New York Times chief critic steps down

New York Times chief critic steps down


norman lebrecht

November 15, 2021

The paper has announced that its chief music critic Anthony Tommasini is stepping down. He is 73 and has been in the post for 20 years.

A successor has yet to be named.

Although wielding far less authority than such predecessors as Harold Schonberg and Bernard Holland, Tommasini was instrumental in persuading the New York Philharmonic to replace Lorin Maazel with Alan Gilbert and in nudging the Met to update its repertoire.

He was a formulaic writer, never a stylist, and while his knowledge of opera was extensive, his orchestral experience showed gaps. H diviced opinion evenly across New York’s vociferous music community.




  • bet says:

    The NYT classical music section only recently hired its first latino, although still white.

    Will the NYT name a black chief classical music critic?

    Or will the NYT get rid of classical music criticism altogether in the name of equity?

    • Brian says:

      Well, they should hire a black chief critic. It would send a strong message that classical music is for everyone, and not just for rich, white elites.

      The fact that you suggest there’s tradeoff involved (racial diversity vs. commitment to the art form) is offensive.

      • Bet says:

        Philip Ewell would be a fitting chief classical music critic at the NYT.

        Tommasini pretty much re-made the position as a leftist arts advocacy columnist in the guise of “reviewing concerts”.

      • Tamino says:

        A „strong message“, that classical music is for everyone, only needs to be sent to the optuse, because classical music already is for everyone.
        The problem with classical music is, that it‘s hard to learn the skill, it requires effort. But who ever sent a message that it‘s not for everyone who wants to learn it or listen to it?
        Strange thinking, Brian.

      • Anthony Sayer says:

        @Brian: Identifying irony is clearly not your strong point.

      • falparsi says:

        Right, Brian. The “message,” as you put it, always lies in the skin color. About time the Culture Desk got on board with this.

    • Henrietta says:

      I’ve been reading Mr. Tommasini since high school and have learned so much about music, and writing about music, from his work

      He understood that the role of the critic was, at its core, to educate the public, and he was a brilliant educator.

      • HugoPreuss says:

        I always enjoyed reading his columns. On some occasions I commented on something he wrote via mail, and he invariably would respond directly in a kind, civilized and educated way. I’m among those who will miss him.

      • Jack says:

        I agree. He was a good writer. He wrote the best description of Pavarotti’s voice that I have ever read.

    • Piano Lover says:

      The question remains open.
      Why not hire a disabled black man who knows nothing about classical music altogether?
      2021 is the year of minorities.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      When it comes to the NYT almost anything is possible. They long ago surrendered any credibility and objectivity they may once have held.

    • Stuart says:

      or will the NY Times hire the best qualified music critic that they can find/attract. Not that it really matters since the readership of classical music criticism is nearly non-existent.

    • usobserver says:

      In true Tommasini fashion the NYT will probably shutdown the idea of blind auditions for critics.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The new rage is deaf auditions for critics. This is already practised by the Stürmische Beobachter in Germany, The Cranky Pot News in Bunbury and Le Monde Fugitive in Arles.

    • Nick Kalogeresis says:

      Hope not. Getting rid of NYT music criticism will only hurt efforts.

    • Tiredofitall says:

      Why would ethnicity enter into their choice at all? Deep knowledge of instrumental and vocal music and the ability to observe, analyze, and write well should be the prerequisites. May the the best person get the job.

      That said, I wouldn’t bet the farm that the Times doesn’t dispense with the position altogether. Tommasini rather diluted the importance of classical music reviews in NYC.

    • Sisko24 says:

      No, the NY Times is not getting rid of classical music criticism for any reason. It is why we read that newspaper since few other daily publications cover the genre. My expectation is that the NYTimes will promote someone from their current staff. I was surprised to learn he had been such a major supporter of Alan Gilbert. The verdict on Mr. Gilbert’s tenure will be kind but not glowing. But the last paragraph in Mr. Lebrecht’s comment is ‘spot on’ in my view: I overheard many a concertgoer at Avery Fisher Hall commenting about what Mr. Tommasini had written in one of his reviews. Those comments were seldom in ‘happy agreement’ with what Tommasini had written.

    • ben dominitz says:

      What in the world does the skin color of a music critic have to do with anything? When will this woke insanity stop?

    • Manny Balestrero says:

      Sure, let’s hire a music critic now based solely on his or her RACE. Only a RACIST would endorse that. But ok, let’s make it about race for a minute, let me ask you this: what have blacks offered the classical music world that makes them remotely deserving of any sort of “equity” in the field? Has a black composer ever given the world a classical composition within 2 million miles of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? Or Wagner’s Ring Cycle? Or Bach’s cantatas? Or Mozart’s operas? Schubert, Brahms, Vivaldi, Liszt? Etc etc etc you BIPOC wannabes have a long way to go 😉

  • PS says:

    He was hidden behind a paywall so I haven’t read him.

  • mary says:

    “He was … never a stylist, and … his orchestral experience showed gaps.”

    Rather sour grapes from one critic to another, no?

    1) Do good “stylists” make good critics?

    2) What does it mean for a critic to have “orchestral experience”? You make it sound like there is something more substantive for a critic to do than just to attend concerts, collect records, read up on the subject matter, and for the really ambitious, study the scores, which really just measure the number of years they’ve been on the job, rather than some real world “experience in an orchestra” as it were.

    3) But fine, give an example of such a “gap” in his orchestra experience then. We all have gaps in our knowledge, even professors concentrate on single composers or periods, but it’s hard to see how you’d know from reading a 5 paragraph review someone writes.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There are reports that at least three conductors have fallen into one of Mr Tommassini’s gaps and they had difficulty climbing-out, and one was seriously injured and needed medical treatment. Never ignore a critic’s gap!

    • D says:

      Agreed. Moreover, he is an accomplished pianist and can trace the lineage of his musical training back to Nadia Boulanger (via Virgil Thomson)–hardly the credentials of a hack.

  • phf655 says:

    Norman’s assessment is largely correct. I found most of his reviews, particularly the non-vocal ones, to be formulaic and predictable. He never heard a new piece that he didn’t like, and he never discussed the fact that hardly anyone was clamoring to hear this new music, and almost all of it was never performed again. Except for his constant harping on ‘why don’t they play more new music’ he seemed more like a cheerleader for New York’s major institutions than a true critic.
    If someone is bored with the standard classical repertory, which I truly believe is one of the greatest achievements of human civilization, he should not be employed as the chief critic of New York’s major media outlet.

  • Dennis Pastrami says:

    Good riddance – this guy was, is, and will continue to be a bum.

  • degenerate new yorker says:

    so we are gonna get a more woke lgbt bipoc critic?

  • CarlD says:

    Only if formulaic means balanced and fair. And as far as I’m concerned, stylists too often sacrifice accuracy for flair. So there.

  • Anon says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Tommasini’s writing. I’ve grown to trust his opinion, and I find him knowledgeable and fair in his reviews.

    It was a rude awakening for me when that horrible Zachary Woolfe entered the NY Times arena. Such a petty, pretentious little man with a very limited knowledge of classical music.

    I will miss Mr. Tommasini’s familiar and trustworthy voice in the NY Times.

    • Paracelsus says:

      Zachary Woolfe has done the reading public a great service by steering the classical music section of one of the world’s most important newspapers away from personality cults. Only for that achievement, his contribution has been historic.

      This is one thing classical music lovers don’t seem to be able to get: they alone in the XXI century live in an imaginary world that deeply reveres shockingly unethical octogenarians (e.g., Domingo, Muti, Levine etc.), and does so with sick and unashamed adoration.

      I find Mr. Woolfe’s writings and his editorial leadership excellent. They stand out even more in the mass of sycophantic music critics who spend most of their writing career worshiping one little ridiculous god of their own choice.

      I am often surprised that most music critics still find space and ink is getting wasted printing their nonsense.

      Long live the Mr. Woolfe and Mr. Lebrecht of the world (though I fully appreciate they may not like to be put in the same batch, but still I like them both, at least they think with their on head and are not ashamed of doing so.)

      • Anon says:

        Paracelsus, I have no opinion whatsoever on octogenarians, only about music critics like Zachary Woolfe who try to parlay a little knowledge in a limited area of classical music into appearing that they have some vast overall understanding. He’s a pretentious, pompous fake.

        I have read his reviews of certain (young & cutting edge, mind you) artists which are shocking in their ignorance. He bullshits his way thru any reasonable commentary on solo instrumental artists because he knows nothing about that genre. And yet he judges harshly. Go figure.

      • BRUCEB says:

        I always thought he was just kind of a not-very-good critic — something you get used to when you read a fair amount of it — but then he threw away whatever little credibility he had left when he apologized for his role in running Alan Gilbert out of the NY Phil post.

        Not because he apologized, but what he apologized for: he pretty much said he’d done it because Gilbert didn’t fit his idea of how a music director should look and behave, not for anything about his musicianship or how he ran the orchestra. (I dunno, maybe he thought a music director should wear a top hat and a cape?) I thought “wow, I had no idea it was even possible to be so small-minded anymore.”

  • Couperin says:

    My friends and I have been calling him Tommasucki for over a decade.

  • Darrell says:

    This is the guy who paid his laughable respect to the woke ‘movement’ when back in July 2017, took aim at Donal Trump when the President, in Poland, said in praise of the Western Arts and Culture “we write symphonies”. And this guy wrote this in the NYT:

    • Ainslie says:

      Darrell, did you actually read the article? Or did you just assume that anyone who pointed out the sheer vacuity and inanity of Trump’s flippant point-scoring remark is carrying water for the ‘woke’ movement?

      Trump’s words: “We write symphonies”.

      Trump’s unspoken message to the world: “You write inferior garbage, because you aren’t white Americans or Europeans. And that’s why we are better than you, you people who live in shithole countries.”

      And this from a man who, I will wager, never voluntarily attended a symphony concert in his life that was not an official duty of his job as President.

      Tommasini at least addressed the philosophical and esthetic questions raised. He could have easily filled a column pointing out the silliness of a man who claimed to “know more than my generals” spouting opinions about symphonies, a subject about which he knows nothing and doesn’t care.

  • Jasper says:

    Good riddance. He never gave the NY Phil its due, highlighting what he saw as its shortcomings, but failing to acknowledge the many aspects that make it a top-tier orchestra. His takes on orchestral performance left much to be desired.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    A first rate reviewer and an excellent writer.

    Best wishes for his future.

  • Kenny says:

    Gott sei Dank.

  • debuschubertussy says:

    Most of his “reviews” were just about showing off his historical musical knowledge of a work, rather than commenting on the actual performance of said work.

  • Phillip says:

    Most readers will not miss him.

  • Barry Guerero says:

    Tommasini was about as good as anyone is going to get these days. I like Mark Swed’s work for the L.A. Times too.

    • Anon says:

      Agree. Mark Swed (despite his inclination for fashion commentaries!) is top notch.

      I also rate San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman as one of the very best. Mr. Kosman writes with genuine love for and knowledge about classical music. He knows the classical music scene in the SF Bay Area so well and for so many decades that he’s developed a particular stand-out specialty: when a beloved classical artist in the community passes, Joshua Kosman writes the most beautiful, well-researched and eloquent obituary you could imagine.

      Kosman is a terrific classical music critic, his obituaries are works of art!

      • EagleArts says:

        Swed is simply a pr shill for the LA Phil, nothing more. The LA classical music community deserves so much better.

  • The View from America says:

    One wonders how much he’ll be missed …

  • Ruby Yacht says:

    Good riddance! They will just hire another incompetent.

  • James Weiss says:

    I’d say he’s most notable for having ignored the James Levine abuse story for 20 years and then acting shocked.

  • Emery says:

    ” H diviced opinion”. Please explain

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    Good. He was unworthy and usually wrong.

  • japecake says:

    Oh, boy. Based on recent history at the NYT, I can only imagine what the priorities for a replacement will be.

  • Tiredofitall says:

    There is a God.

  • Bratsche Brat says:

    Would think of this as good news, until realizing he’ll be replaced by an even more egregious wokeist.

  • Wernher says:

    My vote is for Joe the Plumber, providing unexpected perspectives, not to mention the convenience of having an actual plumber on site when needed.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It may be interesting to relate that Debussy, who hated critics, advised that a reviewer who did not know anything of music would be best, because he/she would not be prejudiced. Debussy thought that genuine reactions were better than so-called professional views. That was, of course, because almost all professional views of his own music were negative.

  • True North says:

    Seems it hardly even matters what the story is about anymore … the angry right-wing sleepers in the comments will find a way to twist it to their purposes.

  • Anon says:

    Best thread ever! The tables are turned & we get to review the music critics!

  • My hopes for successor:

    Jeremy Eichler
    Ed Rothstein
    Steve Smith
    Norman LeBrecht
    Charles Michener

    • J. says:

      Yes! Jeremy Eichler is THE guy for the job – thoughtful, knowledgeable, wonderful stylist. He is finishing a very promising book at the moment, but there is no better name in the US. I’m rooting for him.

  • Suzanne says:

    I disagree with Norman in that I never found his writings on opera/vocalism to be particularly enlightening. But I felt I learned something from his writings on the piano repertoire.

  • True North says:

    I can think of a certain New Yorker, a very experienced and highly knowledgeable critic, who would do a superb job, but mentioning his name will probably get me permanently banned from this site!

  • Larry says:

    To paraphrase the great singer, Nat ‘King’ Cole: “I don’t care what the critics say. They get the tickets for free.”

    • John Borstlap says:

      The 109C opera composer Meyerbeer took the most effective route to a good review: he invited all critics to an expensive banquet the day before the premiere, and had them generously sprinkled with champagne. Inevitably, they were enthusiastic before, during and after the performance, and looked forward to the next premiere with delight.

  • How you judge Tommasini depends on how much you value music criticism per se. Should a critic review performance quality only? Should she/he describe or analyze the composition? Sadly, with a few exceptions, we never had a critic as perceptive, insightful and qualified as the late art critic Robert Hughes. Go watch his video series Shock of the New, from way back around the 1980s. You don’t need to know anything about art to learn from him how to look at art and then make reasoned judgments. Concert halls may still be stacked with the usual war horses of Beethoven symphonies but for classical music lovers there is always something more to learn. How to listen to music is not on anyone’s agenda today, when hardly anyone plays an instrument at home or listens to a broad collection of classical music or is exposed to it in school. The Asian performers are trying their best to keep this precious legacy alive because most Americans have just abandoned it. I wonder whether they will abandon the other classics like Shakespeare. Or Renaissance painters. Or medieval cathedrals. Europe isn’t discarding them. They are preserving the best of western civilization. We are busy looking for bizarre sounds or soothing New Age lullabies. Brahms is too complex for our society.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    Nice to see old white males cancelling themselves at the NYT for once.

  • BRUCEB says:

    It would be nice if they could find someone (a) knowledgeable about all kinds – subgenres, if you will – of classical music, who (b) has a clear point of view but is not an agenda-pusher*, and (c) is a good writer. Not that none of these things are true about Tommasini, but depending on your point of view you may notice these qualities present or absent to some degree in his work.

    *I don’t even mean social agendas (there’s already been plenty of hot air released about his “racially blind auditions” column and whatever else), but musical ones.

  • Holly says:

    The one they really need to get rid of is Pareles. There is an unfortunate tendency there for tiresome, predictable Iffy League academics.

  • justsaying says:

    Overdue. His heart was more or less in the right place, but I don’t believe anyone in the music world was interested in his opinions as opinions. He had a list of about 20 talking points, and applied them in with perfect predictability at the expected moments. With stale prose. The idea of Tommasini actually encountering a musical surprise, or being moved or excited or outraged – if those things ever happened, he didn’t have words to convey them.

  • Anon says:

    What’s funny to me is that so many of the classical musicians these famous critics review are actually more interesting writers than professional music critics. And of course, they are better educated musically.

    Personally, I’d much rather read a review written by an out-of-work orchestral player or a conductor in between engagements than a “professional” critic with a broad liberal arts background, no matter how ritzy it may be.

    Classical musicians are often brilliant writers. With opportunities shrinking for performance, I think we may be seeing even more well educated classical musicians turn to writing.

  • I’ve devoted my whole life to some form of music, either as a student, performer or arts worker. In the last years of my life, as a publicist. And having worked with journalists for what seems like forever, I’m here to tell you that there is no comparison between let’s say an oncologist, cancer surgeon and the chief critic of the ny times compared to Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital for Cancer Care or the Mayo Clinic. So let’s keep the thread in some form of perspective. Tony was a pianist and a Boston University grad. In 20 years at the times he did nothing for me or my clients, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’ve learned that this music biz, especially in New York is very insular, it’s not what you know, but who you know. There was an era in Germany and France in my opinon *Romantic I believe, which turned out some great music critics, but that’s no longer the case. So, I wish Tony T well, but certainly will not miss him. Of course, I will follow, and very closely to see who is next, simply because I am not quite dead yet albeit diagnosed with colon cancer.