Classical Critics Survey

6. Who do you think are the most important and influential classical critics writing about the music today?

I think the most widely read critic in America, especially within the music business, is Tony Tommasini, simply because of his position at the New York Times. He's read nationally, above all on Sundays. The one who's most often talked about is Norman Lebrecht, a British critic whose work circulates on the Internet. People talk about him because he's outrageous, and because he claims to know secrets in the business. But because he's wildly inaccurate, he's not taken very seriously.

Tony has a chance to be influential, as well as widely read, because he doesn't like the new music director of the New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel. Lots of other people don't like Maazel, and if opposition starts to develop in the Philharmonic's audience, and, most important, on the Philharmonic's board of directors, it might rally around Tony, especially if he states his views strongly.

Generally, though, I don't think that classical music critics have any great importance today. And that's our own fault. Taken as a group, we're just not good enough. In the '80s, musicians and people in the music business used to read Andrew Porter in the New Yorker with enormous interest and respect; I can't think of anyone, or at least anyone prominent, who's respected that way now. In the '70s, Tom Johnson, then a critic for the Village Voice, turned readers all over the country on to what was then called "downtown" new music, most crucially including Steve Reich and Philip Glass. John Rockwell, of the Times, helped a few years later to bring this music toward the mainstream. But I can't think of any music critic today who's doing anything similar.

And neither Andrew, Tom, or John ever emerged either as spokesmen for the entire field, or else as the kind of crucial critic everybody has to read, whether they agree with her or not. Where's the classical music equivalent of Pauline Kael, a critic everybody absolutely has to read? Where's our Arlene Croce and our Deborah Jowitt (to name two important names in dance criticism), our Gary Giddins (inescapable in jazz), our Dave Marsh, our Greil Marcus, our Robert Christgau?

Classical music criticism, I think, is somewhat impoverished these days. As far as I can see, it doesn't have much influence on classical musicians, or on the people who run the classical music business.

(Danny Felsenfeld, a young composer who's starting to write criticism, has written an essay on the lack of important classical music criticism. It's in the September issue of the NewMusicBox webzine.)

I suppose the wider the audience you have, the more influential you might be. Maybe radio and TV critics (but I forgot--there isn't any classical music criticism on TV) have some influence But maybe there aren't any "influential" critics at all, except that every now and then a critic who is excited about a particular recording or concert or production can also get a reader excited about it. But this "influence" is rarely lasting or consistent. I'm not sure there is any kind of critical Word-of-God right now, the way B.H. Haggin or even Shaw once were.

Apart, of course, from the other critics in this discussion? The way it's phrased, this question is not about my preferences but about my opinion of who's most important. I personally am a fan of Mark Swed in L.A.; and have great respect for Martin Bernheimer, now at the FT; and Tim Page in Washington is a major figure. I'm not sure how to define "important and influential," since readerships vary, but Justin Davidson at Newsday, the latest Pulitzer-winning critic, is great, and I always check to see what Peter Davis in New York Magazine has to say (and he's the critic most of the singers I know prefer). If the question is about fame and recognition, the list would have to include Norman Lebrecht, although this doesn't mean I endorse him. In Germany, Joachim Kaiser is the Grand Old Man of classical critics: conservative, professorish, and altogether the archetype of a high-church classical-music priest.

Richard Taruskin, rabble-rouser that he is, has written some incredibly intelligent articles. Greg Sandow is always thoughtful, looking at classical music from a pop-conscious point of view. There are some good critics around who (like myself, I think), would be saying something important if they had enough space to say something important in.