Reviewing the (still) woeful state of classical-music criticism

Is classical-music criticism in daily newspapers going the way of the dodo?

Maybe it’s too early to tell. Or maybe we’ll never know.

I attended my first forum on the crisis facing classical-music criticism about 30 years ago, shortly after I landed a job as “everything critic” for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and its then-sibling afternoon paper, the St. Paul Dispatch.

The format for that forum wasn’t much different from the one sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio that was held Monday in St. Paul. At Monday’s event, a prominent newspaper critic — Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times — discussed the present, woeful state of newspaper criticism, though the conversation wandered all over the classical map after a few salient points.

The turnout for the event was small, probably fewer than 30 people. But I think the crowd was even smaller 30 years ago.

‘The greatest enemy’
I can’t remember the name of the prominent critic who headlined that first forum I attended back in the 1970s. But I still remember his opening statement. It was this: “The greatest enemy of newspaper criticism today is newspapers.”

By that he meant the enemy included the people who run newspapers and, to a lesser extent, the journalism culture that results in the order of importance given to the product newspapers churn out every day and call news.

Swed essentially made the same case Monday. At one point, he charged that “people in the top (of the newspaper business) aren’t particularly interested in culture.”  And, much later, he said that one of his tasks is to make his story ideas “interesting to my editors. If that doesn’t work, you’re getting nowhere.”

So the basic thesis about the problem for newspaper music critics hasn’t changed all that much. Other things have changed, of course. There are fewer newspapers today and fewer full-time music critics. Newspapers are smaller. Reviews are shorter and often fewer in number.

Reliance on free-lancers
Today, neither of the two daily papers in the Twin Cities has a full-time classical music critic, relying instead on regular free-lance reviewers. I’m one of the people who write occasional reviews for the Pioneer Press.

In 1978, however, I was responsible for reviewing classical music, including opera, plus theater, dance and sometimes visual arts for both of St. Paul’s newspapers. The Minneapolis Tribune and its then-sibling paper, the Star, each had a full-time classical-music critic.

Music critics write basically for three important audiences: First, the people who attend concerts. Second, a larger group of intensely interested people who read reviews of concerts they aren’t going to hear. And third, the critic’s bosses.  Ignore the third audience at your peril.

The prominent critic at the forum held 30 years ago said newspaper critics have to employ “guile and cunning” to avoid being marginalized. That hasn’t changed.

Top editors were well connected
I had a pretty good situation during the decade I worked as a critic at the Pioneer Press. The two top editors at the paper during my tenure were fairly well connected to the social structure that revolved around the cultural life of the Twin Cities. If they didn’t attend that many concerts, they still felt guilty about it. Having a culturally guilty editor is a good thing for a music critic.

The papers were corporately owned, but there was still a community connection that extended into top management. For example, the publisher when I started was a St. Paul native and sat on the boards of several arts organizations.

The other advantage I had involved competition. Virtually every music review I wrote was filed for the next morning’s paper. The goal was to beat the Minneapolis papers to print whenever we could and to cover more events. Better, more thorough coverage? If you had time, sure.

I had a small legion of free-lance reviewers and there was no dedicated page for arts and entertainment, which meant that reviews competed with news for space in the paper. The inside space for wire stories were often trumped by locally generated reviews.

A critic who could cover a fire
It helped, too, that I had been a reporter for many years before becoming a critic, including several years with the Associated Press. My first editor loved to brag that he had a critic who could reliably cover a fire.

(An aside: On one occasion I was just finishing a Minnesota Orchestra review and was the only writer in the newsroom when word was received that a spectacular fire had broken out in the gymnasium of Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis. I rushed over with a photographer and dictated a story over the telephone. Later, I realized that embers showering down from the fire had burned holes in the sport coat I had been wearing for the concert in Orchestra Hall. The editor was so delighted that his music critic had gotten close to the blaze that he allowed me to put a new sport coat on my expense account — a largess that astonished many of my colleagues who had thrown away smoke-tinged clothes.)

The decline in the number of newspapers that employ full-time music critics was an issue back in the 1970s and it has only exacerbated over time. Most free-lance reviewers, with some lucky exceptions, earn their living in other fields. They are hired to cover an event, not to develop a considered view of a community art resource. They rarely develop a “cultural relationship” with the people who might read reviews. They are less likely to spark the dialogue that is so important to a cultured community if it is to value art.

Swed reflected on this during his remarks Sunday. As the result of staffing cuts, he’s now the only classical music writer at the L.A Times, and he laments the “need to have voices, dialogues, conflicts and all the rest.”

“Communities need a cultural dialogue,” he added — more than a little wistfully, I thought.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/12/2008 - 09:45 am.

    Thank you very much. A delightful article that was both personal and culturally relevant.

    As a fan of ancient music (I avoid the term “classical” in conversation to eliminate any sense of pretension) I’ve always been on the outside of society looking in. What I love about criticism, either in print or on the radio, is that it connects me to a community of like-minded people. It’s good to not feel completely wierd.

    A “scene” is critical to the arts that bind us together as one culture. That scene has to spill over into our daily lives if it’s going to avoid becoming an affectation or a marginalized sub-culture. Criticism makes that connection from the concert to daily life and thought, bringing the cohesiveness that a scene needs to survive.

    I’m writing a series on my blog (link at my name) on the importance of culture in our lives as Americans. What is culture? Why is it important? Why does there have to be a common culture if we’re to call ourselves one nation? I think these are all critical questions right now.

    Thanks for the light shown on this corner of the problem.

  2. Submitted by ann klefstad on 11/12/2008 - 10:11 pm.

    David, what a charming story– I can go you one better though. I filed a review of an opera here in Duluth this year that was, in part, coverage of an electrical fire on the UMD campus that forced a venue change. It was great fun to write.

  3. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 11/17/2008 - 12:35 pm.

    One of the problems is a lack of perception that an arts event is in itself newsworthy. Perhaps there are not enough “newsy” things happening at arts events to remind editors that they matter. How one perceives and writes a music review has some influence. Is it at its core a news piece or an opinion piece?

    As for the overall state of coverage, what is doing about their coverage? It’s not enough to simply comment on what others are doing. Are you making up for the loss in print coverage by covering every event online? Somehow, I don’t think so. I haven’t seen it anyway.

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