Saturday, September 27, 2008

A New Critic for the Cleveland Orchestra

As a fan of Nicholas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective which collected critical commentary from newspapers and journals from the days of Beethoven to Schoenberg (and, true to the title, all scathing), I often like to quote a review – for instance, “[it] sometimes sounds like a plague of insects in the Amazon valley, sometimes like a miniature of the Day of Judgment... and for a change goes lachrymose” – and then ask if you can identify the piece. What was it Pitts Sanborne was reviewing in the New York World Telegram in 1938?

Did you guess Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini?

Now, it’s easy to slam past critics who’ve panned great works and artists, hindsight aside. As if to avoid litigation these days, critics rarely write reviews like that any more.

When I conducted the Harrisburg Symphony in the premiere of my “Epiphanies” in 1983, Barker Howland of the Patriot-News, after quoting from my program notes describing the work, wrote “An interesting piece, it will be repeated tonight.” I often thought I should blurb that on my resume.

However, when you read frequent comments from critic Donald Rosenberg at the Cleveland Plain Dealer like “Welser-Möst never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” you begin to get an idea of the on-going relationship between critic and critiqued: since Welser-Möst became the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Rosenberg has rarely had good things to say about his interpretations, no matter how good the orchestra plays. Since the maestro’s contract was just renewed until 2018, one wondered how long this dance could go on. Would Cleveland have to put up with ten more years of negative comments?

Still, it was a bit of a shock the other day, just as the orchestra’s new season was about to begin, to read that Rosenberg was being “re-assigned.” I know it’s better than a lot of cities, large and small, who’ve seen their newspapers drop arts critics completely: at least Mr. Rosenberg will still be covering other venues and a new critic has been up-graded to review the orchestra.

The good news is – at least for those of us in Central Pennsylvania who remember his insightful and well-written reviews – that new critic sent in to review the Cleveland Orchestra happens to be Zachary Lewis who, for too few years, covered the local classical scene for Harrisburg’s Patriot-News.

Here’s his first review, the opening night program that featured George Benjamin’s “Duet” for piano and orchestra and a Welser-Möst specialty, Bruckner’s 7th Symphony.

Zach left here around 2004, moving to Cleveland and hoping to free-lance his way into making a living. For a while, he maintained an on-line review-blog for the paper which, unfortunately, did not generate enough readers to maintain the site (or the writer). So it is great news to see that he has resurfaced in a major way. It may not be under the most enjoyable circumstances, walking in this way – politics being politics – and while Rosenberg may be thought of as one of the major classical music critics in the country (no pressure there for his successor, either), I am sure we’ll be reading many good things from Zach. I know I’m not the only one wishing him the best!

The issue of Rosenberg’s re-assignment, of course, is another matter entirely, and one verging on Freedom of Speech.

Years ago, I was never a fan of the great conductor, Eugene Ormandy, or of the great violinist Isaac Stern – many times, their recordings and performances left me cold. I can’t say I knew why, but I just wasn’t moved by them. I often wondered what I would do if I had become a critic and had to deal with those kind of personal versus professional reactions, whatever that means. I mean, if I continued to slam Ormandy, say, as being “ineffectual” and “distant,” who would take me seriously for very long?

It’s not that Rosenberg was alone. Many critics around the country said similar things when the orchestra was on tour: they often had to go to Europe to get glowing reviews from major cities.

I’d had similar misgivings about Lorin Maazel, a previous conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. My Eastman room-mate joined the orchestra during Maazel’s first season and so whenever the orchestra came to New York, I would drive down from the UConn to hear them play. It was embarrassing to tell my friend that I had trouble staying awake during the Brahms 2nd Symphony.

It’s not that the orchestra played badly, by any means. It’s that I couldn’t find anything in the conductor’s interpretation that made the work come alive for me.

Once, during intermission, Maazel had said to the orchestra back-stage he was checking his pulse to find out what the opening tempo would be for Brahms 1st, coming up next. It’s not that his blood-pressure was a little low that night, but it sounded like he’d checked himself after having watched the most boring TV show, ever.

Another concert included Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. I knew from my friend that they had not rehearsed it much, in fact had not even run through the whole piece, checking only a few spots. On the stage of Carnegie Hall, they were actually going to “sight-read” the minuet. It’s not that they didn’t know the piece, but several in the orchestra (like my former room-mate) hadn’t played it with Maazel before. It’s not that I expected the piece to fall apart – after all, it was the Cleveland Orchestra – and while I wasn’t on the edge of my seat as much as many in the orchestra may have been, if the experiment had been meant to generate on-the-spot electricity, it still bored me. It didn’t help that I knew Maazel had told the orchestra during the sound-check that it wouldn’t make much difference: the critics would still hate it (and he was right).

So I didn’t feel too badly about my reactions: after all, I wasn’t alone. At least I didn’t have put my feelings about it in writing.

Many years and many bad reviews later, lo and behold Lorin Maazel is chosen as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic! There was much soul-searching going on as a few New York critics wondered how they would deal with him on a regular week-to-week basis. Fortunately, some things had somehow changed, certain strengths came to the surface with familiarity and, on the whole, while he hasn’t been getting unanimously rave reviews, they’re not the spiteful attacks they’d been. It’s unlikely the critics mellowed – and certainly the papers’ editors didn’t come down and say “write nice reviews or else!” Or at least, I rather doubt it.

(I have to chuckle, reading Allan Kozzin’s New York Times review of Maazel’s Mahler with the New York Philharmonic: “...though the playing was often strikingly beautiful, his interpretation was flat and emotionless: it might as well have been an ice sculpture.”)

Which makes the whole issue at the Plain Dealer a little more of a surprise: no one admits to pressuring anyone or to being pressured and it’s unlikely the paper’s integrity would be impugned just for the sake of appeasing the orchestra’s management.

But it probably does send chills down the spines of many critics across the land: it’s bad enough, now, a critic might be sued for a bad review, as happened in England this past summer. True, it was unlikely in another ten years Mr. Rosenberg would have any kind of epiphany about Mr. Welser-Möst’s interpretive abilities and suddenly become a euphoric cheer-leader, so perhaps the editor made the internal decision on the grounds that it was the best way to alleviate the situation. It was still better than eliminating the position, firing the critic and not replacing him at all which, frankly, has been known to happen elsewhere often enough.

When I worked for the Harrisburg Symphony back in the ‘80s, we often complained among ourselves about the reviews the orchestra received in the Patriot-News. Not that they were bad: usually, they were just badly written or not really reviews at all. Sending someone who likes music out to review a concert does not make them a “critic,” however one views the term.

Reading a complete plot-synopsis of Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman does not help someone who’d not heard the concert find out how the orchestra played the Overture, especially when you don’t say anything about how it was performed. The many grammatical howlers aside, telling us Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ Poeme for Flute & Orchestra was “a compendium of every style you could hear in the 20th Century” is an odd thing to say about such a mild and pretty piece composed before 1919, though it led some of us to say “yeah, I particularly liked that aleatoric section near the end.” How exciting it must have been for the two young singers who came from New York to sing in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, hoping no doubt to add to their resume reviews for their performance at the Forum, only to be mentioned in terms of what they wore, not how they sang!

Then there is the never-ending argument, “who are you writing for?” If you’d gone to the concert, you shouldn’t need to read a critic’s reaction to find out how it went. If you didn’t go, how is reading a review going to make up for not having been there? If you don’t know much about the music, does it matter how well the pianist brought out the triplets in the left-hand during the transition to the second theme? If you know anything about music, is it going to matter to you if the conductor “rode the tiger” during The Rite of Spring?

When there’s a concert weekend, is a review that shows up in Sunday morning’s paper going to motivate anyone to drop afternoon plans and get there by 3:00? What about a review for a concert series in a big city where, even if you decide to go at the last minute, are there going to be tickets available? Well, maybe it will happen, and maybe even getting a few more people in those seats makes it worthwhile. What is the point, some ask, of reviewing a one-night-stand of a concert if there are no further performances to attract new attendance? More than likely it may convince readers to try out the next concert. Or at least to know that the orchestra or the concert series even exists.

Ultimately, I guess, reviews are a kind of public relations venture which is why something that focuses on a negative aspect – even a small one at the expense of the over-all positive impression – can be viewed by certain vested interests as “bad publicity.” Yet movie critics who pan the latest block-buster don’t appear to have much of an impact on theater-attendance.

Perhaps the idea of knowing in advance a review will be negative – did people read Rosenberg’s reviews because they wanted to check out his latest zingers? – was having a negative impact on the paper’s readership. But the paper hired an intelligent man who is paid to have an opinion to write intelligently about his opinion. Maybe it’s the result of a certain level of political correctness combined with the old Bambi-era philosophy (as Thumper’s mother imparted, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”), not that many politicians have ever taken this to heart.

At the moment, I’m trying to read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled which is about (insomuch as it’s about something) a concert pianist who arrives in a Central European city for a very important concert. Every time he turns around there’s something surreal happening to him (I haven’t read enough to make sense out of it if sense is to be found), but one thing that intrigues me is Ishiguro’s depiction of the city’s arts scene.

Apparently this pianist, known only as Mr. Ryder, has come to town to support an aging, over-the-hill conductor named Mr. Brodsky who has been chosen as the city’s new “music champion,” despite their misgivings over his age and whatever talent he may have left. He replaces the acclaimed cellist Christoff who had been reluctantly thrust into this role-in-society almost 18 years earlier. But recently, one of the city leaders admitted to another one that he found Christoff’s last recital “functional,” to which another hesitated, “yes, I tend to agree with you. There was a certain dryness to it all,” and the first man added he thought the word was “cold.”

And so began the sudden disgrace of the man who for almost 18 years had been their shining beacon in the arts. Mr. Ryder is being told this, incidentally, against a backdrop of the movie he was trying to watch at the local cinema, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” particularly during the scene when the astronauts were beginning to suspect the motives of the computer HAL.

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