« Baltimore Symphony serves up Gershwin favorites with flair | Main | Baltimore Symphony's Zappa, Glass, Shodekeh concert generates great vibes »

July 23, 2010

More thoughts on the Rosenberg-Cleveland Orchestra-Plain Dealer trial

It’s the end of week two of the trial pitting music critic Don Rosenberg against his employer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the management of the Cleveland Orchestra. How this case will be decided is anyone’s guess, but, needless to say, I have a preference.

As you will recall, Rosenberg was taken off his longtime beat covering that orchestra, accused of being too rough on music director Franz Welser-Most. From the beginning, this case struck me as critical – no pun intended – to the future of our endangered profession. (Hey, never miss an opportunity to theatricalize, as the Maria Callas of “Master Class” says).

For the last few decades, newspapers all over the country have been devaluing criticism. calling for more feature stories, trend pieces, news briefs, etc., and less actual critical thinking. Even before the Internet and the blogosphere it spawned, where anyone can take on the appearance of a critic, the place of the independent reviewer with actual credentials of education, experience and a clearly defined artistic value system has been on shaky ground in many papers.

I think some of this may have factored into what happened in Cleveland. If editors get the idea that critics are just glorified consumer reporters – you can trust this concert; don’t waste your money on that one – then what difference does it matter what "product" they cover? And if a “manufacturer” (especially one who buys ads in the paper) doesn’t like what the critic is saying, heck, just move him off the beat.

Likewise, music organizations have increasingly picked up on this notion that a critic is primarily a marketing tool, not a judge of artistic quality. My colleagues and I have heard all too often the line: “We need help selling tickets. Can’t you do a story?”

Maybe I’m crazy or naive, but

I just can’t believe any of this was going on, at least to such an extent, in, say, the 1950s. There have doubtless always been disgruntled orchestras or opera companies, praying for someone to rid them of a meddlesome critic, and they may well have complained loudly to newspaper editors. But how many papers would have rolled over in the old days?

Judging by the kind of comments you can find on Web sites where the Rosenberg story has been reported or analyzed, there are plenty of folks who see him as a villain, a spoiled elitist who finally got his comeuppance for being so unappreciative of a conductor’s superb talents or for having an unfair agenda. I have a hard time seeing it that way, if only because I’ve known this critic too long, have discussed music with him too often to believe he’s a crazed, one-track-mind conductor-killer.

I guess what also bothers me about this case so much is that it reminds me of things that happened to me (everything is about me, haven't you noticed?), and makes me wonder where I’d be today if I had worked for editors with a different mindset.

My first full-time critic job, after several freelancing years, was in Fort Lauderdale, a community that had read nary a discouraging word in the local paper about the hometown orchestra and its longtime conductor. When I offered such a word, the campaigns against me started quickly. I’m talking about leaflets on seats in the concert hall asking symphony-goers to contact the paper and demand that I be fired. The publisher was on the board of the orchestra, so he had already heard plenty of complaining (he told me that it made for some uncomfortable cocktail parties, but he never once suggested I change my tune).

Then came the delegation to the chief editor, where I had to sit quietly and listen to symphony board members explain how I had written too many negative reviews of the orchestra and its nationally respected maestro. I was, in short, a heartless menace bent on destroying everything they had built there. The editor listened politely, thanked them for coming in and said that I had just been doing my job, which I would continue doing.

That’s what critics everywhere hope to hear, not because we’re so damn high and mighty, let alone right all the time, but because we’ve devoted ourselves to a profession that is about passing artistic judgment as we see and hear it, not boosting community pride, placating rich donors, stroking musicians’ egos. (Since I’ve been in Baltimore, I had to attend a similar meeting at this paper, requested by management officials of a certain orchestra upset with the negative things I had been writing about their leadership. The result of that session turned out the same.)

If critics can be tossed aside for making someone unhappy, something’s wrong somewhere. If a newspaper bows to the pressure of arts organizations mad about coverage, why not cave in to politicians or developers or sports team owners who get peeved for the same reason?

I’m not saying critics are invariably pure and faultless. Far from it. I’ve read my share of reviews by writers whose evaluations not only differ from mine, but reveal attitudes or conclusions I find highly questionable. I’ve suspected some critics of unfairness, hidden agendas, biases that prevent them from seeing what I consider a bigger, better picture. (Some of these folks may well have entertained similar thoughts about me.) But I’d never want to see any one of them cut loose by their publications solely because a conductor or a board president got annoyed.

I’ve said before that I wish the situation in Cleveland had never reached this point. It all seems a little surreal. But maybe a trial is a good thing, and maybe, when this matter gets into the hands of a jury, the outcome will reaffirm the lines between criticism and coddling, integrity and expediency.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:36 PM | | Comments (3)


Tim, a great post! I read many years ago that if we didn't have critics, the arts would turn into a trash heap. And I believe that. (Wish I could remember the source.) An educated, fair critic serves as a guardian against low production values and other flaws being foisted on us. Furthermore, so many times I've heard people sneer about critics, then they wonder where I picked up some of my own knowledge of music or art or how I know about this or that obscure composer or opera. I learned all of it from reading the critics. Thanks for everything that you have brought to our local music scene.

Thanks very much for your comments. TIM

Tim, I was living in Chicago in the 1960's when Jean Martinon was Music Director and Claudia Cassidy was the music critic for the Tribune. When Martinon refused to hire one of Claudia's protegee's, she went on a vendetta in her oollumn against everything that Martinon conducted. it got so bad that we had protests in front of Orchestra Hall. In the end both left their posts, which was a loss for both, since she was a good critic and he was a very good conductor

Thanks for mentioning the intriguing case of Claudia. That may well have been the last demonstration of power from the classical music press. Whether it was a good use of that power will long be the subject of debate. TIM

Sorry, but Claudia Cassidy was not a "good" music critic. An arch-conservative who once referred to Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" as "trash", the woman could not read music, let alone play "Chopsticks". She was, however, an excellent drama critic. But, as Margaret Hillis and countless other top-flight musicians pointed out over the years, Claudia Cassidy had no business writing about music, let alone having her opinions taken so seriously that many careers could be and were damaged or even destroyed altogether as a result of her purple prose.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected