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August 18, 2010

More critics weigh in on the Rosenberg/Cleveland Orchestra/Plain Dealer case

You're all tired of my ranting about the trial of music critic Don Rosenberg versus the Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Plain Dealer -- he sued his paper and the orchestra after being reassigned and forbidden to write about the orchestra, which had objected to his reviews of music director Franz Welser-Most; Rosenberg lost his case in court. So I thought I'd direct you to some commentary from a couple of other critics -- one from music, Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Bernheimer; one from film, the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips. (Posting their perspectives also makes it a little easier on me, since I'm technically on vacation.)

The indelible Bernheimer, one of all-time favorite writers and thinkers, makes wonderful points in his column for the Financial Times, which begins boldly: "Donald Rosenberg lost. So did Cleveland. And so did journalism in general and the precarious practice of music criticism in particular."

The writer, who won his Pulitzer while at the Los Angeles Times, offers a particularly compelling anecdote about his tenure there:

The young music director of the local philharmonic was a photogenic extrovert named Zubin Mehta. He made a mighty splash in heart-on-sleeve challenges but seemed insensitive to works requiring elegance, subtlety or introspection. My reviews offended the orchestral establishment. More important, they offended Dorothy Buffum Chandler ... the mother of Otis Chandler, publisher of the LA Times.

Mrs. Chandler wanted me fired. Her son,

bless him, had other ideas. He ran a full-page 'house advertisement' in the paper, featuring my beleaguered mug and bearing a blush-inducing headline: 'He faces the music even when it hurts.' Otis sent me this message: 'Keep the faith, baby, ’cause your publisher boss (your only boss) is with you all the way.' The editors, bless them, seconded the motion. 'You protect Beethoven,' they declared, 'and we’ll protect Bernheimer.'

Who, one wonders, is protecting Beethoven in Cleveland?

Phillips brings a most welcome viewpoint in his column for the Tribune (parent company to the Baltimore Sun), if only because he's not another classical music critic. I was particularly struck by these lines:

For years Rosenberg had the support of his editor-in-chief, Doug Clifton, which, as any daily newspaper critic can tell you, is a good thing to have when angry arts administrators come calling to complain that a critic doesn't 'get it.'

...'We must tread lightly on the independence of our critic,' Clifton once said. 'To overrule him in the face of protest would make a mockery of the critical process.' Which is exactly what his successor did.

Phillips goes on to write:

You can smell the caution and paranoia in too many reviews weighed down by generalities and a stenographer's devotion to 'objectivity,' which isn't what this endeavor is about at all. It's about informed, vividly argued subjectivity.

Criticism is a way of writing about life, and the world, and a symphony's place in it, or a performer's, or a photograph's. Or a demagogue's. The other day Fox commentator Glenn Beck went after funding for the arts and public libraries, likening both to a society gorging itself on 'Mountain Dew and Cheetos' while riots raged in streets, a society unable to afford police protection because of all the money going to 'stupid, snotty' opera houses. Opinions like that call for a counter-opinion or two.

(Which, I hasten to remind everyone, is what I did in response to Beck -- hey, this is a blog, just a four-letter word for ego.)

Obviously, the Cleveland case will continue to be argued for a long while. That people are thinking about it and writing about it is all to the good. I like how Phillips sums things up: 

... no critic has a 'right' to a compensated opinion. We serve at the pleasure of our employers. And yet we're only worth reading when we push our luck and ourselves, and remember that without a sense of freedom, coupled with a sense that we cannot squander it, we're just filler.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:04 AM | | Comments (3)


What a ridiculous situation.
In their quest for a foreign music director - because all A level orchestras are above the taint of American conductors - the Cleveland Orchestra board was talked into taking on Welser-Most, who possesses the most modest amount of talent foisted on a major orchestra that I have heard in a number of years. This is the best they could do post-Dohnanyi? The Mahler I heard was embarrassingly laughable, the Brahms excruciating. Their subscribers should be suing the Cleveland Orchestra. It is shameful.

While sharing PPP's opinion of FWM, I would note that both the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony are led by Americans (Alan Gilbert and James Levine), the Los Angeles Philharmonic by a South American (Gustavo Dudamel) - foreign, but not the stereotypic European. Muti, in Chicago, is of such a high level to, IMHO, sweep away any considerations of nationality.

Terry Teachout weighed in, in Saturday's (8/21/10) Wall Street Journal:

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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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