review that looked like a carbon copy of one I wrote on the same disc.

  • Andrew says:

    If Norm can’t insert an anti-Brexit snidey in a post he can always fall back on an anti-Trump one. Shame the little people in democracies keep voting for what they actually want rather than what Norm thinks they SHOULD want.

  • Ian Shanahan says:

    “99% of everything being written is crap”

    Well THAT is certainly true!

  • Bone says:

    “…in Trump’s America.”
    This passes for intelligent rebuttal in pro-globalist society.

    • Novagerio says:

      Exactly. “Who ever votes for Trump or Brexit is an idiot”, that’s the actual mantra in the current cyber world – that is of course unless one is a “leftish liberal”. So much for “respecting” others opinions and points of view.

  • Robert von Bahr says:

    To this can be added that one of the two discs (Renate Eggebrecht) was not released by BIS, but by Troubadisc, and also contained music by Rautavaara and Nordgren, two eminent Finnish composers, not mentioned anywhere, neither heading nor “review”.

    “Crap” only liked by “idiots”??? How insulting can one get?

    Oh dear, dear, dear!!

    • John Borstlap says:

      In my experience, when a critic, exposing himself to some new work, reacts that angry, it is because he unexpectedly feels seriously challenged in his ignorance and smallmindedness, and simply lashes-out in an instinctive defence. So, it is some kind of inverted compliment to the strength of the work. If the work would indeed be very bad and the critic professional, the result would be a neutral shrugging of shoulders, and not aggression.

  • Siva Oke says:

    I am appalled at such arrogance. What happened to impartiality and respect for other people’s opinions and tastes, especially if you are an Editor of ARG?

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Huh? The magazine publishes opinions on records. These opinions are just that, opinions. If enough people find the opinions interesting, entertaining and informative, then the magazine makes money.

  • Ross Amico says:

    Headline should read: Aho Reviewed by A-Hole

  • Euphonium Al says:

    A lot of Aho’s work is brash, loud, even harsh, and certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, to dismiss his entire body of work with a waive of the hand as “unbearable” strikes me as a bit much. All that said, Vroon is entitled to write whatever he wants in his publication.

    • Robert von Bahr says:

      Of course he can, but not, as long as he calls it a review. This is no review – it is an insult to the composer in question, without even mentioning the other 2 composrs involved in one of the records and not a single word about the world-class artists or the production values. His answer to me shows his utter contempt of anyone that feels differently (“idiots”) about contemporary music, which is invariably “crap”.
      Yes, he can write whatever he likes in his own magazine, but then don’t call it a “reviewing” magazine.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Indeed – that is the point; a real review first offers a description of the product, then followed by the personal opinion of the critic and clearly defined as such, so that the reader can make-up his/her own mind.

  • JBB says:

    According to Wikipedia, Vroon began writing for the American Record Guide in 1983. I have no idea if his opinions track through the past 35 years or not, but there is no reason to bring the current president’s name into this.

  • JBB says:

    Dorothy Parker wrote more acerbic reviews than this (some as short as two sentences) in The New Yorker’s Constant Reader column during the 1930s — is that what passed for criticism in FDR’s America?

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      She had wit. She was writing as a humorist. Big difference.

      • Bruce says:

        She was a book and theater critic as well. (Of course she used her wit to great effect in writing negative reviews; but in her good reviews it’s clear that she kept her heart — and mind — open in case something was able to reach it.)

      • Harrumph says:

        “Tonstant Weader fwowed up” is my kind of acerbic. If only we could resurrect Dorothy.

  • Chelseanot says:

    It’s worth leafing through a complete edition of ARG. It has been going for many years. It is certainly written in a no-nonsense style. But in that and in its mix of knowledge passion and honesty it is as refreshing as Slipped Disc – and a worthy corrective to the drivel of many of the other classical music rags these days.

    • Anon! A Moose! says:

      Yes, this! I haven’t read it in years and honestly assumed it wouldn’t be around anymore. But yes, Vroon is an old-style curmudgeon and should be taken as such.

      I recall an old editorial where he lamented that orchestras even have marketing departments, and what sort of society are we where people don’t seek out great art and have to have it sold to them. He always had that flavor of “old man yelling at clouds” but I think that kind of unapologetic old-fashionedness should always have a place.

  • norman lebrecht says:

    It appears some of you find my Trump analogy tasteless. Can anyone deny that Trump has lowered the level of public discourse in the US to a point where such inhuman dismissal of an artist’s life work now passes for normal conversation?

    • Bruce says:

      Agree… to an extent. It hasn’t become normal conversation for everyone.

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      No. Trump just followed the trend established by Fox News and Republican operatives, so the blame lies with Rupert Murdoch in entirety. Not to mention the murder of Maxwell.

    • Cyril Blair says:

      He hasn’t lowered the entire public discourse. There are still many people discoursing civilly and intelligently. Yes, he has enabled bigots to speak freely now, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-black, anti-brown rhetoric has increased. But this man’s terse rude critique has nothing to do with Trump. Unless you have evidence of him wearing a MAGA hat when he wrote it.

    • Larry W says:

      Not so much tasteless, Norman, as uninformed. Fully two-thirds of Americans disapprove of our President. It is no more Trump’s America than it’s May’s UK. Very few Americans over the age of 14 view DT’s conversation as normal or acceptable.

      When faced with such a disturbing level of dishonesty and destructive discourse, we must speak all the more thoughtfully, confront lies and injustice, and create art ever more beautifully. This is happening in America.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I thought that this connection was utterly clear….. such people encourage the worst in human behavior and speech.

    • Stuart says:

      Dear Norman: I did not find the analogy tasteless but irrelevant to the context of the point you were making about a review in ARG. I won’t deny that Trump sells and a lot of the media is now about sales and clicks and revenue and not about accuracy and facts. Seemingly every story is turned into an item about Trump because what stood for media reporting 20 years ago no longer sells in the social media/internet age. Trump has become an addictive drug for lazy journalists. As to your question “Can anyone deny that Trump has lowered the level of public discourse in the US to a point where such inhuman dismissal of an artist’s life work now passes for normal conversation?” – yes, I can deny that. It is too broad, too general, and not accurate. Your whole point is that Vroon’s review/perspective is not normal but an outlier. That is the way he often writes. To equate that to “the level of public discourse in the US” is a disconnect. I agree wholeheartedly with your thesis, but not with the throw-away line at the end.

  • Jean says:

    When Aho was last year awarded the Honorary Doctorate by the Music Academy of Cluj (succeeding Ligeti, Penderecki, etc.) he was called “the most important composer alive”. It is interesting how different opinions can be…..

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    The incompetence of most critics is, I believe, what has led to the complete demise of music writing and publications in the USA. It is shameful that record reviews are the only form to survive. The vast majority of critics seem to have no actual training in music, are armchair musicians, who delight in pointing out any flaws they find or imagine in real musicians. The callow youths hired by the New York Times delight in casting shade on performers, yet any criticism of their writing, they call “mean-spirited.” They cannot believe in their own incompetence.

  • Peter Smith says:

    This is not new. I remember years ago a review of an LP of contemporary music which read, in its entirety:

    “This record is crap. The first side is harmless crap. The second side is pernicious crap”

    • Robert von Bahr says:

      And that makes this one better? He’s supposed to run a REVIEWING magazine. I can certainly stomach a bad review, no problem, but it should then be a review, not the result of passing a gall bladder stone. Composers and artists, even record producers are human beings, with feelings. Critisizing them is fair, vomiting on them not!

      • John Borstlap says:

        Entirely agreed. Mere spitting againt artists in public space is beneath contempt. In times when culture is threatened by erosion and populism, such people should choose another profession where they can project their bitterness more contructively, like iron forging, dentistry or joining the Parisian police force.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Robert: why don’t you just “float above it”. He really doesn’t care what you think; if anything, he will be enjoying your reaction. Lastly, people are allowed to have absurd opinions. But the only thing I really got from the review is to ignore the ARG in future.

  • guest says:

    If you read ARG with any regularity, you will see a least one or two reviews per issue where Vroon crudely dismisses a recording in only a few sentences. Sometimes only a couple. If it is performed on period instruments, he will dismiss it immediately–complaining about the instruments used rather than the actual performance.

  • BrianB says:

    This has nothing to do with “Trump’s America.” Vroon is a well known crank and has been writing like that since before Clinton was President. I cancelled ARG decades ago because of his, to sy the least, unenlightening and offensive, blinkered writing.

  • Lindsay Koob says:

    I reviewed choral CDs for ARG for 13 years, and dropped out to devote myself full-time to the Delos record label. I agree that Don Vroon’s short two-liners hardly qualify as actual reviews — and I am also one of the “idiots” who strongly disagrees that Kalevi Aho’s music is “99% crap.” I own (and treasure) a number of the BIS releases devoted to his music. But I strongly disagree with those who badmouth the entire magazine. There a quite a few ARG reviewers — including several who have been part of ARG’s stable for quite some time, and who consistently write thoughtful, informative and generally excellent reviews. Several of them influenced the style of my own reviews — which normally discuss (first) a recording’s strong points, and then its flaws (many recordings have some of both). And indeed, I have occasionally panned recordings mercilessly — but at least I’ve always told my readers why — and in more than just two-liners.

  • Bert Bailey says:

    I’m no special fan of Aho’s, but have heard plenty of his music and can think of a lot worse without any difficulty.
    Regardless of that, however, such a sweeping, off-the-cuff, unargued summation of an entire musical career, as well as of the listening public, is hardly insightful, informative or helpful.
    That anyone would pretend to sum up a composer’s work in such brief, wholesale, totally dismissive terms, especially while leading a team of music critics, simply boggles the mind.
    Surely plenty of music lovers with any real, critical discernment, let alone with a sense of care in expressing musical opinions, would be more deserving to fill the editorial shoes this man supposedly does.
    Isn’t this field of classical music beleaguered enough already–what with uncertain prospects for its proponents, ageing, dwindling audiences, and reduced interest and sales everywhere–to have to put up with such folly?
    If the author of such remarks truly edits a magazine about music, that’s one I’d hesitate to consider reading, and probably simply leave on the shelf.

  • Max says:

    When it concerns the opinions of Donald Vroon, they are consistent to his ultra conservative attitude for the past 50 years. For once, Donald Trump is not to blame.