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August 17, 2009

Music Critics Assn. elects Don Rosenberg president a year after controversial demotion by newspaper

Don Rosenberg, longtime music critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer controversially demoted a year ago for his negative views on Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most, received a new sign of solidarity from colleagues. Over the weekend, Rosenberg was elected president of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which has about 100 members from the United States and Canada. He served two two-year terms in that office, 2001-2005.

For the record, I succeeded him as president in 2005; my second term ended on Saturday, when the ballots from the 2009 election were announced at the association’s annual meeting in New York City. The other candidate for president this year was the distinguished and engaging Canadian critic, Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer. Although the MCANA bylaws limit a president to two consecutive terms, there is no restriction on a member running for election after being out of office.

Rosenberg’s return to the MCANA presidency provides one more affirmation of our belief in ...

his abilities and integrity, especially in the wake of the scandalous treatment that he received from his employer. A widely respected critic, he made waves over the years for his increasingly negative outlook on the overall quality and long-range value of Welser-Most at the helm of what many consider America’s greatest orchestra.

There was considerable opposition within Cleveland Orchestra management to Rosenberg, who was restricted by the Plain Dealer from covering that orchestra and demoted to a more general arts writer position, an extraordinary step for an independent newspaper to take. Rosenberg subsequently sued. That case has not yet reached court, but several depositions, including that of Welser-Most, have been taken.

The idea that anyone would attempt to limit freedom of thought and expression by a professional, fully qualified music critic remains deeply troubling.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:27 AM | | Comments (14)


Interesting column. It raises the issue of the job of a critic. If "fault finding" is the job, and week after week a critic finds fault with the local symphony why not just print a banner that says, "Don't Bother Patronizing the Symphony?" What is "professional" about constantly haranguing a player, section or conductor? After awhile, the columns will go unread as being "same old, same old." Not a desirable outcome for anyone. I've given up on Allan Kozinn. Why read the same remarks over and over again?

I wonder what a musician might feel like having to play for the same uninspiring conductor week after week. TS

This is great news, Tim, even for those of us who consider the CO to be one of America's *two* greatest orchestras. ;-)

Can you share with us the results of the other elections?

And kudos to you for your excellent and outspoken leadership of the MCANA these past -- and complex -- two years!

Andrew Patner
Chicago Sun-Times
WFMT Radio and

Here's the scoop. Joshua Kosman is v.p., Susan Elliott treasurer, Jody Dalton secretary. At large: Scott Cantrell, Wynne Delacoma, Barbara Jepson, Anne Midgette, Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer. And thanks for the kudos. TIM

Congrats to Don for this symbolic (and moral) victory -- too bad a "president's salary" doesn't come with it. The Plain Dealer's treatment of him was absolutely despicable. I find that kind of behaviour by a supposedly "American" paper -- buckling in such a way to pressure from a powerful local arts organization -- to be truly disturbing. Yeah, I'm being idealistic here; at least this isn't the Soviet Union... yet.

I don't know if I would call the Cleveland Orchestra "America's greatest" -- perhaps "most refined," especially in a European sense (or what _passes_ for being theoretically-European these days), which is why they're so stuck on keeping Welser-Möst (calm at all cost?). "Uninspiring," indeed, and apparently becoming ever more so... Herr _Franz_ is certainly not going to light a fire under anyone's rump (except the critic's %^).

I've been waiting to say this: Eschenbach tries to be too spontaneous in Philly and gets the shaft; Welser-Möst tries to stamp spontaneity out completely in Cleveland and keeps his job. The one critic in Philly, Peter Dobrin (who was speaking for some of the musicians), helped to fan the flames which burned Eschenbach, but, in Cleveland, the critic got burned! And Don, too, was clearly speaking for some of the musicians! Weird asymmetry!

As for the nature of a critic's job: I look to a critic (in _any_ field) to give me a sound, solid opinion on something, in multiple dimensions and with politeness, intelligence, and humour. Whether or not I agree with the opinion is irrelevant, because I'm almost _bound_ to disagree (maybe even vehemently!) with _something_. And consistency in approach is generally a good thing here: I _don't_ want to feel like a critic either has multiple personalities or is following the whim of the day. A _strong_, independent character should be behind the critiquing!

In short, I expect Tim to be Tim, Don to be Don, David Patrick to be David Patrick, and Peter to be Peter, et cetera. The _moment_ I see some weird waffling, I'm going to lose interest! (Different for difference's sake? Hopefully _not_!)

I heartily agree with what Mr. Friedman is saying. Is it really the music critic's role to take incessant pot shots at someone who merely approaches music with a differing point of view than he does?
Isn't it more professional to write about the art form, the context of the music, the reasons that one interpretation might be different from another (but with a nod to the fact that they will be different, and not necessarily better or worse) the reasons that make the reviewer feel that a specific interpretation doesn't work (which need to go far beyond comparing it to a famous recorded performance from the past-- remember, this is a performing art, and expecting each performance to be like the last goes against nature)....
Is it professional to state that Rosenberg was "demoted?" Does that not mean that he is now making less money on his new beat than he was on his old one? Is he?
And is it not the job of a newspaper editor to decide how to assign or reassign beats?
And, TS, might you acknowledge that a conductor who is uninspiring to some might also be very inspiring to many others?
And, DH, do you follow TCO closely enough to know that FVM stamps out spontaneity? Because, actually, spontaneity is one of his chief demands within the group.
And, I wonder how "journalists" feel having to hack out the same uninspiring stories week after week.

This argument will never stop, so there's a not much point in my trying once again to counter it, but I'll take another stab at it anyway. Consider this scenario. Sports team hires new coach; some people, including the local paper's main sports columnist, suggest that something isn't quite right, that the team isn't what it was and not all it could be; owners of the team back the coach and renew his contract; columnist continues to say the coach is not getting the best from the team; during away games, other columnists in other papers note that something seems to be amiss with this team and that the coach appears to be a large part of the problem; the local columnist continues to point out areas where the team needs firmer, more enlightened coaching; team owners tell the home paper that they don't want to read that kind of stuff anymore; paper reassigns columnist. This would be, in your view, a proper outcome? Critics aren't hired to please advertisers or big shots in the community. They are hired to offer informed opinions and to engage readers (if they enrage readers, that's still engagement). Don, it must be noted, wrote favorably about Welser-Most performances more often than some people apparently are able to recall. The conductor obviously shines in some repertoire, and Don said so. But he believes strongly that the overall picture is not as bright and solid as it could be, and he has articulated exactly the musical reasons he feels this way. Readers can say they don't hear what a critic hears, that they are perfectly happy with their orchestra and their conductor. But editors, if they are serious about independence, will continue to back a critic's right to his or her opinion. This is how it has been in other cities where other critics and other music directors have been on opposite sides repeatedly; check out Mehta's career and even Bernstein's (in his pre-canonized years). Either you believe in criticism as a journalistic profession or you don't. I do. TS

Bravo, Tim. Perhaps the best summation I have yet seen on this subject.

I don't think it's quite as cut and dried as Tim's final statement "either you believe in criticism or you don't." You can believe in music criticism but still question how a particular music critic performs his or her job. Mr. Friedman makes some valid points above. I have seen a local music critic carry a similar alleged dissatisfaction with a local conductor to what many felt to be the level of a fixation. Under such circumstances, one can surely ask how the art form, and the local arts community, is benefitting without being accused of undermining free speech!

Not being a resident of Cleveland, I can't judge whether or not that was the case here. But the idea that music critics are themselves somehow above criticism is wrong.

Of course we're not above criticism. But, unless we commit some sort of hideous ethical or moral lor legal violation, we should be free to do our job. That's all I meant by my statement. TS

"Is it really the music critic's role to take incessant pot shots at someone who merely approaches music with a differing point of view than he does?"

I think this entirely mis-represents the situation in Cleveland. I heard Welser-Most conduct the orchestra before he was named Music Director. My comment to my wife at the time was "Well, I expect we've heard the last of him in Cleveland." I was thunderstruck when I heard Cleveland had named him musical director. This is not a question of a different approach to music - it is the rather more basic question as to whether Welser-Most pocesses the talent to fill one of the most important and prestigious posts in American Music. In my opinion, and that of many others, Welser-Most does not possess that level of talent. There is a reason that his nickname in music circles is "Worse than Most".

So I think the question is rather this: Does a music critic serve his community by failing to point out the obvious lack of suitability of a conductor for his position? Is personal attractiveness and charm a substitute for a high level of talent? Is it not the music critic's duty to use his musical training and knowledge to point out to his readers the shortcomings of a conductor that may only become obvious to the public with the passage of time (i.e. after he has run the orchestra into the ground)?

Hmmm. He also happens to now hold a post which is another of the most prestigious in the world. The Vienna State Opera doesn't seem to be too worried about being run into the ground. And, in Cleveland the orchestra sounds better now than it did 6 years ago.

Just checking: I argued with you about comparing music writing to sports writing, and that was either lost or withheld. If the latter, it's pretty interesting what you selectively post here.

There must have been a glitch with our ever-testy blog software. I didn't see those comments. I don't selectively post. So feel free to argue with me to your heart's content. TS.

Whether Welser-Most received the Vienna post due to talent or connections is something that history will decide. As for Cleveland, the Orchestra is to good for even a mediocre conductor to run it into the ground, and on most nights medicore seems to me the best word to describe this guy. The classical music radio station in Cleveland plays his recording of Beehtoven's 9th Symphony very often; perhaps if they play it enough times people will start thinking it is good. Management at the Orchestra is not going to change its view. It seems to be happy with what it calls one of the greatest conductors of his generation, but I think either his generation has very few great conductors or management has its own score card. Management claims it does not pay attention to what the music critics have to say. When there so many bad reviews throughout the world--although there have been a few outstanding ones--I am not surprised that it takes this position.

"The Vienna State Opera doesn't seem to be too worried about being run into the ground." - After 8 years of Ozawa, I doubt there is much further to fall.

" As for Cleveland, the Orchestra is to good for even a mediocre conductor to run it into the ground, and on most nights medicore seems to me the best word to describe this guy." - I beg to differ; while a great orchestra can "carry" a mediocre conductor, eventually the players who have a choice leave for more stimulating environs. And then the orchestra is left with the players who had no choice but to stay. If I were an orchestral player I'd much rather be playing under Levine (Boston), Dudamel (Los Angeles), Muti (Chicago), Tilson-Thomas (San Francisco) or Marin Alsop. Alan Gilbert could inject new life in the New York Phil; I wouldn't want to play under Dutoit (between his temper and his temporary status). So, I would say the situation in Cleveland is not very attractive for the very best musicians.

There are more of the very best musicians than there are the very best orchestras. Cleveland continues to attract musicians of the highest quality even to replace those who leave and go elsewhere. There may have been a problem finding a few of the right brass players a few years back, but this was a minor delay. Similarly, the Orchestra has not announced a new principal cellist yet; the last one decided to teach music full time. As for the overall quality of the Orchestra, the reviews from the Europena festivals (i.e., Salzburg and Lucerne) rated Cleveland at the very top, if not THE top. And keep in mind that this post is from someone who is unhappy with FWM.

"If I were an orchestral player I'd much rather be playing under Levine (Boston), Dudamel (Los Angeles), Muti (Chicago), Tilson-Thomas (San Francisco) or Marin Alsop. Alan Gilbert could inject new life in the New York Phil..."

Yes, but you're not.....

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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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