Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington

How Classical Music Critics Have Become Part of a “Non-Biased” Media

In the past decade, classical music has taken a number of political body blows from both the left and the right. It is commonplace in the music community to rail against the right-wing and its calls for cutting arts funding, but the left-wing has also not been too kind to classical music either, with its charges that dead, white Eurocentrism is unreflective of this country’s cultural diversity. For each member of the Congressional chorus who ranted about abolishing the NEA, there are also folks like the managers of KPFA, the ultra-liberal Pacifica affiliate in the Bay area, who banished classical music from their airwaves since it was too elitist.

So are music critics more inclined to be left or right of the political center? The answer is difficult to gauge and critics rarely like to engage in the question. And most likely, the two are not much related anyway. Just ask critic Greg Sandow, who wrote for the Village Voice in the 1980s and the Wall Street Journal in the ’90s and maintains that his papers’ disparate political views have had relatively little impact on his own work.

“The Journal is legendary for its [liberal] reporters attacking what’s on its [conservative] editorial pages,” he says. “Journal readers may favor classical music more because they side with tradition, while the Voice was always more sympathetic to downtown music. But the only reason I’m conscious of writing for different audiences is because at the Journal I have to fill in the background more.”

A music reviewer in the mainstream press, no matter the publication’s bias, still essentially has two functions, that of both reporter and critic. “If an orchestra plays badly–and there are objective standards whether or not you enjoyed it–it’s your duty as a reporter to write that,” Sandow says. “If you think what they played was wrong-headed, it’s your duty as a critic to say so.” And there’s nothing Democratic or Republican about that. Or is there?

With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the problem lies more in the medium than the messenger. Shrinking column inches in the arts pages have left as little room for context as political reporting gives to genuine campaign issues. Too often reviews are a morning-after score-card, much like campaigns are covered like horse races. “I’m not interested anymore in writing about whether or not a soprano hits all her high Cs on any given evening,” says NPR Performance Today commentator Terry Teachout, currently on sabbatical from his posts at Time magazine and the New York Daily News, whose own personal politics are considerably to the right of most left-leaning music critics. “The judgmental side of the review is rarely very interesting,” concurs Sandow. “What is interesting is why you liked it, or not.”

Certainly we need a new model for music criticism for critics who embrace what Sandow calls the “What it all means” school. The first thing any writer has to do is to get the reader’s attention. “People read stuff they’re already interested in,” says Sandow. “The only way I can think of to get their attention is to find out what interests them, or to be controversial.” This is the same thinking that keeps political pundits in business.

British music journalist Norman Lebrecht certainly trades on controversy. His regular newspaper column and books like The Maestro Myth and When the Music Stops (published in America under the hyperbolic title Who Killed Classical Music) have brought to classical music writing welcome elements of sociology business reporting, The tabloid tone, though, is too close to fever pitch for either industry insiders or casual audiences to take seriously.

Instead, music critics have an obvious model in political columnists like The Washington Post‘s David Broder, people whose opinions are listened to–if not always followed–and who still pound the pavement like a beat reporter. Broder’s voice is never strident, so when he does get worked up (as is a column on Clinton’s conduct in the White House, entitled “Truly Nixonian“) you know just how deeply he considers his subject. When someone with a longstanding faith in the political process worries that the system is collapsing, his readers know enough to be worried.

None of Broder’s high standing, it bears repeating, has sprung from pushing agendas or settling scores or playing to the masses. His essential good-faith coverage is a lesson that goes well beyond political writing.

“I don’t think it’s the job of a critic to bring new audiences to classical music,” says Sandow. “Having a media podium is not a license to proselytize…but you need to be able to appeal to smart people without dumbing down.”

“Good critics invite people in,” adds Washington Post classical music critic Tim Page. “They make them feel welcome and keep them interested. A lively writing style is a good start, but you need to write in a way that informs both the specialist and the lay listener. You don’t need to love the piece, or the genre or especially even the composer, but in any good critic what shows through is the love of the art.”

From Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington
by Ken Smith
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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