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August 10, 2010

Follow-up to the Rosenberg, Cleveland Orchestra, Plain Dealer case

Please excuse the delay in posting, cherished cyberites. Today was moving day here at the Sun, when a lot of us had to change desks, relocating to another spot on the newsroom floor (cynics may call this a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but, hey, we'll have none of that downer talk here today).

Amid the distraction -- how could I have ever accumulated so many things in 10 years here? -- I just never had a chance to get all blog-y. But I did want to mention Monday night's Twitter-chat I had with novelist and former Cleveland Plain Dealer book editor Janice Harayda and law professor Peter Friedman about the much-debated trial involving the Plain Dealer's former, longtime classical music critic Don Rosenberg. They had great points to make, which sparked more reactions from the Twitterati. If you've got a Twitter account, do a search for the hashtag #DonR and you can read all the comments. Thanks to all of you who chimed in.

Today, my colleague Anne Midgette of the Washington Post added a great point to the discussion, noting that

the orchestra's top guy had posted a comment on my blog back when the Rosenberg affair broke open, denying any contact with the Plain Dealer, but the trial revealed that the orchestra had actively sought to "defend the interest of the orchestra and its conductor" and was "entitled to ask for fair coverage from the newspaper."

I really don't think anyone believes that the orchestra management campaigned for Rosenberg's removal. And I really don't believe that's what a classy orchestra does. Or that a classy newspaper gives in to that pressure. But I've already said enough about that.

In hindsight, as I've also often said, I wish another way out had been found. The legendary Post music critic Paul Hume -- he was a mentor to me and Don Rosenberg -- once told me that he reached a point where he was so routinely disappointed with National Symphony music director Howard Mitchell and so tired of writing the same negative reviews that he asked his editor to find another reviewer for Mitchell's concerts. Maybe if Rosenberg had reached the same sort of thinking before the Cleveland Orchestra pounced, he could have kept his old job. Maybe not.

Anyway, this was an unfortunate case from every angle. I still admire the strength of Rosenberg's convictions, though, and I wish him well.  

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:57 PM | | Comments (4)


I would say that, at the very least, the Cleveland Orchestra (at least some elements in management and/or marketing, perhaps? ;^) lobbied for a _change_ in the "tone" of Rosenberg's reviews.

Don, being an _honest_ critic, would "have none of it," I'm sure. Therefore, since the Plain Dealer couldn't convince him to "play nice" - well, we've seen what course of action was taken, and we've seen Don's response. I think the "cause-effect" relationship on display here is QUITE obvious.

In response to Ms. Midgette's question, "And what can a critic do if called on to review, week after week, an artist whose work he doesn't really like?" I am _obliged_ to answer: by all means, honestly and accurately express _why_ the critic does NOT like the artist.

Don wins MY respect because (a) I've been reading his reviews for years now, and (b) he chose to AVOID becoming a "sock puppet" for the Cleveland Orchestra.

I'm just sorry that by standing his ground, Don had to lose his old job. But even though he lost the case, he _still_ managed to take these fools to court and shine a light on their (very odd and highly-questionable) reasoning behind "reassigning" him so severely.

(Granted, the situation isn't as bad as, say, that of Shostakovich in Stalinist Russia, where the man had good cause to fear for his life - but it does NOT speak well for how I view the Plain Dealer's integrity [or lack thereof]. To a point, the Cleveland Orchestra can be forgiven for "acting like a business" in protecting its interests, but the newspaper responded by interfering with BOTH the livelihood and professional standards of one of its best writers.)

I only have one addition to make to what Doug posted, and that it seems that the Plain Dealer didn't just "act like a business" to protect its interests--it seemed to act as if it had no solid understanding about arts criticism. I think the Plain Dealer was caught in the act of letting its arts reviewers coast, as long as the reviews didn't create discomfort in the newsroom. Regrettably, there were a number of more elegant solutions that could have been pursued (send Don on assignment to cover other cities' orchestras at his choosing, bringing in a second serious critic for regular point/counterpoint discussion-style reviews, etc.), and I'm just sorry to have the impression that the Plain Dealer didn't investigate other options. For a conscientious reviewer, a string of negative critiques isn't a pleasure to write, just as much as the reviews aren't a joy to read. Necessary, but not fun.

Additionally, I found some of the replies to Anne's column a bit disconcerting. I take issue with assertions that the Rosenberg/Plain Dealer situation simplistically has purely legal solutions. I also am concerned with implications that music critics have a "duty" to incessantly explain why their jobs are important. Although I think music critics are important, forced apologistics will not change the minds of the jury, the Plain Dealer, or attorneys.

One question that floats out of this mess is: "will anyone take a new review by the Plain Dealer seriously?"

Seems to me the orchestra has devalued its percieved value - no matter how sterling the playing or review might be.

Something that seems conspicuously absent in the whole discussion of the Plain Dealer episode is any discussion of readers' feelings.

I heard FWM conduct the Cleveland Orchestra before his appointment. My comment to my wife was "Well, I suppose we've heard the last of him." LOL Little did I know! But I certainly share Don Rosenburg's evaluation of FWM.
I can respect Don for, as I've heard it, "campaigning" against renewal of FWM's contract - that orchestra deserves much better and there is a certain duty that a critic has to the community he serves.
But how many years did this go on? If a critic is going to write a negative review of an orchestra 90% of the time, it becomes boring and predictable - it may be correct, but it simply doesn't attract readers. (Psst! That is one of the jobs of a journalist, to attract readers for the publication that employs them.) So, IMHO, it was Mr. Rosenberg's job to work with his management to do that. Papers cannot week-in, week-out publish columns that no one wants to read.
A guest critic might be one answer. Another might be to concentrate the review on the soloist, really give the readers an in-depth analysis of the soloist's performance and simply say: After intermission FWM conducted the Beethoven Seventh Symphony in a performance consistent with what we have come to expect from him.
The real tragedy here (aside from DR's personal one) is that far too many boards are unable to select leaders that are appropriate for their organizations. Hence we have Gelb at the Met, first Gerard Mortier and now George Steele at New York City Opera (whose 4 months of operatic management experience when he was chosen was 4 months more than Gelb had). We have virtual beginners (as far as the international circuit is concerned) heading the LA Philharmonic (a phenomenally talented beginner, but a beginner none the less), the NY Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. A dilettante has run the WNO and LA Operas into the ground, and the executive offices at the San Francisco Opera have surely installed revolving doors by now.
With the exception of the incoming Muti in Chicago, and the ailing Levine in Boston, the best, most experienced conductors in the country are in so-called second-tier orchestras - Tilson-Thomas in San Francisco, Vanska in Minnesota and Alsop in Baltimore.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Board handed the keys to a Rolls Royce to a handsome guy with a learner's permit. A bad hand for a critic to have to play - but playing it without alienating readers was his job. If he was able to do it, the Plain Dealer should be ashamed for caving to the pressure. But if he was alienating his readers, I don't see that the paper had a choice.

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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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