Definitely not constructive criticism

Back in September, Donald Rosenberg, one of the deans of American musical criticism (and immediate past president of the Music Critics Association of North America) was reassigned by the Cleveland Plain Dealer off the Cleveland Orchestra beat, which was given to Zachary Lewis, a newly-hired young reporter. There were some who viewed this as retaliation for Rosenberg’s rather negative coverage of the tenure of the orchestra’s music director Franz Welser-Möst.

Tim Page of the Baltimore Sun, and the current president of the Music Critics Association, wrote of the move:

…the full, unbridled response to this news: It stinks. Music critics are hired to deliver critical opinions. If those opinions are not popular with some people, tough. As long as the critic demonstrates musical knowledge and a keen ear for what is involved in the art of music-making, the critic is fulfilling the job requirements. Don’s musical background is as good as it gets, his evaluations reasoned and sensitive. He has covered the Cleveland Orchestra for nearly three decades (including a stint with another area paper), and he’s the author of the definitive book about that orchestra. So what did he do wrong? He has questioned, more than once, the sanctity of the Cleveland Orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst…

Apparently Rosenberg was of the same opinion:

A longtime reviewer sued his newspaper and the Cleveland Orchestra Thursday, charging that he was removed from his beat because of critical coverage of the conductor.

The lawsuit filed by Donald Rosenberg said the orchestra lobbied to get him reassigned and The Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper, breached its commitment to independence by caving into outside pressure.

The 56-year-old Rosenberg also says he was discriminated against because of his age.

…Robert Duvin, an lawyer representing the orchestra, said the orchestra had done nothing wrong. Duvin said conductor and music director Franz Welser-Möst has passionate backers among orchestra fans and reviewers around the world who disagree with Rosenberg. If any vendetta existed, it was by Rosenberg against Welser-Möstt, Duvin said.

Rosenberg relentlessly criticized the conductor, Duvin said, and the views were “not just spiteful, they were wrong.”

I love the lawyer’s response, which amounts to saying “we didn’t do anything wrong, but it would have been fine if we had.” And where does a lawyer come off saying that a music critic’s views of a performance are “wrong?” Even critics don’t believe that their views are facts; they’re opinions. That’s why it’s called “criticism” and not “refutation.” (The New York Times has a  longer and better article on Rosenberg’s suits here.)

The relationship between critics and performers is an uneasy one. Critics have a lot of power. What they write can affect audience perceptions, especially when the critic writes often about a particular performer for a particular reading audience. That, in turn, can affect institutional fortunes, especially when the performer is the orchestra’s music director or a highly visible orchestra member. And critics have the power to inflict significant emotional damage on performers.

The last may be the key to this situation, as it has been in others. The management of the Cleveland Orchestra are very smart people, and I doubt that they care overly much about what Rosenberg has written about Welser-Möst. But, if he is typical of conductors I’ve known, he cares a very great deal about what’s written about him. In that situation a management might do much more than they would on their own initiative to “work the refs” and try to influence what the critic writes.

Why would a conductor with the kind of international career possessed by Welser-Möst care about what one critic in Cleveland might write about him? Why would the music director of the Czech Philharmonic, Zdenek Macal, a great musician and a conductor with another impressive international career, care so much about a bad review that he would resign over one? But he did.

The newspaper in question argues that the review which so angered Mácal wasn’t even overly harsh. According to an English-language press digest by CTK posted on the website of the paper Ceské noviny, Dita Kopácová Hradecká wrote in Lidové noviny yesterday that, “Like all impulsive people, Zdenek Mácal overdid it when he announced his resignation … [his] career was hardly threatened by the article in question … If [he] really resigned, he would probably be the first Czech artist to quit as a result of what was actually in no way a horribly critical article.”…More pointedly, Kopácová Hradecká claimed that critics who write negative reviews of Czech Philharmonic performances “receive mysterious telephone calls asking them what they actually have against the orchestra,” according to the CTK digest.

Conducting is an odd profession, and some of its leading lights are, shall we say…untypical?

That’s not to say that critics don’t sometimes abuse the power they have. There was a notorious case in the 1970s involving a major American orchestra and the critic for the morning paper. When a prominent musician in the orchestra, with whom the critic was reputed to have a relationship that went somewhat beyond the purely professional, was not granted tenure, the critic went on a rampage, trashing in reviews any member of the tenure committee who was unfortunate enough to be audible in a concert. The orchestra held its fire, hoping that it would all go away. In retrospect that was probably a bad call. I remember watching it all from the outside and wondering what the frack was going on.

Would it have been legitimate of the orchestra’s management, or musicians, to bring their concerns to the attention of the local newspaper’s management? Absolutely. Would the paper have been justified in removing the critic from the orchestra beat? It depends on the facts, and I don’t know all the facts, either in that case or the present one. But it seems to me that the responsibility for reassigning Rosenberg rests solely with the management of the Plain Dealer.

Otto von Bismarck said, after Prussia defeated Austria in 1866, “Austria was no more in the wrong in opposing our claims than we were in making them.” Rosenberg was not wrong to write what he believed, and orchestra management was not in the wrong when they pushed back. Whether the Plain Dealer was in the wrong when they reassigned Rosenberg is now for a court to decide.


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