University of Kansas Wind Ensemble at Carnegie Hall
Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens & Bryce Dessner's "Planetarium" at BAM

Commentary: What's Happening to Music Criticism?

Olin_downes, NY Times Critic
"No statue has ever been erected to a critic." - Jean Sibelius

Times are tough for music criticism. Just this past year, one newspaper reassigned one of their two full-time music critics, offered the classical music editor a retirement buyout (with no intention of replacing him), and only runs half of the stories they assign. In their place, this same paper has taken to running dubious Top 20 composer lists and profiles of presenters that feel one way to attract new audiences is by turning concerts into fashion shows. 

No, this isn't the Miami Herald or the Des Moines Registerit's our very own New York Times, once referred to as the "paper of record" and, for more than a century, this country's go-to arbiter of art and culture. As recently as 1978, the Times had five full-time classical music critics that contributed up to 40 reviews a week, but by 2002, that number had dropped to three full-time critics and two stringers (essentially, a regular freelancer).

Today, the Times has exactly ONE full-time critic: Tony Tommasini, who's still referred to as the "Chief Music Critic," even though there's no one else under him. And that's to say nothing of the Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, and the half-dozen other New York City papers that once offered serious music coverage on par with the Times but have since either folded or fired their critics. The way things are going, it won't be long before there's zero classical music coverage in New York's mainstream media. Wow.

Allan-kozinn-demoted-at-new-york-times-L-JpavQ0The Times' cutbacks are concerning on a number of different levels: the quality of writing has become variable, at best; fewer shows are getting covered; what is getting covered is often at the whim of freelancers and stringers. Coverage of contemporary/new music, for example—once the regular beat of former Times music critic Allan Kozinn—has dwindled to a slow drip (Steve Smith's advocacy notwithstanding).

James-oestreich1-300x199Even more disturbing is that, with the forced resignation of longtime music editor Jim Oestreich in January, Music has been absorbed by the larger Culture desk, which is now run by Danielle Mattoon—whose previous position was head of the Travel Desk. (She was Associate Editor of Arts & Leisure prior to that.) And Sia Michel, the new editor of Arts & Leisure, joined the Times in 2007 as a pop critic after serving as editor-in-chief of Spin Magazine. As one person with inside knowledge of the situation told me: "I think the people running things just have no interest in classical music. They don't even run half of the stories they assign."

Jean+Sibelius+J+SibeliusSibelius was right: no one is ever going to raise a statue to a critic. Music writers and critics do serve an important role, however: separating the good from the bad, documenting, illuminating, offering context and perspective. Many critics have exerted enormous influence over the music itself, either by championing a trend, or by offering direct feedback to composers and musicians. To paraphrase New Yorker critic Alex Ross: without critics, it's all noise.


Hanslick and brahmsPart of what makes music writers good at their jobs are the relationships they forge with those who create the music. Take the 19th-century critic Eduard Hanslick, who was as famous for his championing of Brahms (pictured together at right) as he was for his scathing reviews of Bruckner and Wagner (the latter of whom later returned the favor by portraying him as the trolling Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger). Hanslick and Brahms were close, and developed the sort of relationship where they could speak frankly about what worked well, and what didn't. One can assume that if several different stringers were assigned to cover Brahms' concerts, his music wouldn't be nearly the concert hall fixture it is today.

Alex rossIn our own time, The New Yorker's Ross has been a tireless champion of contemporary music, repeatedly reviewing and profiling a wide range of composers, including John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. In fact, I can't think of anyone else engaging in advocacy on that level. Part of that has to do with Alex's passion and ability, but it mostly has to do with his being at The New Yorker, where writers are encouraged to go deep and long, generally writing about whatever they choose. That is a luxury you'll never see at the Times, or at any other major U.S. publication.

Yes, there are blogs (such as this one) that help to fill the gap somewhat. But as one staffer at the NY Phil complained to me not long ago: "There just aren't that many (classical) blogs out there. Not good ones, anyway." Even if there were, a blog could never match the power of periodicals like the Times to influence opinion on a wide scale.

Elgar and krehbielWhat we're talking about here isn't protecting music coverage for the blue-hairs: lord knows the world doesn't need any more reviews of amateur piano recitals or Tchiakovsky symphonies. It's about preserving our musical legacy. Because, the way things are going, soon no one's going to be left to talk about the incredibly rich and diverse music being made in today's concert halls and alternative spaces. Which eventually means that people will stop making it, because audiences (including patrons) won't know what to listen for, or why they should support it in the first place.

If I were a composer, or someone with a vested interest in this music, I'd start getting on your local paper's case now. Tell them that you demand solid coverage of serious music, and lots of it—just like Edward Elgar used to do (pictured above with NewYork Herald critic, Henry Krehbiel).