Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for August 27th, 2010

The Role of the Professional Critic: Don Rosenberg v. the Cleveland Orchestra and Plain Dealer.

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The saga of Donald Rosenberg, erstwhile classical music critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, has brought to my attention how difficult the role of the professional critic may be — and how quickly even a highly-regarded critic like Rosenberg can fall if not backed by his employers.

Oh, you don’t know Mr. Rosenberg’s work?  Well, many don’t, but for thirty years he wrote about the Cleveland Orchestra (formerly known as the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra), and he’s written a book about the orchestra called The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None, which came out in 2000 and is available at at this link:

The upshot of Mr. Rosenberg’s story was that he was demoted by his employer, the Plain Dealer, because the Cleveland Orchestra was upset over comments Rosenberg had made about the Orchestra’s conductor, Franz Welser-Most.  Rosenberg sued, claiming among other things that his freedom of speech was infringed upon, that the Plain Dealer had practiced age discrimination against him, and that Welser-Most had abused his position as conductor in order to get what Welser-Most viewed as a “hostile” critic removed from his post.  More about this suit is available here:

Recently, Mr. Rosenberg lost his lawsuit, which is why this subject came to my attention in the first place.  (For the record, I think it’s wrong for a critic to lose his job merely because a conductor does not like him or what he writes.  If Leonard Bernstein had been that way, half the reviewers in New York would’ve lost their jobs in the ’50s and ’60s.)  A good blog that’s followed the whole situation from the beginning is called Sounds & Fury; a good place to start is the following post, a “final comment” on Mr. Rosenberg’s unfortunate situation:

But all of this has made me think — what is the role of the professional critic, especially if someone does not like what he or she is writing?  Because if you ask someone, “What is a critic?,” you’re going to get a really odd look, followed by, “Someone who criticizes!” or maybe, “Someone who gets paid to criticize for a living.”

Now, I know from reviewing books for and elsewhere, not everyone’s going to agree with me regarding a review.  Sometimes, the disagreement is over something profound, but most of the time it’s over something that’s seemingly trivial — such as, whether a book is suitable for someone who’s seven, or eight; whether a love story in the background is detrimental (even if there’s no actual sex going on) — and the fact that I see this as trivial while someone else sees this as profound is part of the human condition.

However, when a professional critic is effectively muzzled by an orchestra, or worse, by the conductor of the orchestra, that is not helpful to the entire profession of critics.  As Michael Phillips wrote in his 8/12/2010 column at the Chicago Tribune, available here:

There is so much fear and self-censorship in the critics’ ranks in America today. There are so few full-time salaries. 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.

(I added the bold in last paragraph, just in case you missed it.)

Phillips goes on to say that:

Approached the wrong way criticism is an inherently arrogant and narcissistic pursuit, yet what I’m left with, increasingly, is how humbling it is. It’s hard to get a review right for yourself, let alone for anyone reading it later. It’s even harder to be an artist worth writing and reading about, because so much conspires against even an inspired artist’s bravest efforts.

I agree with this; I agonize over the book reviews I write, and the music reviews, and when I used to write movie reviews for the Daily Nebraskan (and elsewhere), I used to worry myself to pieces over those, too.  Because if you’re a good critic, or you’re at least trying to become one, you do worry about whether or not you’ve explained what it is you’re criticizing well enough so your critique of it all will make any sense to the reader who’s not as able to make an informed, rational decision as you (not having seen and heard what you have as “the critic”).

Finally, Phillips says this:

. . . 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.

(Once again, the emphasis here was mine.)

Many points to ponder for both the writer and critic alike, but what I think most troubles me about all of this is how the Cleveland Plain Dealer attempted to frame the narrative.  Their version of events is strikingly different than Mr. Rosenberg’s, yet as a highly trained classical musician, I am much more sympathetic to Mr. Rosenberg’s version of events (where Rosenberg quoted, verbatim, some unflattering statements from Welser-Most about music lovers in the US of A, etc.).    The fact of the matter is, many European conductors are dismissive of posts in the United States of America and they’d rather be working in their home countries, where they feel their art is more respected.  Most conductors from Austria (where Welser-Most is from), France, Germany, Italy, etc., view the US of A as being uncultured, uncivilized, and far less interested in classical music than their homelands.  And many of these guys have put down Americans in general for years — this is no secret, and while it should be shameful for these European conductors, it isn’t.

For Welser-Most to get upset because Rosenberg dared to call Welser-Most to account for some of his comments about Cleveland’s “blue-haired ladies” and about how Welser-Most apparently didn’t think much of Cleveland, seems mighty thin-skinned to me.  In addition, any criticism of a conductor — especially when it’s backed up by many other critics the world over (Welser-Most has a reputation that basically equates to, “If W-M loves the piece, he does a good job; if not, well, whatever”) — should be allowed and understood.  (Free speech, remember?)

The fact that Welser-Most, the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, managed to force Rosenberg from his position at the Plain Dealer, shows a great deal more about Welser-Most than Welser-Most probably wishes were the case.  Further, that the Cleveland Orchestra’s board of directors are able to say with supposedly clean hands (and without any air of hypocrisy about them) that they did nothing wrong, that they did not force Rosenberg out — well, it smells.  To high heaven.

I view what happened the same way Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Martin Bernheimer does, available at this link from the Financial Times:

Pointing out that Rosenberg is a horn player and holds three music degrees, Bernheimer put it plainly in the opening of his column:

Donald Rosenberg lost. So did Cleveland. And so did journalism in general and the precarious practice of music criticism in particular.

Absolutely right, Mr. Bernheimer.  And what a shame, and a loss, that Rosenberg lost his lawsuit; what a horrible commentary on our life and times.

Written by Barb Caffrey

August 27, 2010 at 11:13 am