I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Opera Chic, the other night, when I came across this post quoting Tim Smith, the music critic of the Baltimore Sun, that Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg has been removed from reviewing concerts by the Cleveland Orchestra. The first paragraph of Smith’s post sums it up:
Don Rosenberg, music critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 16 years, was told yesterday by the paper’s editor that he will no longer be covering the famed Cleveland Orchestra. He has been given the option of reviewing other musical events in town, as well as dance. Another writer at the paper, Zack Lewis, was told he will now be orchestra’s reviewer. First, the full disclosure: I’ve known Don and Zach for years; both are members of the Music Critics Association of North America and its board of directors; Don is the immediate past president of that organization; I’m the current president. Now, the full, unbridled response to this news: It stinks.
(The whole post can be found here.)
I have long complained about Don Rosenberg’s seeming personal vendetta against Franz Welser-Möst; almost never has he had anything good to say about FWM’s performances, and when he does, it’s always couched in backhanded terms (“one of the best things he’s [FWM] done.”) Far more common are the mean-spirited comments. Rosenberg’s reviews have become a joke, especially when they are so out of sync with reviews that the orchestra receives when it performs elsewhere. Are Rosenberg’s ears so finely tuned that he hears things others don’t? (Sometimes I would read his review just to see how harsh it would be.)
I don’t happen to believe that Franz Welser-Möst is in the pantheon of great conductors. (Mark the performance of the Berg “Chamber Concerto” a couple of seasons ago that totally broke down in performance.) But when he’s “on”, the performances can be remarkable. I do think that it is odd that the Plain Dealer has replaced Rosenberg, however, since it totally smacks of interference on the part of the orchestra in the newspaper’s journalistic integrity. (There are close ties between the Orchestra’s board and the Plain Dealer management.) There is precious little arts coverage in the PD anymore–I rarely read the paper in its printed form. I’ll read some stories online, but mostly I ignore it altogether. The paper’s website cleveland.com is a disorganized disaster as well. (Why can’t newspapers have a look at some of their competitor’s sites to get a clue?)
One of operachic’s commentors (from Cleveland) got the salient bit:
Plenty of us in Cleveland have been tired of Rosenberg for a long time. His reviews are highly formulaic, and I’ve become increasingly convinced that he writes them at intermission.
I think nearly everyone would agree that FWM does not walk on water, but from what I hear the orchestra really is happy working with him. And personally I think he’s done some things really well. (He’s also conducted some of the most Wrong-headed Mahler I’ve ever heard, but that’s another story.)
Finally, I’d note that there’s a sad larger context around this. First, the Plain Dealer is not a venerable newspaper. It’s a thin, dying small-town rag that hasn’t done any significant journalism in decades. Its arts reporting exists only to build audiences for struggling institutions in a struggling town. The truth is that the Orchestra fills halls everywhere but on its home turf. They desperately need to build a new audience if they are to remain the “Cleveland” orchestra at all. The PD has simply knuckled under to that reality. (Of course, the orchestra could help by improving their marketing and diversifying their programming.) It’s not a pretty story, and it certainly doesn’t speak to journalistic integrity. On the other hand, Rosenberg’s “criticism” doesn’t either.