In the space of one week, the New Yorker's Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise, won a MacArthur Foundation "genius award," and the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Donald Rosenberg was barred from reviewing the Cleveland Orchestra. Ross built his career around music criticism that's enjoyed by newcomers and aficionados alike, written with a gift for metaphor bested only, perhaps, by Kenneth Tynan, while Rosenberg was the go-to guy to find out what was happening with the Cleveland Orchestra, and whose down-to-earth writing was a verbal analogue of everything good and decent about the Midwest. So, what exactly happened here? How could one critic be barred from covering his turf while another is lauded for doing just that? It shows the tensions that are pulling publishing apart as well as the insatiable curiosity on the part of listeners and readers, and the delicate line that music critics of influential publications tread on.
I'll state at the outset that both Ross and Rosenberg are friends of mine. I also know Zach Lewis, who's now assigned to the orchestra's concerts. At the same time, I have friends, former classmates and several colleagues in and at the Cleveland Orchestra, and I have had zero conversations with anyone in Cleveland about this situation. I don't know what happened. I've read many of Rosenberg's reviews, but not all of them, but I do know that when he and I attended the same concerts (which we did at meetings of the Music Critics Association of North American around 2002 and 2003), we agreed on what we heard. I'll trust his musical judgment as much as I trust my own, in other words. Gary Hanson, the Cleveland Orchestra's executive director, wrote on Tim Smith's blog "that the Orchestra’s management understands and respects the paper's and the critic’s role in expressing opinion about our artistic activities," and I believe him.
I also believe that there's no such thing as bad publicity. If people are talking about you and writing about you, it means that they care about what you are putting in front of them. Sports teams know this intuitively. Ozzie Guillen might get righteously ticked at Jay Mariotti, before Mariotti left, at least, in the Chicago Sun-Times, but the chances of Mariotti being barred from writing about the White Sox are nonexistent. For the simple reason that people care, and they want to read something that's not cheerleading. I get a laugh whenever I tell people, "As long as they're talking about me." It's always better, whether it's at work, in the papers, on listservs, to be a topic. If you're a topic, it means you matter, and if you matter, people are gonna buy whatever it is you're putting out there, if only to see if they also disagree.
Which brings us back to Rosenberg. His reviews of Franz Welser-Möst called them as he heard them. This is what critics do. (Even more disclosure: I never heard FWM conduct the Cleveland Orchestra.) Some commenters have pleaded that Rosenberg wasn't "objective" in his reviews, and let's call this the lie that it is. If you want objectivity in a newspaper, people, go read the box scores. If you want to know what happened filtered through a knowledgeable person's mind, then you read the newspaper. Objectivity gives you nothing more than "The Beethoven was ragged, I guess, but it wasn't that ragged." It's tedious, and nobody with two brain cells to rub together should be expected to read it. Music isn't a thumbs-up or thumbs-down proposition; there are shades of gray and nuances in there, and it helps to have a critic around to describe what they heard.
Now then, I understand that Cleveland is a small city, and that there isn't another paper out there to counter Rosenberg's critiques. But heck, New York doesn't even have a second paper of equal significance to counter a negative review in the New York Times. You tough it out and hope for the best if you get a less than stellar review from the Times. It's not the end of the world.
This is where Ross's recognition reenters the picture. He's won numerous deserved praises for the book (my own is here), but the larger point of that praise is that people are hungry to learn about classical music if the writer will meet them halfway. If you do not condescend to people, if you write in language and rhythms they understand, they will come to you. I know this from my own experience at a weekly city listings magazine and at this blog. You remain constantly vigilant about keeping your writing approachable, you use action verbs as if you're storming the goddamn Bastille, and you try to slip in an idea and philosophical turn of phrase whenever you can. The readers will come. (They'll also leave in droves if you don't keep your blog up, but that's another topic. Although it's more accurately been a single drove in the case of Dec Simp.)
Whatever happened in Cleveland, I hope the reasons for it are valid. I can't imagine what valid reasons might be in that situation, frankly, but my terminally open mind compels me to admit their possible existence. My one hope is that the recent success of Ross and his willingness to rewrite the twentieth century's musical history forces the Plain Dealer's editors to realize the importance of questioning perceived power structures. It's one of the more useful aspects of the media, after all.