The Sad State of Classical Music Journalism

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Ralph
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The Sad State of Classical Music Journalism

Post by Ralph » Thu Oct 26, 2006 8:43 am

Mickey Butts
Executive Director, Editor, and Publisher

SFCV welcomes letters to the editor. E-mail editor@sfcv.org.



Come to the Aid of Music Journalism

By Robert P. Commanday


A funny thing happened recently to four music critics sitting on a platform, all in a row: No one in the audience took any shots at them, or produced anecdotes about bad reviewing. That's a sea change, albeit an unwelcome one. Instead, the audience members, symphony orchestra staff members and representatives who were attendees at the Association of California Symphony Orchestra's annual August get-together in Sacramento, focused their comments and questions on the problem of getting reviews and attention in the newspapers.

Their dilemma is universal, at least in the United States. Pick any city, look at its newspaper, and you'll find attention to classical music diminished to the basic minimum. It will focus on the "big ticket" events — which, in the Bay Area, means the San Francisco Symphony, Opera, and Ballet, plus the most celebrated visiting artists. As is well-known to any person interested in classical music, such coverage just skims the surface.

Who's responsible? Newspaper publishers and their editors who have a hand in setting policy and then executing it. What to do about this downgrading of classical coverage? Go to the editors and lay it on. If you're representing a performing or presenting institution — say an orchestra or concert series — then get your board members to put on the pressure. The higher their standing in the community, the more important and effective their pressure. Editors don't answer mail, count on that, but they just might read what comes in. At least they'll become aware of the volume of protests and complaints.

The breadth of music journalism


The great newspaper disappearing act is having a horrendous effect on the responsiveness, awareness, and involvement of the public. This is happening in music as in other areas, but not just because of the reduction in reviews. While reviewing classical music performances is fundamental to the music critic's job, it's just part of it. The field is more properly described as music journalism, because it incorporates many functions besides reviewing. Music journalists write advance pieces to arouse public interest in coming events, cover music news in the local community and around the world, and produce columns or "think pieces" that discuss issues relevant to music and its institutions.

This last, the "think piece," has taken the biggest hit. You likely will look in vain for a music essay in the weekend paper. If a Sunday music article is to be found, it will be an exception and probably an advance or "puff piece," meaning a celebrity interview or, at best, a column of CD reviews. The think piece, in contrast, can be on any musical subject — a significant composition, composer, or performing group; an issue or controversy; an unusual or provocative upcoming event or a notable musician involved in it — so long as it is a thoughtful discussion involving interpretation, history, or analysis. It is not an article that is essentially a recycling of publicity material.

Then there's the decline of investigative music journalism, the hard news that music critics should be responsible for. It was the first to go, and it has all but disappeared. When you read the obituary of a symphony and learn about its bankruptcy, that is usually when you first discover that the orchestra had been in trouble for a long time. The reporting on those facts should have occurred long before, but in fact the coverage of the ineptness of the manager and the incompetence and inattention of the board never appeared. Looking at local historical examples, one could say that blame for the bankruptcies of the Oakland, San Jose, and Sacramento Symphonies belongs in part to the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Sacramento Bee, respectively. The Bee then went on to blow its coverage of a scandal when a musical confidence man, a conductor, all but wrecked the orchestra that succeeded its bankrupted Symphony, the Sacramento Philharmonic.

The production standard that the San Francisco Chronicle's music and dance department maintained for 59 years, from 1934 to 1993, consisted of a full-page Sunday think piece and, during the week, a page-length music column about anything musical that was newsworthy or deserving of discussion, written by the first critic, along with his three reviews a week. Then there were three or more weekly reviews written by each of the other two music and dance reviewers on staff. In addition, there were regular news stories, interviews, and other music features. That is the production standard that San Francisco Classical Voice has aimed to meet (dance coverage excepted) during the eight years since its inception.

Relegated to the periphery

Clearly Phil Bronstein, the San Francisco Chronicle editor, relegates classical music to minimal or peripheral status. Perhaps his music critic argues for more space and coverage to no avail. Whatever the case, the Sunday Datebook section has not carried a classical music piece in many months, perhaps a year. The few published have basically been PR and celebrity interviews.

The point is that discourse in the press is needed to stimulate interest and involvement by the public and to encourage musical activity in the community. Editors have been known to argue that because most musical events are not repeated, reviews have no effect on ticket sales and therefore are unimportant. Those same editors do not apply that reasoning to sports events. They don't say that since baseball, basketball, and football games are unique, one-time occurrences, they should not be covered. Music patrons have at least as much interest as sports patrons in reading about their events, especially those they have attended.

The great tradition of journalism in San Francisco and the Bay Area is in fact responsible for the fact that the region enjoys the second-most active classical music and dance scenes on the continent (as voted by 150 music critics two years ago). From the beginning until the 1990s, San Francisco was a newspaper town. In the 1850s, the years immediately following the Gold Rush, there were 132 newspapers and journals in San Francisco. Many of them covered the already active classical music (and entertainment) scene consistently, using knowledgeable reviewers.

In 1880, with 21 papers still being published in San Francisco (compared to only four in Chicago), the city ranked third in the country in its ratio of people to newspaper copies (1.63 persons for each copy of a newspaper). The majority of its papers covered, supported, and even promoted the performing arts. Until the 1980s, there were daily newspapers in every town in the greater Bay Area, with three remaining in San Francisco. Most of them reviewed the performing arts. Andrew Porter, the British critic then writing for The New Yorker, observed that we had a larger music press than London's.

The indifference of publishers and editors, coupled with the digital revolution, has changed all that. Will the Internet and blogs make the difference? It doesn't seem likely, first because information read on the computer screen does not engage and hold the attention as closely as printed material; second because in traversing a newspaper, many readers become drawn to stories they had not been looking for, stories they may not click to on a Web publication. I would like to think that a good percentage of audience members would regularly take the extra step to go to the Internet to check out the review of what they had just heard in the concert hall or opera house, especially when the newspaper doesn't cover it. That may happen in time — SFCV is doing its job to encourage more of that — but for most people it's not an automatic or habitual response yet, not the way turning to the appropriate page of the newspaper used to be.

Who cares?


Music critics would, of course, prefer to concentrate on music rather than on news stories. But the news responsibility goes with the job and is vital to the community. I can recall when, in the mid-1960s, I was covering the then-new NEA plus the State Arts Council and the City's Arts Commission, in addition to handling the aforementioned critic's duties. I asked the Chronicle's managing editor why he couldn't assign a reporter to those funding stories. His answer came without a second's hesitation: "Because you care." And there it is. The music critic has to care.

Last Sunday, one of the country's distinguished critics, one who really does care and who has turned out first-class coverage for 33 years, announced his retirement. This was Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe. Characteristically for someone who has been inspired by music all his life, Dyer's final statement addressed his conviction that classical music will always have a future.

"Music has qualities in it that can't be found anywhere else," he wrote. "And people are always going to listen to it because it addresses fundamental human needs. … Every minute, someone is born who wants to create it, perform it, or listen to it. How the connections will be made among creators, performers, and listeners will change as often and as quickly in the next generations as it has in the past." Dyer acknowledged the changes he's seen, especially the new forms of media and their "access roads to music." But for the paramount issue that remains, "how to make a person want to discover [music]," he concluded that this is up to the creator, the composer, and the interpreter, or performer. It is the "primary challenge" for them, whatever happens in and to music journalism.

That's all true, of course. But the fact remains — although necessarily unspoken by Dyer — that what he has accomplished as "illuminator" has made an enormous difference to the musical life and community he has served in the great watershed of the Boston Globe's readership throughout New England and beyond. His career exemplifies the importance — the necessity — of the position of music critic.

(Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, and before that a conductor and lecturer at UC Berkeley.)

_____________________________________


Have an opinion about what you've read here or elsewhere in SFCV? Sound off with a letter to the editors.

©2006 Robert P. Commanday, all rights reserved.

___________________________________

SFCV is a nonprofit journal supported by foundation grants and individual contributions. If you enjoy what you find here and want to see our work continue, please consider making a contribution. By virtue of a generous matching grant, it will be doubled. Your contribution (tax-deductible) may be made by credit card by clicking here, or by a check made out to San Francisco Classical Voice and sent to the San Francisco Foundation CIF, (San Francisco Classical Voice account), 225 Bush St. # 500, San Francisco, CA 94104.

From September 1, 1998, to Oct. 17, 2006, SFCV has published, in addition to our weekly features, Music News, and Listening Ahead columns, 2,537 reviews of Bay Area performances by: 53 symphony orchestras (527 reviews), dozens of recital presenters (442 reviews), 42 opera companies (357 reviews), 94 chamber groups (298 reviews), 39 new-music ensembles and programs (269 reviews), 54 early-music ensembles (201 reviews), 37 choral groups (160 reviews), 17 music festivals (119 reviews), 24 chamber orchestras (97 reviews), six musical theater groups (17 reviews), as well as numerous world music groups (14 reviews), youth music ensembles (13 reviews), and other organizations (14 reviews).
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karlhenning
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Re: The Sad State of Classical Music Journalism

Post by karlhenning » Thu Oct 26, 2006 8:59 am

Mickey Butts wrote: Their dilemma is universal, at least in the United States. Pick any city, look at its newspaper, and you'll find attention to classical music diminished to the basic minimum.
Dick Dyer recently retired from the Globe, and I have seen only a single article at the online Globe specific to classical music since.

If they have appointed anyone new to cover classical music, I have been unable to discover any such appointment.

There are, though, at least two jourrrrnalists worrrrking the Girrrrl Group beat.

Cheers,
~Karl
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jbuck919
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Post by jbuck919 » Thu Oct 26, 2006 10:55 am

I've been thinking of applying to the Glens Falls Post-Star when I get back for the position of full-time music critic. I think the position at the Albany Herald Union is already taken. (I'd be willing to double as the food critic.)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

johnQpublic
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Post by johnQpublic » Thu Oct 26, 2006 11:12 am

OK jbuck let's see your capablities to do double reviews:

What classical piece should one listen to when eating at McDonald's?

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Post by karlhenning » Thu Oct 26, 2006 11:25 am

johnQpublic wrote:OK jbuck let's see your capablities to do double reviews:

What classical piece should one listen to when eating at McDonald's?
Die Fries-Schütz
Karl Henning, PhD
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston, Massachusetts
http://members.tripod.com/~Karl_P_Henning/
http://henningmusick.blogspot.com/
Published by Lux Nova Press
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johnQpublic
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Post by johnQpublic » Thu Oct 26, 2006 11:39 am

Telemann's Overture "Hamburger Ebb und Flut"

Ralph
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Post by Ralph » Thu Oct 26, 2006 1:09 pm

jbuck919 wrote:I've been thinking of applying to the Glens Falls Post-Star when I get back for the position of full-time music critic. I think the position at the Albany Herald Union is already taken. (I'd be willing to double as the food critic.)
*****

I'd be happy to ghost write some of your columns, for example on "Dittersdorf and the Adirondacks."
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"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

Albert Einstein

johnQpublic
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Post by johnQpublic » Thu Oct 26, 2006 1:21 pm

DITTER-FRITTERS

jbuck919
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Post by jbuck919 » Thu Oct 26, 2006 1:34 pm

karlhenning wrote:
johnQpublic wrote:OK jbuck let's see your capablities to do double reviews:

What classical piece should one listen to when eating at McDonald's?
Die Fries-Schütz
Now you're putting wurst in my mouth.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

Jack Kelso
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Post by Jack Kelso » Mon Oct 30, 2006 5:04 am

How 'bout a bowl of "violent-Jello"? (...the kind that makes you "toss your cookies...?)

Jack
"Schumann's our music-maker now." ---Robert Browning

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Post by Corlyss_D » Mon Oct 30, 2006 9:48 pm

The Sad State of Classical Music Journalism
Boy! You can say that again! I cut my teeth on long Gramophone reviews and Ernest Newman. Andrew Porter was terrific, and Ted Libbey when he has enough space. The rest? Schlock.
Corlyss
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Dalibor
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Post by Dalibor » Fri Nov 03, 2006 4:59 pm

A joyfull thing in this sad state is that classical music journalist still keep doing a good job on satanising everything that has to do with new electronic tecnhology

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