One of the more fascinating events in the Cliburn competition is a series of three symposia, open to the public, that give a behind-the-scenes glimpse at some of the gears that move such events.
The first was on Thursday and consisted of a panel of music journalists/critics who are writing interviews and criticism as the competition progresses. Scott Cantrell, from the Dallas Morning News, was the moderator. He had the advantage of reviewing all of the performances from the start, whereas the other critics just arrived for the final rounds. They were Jeff Dunn, San Francisco Classical Voice; Janelle Gelfand, Cincinnati Inquirer; William Littler, Toronto Star and Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland). Rosenberg is also the president of the Music Critics Association of North America, at least for the next 10 days, when his term expires. This is a position that Cantrell has held twice in the past.
All four shared a gloomy view of the future of print media and of musical journalism. This is an impression that is spurred by reality, with full-time music critics down to a handful and only at major big cities newspapers. Cantrell mused about being one of the few that remain and praised the owners of the paper for putting values on arts coverage. Even the august New York Times is down to one full-time music critic, with the remainder of the coverage done by freelance writers.
Rosenberg went so far as to predict that print media was obsolete already and that we were witnessing its final days. Certainly, the younger readers are more accustomed to reading the news on smart phones, tablets and computers. He also said that, because of the delays inherent in getting a physical paper into the hands of the reader, the “…news is old.”
Online publications, and online versions of print, can post things as they are happening. My reviews were published within an hour of the preliminary and semifinal round performances ending. Cantrell, along with Olin Chism of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, has also been posting in a similar manner to their online presence, which then was in the printed paper the next day. This hybrid approach only underscores Rosenberg’s inescapable diagnosis.
“We are in a time of change,” Rosenberg said. “It could be a great adventure. But, at the moment, it is tenuous.”
Dunn, who writes for an online publication, said that his “…colleagues are buggy whip manufactures. Newspapers are designed for 19th century reading habits. All that paper and unions.”
Gelfand added that papers like hers, the Cincinnati Enquirer, are owned by large corporations and that shareholders demand a good bottom line. As in other papers, this means layoffs and moving beats, such as pop music, to the journalists that remain. She also gave a dramatic example of how papers have shrunk, by holding up an older edition and the current one that was half the size, and not just in pages but in outside dimensions. It was also full of large photographs and the front page didn’t have a news story anywhere to be found. She also said that her reviews were available online as soon as she posted them. “In the paper, reviews are on the obituary page,” she said, eliciting much laughter.
Littler, who has a legendary wit, said that he would “…someday by a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, to join all the other mastodons in the La Brea Tar Pits. We are, indeed, a profession from another era. In the far past, critics wrote reviews but they were social reports as well. Now, space limitations require the review to be too short to give the ‘why’ of your comments. This turns you from a critic to a reviewer.”
The discussion turned to the function of a critic, which is a hotly debated subject. Many felt that a critic’s job was to describe the concert in such a way that the reader gets a sense of how it felt to be there in person. Cantrell added that performers and composers sometimes value a critic’s comments, even if they are negative, because it causes them to reconsider. They may come to the same conclusion that they were right and the critic was wrong, but the act of reconsideration is of great value.
Gelfand added that, “…a thoughtful and informed review acts as an advocate for the arts and helps to raise the standards. The old days when a critic could make or break a performer are long gone.”
Cantrell gave an even more sucinct summary of his philosophy: “Did it work or not and why?”
It is that “and why” part that requires a critic to be informed about a myriad of aspects. First, they must know the music being performed, have an understanding of the style of the composer, and then add an overlay of performance practices from the era of the composition and how that translates to modern times. This is the catch. There are a lot of bloggers who write about performances but lack this background so their opinions are valid as far as their own preferences go, but a music critic has to explain why they wrote what they did – good or bad.
The association requires members to be recommended and submit sample of published reviews. There is no degree in music criticism and no real requirement for entry in the blogosphere.
Littler explained our qualifications this way: “We are believable because of our body of work.”
◊ The conductor symposium is 10 a.m. Friday, June 7; and The jury symposium is 10 a.m. Saturday, June 8. These events are free.