Reviewer quits record mag after being called out for plagiarism

Reviewer quits record mag after being called out for plagiarism


norman lebrecht

February 03, 2019

The current furore around American Record Guide has claimed its first casualty.

Woodwinds specialist Wai Kit Leung cast his eye over some of its reviews and found one from 2016 that looked familiar. That’s because it lifted bits of text from one of his own record reviews in another magazine.

The reviewer, to his credit, was contrite. He told Wai Kit Leung ‘After thinking it over, I wish to further apologize; and I have decided to give up my role as a reviewer for American Record Guide because of my poor judgment in this matter.’

Since he has done the right thing, we have withheld the offender’s identity.



  • boringfileclerk says:

    He’s also been known to lift passages from Mr. Boolez’s reviews on iTunes.

  • Don Vroon says:

    No plagiarism was involved, and the writer was apologizing only because he realized that one short comment should have been attributed. He had read many reviews of the disc, and it is normal that certain ideas and phrases seemed right to him and stuck in his mind. That happens to all of us and is not plagiarism. When two knowledgeable people are reviewing the same disc, the reviews are likely to resemble each other.

    • Robert von Bahr says:

      From that follows, doesn’t it, that, if two reviews of the same record are wildly different, then at least one of the people writing them is – likely – not knowledgeable.
      For the record, we have amassed a huge pile of reviews for our over 30 records of Kalevi Aho’s music. The vast, and I mean VAST, majority is very to extremely positive. International Prizes, Awards galore. So all these reviewers and Juries from around the world are, in Vroon’s vocabulary, “idiots”, who don’t know “crap” from a hole in the ground?

      • Don Vroon says:

        No it doesn’t follow at all. That is not a logical deduction.

        • Robert von Bahr says:

          But yes, it is.
          You wrote: “When two knowledgeable people are reviewing the same disc, the reviews are likely to resemble each other.”
          I turn it around to the logical conclusion (it’s mathematics, really) by inserting two “negatives”.
          -When two persons, one of which is NOT knowledgeable, are reviewing the same disc, the reviews are NOT likely to resemble each other.- This follows from the above.

          Regardless, if you believe yourself to be knowledgeable, and your “review” is totally different from the vast majority of reviews of Kalevi Aho’s music, then – likely – either you or the others are wrong. Since it cannot be you, it must be the others.

          But all this is irrelevant. Why cannot you start realising that you are talking about human beings, people that are doing their utmost to bring to the world pieces of musical art? People with feelings. Each record represents a lifetime of studying, extremely hard work, knowledge and talent, and, not to put too fine a point at it, a lot of the green stuff.
          If one puts out a record, one is fair game for criticism. All of the participants, incl. the label. No two ways about that. But that criticism should be based upon listening and the results should be motivated. It for sure doesn’t have to be a thesis, but to write: “A completely uninspired composer whose music is stultifying – and just gets worse as the years go on.” for 2 full records from 2 different companies, with 2 more unnamed composers recorded, and 2 sets of artists, in my considered opinion, isn’t criticism – it’s just a vulgar slap in the face – for what? So that your readers can enjoy yet another pernicious oneliner from you and snigger for a second? I find this a most inhuman, immoral and insulting behaviour for someone that is the head of a magazine that is supposed to REVIEW. It goes against the ethics of any human being, whether religious or not. You are hurting real people, real artists, for a cheap shot. And – worst – it is unprofessional.

          The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet is an absolutely world-class ensemble. If you don’t like – or even hate – the music they are performing at the top of their abilities, OK, your prerogative, but why not a comment about the artists? They are part of the record you refuse to REVIEW.

          If an artist is playing music on instruments, for which the music was written, you just dismiss the results, as you do with anything that is HIP. The low massive chords in the left hand in a Beethoven piano sonata don’t make sense on a Steinway, but they do on a forte-piano, for which he composed the music, with its much more fragile and transparent sound. But Donald Vroon knows better. All music is better on modern instruments.

          I think the word that has gone completely past you is RESPECT. Show some, and you will get some.

          Robert von Bahr

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Robert von Bahr.

            I am sorry, but the more emotional you become the less you impress the readership. Rise above it…let it go.

    • Emil says:

      Yeah, that ‘I have read a lot and got inspired by others’ does not cut it. Not in journalism, not in academia, not in any profession that deals with words. If you’re a professional, you take notes like a professional and you do your job thoroughly.

      • The View from America says:

        That assumes that the people writing the reviews over at ARG are “professionals,” which is certainly debatable.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      I agree about the risk of certain words and phrases sticking to the mind; I’ve read that humorists James Thurber and Robert Benchley both worried that they were inadvertently copying each other’s best stuff in what they submitted to Harold Ross’s The New Yorker in the 1930s. Back when I reviewed I did everything I could to avoid reading anyone else’s review of a particular disc before I submitted my piece (partly to avoid the problem and partly because I did not and do not care what others think if I have my own views). But I suspect some words and phrases coined by others and seen in other reviews of other recordings did sneak in. I remember when Harris Goldsmith (an elegant reviewer and himself a fine pianist) first used the word “lapidary” in the old High Fidelity to describe a certain pianist’s style of mining for detail and inner voices. Soon that word was everywhere in reviews and you still see it. It became part of the vocabulary.

      And no, to reply to Robert von Bahr, if two reviews reach utterly different conclusions about a disc it is no indication that one is in error. Reviews are opinions, nothing more, nothing less. They can be equally informed opinions and still differ. Or equally uninformed for that matter.

      • Robert von Bahr says:

        Dear David,
        of course I know that. Really!!! I am not a moron. I was taking up Vroon’s amazing statement, drew the inevitable conclusion, and showed how inaccurate (to use a friendly word) that was. Hence the original statement was equally (to use a friendly word) inaccurate. But if he really believes that, then my reasoning is sound and he is in the wrong. You and I are totally agreed. Of course (smiley).

    • BrianB says:

      Ridiculous. A reviewer should never read someone else’s review of a performance before writing one’s own. Then if one wants to gloss and comment on other’s opinions that’s fine. With due attribution.

    • Wai Kit Leung says:

      At the time Mr. Pfeil was writing his review, the only reviews he could have read were mine and the many 5-star reviews that Ms. Needleman’s friends and fans wrote on, shortly after the CD was launched:

      I found it troubling that a reviewer reads other reviews before penning his. Doesn’t that affect one’s objectivity?

      • Robert von Bahr says:

        With all respect to you, Wai Kit, if Norman took the consideration not to mention the reviewer by name, and quite rightly so, in the light of his apology, why did you have to?

        • Wai Kit Leung says:

          I left out his name initially, but “Byrwec Ellison” disclosed it here, so I thought I might continue to use it.

          I had not planned on pointing to the actual review, which carried his name in any case. But Mr. Vroon’s denial left me with no option.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Remarkable…. I think it was SD who rattled the apple cart. Who knows what other apples will fall. The profession of serious music reviewing should be a professional one, since it is part of the culture.

    I am reminded of the many, really very many, shitty reviews R Wagner got in the press and the music journals in his time, plus severe criticism from the new academic discipline ‘music science’. When, in some derogatory article, Wagner was described as ‘fearing the press’, he felt obliged to send-in a letter to the editor saying that he did not fear the press at all but merely had a profound contempt for it. Which was taken-up again for another round of publicity. It does not seem that the profession has developed very much since then.

    • BrianB says:

      “It does not seem that the profession has developed very much since then.”
      As critics Bernard Shaw and B.H. Haggin both critiqued and exposed in their own writings on the press criticism of their day.

  • Dan P. says:

    My questions are these: (1) how hard is it to write a record review that one has to poach phrases from another review? (2) On the other hand, were those original pearls of wisdom so original and valuable that repeating them represents a theft of ideas? (3) did the comments apply to the new recording (or was it the same recording)? (4) Why should anyone care other then the original writer? This is a record review, something even more ephemeral than even a yelp review. Just my opinion….

    • Paul Brownsey says:

      One could say, e.g., “I cannot improve on the summing-up given by Wai Kit Leung, that….”

    • Grace says:

      “Why should anyone care other then the original writer?”

      If this is a serious question, then you are part of the problem. It is ethically wrong, and in some contexts and jurisdictions, illegal, to appropriate others’ intellectual property and pass it off as your own. You do know that, don’t you?

      Yes, it matters to the original writer, but it should matter to all of us who read, all of us who seek information, or guidance, or even entertainment. How can we know whose work we are reading? What can we trust? How can we evaluate a particular review if we can’t be sure that the reviewer has even listened to the music and come to his or her own opinion? Sheesh, this is pretty basic.

    • Grace says:

      I should add that my comments here are general, and not specific to this particular case.

  • Robert von Bahr says:

    Wish it had been Donald Vroon himself, but that is impossible. Noone else could write as floccinaucinihilipilificatiously, whence he could steal it.

  • Wai Kit Leung says:

    The two reviews were on the same CD. The American Record Guide review can be found on p. 237 of their 2016 July/August edition:

    Katherine Needleman is the principal oboist of the Baltimore Symphony. On this program of works for oboe and piano, she displays fine music-making and remarkable soft playing even in the unwieldy lowest register of the oboe. This is a very intimate performance, a picture of refined lyricism, but it falls a bit short in the loudest passages.
    Both oboe and piano are refined and sen- sitive in the Schumann Romances, with per- fect balance. Ms Needleman has a clear and singing tone, with lovely phrasing. Her inter- pretation is thoughtful and lucid, if a little light on the emotional fervency that is Schumann’s trademark. Tempos err on the slow side, with some odd pauses that interrupt the flow of the melodic lines.
    Pleiades by American composer David Ludwig is a depiction of the seven sisters from Greek mythology (written for Ms Needleman). Each brief movement has a distinctive charac- ter, brought out well by the soloist, who han- dles the technical challenges with virtuosic ease. Again, her pianissimo playing is phe- nomenal.
    The Poulenc Sonata is the strongest part of the program. The players capture the neoclas- sical austerity, pointed declamations, and tuneful nostalgia admirably. The balance is exactly right, with Ms Lim displaying strong, capable technique and artistic perception, never overwhelming Needleman’s astonishing pianissimos. The shape and color of the softest passages is simply exquisite. The Haas Suite doesn’t fare as well as the Poulenc, as it is too restrained in both dynamics and expression, depicting intense introspection rather than terror, rage, and grief.
    The Schumann, Haas, and Poulenc have been recorded many times, so any addition to the library must struggle to stand out. Few oboists can compete with the likes of Goossens, Holliger, Bourgue, and Mayer. This disc is recommended for fans of Ms Needle- man’s fine musicianship and outstanding pianissimo playing and people interested in the Ludwig piece, which makes a nice addition to the recital repertory.

    Here is my version, written in March 2016 and posted online on 1 April 2016:

    The similarities of the commentaries are uncanny. The ARG reviewer even listed the exact same four oboists for comparison. My questions are:

    1. Do you consider this plagiarism?

    2. If so, is this ethical or legal? I was neither consulted, credited nor compensated by the American Record Guide.

    3. How widespread is this practice?

    I haven’t checked on other ARG reviews and am not sure if this was the only instance of “borrowing”.

  • fflambeau says:

    But he didn’t do the right thing originally, and likely he would have been forced out anyway.

  • Grace says:

    I write program notes professionally. I’m a professional librarian (that is, master’s degree, trained and experienced in research) and a classical musician (two degrees, music theory). In preparing to write a program essay, I search for and read information from a variety of sources to verify facts and, in the case of music that I do not know from personal experience, to gain some understanding of the gestalt of the music itself. And as a professional writer, I am keenly aware of the absolute necessity of keeping my own words and ideas separate from those of others. In my program essays, I DO quote liberally from other writers, ALWAYS with attribution, and I name the writers. In my opinion, this adds credibility to my own writing – what my readers get is not just my own take on the subject, but the benefit of expert opinions or insights from others.

    Of course, this process (research, assimilation, expression) is entirely different from writing a review of a performance or recording, which is essentially an informed opinion.

    But my point is that in this day and age, when it is SO easy to copy and paste from other sources, it is more important than ever to quote and cite appropriately, to give full credit where credit is due and never to tacitly assume other people’s ideas as your own. And for the same reasons that it is easy to copy and paste, it is very easy to discover appropriations and plagiarisms. And yes, plagiarism can be done with ideas as well as with exact words.

    Many readers here may find it instructive to review university guidelines on plagiarism and attribution – most colleges and universities have this guidance on their websites. My own impression is that many people these days, perhaps of younger generations, simply are not aware of the complexities that underlie their copy-paste operations.

  • Byrwec Ellison says:

    I don’t understand why Pfeil felt any pressure to resign (unless ARG just isn’t much of a gig).

    With respect to plagiarism, these two reviews couldn’t be any more different in words or style; they don’t resemble one another in any discernible way. Leung’s text, with a generous 1100-word budget from MusicWeb, is a detailed catalogue of minutiae about dynamics, tempos, phrasings, attacks and articulations. Pfeil’s 300-word review is a heavy-on-adjectives gloss-over of the recorded performance.

    Is it surprising that two reviewers listening to the same recording of the Schumann Romances would notice the performer’s unusual pauses that break up the melodic line? Is it plagiarism to note that David Ludwig wrote his piece for Needleman? Is it plagiarism to remark that the Schumann, Haas and Poulenc works have been recorded many times? (I doubt that Mr. Leung has a copyright on that information). And how does Pfiel avoid naming the same four prominent oboists when Leung names eight of them for the Schumann alone?!!!

    I challenge anyone to read these two reviews and point to the offending phrase or phrases that are copied. For the record, I don’t know either of these gentlemen. I’m just outraged because a false accusation of plagiarism is no less pernicious than plagiarism itself.

    • Wai Kit Leung says:

      As I posted above, I invite everyone to read the two reviews and decide whether this was plagiarism.

      A relevant question is: had Mr. Pfeil actually heard Goossens, Holliger, Bourgue and Mayer perform the same repertoire?

  • Wai Kit Leung says:

    I have just gone through the other reviews this reviewer wrote for the AGR during the remainder of 2016. Some of the discs he reviewed were also reviewed by me, and I didn’t find any other instances of “borrowing”. I can certainly understand how difficult it must have been for him to write an honest review on this particular disc.

    This reviewer is a trained musician and has written many good reviews, unlike some other reviewers, who are no more than uninformed cheerleaders. It will be a loss for the community if he gives up writing for just one infraction.

    Having said that, the way Mr. Vroon defended him makes you wonder if such “borrowing” is a standard practice for the ARG.

  • There have been several occasions where I found my Amazon opera DVD/Blu-ray reviews more or less copied on ARG – I always took that as a compliment. In the case of my Bernstein T&I Blu-ray review the ARG reviewer copied an error I made in my Amazon review (I stated, erroneously, that they re-mixed the audio), an error which I later corrected on Amazon.