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December 11, 2008

Demoted Cleveland critic sues paper, orch. leaders

Don Rosenberg, the longtime music critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer who was removed from covering the Cleveland Orchestra at the start of the season, filed suit today in the Court of Common Pleas of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, against the paper and its editor, Susan Goldberg; as well as Gary Hanson, executive director of the orchestra, and Richard Bogomolny, chairman of the Musical Arts Assocation, which operates and manages the orchestra.

When I reached Don on the phone, he said: "I was just not going to let it ride. I had to make a statement about a lot of issues." Those issues include defamation; interference with press freedom; and age discrimination (Don, who's in his mid 50s, was replaced by now 32-year-old writer Zachary Lewis).

The suit charges that the editor and orchestra officials conspired "maliciously, intentionally, willfully, unlawfully ... retalitorily ..." to remove the critic from his duties. In fascinating detail, the suit lays out a scenario that begins with an article by Don that appeared in the Plain Dealer in August 2004 reporting on an interview Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most had given to a Swiss magazine. In that interview, the conductor was quoted making some cutting remarks about Cleveland's provinicialism, its audience of "blue hair ladies," and the "rich widows" needed to fund the arts. Welser-Most also was quoted as favoring a system of charging money to get an audience with him (it sounds rather like something that Illinois Gov. Blagojevich might have thought up) -- more than $5,000 before the donor would get a handshake, but, for $10 million, "of course, you go to dinner."

"I was just being a dutiful reporter," Don said today. But once those comments hit the Cleveland paper, orchestra officials reacted angrily; the suit alleges that the p.r. director told Don he would suffer "consequences." The suit goes on to describe efforts over the next few years to "besmirch Plaintiff's reputation as a music critic"; various meetings held between orchestra administrators and the paper's editor to discuss critical coverage of Welser-Most; the supression of an article Don wrote and another he planned to write that would have contained negative assessments of Welser-Most's tenure at the orchestra; and, finally, in September, the demotion to arts and entertainment reporter.

The suit seeks damages "well in excess of $25,000" for compensatory damages and the same for punitive damages. "It's going to be a long process," Don said. "There are no guarantees. I'm learning a lot about law, let me tell you."

The "Plaintiff's Notice of Depositions" starts with Welser-Most; his deposition is tentatively set for March 18. That should be very interesting.

Included in the suit as Exhibit A is the letter of support for Don sent to the Plain Dealer editor signed by many critics from around the country and released through the Music Critics Association of North America. The editor never responded to that letter.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:06 PM | | Comments (17)


Does anyone know where copies of the original offending 2004 article can be found? Or the text of the Swiss magazine article? It would seem that these sources would be necessary to assess the newspaper's assessment of Rosenberg.

I was a bit shocked to read the news, but then again extending the conductor's contract to 2018 is also fairly shocking...

The Cleveland Orchestra remains a top institution; and do keep in mind that this mini-drama hardly compares to the dysfunctional situation we have here in Seattle...where the critics for newspapers don't appear to have the stomach to criticize the huffing, wheezing, and dealing of our music director.

But one wonders if any music critics will be left in US newspapers in twenty years or so. Of course, newspapers themselves are in trouble enough as it is...

Here's a quote from that 2004 PD article:

Welser-Most speaks out

Some of Welser-Most s comments in current Swiss magazines have raised eyebrows.

In Weltwoche, under the headline, Many Rich Widows, he discusses private funding for culture in the United States, deeming it necessary to find rich widows and that charm certainly is no disadvantage when you want the ladies to understand you well.

Welser-Most refers to the Friday-matinee audiences in Cleveland that are filled with Blue Hair Ladies because of the coloring of their hair and states that these so-called Blue Hair Audiences largely comprise retirees who are too tired to attend performances at night.

Asked what the ladies must donate to meet Welser-Most personally, he answers: For $500, you don t get a handshake from the music director.

And for $5,000? No, it has to be a little more than that. A few years ago, an enthusiastic middle-age fan, in this case a man, moved a check across the table for $10 million. With such a person, of course, you go to dinner.

How do you like Cleveland? Cleveland is an island. Here we have a world-class orchestra in what I call an inflated farmer s village. For me, who loves the country, it is wonderful to live there among the green. Recently in the street in front of my home, I found a huge turtle. It had not escaped from the zoo. It was just walking in the street.

Rosenberg's "take" on the translated article was very much biased to put FWM in a negative light. It is not a surprise that the arts depend on gifts from private donors, and often these donors are aged 50 plus. It is not unusual in any organization to make big time donors feel special. If I remember correctly, the magazine article was much more referring to how orchestras in the US go about raising funds compared to the European ensembles that get much more help from the government. As far as the comment about Cleveland as a city, I took it to be that it is wonderful that you can have a world class orchestra in a place that you can still live in nature and truly be a part of the community. The article that Rosenberg wrote ruffled feathers, but ruffled mine mostly because more people will read what he wrote and believe that, than read the article for themselves and translate it the way it was intended.

I feel that this story is larger then Don and Franz. Cleveland the city is dying. People are leaving by droves. The Cleveland Orchestra has a longstanding "European" tradition when it comes to conductors. Look around, not many of those you can bring in to replace Franz, at least not with any significant gravitas. Cleveland Orchestra, in a brilliant move, is now swarming Miami blue hairs just to stay afloat.

The Cleveland Orchestra is very good, world class on some days, but not every day. They are a $40 million dollar machine trying to survive in a dying city. Their pride forces them to keep a very boring conductor who can only relate and be attractive to blue hairs. As a classically trained musician I find his programs boring, his conducting uninspiring.

The PD's music critic gets it right 95 percent of the time.

This is really about a cultural institution that is fighting not to lose its status as world-class, but along they way they are loosing their credibility, they are smug and when all you have is an audience of blue hairs in Cleveland, a few social climbers in Miami, and an annual European Tour that gets a few mentions in the NY Times --yawn-- it all adds up to an organization not being relevant to the world or community they believe they lead.

Their endowment just took a beating, who will they bludgeon now to make up the difference in their budget?


You sound like a jealous fellow.

Every world-class orchestra, which The Cleveland Orchestra surely is, has some very good days and some days when its playing is truly superlative. Nobody serious in the classical-music business believes that the orchestra has lost its musical credibility.

The CO keeps Welser-Moest not because of pride, but because he has a strong reputation overseas and is willing to shoulder some non-musical responsibities, including helping with fund-raising from significant donors. As far as musicianship, most objective listeners think he ranges from very good in some repertoire (Austrian, vocal, for example) to bland in others, but not to the consistently downbeat evaluations Mr. Rosenberg provided week after week in his reviews of concerts conducted by Welser-Moest.

You are right that Northeast Ohio is in economic distress and is likely to remain so. To me, that means the CO is smart to broaden its fund-raising horizons to Miami (where many former Clevelanders live) and overseas. Rather than something to criticize, it's something to understand and even admire. It's not the orchestra's fault that the local economy is in decline and it wants to survive anyway.

What journalist with integrity would NOT have reported on Welser-Moest's comments to the Swiss newspaper? Rosenberg was assigned to go on that tour and report back to Cleveland on the orchestra's reception by the European press. I do not believe that Rosenberg slanted or exaggerated Welser-Moest's comments about the Blue-Haired Ladies or the country-bumpkin description of Cleveland. I personally overheard FWM making the same comments in Cleveland, to three German guest artists during the break of a rehearsal at Severance Hall. He spoke to them in German in my presence, assuming that I would not understand (being a resident of Cleveland and therefore surely unskilled in any foreign language!) FWM basically told these German singers that Cleveland is a cultural backwater. When he glanced in my direction and saw that I was following the conversation, he changed the subject.

This is the conductor whom Exec. Director Gary Hanson has gone to such trouble to protect.

A certain Robert Duvin, identified by the New York Times as a lawyer for the orchestra, is quoted as saying that if it is true that the orchestra had urged Rosenberg's dismissal, "So what?"

Well here's what: It's TAWDRY and SLEAZY. And this organization used to stand for much more. So where did they find this creep?

I think other writers have nailed it on this whole story, i.e. follow the money. The sustaining fund took a hit, the big corporate donors have taken a flyer and now the orchestra is outsourcing support to Miami Beach. I do wish them well. But if Mr. Duvin is representative of their integrity in musical matters nowadays I don't know that I can follow them anymore.

I couldn't agree with you more. And, as the Illinois governor's case makes plain, there's a huge danger to the core principle of a free press when anyone with power and connections attempts to force change at a newspaper. It's even scarier to think that some papers might actually cave. Tim

The situations of The Cleveland Orchestra and Mr. Rosenberg on the one hand and Governor Blagojevich and The Chicago Tribune are not even remotely similar.

Music is subjective and usually apolitical. Mr. Rosenberg presented what the orchestra thought was biased opinion on subjective matters of taste, so it protested. That's totally legal. Governor Blagojevich, who's objectively a miscreant/criminal, attempted to get a Tribune editor replaced (I imagine) because the latter participated in objective political speech, which is expressly protected by the constitution. On the one hand, you have a world-class institution that has done nothing illegal attempting to protect its interests and with no real power to affect change in the newspaper. On the other, you have a criminal who does have power to hurt the newspaper. Not at all similar.

Agreed, the orchestra probably has done nothing that makes them liable. And I think that is Duvin's point: He is saying they can concede that they pressured the newspaper and Rosenberg still has no legal grounds for damages. Excellent, and I imagine they will have to acknowledge this in a public deposition. And THAT, I think, is Rosenberg's point. With lawyers billing out at $125 an hour I don't think Rosenberg is doing this for the money.

Duvin seems to think that such an admission on the orchestra's part has no consequences beyond the legal ones. But -- and this should go without saying --an artistic institution should stand on it's own merits and not resort to manipulating published opinion. (And again, while they were making suggestions to the PD they could have asked merely that another critical voice be added to the mix, as we have previously discussed.)

It must be said, finally, that in this whole affair Rosenberg WAS expressing a biased opinion: He was consistently in favor of SOME musical content. And the orchestra for it's part has committed its foreseeable future to a PROFOUNDLY mediocre interpreter of the orchestral literature.

Thanks for the comments. I am troubled by those people who seem to think critics can and should be dismissed when they cause displeasure. Consider what the outrage would be if the Chicago Tribune had caved and fired editorial writers the governor didn't like reading. Would bloggers be cheering and justifying that? The price of a free press is that we don't get to agree with it all the time. That goes for politicians, conductors and orchestra execs, as well as the rest of us. Ultimately, I hope the lawsuit, whatever its outcome, helps more people remember that.Tim

Tim, you mentioned politicians. While I continue to see The Cleveland Orchestra/Rosenberg/PD situation as not at all similar to that of Gov. Blogojevich and The Chicago Tribune, you supported Mr. Obama for president even though he and his supporters engaged in media intimidation much worse than anything that has been discussed here. For example, Mr. Obama encouraged his supporters to flood the phone lines of Chicago radio call-in shows when they had conservative guests who had written negative stories and books about him. His supporters in Missouri threatened legal action against reporters who said anything they thought untrue about Mr. Obama. The NRA was threatened with lawsuits for political ads. And, of course, while "Joe the Plumber" was not a member of the media, Obama's supporters in Ohio state government illegally accessed all sorts of records on the guy in the hopes of discrediting him, just because he asked a critical question of the candidate.

I'm all for stretching a point in the cause of a good argument, but I think you may have stretched this one just a little too far.Tim

Hi, Tim. Here are a couple of sources for my statements about Mr. Obama and media intimidation:

You will believe what you want. I would guess that, like most people, you support principle when it suits your interests (as in the case of Mr. Rosenberg and the PD) but not when it doesn't (as in the case of Mr. Obama).

My "interests" have to do with the profession of music criticism and the responsibilities of newspapers to support the people they hire to give opinions on music. I am not a political commentator, although I certainly have opinions. And I take a dim view of any intimidation of a free press. Tim

Hi, Tim. I admire you for publishing postings that might bug you.

Back to Mr. Rosenberg: A reasonable person who read all of his CO/Welser-Moest reviews over the years could come to the conclusion that he's biased against the conductor and that the reviews have lost their relevance. There's a way to provide criticism, even constant criticism, of an institution and not lose relevance. In fact, the Plain Dealer's sports pages include two of the best in the business at doing just that: Terry Pluto, who writes mainly about sports, including the bedraggled Cleveland Browns; and Brian Windhorst, who covers the Cleveland Cavaliers. Both have been mighty negative over the years about the teams they cover, yet they've always been fair. Perhaps that's because they treat the players, coaches and management as human beings who are trying to do their best. So, the Browns and Cavs don't appear to mind them at all.

One thing that frustrates me a bit about the CO/Rosenberg issue is that a compromise is so obvious: Have Rosenberg cover the CO's concerts with guest conductors, and have somebody else cover the ones with Welser-Moest.

Isn't it ironic that we are asked to support the notion of freedom for Don Rosenberg to issue clearly biased reviews over many years, yet no one who loves the Orchestra is entitled to criticize him??

It is really crystal clear to anyone who reads the reviews of the Cleveland Orchestra from other cities in which is performs that Rosenberg was either biased, or just doesn't get it. Perhaps he wrote his reviews while having a smoke outside of Severance Hall?

There are literally scores of examples from Europe, New York and other venues. Here's a sample from the August 8, 2008 performance in Salzburg (from Kronen Zeitung): "Welser-Most was in his element especially in the Berg. Here the superlative orchestral technician showed his knowledge: the long lines were stretched to their limits, and the motivic material came alive with gripping sensuality. Details that are usually neglected became audible, and merged to form a sound theater of overwhelming splendor. Triumph for Welser-Most and The Cleveland Orchestra!"

That's the Orchestra that thousands of Clevelanders get to hear on a weekly basis. Sad that Rosenberg missed those concerts.

Just for the record, let me state, on behalf of critics everywhere (I can be as presumptuous as the next person), that no critic objects to being criticized. We object to being fired for expressing the opinions we were hired to express. Period. Think for a moment about any political columnist or radio talk show host you revile. You wish they would just stop spouting all that biased stuff, don't you? But do you really, deeply believe that the offender should be removed just because you and any number of others disagree with his/her viewpoint, and because you can cite any number of other columnists or radio personalities who agree with you? That's a pretty slippery slope.

Am I missing something here? I thought Mr. Rosenberg was "reassigned" to a different post -- not "fired". Also, I thought the editor of the newspaper was the boss, and is the one who gets to set the tone of the paper. The editor, in turn, is employed by the publisher, who usually has a particular agenda (think Rupert Murdoch). If these folks think it's in their or the paper's best interest to reassign a reporter, that is their perogative in a business. No one is guaranteed a job for life.

And an aside -- I worked for the CO for about five years while Don was the critic for the Akron Beacon Journal. I found Don to be a good, fair person, who generally wrote much more favorable and articulate reviews of the orchestra than did the Cleveland Plain Dealer critic of the day.

And even back in the 80s under Dohnanyi, we joked a bit about the Blue Hairs at the Friday matinees. FWM is most guilty of not being terribly smart about what he says in an interview.

The only thing people seem to be missing is the issue of undue outside influence. Editors can do as they please, but when the perception arises that they are basing decisions on something other than pure journalistic or, in this case, critical standards, there's a problem with integrity and credibility. Critics, like political or sports columnists, are not entirely the same as reporters. (There's no such thing as an 'objective' critic, IMHO.) Of course, none of us are guaranteed jobs for life. But we expect to be allowed to function in a thoroughly professional environment where we are free to give opinions based on knowledge, experience and our carefully honed values. If those values lead us to take an unpopular position, that does not provide a good enough reason for reassignment or removal. TS

Lee Baker writes, "The orchestra probably has done nothing that makes them liable."

While putting pressure on a newspaper to reassign their critic might be a charge that the orchestra can defend against successfully, that is not the only thing Rosenberg has alleged against the orchestra.

He charges them with defamation, which does not necessarily have to have occurred in public. It may be a difficult charge to prove, but the complaint (PDF) reads like this will be the focus.

If Vegas is taking odds, I would put money on the orchestra settling out-of-court on this.

If you watch carefully, you'll note that the theater critic for the PD, Tony Brown, has gotten a lot more friendly towards the Cleveland Playhouse since the Big Chill of Don's "reassignment." Brown's reviews of CPH were far more acid in content than anything Don ever wrote on the CO. They were also hated by the Management of CPH and even led to a confrontation in the lobby of CPH between Brown and the CPH Artistic Director Michael Bloom. While there is no skullduggery behind any of this as far as I know, Tony's reviews have been kinder since Don's incident. Has one thing followed from another? You decide.
Thanks for the making this possibly quite chilling observation.

Compensatory damages "well in excess of $25,000"? With such a paltry amount, it seems to me that he was just reassigned to another beat at his previous salary, and his attorney is somehow trying to claim he didn't get raises he might otherwise have. Good luck on proving those damanges.

Age discrimination for a reporter? If you've been doing something for 30 years that someone with 5 years experience can do just as well, then your employer is spending 25 years of raises on you that are going to waste. If this guy's long tenure has not resulted in measurable extra profit to the newspaper, why pay him? (Oh, I forgot, they were paying him still ... the same amount. Nevermind.)

Jeez, all they did was reassign him, and he's saying that any reassignment is implicit "defamation" because people will wonder why he's been reassigned. Under that theory, the management couldn't do anything.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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