Cleveland critic who dared criticize is reassigned
Don Rosenberg, music critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 16 years, was told yesterday by the paper's editor that he will no longer be covering the famed Cleveland Orchestra. He has been given the option of reviewing other musical events in town, as well as dance. Another writer at the paper, Zack Lewis, was told he will now be orchestra's reviewer. First, the full disclosure: I've known Don and Zach for years; both are members of the Music Critics Association of North America and its board of directors; Don is the immediate past president of that organization; I'm the current president. Now, the full, unbridled response to this news: It stinks.
Music critics are hired to deliver critical opinions. If those opinions are not popular with some people, tough. As long as the critic demonstrates musical knowledge and a keen ear for what is involved in the art of music-making, the critic is fulfilling the job requirements. Don's musical background is as good as it gets, his evaluations reasoned and sensitive. He has covered the Cleveland Orchestra for nearly three decades (including a stint with another area paper), and he's the author of the definitive book about that orchestra. So what did he do wrong? He has questioned, more than once, the sanctity of the Cleveland Orchestra's music director, Franz Welser-Möst, who started in 2002 and has had his contract renewed a couple times, the last extension taking him all the way to 2018. Don has judged that Welser-Möst is lacking in certain abilities in certain repertoire, that he doesn't necessarily get the best out of music or the eminent ensemble. Yet, Don is also the first to admire what the conductor does best, as was the case a few months ago after a performance of Dvorak's Rusalka. Don wrote that Welser-Möst "was in his element ... shaping a performance full of atmosphere and energy. He emphasized flexibility and shaded Dvorak's luminous paeans to nature with tenderness." Don went on to suggest that more spacious phrasing would have benefited a couple of passages, "but Rusalka is surely one of the highlights of Welser-Möst's tenure."
Take a look back through the Plain Dealer archives and you'll find plenty of balanced examples like that. A critic hell-bent on bashing a conductor wouldn't hear a single worthy note. But, apparently, some Cleveland Orchestra boosters can't accept any negative words about the music director. I imagine they dismiss as irrelevant the fact that the orchestra, while on tour, has been known to generate reviews by other critics expressing reservations about Welser-Möst. Of course, there's nothing that can be done about out-of-town naysayers, but there's always good old-fashioned lobbying that can be tried at home. That, it seems, has now been successful. The Plain Dealer has clearly caved into pressure from a faction representing the orchestra and the man on its podium. By silencing Don, those myopic folks must think they've achieved a great victory. They haven't. They've made a venerable newspaper look cheap and act cowardly. They've made a sterling orchestra look a little less so. Ultimately, this calculated attack on a music critic doing his job casts a suspicious light on his detractors and their motivations.
Like Somerset Maugham wrote: "People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise." Any orchestra's player, conductor, board member, lofty patron or ordinary ticket-buy who only wants to read praise has missed the whole point of the artistic process. Not to mention a free press. Then again, any newspaper that would silence a serious, bona-fide voice because some people don't like hearing it may need a refresher course, too.