Music critics RIP, by Tim Page

From a new essay by the Pultizer-winning critic:

Back when most of the leading newspapers in the United States employed paid, officially designated music critics, the artists reviewed were, quite naturally, pleased by positive reviews and less happy with negative ones. The only unpardonable offense was when nobody showed up at all – when the concert on which a musician had spent many hours, perhaps years, planning and preparing would be over and relegated only to memory.

This affront is more rule than exception today, for there are likely no more than 20 Americans who still make most of their living writing in newspapers about classical music. In the mid-1980s, The New York Times published more than 1,000 concert reviews a year and there was a column every Sunday devoted specifically to debut recitals. The Daily News had a full-time critic, as did the New York Post; Newsday, after 1987, had two. Reviewing was a good way for young writers to make a poor living: In addition to the newspapers, there were classical music reviews in New York Magazine and the Village Voice as well as in those publications specifically devoted to the field – Ovation, Keynote, Classical, Musical America and others. Coverage at The New Yorker was so copious that critic Andrew Porter was able to assemble a large volume of his published criticism every three years or so.

The profession isn’t entirely defunct – there are some extraordinary critics still on the beat. In cities with major arts centers or celebrated orchestras, such positions are easier for an editor to justify in tough financial times (and it has been mostly downhill since the advent of the internet)…

Read on here.

 

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  • Anon says:

    “… It was much more difficult to put across serious and unhackneyed thoughts about a performance that had been moving and effective… Put it this way: If I find a young writer who can give me 750 truly gripping words about yet another performance of ‘The Four Seasons,’ I’ll know that I am in the presence of a gifted critic… ”

    Can someone direct me to an example of 750 truly gripping words about any classical music performance?

    • Orin O. says:

      The wonderful writer (on many subjects) Edward Rothstein comes immediately to mind as someone who truly understands music and how to write about it. And Tim Page is greatly missed in New York. Many musicians will be happy to read anything he writes: his discernment and style of writing are rare.

  • Nice Try says:

    Good. No one has ever needed a music critic. No one ever will. The sooner they are all out of a job the better.

    No one wakes up missing Alan Rich.

    • Laurence says:

      I wake up missing Andrew Porter, to whose writing I owe much.

    • PaulD says:

      Maybe not, but I missed Tim Page after he left the Post. I respected his perspective and welcomed his recommendations for music that I would not have thought to seek out.

      • AlanK says:

        Totally agree. The WaPost terminated Tim Page after he made a funny but accurate comment on the drug-loving addled brain of the former and late Mayor, Marion Barry. The Post considered his remarks racist, which of course they were not. He was replaced by the current chief critic who has minimal technical knowledge but an abundance of opinions regarding music performance.

    • Alan Rich was a horrible driver (a very close call while in his passenger seat!), but a hell of a critic. I miss him.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        I was once driven half the length of Finland by a kamikaze pianist. Not an experience I will forget this side of Valhalla. Alan R was a great critic and good guy.

        • M2N2K says:

          It was virtually impossible for me to respect a professional classical music critic who kept insisting that Johannes Brahms was at best a second-rate composer.

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    He is mourning the lack of reviewing jobs in NYC. No other examples of this supposedly vibrant and vital societal need. Is the sinecure at USC not going well?

    • MWnyc says:

      It is going very well, or as well as Tim is able to make it go. As has been discussed here, he suffered a serious brain injury a few years ago. He is not looking for a new job.

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    Tim Page was one of the very few music critics Glenn Gould enjoyed communicating with over the phone. But his opinion on the matter was best parodied on this text. He wrote: “The Scribbler was a noxious little wart from, of all venalities, the daily press -that loathsome compendium of assaults, insults, vagaries, untruths, half-thruths, libels, vulgarities, pomposities and even dichotomies. (…)There was not an ounce of goodness in this wretched chap, not from the greasy morass that stood proxy for his hair to his syphilitic little toe.” Granted, it was part of a fantasy entitled “The Gouldberg Variations”. Do not look for it; it was unpublished.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Tim is none of these things. Glenn was unstable.

      • Eli Bensky says:

        As someone quoted Oscar Levant in this column a while ago, “There is a fine line between genius and madness. And, I have erased it”. Mr. Levant was/is in good company. Pity that we do not any Levants and Goulds today.

  • Jon H says:

    When it comes to concert reviews, it’s the usual percentage of reviews I agree with. But on other issues related to the classical music field, many of those writers have done a commendable job getting the story to the public.

  • Ludwig's Van says:

    Music critics in America can’t hold a candle to the great critics of the 1930s, 1940’s, & 1950’s. We no longer have critics of the caliber of Olin Downes, Ross Parmenter, Virgil Thomson, Harold Schonberg, etc. In reading their writing, one can almost hear the performances they are writing about, such was the depth of their knowledge.

  • Petros LInardos says:

    Tim Page is an erudite and compelling writer. The above essay is no exception.

    And yet I think he doesn’t convey the full picture. Blogs like the Boston Musical Intelligencer make up for the absence of critics from the traditional media, not least by providing an unprecedented number of critics. Many of them are scholars or musicians, reviewing programs that are much closer to their field of specialization than is the case with newspaper critics. The online medium leaves reviewers free to write as much or as little they wish, unlike newspapers. The quality of reviews varies, but is overall much higher than that of newspapers.

    In recent years I’ve also noticed another tendency among reviewers, at least at major traditional US East Coast media like the Boston Globe, the New York Times or the New Yorker: they disproportionately focus at the inclusion of contemporary music, and often look down upon programs of 19th century music.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    In the US, most large papers are now owned by a conglomerate that includes USA Today – news lite is the only way to politely describe it. The owners have made it clear that classical is on the outs. They’ll review every pop/rock/hip hop group out there. They promote all their tours and concerts. But of local symphonies, ballet, opera? Nothing. The upcoming visit from the Royal Philharmonic? Not a word. The state of news media in the US is very sorry and troubling.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    To write meaningfully about Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons it is necessary to have deep knowledge of the fiddler’s art, a subject of which music critics know nothing.

    • Eric says:

      Opera critics almost never know anything about vocal technique which is why reviews always start with an explanation of what the regietrash production was all about, with perhaps a short uninformed paragraph at the end about the singing.

  • I think mainstream classical music criticism would be revived if music critics challenged the status quo now and then. No one wants to read a bunch of milk toast conformists brown-nosing the industry and local establishment. There’s far more to good music journalism than the clever phrase or occasional dig describing some performance of the industry’s long dead repertoire.

    What music critic has had the guts to address topics like the oligarchical nature of America’s system of arts funding, and really keep it up and hammer at the topic until people really begin to think and discuss? Or address why the USA has such an astounding lack of opera. Or why so many of our best young musicians, and especially singers, have to go abroad to find work and build their careers. Or the systemic reasons why the USA has so few first rank international conductors. Or why our top ten orchestras are almost always led by foreigners. There are many possibilities for genuine musical and social thinkers to gain a wide readership. So where are they?

    Well, they’re on the Internet.

    #MeToo stands as an example. The abuse went on for decades, but no mainstream journalist said anything until they could cautiously ride on the coattails of the #MeToo movement. When they finally wrote about it, there was enormous interest and many readers, but they still didn’t learn that good arts journalism means sticking your neck out and doing some real reporting.

    For decades, not one music journalist mentioned, or even took note, that the Vienna Phil categorically excluded women until I made an issue of it on the Internet in the mid 90s. Even though I’m not a journalists, my articles went viral and then followed literally hundreds of newspaper articles. A little more awareness and integrity, and a willingness to challenge the powers that be, might help the profession…

    If they’re going to hide in the shadows of power, they’re going to continue to disappear. The Internet does a better, more relevant, and far more interesting job.

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