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Cocktail Conversation: Anthony Tommasini

NY Philharmonic Opening Gala Cocktail PartyPhoto credit: Chris Lee, New York Philharmonic

On Wednesday, I was invited to a cocktail party for music journalists on the rooftop of the Empire Hotel prior to that evening's New York Philharmonic season-opening gala. I was speaking with one of Lincoln Center's staffers by the bar when we were approached by Anthony Tommasini, longtime classical music critic of The New York Times. I've seen Tony at all sorts of musical happenings over the past six years, but have never felt comfortable approaching him, given his status as arguably the most influential music critic in New York, if not America. I mean, what would he care what some blogger thinks?

Imagine my surprise, then, when Tony turned out to be completely warm and engaging, enthusiastically holding court on a wide range of topics for more than twenty minutes. Despite his past life as a music professor, Tony is no reserved academic: he speaks with genuine passion for the beat he's covered since 1996. And, while I don't always see eye to eye with him, our chat was a reminder of just how fortunate we are to have his clear, knowledgeable voice. (For the record: Tony drank Coke, while yours truly swilled Chardonnay.)

Below are some highlights:

On Covering the Fall Openings: I've been up until 3:30 a.m. the past two nights, between the Met's opening on Monday and Levine's return in Così fan Tutte last night. I asked my editor to let me send in my story for this tomorrow, since this isn't really as . . . newsworthy.

On the Met's Opening Night Protests: Obviously, this is a deeply personal issue for me (Ed: Tony married his longtime partner, Ben McCommon, last year). But, as I wrote earlier this week, it isn't the Met's place to step in and make a statement here. If they took a stand on this, the next thing you know you'll have people wanting to protest Syria, or the Palestinians, or whatever cause they want to promote. The Met actually has a long history of avoiding political protest: during the first and second World Wars, the Met continued to perform German opera, even as it was boycotted by most other companies around the world.

On City Opera: It's tragic what's happened there. And the thing is, it really wouldn't take much to keep them going. All they need is $7 million. That's nothing compared to the money being thrown around today in popular music. Someone could easily step in and save City Opera tomorrow if they wanted to. But, the whole way they've gone about raising the money—using Kickstarter, etc.—has been a complete disaster.

On George Steel: The thing is, George has put on some really fantastic shows since he came on board. But, they've had a lot of trouble sustaining any kind of buzz since they made the decision to leave Lincoln Center. This season, there's Anna Nicole and then . . . nothing until February. You have to wonder what's going on there. 

On Gerard Mortier: Come on, Mortier was ridiculous. In Paris, Mortier had a budget of $300 million. City Opera's budget at the time was $40 million, and he said he couldn't work with a company that had "less than the smallest company in France." So, Susan Baker told him she'd raise another $20 million. They were never going to raise that kind of money. And then, he shut down the company for a year while they renovated the theater! I've never understood why he did that: City Ballet still performed in the house that season. Things were never the same after that. (Apparently, things haven't gone so well for Mortier in Madrid either.)

On Donors: The arts have always been funded by the 1%, ever since the Medicis. This country is no different. The only difference is, here it's people like David Koch. Still, what were they supposed to do, turn down $100 million? 

On Rising Ticket Costs: People don't realize that classical music is actually very affordable in New York. The Met sells 200 rush seats—good orchestra seats—for every performance. The Philharmonic offers deep discounts to young ticket buyers. Juilliard puts on two or three performances a week by incredibly talented young musicians, and they're all free! There's no excuse for New Yorkers not to go out and experience classical music.