Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Grey Lady's Bent Ears

For lack of a better outlet, I point my personal songwriting blog to a matter of classical music business today.

Classical music critic Norman Lebrecht leaked news via his blog on Monday that fellow critic Allan Kozinn, who's been writing for The New York Times for the past 35 years, has been reassigned from his position as staff reviewer to the position of general cultural reporter. Citing internal politics, the reassignment was called a "demotion" and a General Cultural Outcry has ensued.

On a road trip at the time, I could contribute little from the passenger seat of our Subaru but I have a few observations, having worked closely with the Times' classical team as a pitching publicist in recent years.

The Times classical staff is arranged thusly: James "Jim" Oestreich (Classical Music Editor) assigns coverage and contributes essays and reviews, usually regarding music written before 1950. He is extraordinarily busy. Anthony "Tony" Tommasini (Head Classical Critic) negotiates coverage with Jim and specializes in opera/vocal music (usually written before 1900). Then there was Allan Kozinn, whose area of expertise covered standard repertoire (the older, more established works for those readers who are not in our little world) but whose knowledge of 20th and 21st century music is nearly encyclopedic, and who can write with equal passion and authority on The Beatles, John Cage, and C.P.E. Bach. Enter the free-lancers: Steve Smith (Music Editor of Time Out New York), whose knowledge of and curiosity about contemporary music parallels Allan's but he has far less autonomy over his assignments, let alone time; Vivien Schweitzer, whose area of expertise is piano music; and Zachary "Zack" Woolfe, who, like Tony, specializes in vocal music, especially opera.

OK. If Allan, who reportedly averaged (!) 5 concert reviews a week over 35 years, is removed, then the Times classical department is left with two staffers + three free-lancers. And the range of specialization is then traditional orchestral/chamber music (Jim), opera (Tony), opera (Zack), piano (Vivien), contemporary music of 20th + 21st centuries (Steve). What's curious to me is this: Does our city's "paper of record" need two specialists in opera and only a part-time contributor for 100+ years of contemporary music, spanning multiple epochs? From what I see, this staffing does not accurately reflect the cultural landscape which the paper of record is attempting to record.

Currently in NYC we have two major opera companies, neither of which has been delivering significant productions at breakneck pace. As a matter of fact, there have been numerous articles lamenting how very behind-the-times and inadequate NYC's big opera companies are compared to those around the world. Beyond that, Times has noted a very lively collection of upstart organizations presenting high-quality and/or grassroots opera/theatre works on a smaller scale. (Full disclosure: I work for one of them.) But even so, the Times to this point has seemed more transfixed by big houses, anyway. So?

Meanwhile, we are in a golden age of contemporary music in NYC. Composers and young performers are literally flocking to the city from all over the country, forming labels, collectives, ensembles, bands, festivals, and audiences at places like Roulette, Issue Project Room, (le) Poisson Rouge, Rockwood Music Hall. I almost can't get above 14th Street for all of the music happening below it and across the river. Brooklyn is some kind of independent musical capital of the world right now but are we seeing that reflected in our paper of record? Perhaps on the pop side, but with classical Allan has been the staffer who knows the current artists and who can contextualize this movement with 35 years of experience on the ground. Even with Allan, to me the balance of coverage happening Uptown versus Downtown (let alone across the river) hasn't seemed to be reflective of the current times. How much more so now that he's off the beat? Can one part-time free-lancer (Steve) really be the one only with his ear to the ground for 100+ years of music, including this current movement, while holding down the fort at Time Out? Or will the Gray Lady's ears become lopsided?

All of that said, I will also say this: I long for music writing that transcends the preview/review grind. From the perspective of a reader and also of one who pitches stories, I can attest that there are very few opportunities for a good story in print outlets. (Mark Swed? Anne Midgette?) Even if a critic is interested in the conversation at hand, writing an actual story (trend, news, or otherwise) rather than filling a review assignment amounts to working overtime. It's a critic's extra credit. Without the time and space for critics to start meaningful conversations in "official" print outlets, such conversations have largely moved onto legitimate blogs and webzines (George Grella The Big City, Frank J. Oteri NewMusicBox, Alex Ross The Rest Is Noise, Thomas Deneuville I Care If You Listen) and social media. I've read far more interesting insights and witnessed far more challenging discussions about the current state of contemporary/classical affairs via colleagues on Twitter and Facebook, or even on the personal blogs of such amateurs as myself. But with social media there is no lasting historical record. As far as having such discussions with the vast majority of staff critics who might have much knowledge and insight to offer? For me it's mostly off the record over lunch, or in an unprintable email. Too bad for all of us.

If Allan's new position as general cultural reporter fills that void Can I be optimistic? there might actually be interesting stories to read in a print daily about classical music, and set in broad cultural context.

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