From The New York Times:
June 9, 2007
Newspapers Trimming Classical Critics
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Classical music criticism, a high-minded endeavor that has been around at least as long as newspapers and reached an English-language peak with George Bernard Shaw, has taken a series of hits in recent months.
Critics’ jobs have been eliminated, downgraded or redefined at newspapers in Atlanta, Minneapolis and elsewhere around the country and at New York magazine, where Peter G. Davis, one of the most respected voices of the craft, said he had been forced out after 26 years.
The developments have flustered the profession, which views robust analysis, commentary and reportage as vital to the health of the art form. But the changes have also disturbed the people who run musical institutions like opera houses and orchestras, several of whom have protested to local editors.
The worries come as classical music is already riled by fears of aging, declining audiences and an increasingly marginal role in American society: curiously enough, the same worries afflicting newspapers, which are cutting costs and trying to grope their way in the multimedia world. Often the first targets have been the arts and book review pages.
“These actions from Atlanta, Minneapolis and New York compellingly demonstrate the decreasing value that those in position to influence public opinion place on the value of the arts to a society,” Henry Fogel, the president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, wrote in his blog on artsjournal.com on June 1. “If that does not alarm you, I cannot imagine what will!”
In Atlanta, a broad staff reorganization seemed to threaten the role performed by the classical music critic, Pierre Ruhe, who, along with other staff members, was told he would have to reapply for a beat. Reports that his position would be eliminated prompted denunciations from Robert Spano, the music director of the Atlanta Symphony, and Dennis Hanthorn, the general director of Opera Atlanta. The paper was already smarting from reaction to the elimination of its book editor.
But this week, Julia Wallace, the paper’s editor, said that Mr. Ruhe’s job had merely been retitled arts critic-reporter and that he would continue to review classical music. Mr. Ruhe’s title had been classical music critic.
“There’s no substantial change here,” Ms. Wallace said, noting that Mr. Ruhe had already been writing profiles and features about the field and reporting on news developments. That is the case with music critics at most newspapers.
Mr. Fogel, on his blog, rejoiced in the news, suggesting that the paper had caved in to the criticism.
In Minneapolis — a musically rich city, with the high-riding Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in its orbit — the music critic of The Star-Tribune said he had taken a buyout when a round of cutbacks left no place for a classical music critic.
“They didn’t fire me,” said the critic, Michael Anthony. “They fired my job.” He said the paper had yet to announce how it would deal with classical music, although it planned to rely on stringers.
“The audiences are large and fervent, and moreover they’re readers,” Mr. Anthony said. “I don’t think the management knows a lot about local culture, and that’s one of the reasons they cut the job.”
Mr. Anthony, who joined the old Minneapolis Tribune as a music critic in 1971, was a fixture on the classical music scene, and his departure also drew protests. Lani Willis, the marketing and communications director for the Minnesota Opera, wrote in a guest column in The Star-Tribune that it was a “huge blow to classical music organizations, artists and audiences.”
An assistant to the editor, Nancy Barnes, said Ms. Barnes was out of the office for family matters and unavailable to comment.
The latest casualty, Mr. Davis, 71, of New York magazine, said he had been forced out by an editorial leadership that had increasingly devalued classical music.
“It’s been clear that classical music is of less and less interest to them,” he said. He said he had been told that the magazine no longer needed a full-time classical music critic and that classical music coverage would be “treated differently.”
A spokeswoman for the magazine, Serena Torrey, said a week after Mr. Davis’s departure became known that no decision had been made on whether he would be replaced. She also said no editor would be available to comment. But she added, “It’s an important category for us to continue robust criticism in.”
A year ago, the music critic of The Sun-Times in Chicago, home of one of the world’s great orchestras and an important opera house, took a buyout. A freelancer writes reviews there. Donald Hayner, the paper’s managing editor, said that he imagined the number of reviews had declined, and he blamed the loss of the critic on cutbacks.
“I wish we did have a full-time” critic, Mr. Hayner said. “But that’s where we are right now.”
Similarly, Barbara Zuck, an arts columnist and senior critic who reviewed classical music and dance performances at The Columbus Dispatch, is taking a buyout, although she will continue to review as a freelancer.
The changes were naturally a hot topic last week at the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America in Charleston, S.C. Tim Smith of The Baltimore Sun, the president of the association, said he was unsure why they were all happening at once. To some commentators, he said, “It looks like some sort of anticultural movement among the suits in newspapers.”
“I don’t know if it really is,” he added, while lamenting any loss of local classical music coverage. “That’s where part of your local voice and personality as a newspaper come from,” he said. “I don’t see if it’s any different from covering your sports teams or City Hall. It’s part of your community.”
Music criticism, like other areas, has expanded into the blogosphere. A number of major newspapers still have full-time classical music critics, including The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Boston Globe. The New York Times maintains a staff of three full-time classical music critics and three freelancers, as well as a reporter and an editor for classical music and dance.
“The Times has a commitment to classical music not just in New York but across the United States and abroad,” said Sam Sifton, the culture editor. “Rumors of the death of classical music have been much exaggerated. There’s a lot to cover, and we need a lot of people to cover it.”
Threats to classical music criticism have been noted before. An article in The New York Times by Virgil Thomson, the composer who had been a critic for The New York Herald Tribune, was headlined, “A Drenching of Music, but a Drought of Critics.”
The nature of reviewing hadn’t changed, he wrote. “It is merely that the amount of music criticism and reportage is smaller.” Fewer papers, earlier deadlines and competition from more dance performances were to blame, he wrote.
The year was 1974.
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