Classical Critics Survey

2. It seems that the overwhelming number of classical critics at daily newspapers and alternative weeklies are musicians or composers themselves. Do you think this is true? Does that help or hurt the profession? And does it mean that non-musicians or composers should stay away from the critical profession?

I question whether this is really true; a few of the critics I know are musicians (including some on this list), but most aren't. The majority of us at the Times aren't (aha! cry our detractors, seizing on this obvious weakness), apart from Anthony Tommasini, a pianist. I studied many aspects of music for many years, including a long and serious flirtation with training as a classical singer; but I don't know that I'd call myself a "musician," certainly not in the sense that my husband, Greg Sandow, is. As a result, he and I are very different critics. Does it make one of us "better"? I can't say. I think that to be a critic the most important thing is being able to listen and write articulately about what you hear. A thorough knowledge of music certainly informs and furthers this ability; but I don't think that all critics need to be musicians, any more than all musicians would necessarily be good critics. At a paper like the Times, my understanding is that there's an implicit idea that for a critic to be a musician would represent a conflict of interests--a common charge against Virgil Thomson, for example. I tend to think too much is made of the need for this barrier between critic and performer, and I reject the idea that mingling with practitioners in the field somehow contaminates the purity of a critic's observation (after all, all criticism is fundamentally subjective; one might as well acknowledge that from the start, and write with an informed subjectivity, and know what one is talking about). But I think it would be facile to say that critics either "should" or "shouldn't" be musicians. Like any art, each of us approaches this one from his or her own perspective.

I'd say many, though hardly all, of classical critics are trained musicians. The reason is simply that the music is complex and expertise is required to deal with it. It hurts the field of criticism only in that people who are musically informed, even if they are somewhat stiff writers, sometimes get pulled into criticism. Still, most editors, if forced to choose between a musician who is not a zippy writer, and a zippy writer (and classical music lover) who is not a musician, will take the writer every time. Ideally, a critic should be both.

No. I don't believe that the majority of critics are practicing musicians. I feel that newspaper criticism has taken a severe beating from the fact that the hiring of practicing musicians has been discouraged at large papers. The fallacy is that practicing musicians cannot be objective, but the reality is that practicing musicians are more caring about the field, and that non musicians can just as easily have hidden agendas that are all the more harmful for being uninformed. Most recent writing about criticism (Mark Grant's book on criticism, for example) has emphasized that criticism was better when many critics were composers. That's not to say that non-musicians can't be excellent critics. But having good musicians as critics does impose a certain standard on the field that has been missing these last 20 years.

I have to believe that there's an important place for reviewers who are not musicians or composers, who know what it's like to hear good conversation about music. Clearly, the professionals are the people with the most training, and the greatest technical knowledge. But what a disaster if the discussion of music were limited only to technical issues. If music is an essential part of the humanities, civilized, intelligent discourse--with standards centered on meaning, interpretation, performance history, and finding what's most alive in music--is more important than any discussion confined to mere accuracy or being impressed by technical bravura. One of the problems within the music industry is that too many performers themselves are merely brilliantly competent, and critics do a great disservice to emphasize such matters. It's funny about rock critics. I often find that what's wrong with the rock reviews I read is that they don't strike a balance between gushing enthusiasm and a too-knowing in-group jargon.

I can't honestly say that I've noticed this. If I try to think of major classical music critics who actively do some kind of artistic work in music, I come up with just two names--Kyle Gann, who's a composer, and Andrew Porter, the distinguished British critic who used to write for the New Yorker, and who writes English translations of operas, which are then performed by major opera companies. He's also made some important musicological discoveries. Maybe I'm missing someone, but if there's any large number of critics who work as composers or musicians, I'd love to know who they are. (I might add myself to my list, since I'm resuming a composing career I abandoned many years ago. But I don't think I should call myself a working composer until more people start performing my music.)

To be painstakingly complete about this, I do know a couple of musicians who sometimes write reviews. But they write for specialized music publications, and in any case don't devote much of their time to criticism. There's also Henry Fogel, who reviews CDs for Fanfare magazine and works by day as executive director of the Chicago Symphony. I think he's one of America's best critics, but his day job keeps him from writing about any currently active musician; he only reviews reissues of CDs by conductors who are dead.

Which brings up an important point. Any critic for a major publication who actively works as a musician or composer would run into conflicts of interest. Some years ago, just before I stopped composing, I wrote unfavorably about Beverly Sills, who then was general director of the New York City Opera, and wasn't doing her job very well. She accused me of conflict of interest, saying I'd written badly about her only because City Opera hadn't performed an opera of mine they were looking at. I thought she had it backwards--as far as I knew, City Opera hadn't made any decision on my opera, and I'd been willing to spoil my chances with what I wrote. But you see what the problem is. Many publications wouldn't hire a critic who might get in this position.

Of course, some critics used to be musicians. Tony Tommasini, for instance, was a pianist, and recorded CDs. Sarah Bryan Miller, the critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, used to sing in the Chicago Lyric Opera chorus. And surely there are more I don't know about. I don't think, though, that most critics have this kind of background. Another question, of course, would be how many critics have musical training, and, more specifically, musical training on a professional level. From my own experience with critics, I'd guess that very few have the kind of training professional musicians have.

Is this a problem? Yes and no. I know some really good critics who don't have musical training. But on the other hand--and here I might get myself in trouble--it's pretty clear that, taking the field as a whole, most classical critics don't appear to hear music the way musicians do, or to draw on the kind of knowledge professional musicians have. (Or, for that matter, the kind of knowledge you find in many high-ranking people in orchestras or opera companies.)

You could say that this helps critics in some ways, because sometimes people on the inside can't see the forest for the trees. But then there are things critics seem to miss. Compare, for instance, the way orchestral musicians talk about conductors with the way critics write about them. Orchestral musicians--at least if they're talking honestly--will tell you flat out that some conductors are incompetent, that they can't beat time well enough to hold an orchestra together. One conductor in New York, notorious among musicians, even gets lost during performances and waves his arms apparently at random, giving his players no clue what they're supposed to do.

There are two others conductors in New York who give reasonably prominent concerts (as does the one I've already mentioned), and whom musicians say are largely or totally unable to hold a performance together. So the problem isn't uncommon. Critics, however, never write about it (and sometimes even make excuses for bad conductors, saying, for instance, that the performance sounded horrible but there must not have been enough rehearsal time).

(I don't have the scope here to say how musicians keep things going even when the conductor gets in the way, or to talk about the interesting case of conductors--one of the great names of the past, Wilhelm Furtwangler, was in this category--who can't beat time, but still have enough authority to make stunning music.)