Cutbacks in Classical Music Coverage Worry Critics, by Michael Miller, from BFA, 6/12/07

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When a “regular” disappears for a while, one always wonders… At Berkshire Fine Arts we don’t bother with markers for vacations or the like. It serves no purpose anyway. When I read “Paul Krugman is on vacation.” in the New York Times, I still worry.

In fact, I took an informal sabbatical to finish a lingering translation project. I wish I could say that I was writing a book or protesting against one of the seemingly endless procession of abuses in the world, but I was simply working.

In the face of world events and dwindling resources for keeping informed about them, the world of classical music may strike many as somewhat rarified, if not trivial. Even the Dixie Chicks succeeded in making a political statement, which is somewhat rare in classical music, on the whole. The doctrinal triviality of post-modernism has pushed aside works of the earnestness and power of, say, Luigi Nono’s protest-piece against the Vietnam War, Como una Ola de Fuerza y Luz. However, in statements like these I run the risk of simplistic self-righteousness, and, with a reference to my two recent Fidelio reviews (Levine/BSO; Davis/LSO) on the anything but simple question of politics and music, I’ll turn to something closer to home.

There have been protests among music critics and musicians over the past few weeks. Unfortunately I found it necessary to cancel my planned visit to annual meeting of the Music Critics’ Association of North America and missed the opportunity to engage directly in anxious discussions of the latest bad news in our small world, but I did receive an e-mail from the meeting about a disturbing rash of “redundancies” in our field, that is the firing of an individual as well as the elimination of positions. The news was covered in the New York Times, but earlier, and with greater urgency on Henry Fogel’s blog, “on the record,” under “Trouble in Atlanta,” “A bad trend that seems to be gathering momentum with the speed of light…” and “Wonderful News from Atlanta,” as well as New Yorker critic Alex Ross’ blog, the Rest is Noise. (Search for Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Peter G. Davis on the blog. One of the healthy signs in the sea-change we are undergoing is the fact that Mr. Ross writes both for the New Yorker and as a blogger.) I recommend you read these entries to capture these events in detail and to take in the range of opinions, both from concertgoers and from professionals of various sorts.

Atlanta, Minneapolis, and, obviously, New York all rank highly among American cities for the richness of their musical life. All have distinguished symphony orchestras. (The Minnesota Orchestra in particular, under its music director, Osmo Vänskä, is pursuing a remarkably active recording schedule on the Swedish BIS label, and many of its discs have been highly praised in the press.) New York Magazine has fired Peter G. Davis, one of the most highly respected critics in the field, who has been on the staff for 26 years. A spokesperson for the magazine, Serena Torrey, refused to say whether he would be replaced, but stating that “We will continue to cover classical music in a robust way.” It has, however, been noted that New York Magazine has cut back considerably on classical music coverage in recent years, as Mr. Davis himself has pointed out.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has eliminated the position of full-time classical music critic, Michael Anthony, although, as Mr. Anthony says, “The audiences are large and fervent, and moreover they’re readers. I don’t think the management knows a lot about local culture, and that’s one of the reasons they cut the job.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also eliminated the position of full-time music critic, Pierre Ruhe as part of a staff reorganization, then, faced with vigorous protests, rehired him as one of two “reporter-critics.” Hank Klibanoff, Managing Editor for Enterprise at the paper explained the manoeuvre as a seemingly Byzantine, but democratic reorganization procedure, which was largely misunderstood or misinterpreted in the media. His lengthy replies to criticism from outraged concertgoers, musicians, and critics are quoted by both Mr. Fogel and Mr. Ross.

As traditional printed news media fade away, we feel the loss of a vital resource, as people’s knowledge and memory of vital events and trends dwindle. Whatever their corporate managers say, trained professional reporters and commentators held to professional standards, present on site and able to ask questions of participants and witnesses are irreplaceable. However, it isn’t hard to understand what is at stake, when one has to make a choice between a local classical music critic and, say, a correspondent in Beijing or Paris, not that there are that many of them left. Without digressing too far into the complex question of the inevitability of a transition into electronic media and the necessity of maintaining professional standards and of creating and economic base to pay a living wage to the trained professionals who can maintain those standards. While there is a certain appeal to the idea of the public taking information and opinion into their own hands, and the news media have suffered greatly in recent years from internal scandals and government censorship and propaganda, it is clear enough that the threat to professional news media is one of the more serious threats to the personal liberties and rights we have come to take for granted in post-enlightenment history. Few of us have the time or expertise to sift through the hundreds of plausible crackpots and egomaniacs who abound on the Internet today. A term like the “fourth estate” and the concepts which cluster around it imply an integral place in the structure of society. Its disappearance would require the replacement of the entire socio-political model.

Classical music reviews belong in newspapers, because classical concerts, whether we are talking about Manhattan or Pittsfield, are events in the community, just as much as a basketball game or a murder. If, say, Garrick Ohlsson makes a periodic visit to a particular community with an All-Beethoven program or a new piece he has commissioned, it is an event significant within the context of that community, and, as such it is significant not only for the community itself, but for the Garrick Ohlsson and all his colleagues as well, even musicians who “never read reviews.” Still it is community news which belongs in the local newspapers, whether it is the New York Times, the Post, New York Magazine, or the Berkshire Eagle. Criticism, apart from providing a public record of an artistic event, also has an educative role, as we join in with program annotators and music educators within performing institutions in attempting to form the next generation of music lovers. Audience education is as vital after the performance as before, since we are preparing the audience for its next experience of a work in the future. A return to established texts is as much a part of classical music as that fully-conscious listening, a balance of intellect and feeling, which doesn’t sprout immediately into a person’s head at his or her first concert.

Since this site is dedicated to the arts, and our online format allows us to write in some depth, our mission is quite different. However, since the arts are an especially important part of our community life and our economy here in the Berkshires, a review in an informally specialized, but free-ranging publication like this one has a commensurately broader significance for the community. While this site is not in any way a blog, we belong to the host of online publications whose editorial standards and priorities are pretty much like those of similar print publications. Hence, I write this from outside the world of daily newspapers, but from a point of view very close to it. Blogs and online magazines like this one cannot replace the arts coverage of the dailies, and we have no ambition to do so. The loss of an informed critic on the Minneapolis Star-Tribune or an internationally respected voice like Peter G. Davis is as much of a loss to us as it is to their readership and to the world of music.

[For the May 18, 2008 posting on this subject, click here.]

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