Friday, October 17, 2008

Critics in Cleveland: Further Thoughts

Today’s post was prompted by a recent e-mail exchange with a reader in Los Angeles, free-lance writer and critic Laurence Vittes researching an article about last month’s re-assignment of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s chief music critic Donald Rosenberg from his long-held beat at Severance Hall where he covered the Cleveland Orchestra. I’d blogged about it before, mostly focusing on the critic newly assigned to replace Rosenberg, Zachary Lewis, who had once been a critic with the newspaper here in my home-town of Harrisburg, PA.

It’s not like enough cyberink hasn’t been wafted about already on the topic of “muzzling a critic” or however one wants to describe it. Rosenberg’s relationship with the orchestra’s conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, has been notoriously stormy, bringing up long-range questions both ethical and artistic. With the announcement of FWM’s extended contract renewal, apparently another question surfaced, as well: how long, oh Lord, can this go on?

Of course, from my standpoint as a non-critic occasionally writing what people would like to think of as reviews, I’m not sure how satisfactory it would be, going to work all the time and thinking “what’s the point? It’s never going to change, is it?” Oh wait... actually, I think many of us have asked that on a daily basis. But what I mean is, if you’ve written some pretty scathing reviews in the past, what’re the chances this night, compared to any other night, is going to be any different?

The standard formula in the arts world places the performer on one side, the critic on the other and in the middle, the listeners who may have heard the performance and the readers who may not have heard the performance or, having heard it, are curious what somebody who gets paid to write what they think about a concert might tell them what they heard or thought they heard.

How many times had I read reviews of concerts I’d attended and wondered if the critic and I were actually hearing the same performance? It’s not unusual for someone to like something and someone else to hate the same thing. We’re all wired differently.

Going back to Cleveland, it would be a problem if the critic in question was the only one with such a consistently negative opinion, though. When FWM and the orchestra toured in the States, they often received similar comments from local critics. But relentlessly, season in and season out, it begins to seem like there’s an axe to be ground.

But I was wondering if – presuming as has been stated there was no pressure from the orchestra – readers were beginning to tire of the one-sidedness of all this? Is it a bottom-line based decision, a concern for alienating the readers? As I said, at least they didn’t fire him (could they have gotten away with that?) or eliminate the position as has happened with other cities’ newspapers.

Now, I don't read the sports pages, so I don't know what a paper might do if, say, the city has a lousy team or a losing coach and the sports-writer is constantly browbeating them in the press. Do they expect their columns are going to get the coach or a player fired? Would the editor "re-assign" the writer if he continued in too negative a strain for too long a time? I don't know.

But if the team is doing well, makes it to the play-offs and the crowds are generally cheering them on, it seems the writer just doesn't like the coach or a certain player or possibly has a problem with the whole team: how long would it take for the editors to react then? Or the readers, of often irrational irasciblility, who might demand something a little more dire than mere “re-assignment” (a vat of oil near the boiling point, for starters).

Then I realized I hadn’t checked back to see what reviews Zach Lewis has written since that first concert, the one with the Bruckner 7th Symphony (a Franz Welser-Möst specialty) described as “deliberate,” “slow pace[d]”, “lopsided.” I figured he would not write an “all sweet and lovely” review, but I kept thinking what if he too keeps finding things to “criticize,” using the word in the negative sense?

In a more recent performance with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Lang Lang playing the Chopin E Minor Piano Concerto, he described the concert as “setting one important score on fire and leaving another in ashes.”

In the Chopin, Lang Lang...

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“...proves ideal. Sure, he often breaks the musical speed limit, but he does so at his blazing version of leisure, without sacrificing clarity or devolving into a single-minded sprint.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, as rendered by the orchestra and Welser-MÖst. Here, speed limits count for little, and the music suffers greatly.”
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In the final movement, he remarks that a slightly slower approach to the tempo “is still too brisk for the musicians to round out Beethoven's portrait of order restored. Instead, one merely senses chaos minimized.”

With the orchestra’s role in the Chopin best described as “modest” and a war-horse like Beethoven’s 5th, how much rehearsal time did they actually allot for this concert?

I don’t know if anyone at Severance Hall is having flashbacks to Rosenberg’s reviews, but mine were going back to the Old Days of Lorin Maazel and the under-rehearsed Mozart G Minor Symphony I heard them play at Carnegie Hall in the late-70s, mentioned in my earlier post.

The previous concert included the other Mozart G Minor Symphony – No. 25, the one that featured so prominently in the opening of the film “Amadeus” and still sounds amazing when you consider Mozart was 17 when he wrote it. Their performance had good chamber-music-like qualities in the middle movements, but, he concludes,

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“ the bolder first and last movements, Welser-MÖst and the orchestra tended to substitute stateliness and articulate counterpoint for fire and urgency. Polish is always a virtue in Mozart, but in the exceptionally dark 25th Symphony, a little grit isn't out of place, either.”
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Of one of two works played with the soloist, pianist Emanuel Ax, Lewis wrote that in Karol Szymanowski’s rarely heard “Symphonie concertante” (his Symphony No. 4 which is really a substantial work for piano and orchestra, more concerto than symphony),

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“... the pianist joined ranks with Welser-MÖst and the orchestra to cut through the thickets of a dense, prickly score and expose music of both visceral intensity and sincere emotion.”
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What it’s like working in the corner of the Plain Dealer’s office where the arts folk hang out, I have no idea, but I imagine the politics must be very difficult to navigate. Rosenberg was certainly a star writer on the staff: did they move him out of an office, too? At least they didn’t escort him from the building. If he decides to move on, if he prefers reviewing orchestras to chamber music and ballet programs, how would another newspaper view his application? “What if he doesn’t like our conductor?” Could be a confidence issue...

I rather doubt Zach was told, along with what his word-limit would be for a review, that he can only spend no more than 33% of those words making negative comments. But still, it makes you think: happy to have a job? wanna keep it?

Justifiable criticism is one thing. Whether Rosenberg’s constant commentary about FWM’s interpretations was viewed as “unjustifiable,” I can only imagine. He, meanwhile, continues to cover “other concerts” like this review of the farewell appearance of the Guarneri Quartet who will be retiring at the end of this season (they’ll be playing at Market Square Concerts here in April, one of their very last concerts as one of the great legendary quartets of the past 44 years). In Cleveland, they played two of Beethoven’s most introspective Late Quartets, Op. 127 and Op. 132.

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“To say that the Guarneri has come far in its view of Beethoven in the four-plus decades the music has been on the players' stands would be an understatement. The ensemble made one of the great recordings of the complete Beethoven quartets in the 1960s for RCA. Those performances are probing, taut and invigorating.

Tuesday's concert revealed a different Guarneri. The playing has become increasingly introspective in recent years, with an emphasis on utmost subtlety of interplay and dynamics. The approach takes the term "chamber music" literally: these performances would probably best be experienced in a small room.”
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This also brought with it another flashback, going back some 35 years to my Eastman days when I sat in the recital hall (seating around 600) listening to the Guarneri Quartet playing Beethoven’s Third “Razumovsky” Quartet. Speaking of speed limits in Beethoven, the finale began at such a clip, I was amazed they could keep it together, it was going by so fast. It hadn’t occurred to me, at the time, this wasn’t a good thing, hot-dogging Beethoven like that. But while the Music Police didn’t show up to give them a ticket for excessive speeding in the Fugue, it was amusing that as an encore, first violinist Arnold Steinhardt announced they would play the last movement of the Razumovsky again – at the proper tempo. Yes, much better!!

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What power does a critic actually have, these days? In some cities – New York, certainly – a bad review by an important critic can ruin a young artist’s career or close down a play. Just the other day, I was reading New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley’s review of a new production of the play, To Be or Not To Be which he describes as a “walking corpse of a comedy” and mentions that it “has the spring, color and freshness of long-refrigerated celery.” Yum – just makes you want to run right out and buy a ticket, doesn’t it?

But I’m not sure there’s the same kind of life-or-death power when the object is a long-established ensemble or a conductor with a contract, the artistic equivalent of tenure. It’s unlikely that a single critic will single-handedly deep-six a famous maestro: at worst, the maestro might invest in the psychological equivalent of a can of bug-spray, the kind of repellent (or denial) that most artists use when confronted by negative criticism. They might publicly shrug their shoulders but I rather doubt they’re hurt much by it.

It’s not likely Mr. Rosenberg would have felt himself so powerful he could bring down Franz Welser-Möst.

Still, it would not be the first time critics lined up against the conductor. The constant nagging of many of London’s critics along with the animosity of the musicians and the ambiguity of the management eventually drove him out of town six years after he became the music-director of the London Philharmonic at the age of 30. The musicians dubbed him “Frankly Worse-than-Most” – and frankly, I was surprised to see him land in Cleveland in 2002 where, one assumes by the riper age of 42, he has improved with experience. At any rate, this past June the Cleveland Orchestra management renewed his contract through 2018. I suppose critics can write whatever they want to about him, now.

This, however, is interesting: from blog-comments by people presumably on the inside of the situation. A former employee of the orchestra’s management thought Rosenberg was biased whenever he reviewed FWM (who, keep in mind, is not the only conductor in front of the orchestra: he spends 18 weeks a season there). This former employee writes

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“His editors were told several years ago that his view was biased when Franz was on the podium and he was issued a stern warning that he needed to be less biased. For a short while he was writing fair reviews and then he started in on the negativity again. ...[T]hey weren’t attempting to get rid of him because he wasn’t giving them glowing reviews all the time. They were trying to get a fair review off of someone who is a well respected critic who was showing an obvious bias.”
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A violinist in Cleveland (and judging from the content, a member of the orchestra) writes

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“The orchestra members are fleeing like rats from a sinking ship - for a REASON. Ellie and Dan didn’t leave to pursue other musical endeavors - they (and others) left because of the cruel, uncompromising egotism of the baton-wielder.

I didn’t always concur with Don’s reviews, but the fact remains - FWM is a horrifyingly mediocre conductor who found himself trying to fill impossibly big shoes...” [referring to former music director Christoph von Dohnanyi].
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This, of course, brings to mind issues between musicians and maestros, most openly in the Seattle Symphony, but that’s a whole ‘nother story... Yet perhaps Rosenberg is sensing some underlying animosity in the lack of communication between the players and the audience (or at least, himself as a member of the audience), stemming from a lack of communication (and perhaps respect?) between the conductor and the musicians.

Still, it is a rare orchestra that is free from such tension. Players in the Philadelphia Orchestra have been quite vocal about their dislike of their music director Christoph Eschenbach. A few of the concerts I'd heard with him conducting were mediocre, considering it was the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra. Eschenbach is now leaving, having served the shortest tenure of any of the orchestra's storied conductors, a mere five years. As the President of the orchestra's management told the maestro in 2006, according to Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer,

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"- that 80 percent of the musicians did not agree with his artistic interpretations;
- that 80 percent of the musicians left concerts feeling great anger;
- and that the orchestra was a ‘ticking time bomb.’”
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And just a few weeks ago, it was announced the National Symphony has named Christoph Eschenbach as its new music director, starting in 2010. Hmmmm...

So, trying to find some perspective in my assumptions, let’s say I think Rosenberg is probably not imagining things when he goes to a Cleveland Orchestra concert conducted by FWM whether he is biased or being honest. I don’t feel the Plain Dealer gave Rosenberg a fair deal when it chose to reassign him, though as an internal decision, how does one argue with modern-day American corpocracy?

But in all of this, since I have no personal stake in Cleveland, its newspaper, the career of Maestro Möst or of Daniel Rosenberg, I can only add I feel glad that, circumstances aside, someone I know and respect has landed in a position that will, hopefully, work to his benefit. After placing him between a rock and a hard place, I hope it will give him a different kind of work-out than his predecessor received. I wish him all the luck in the world.

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