The End of Classical Music Criticism?

January 16, 2018

slipped discNorman Lebrecht, British commentator on music, culture and author of the classical music blog Slipped Disc, wrote in a post Another US Newspaper Deletes Classical Reviews, “The Hartford Courant has decided not to review the Hartford Symphony any more.”  He went on “This seems to be a growing trend, and some readers are livid.”  What followed was just some of the vitriol aimed at The Courant from Hartford residents.

I can only imagine what the reaction of Arthur Winograd would have been.  Arthur, deceased father of our concertmaster Peter Winograd, was for many years the music director and conductor of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.  I was privileged to know Arthur and was able on occasion to discuss with him scores I was conducting and avail myself of his considerable knowledge.  Peter also very kindly gave to me a number of Arthur’s scores filled with his personal markings – a treasure trove of information.

Had he lived to see it, Arthur would certainly not have been pleased with the decision of The Courant.  But I must say that I, for one, was glad to read Mr. Lebrecht’s Editors Note that stated the newspaper had decided to shift its coverage from post concert reviews to advance stories.

During the late 1960’s, when I was a member of The Louisville Orchestra, I had a conversation with a friend who was an amateur guitarist and whose idol was country music legend Chet Atkins.  I once asked Bill why he had never attended a concert by The Louisville Orchestra. His response stopped me in my tracks. “Have you ever read what they say in the newspapers about those concerts?”

Of course I had. The many harsh reviews appearing in The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times came flooding to mind.  Here I was speaking with an aspirational musician, who frequently liked to jam with friends after work, who never had even sampled one of our concerts just based on his perception of The Louisville Orchestra…from reviews.

At that very moment it occurred to me that The Louisville Orchestra and professional classical music in general might be better served by glowing pre-concert feature stories in the newspapers, describing how wonderful and stimulating it would be to attend a concert.

Nearly fifty years later we find ourselves in a climate in which US professional symphony orchestras and print news media outlets are both scrambling to figure out where their customers have gone.

Obviously, classical music, literary and fine art criticism have all played important roles for over two centuries.  In the past someone, I guess, had to tell us if Igor Stravinsky’s latest compositions, Paul Verlaine’s most recent poems and Claude Monet’s newest paintings were worthy of our attention.  And in the current time, perhaps we need (?) to be told who the next Yuja Wang is or whether The Philadelphia Orchestra is performing up to snuff.

But we also know that the entire population of the world gets its information in a completely different fashion today.  People want to write opinions on Facebook.  Everyone is his or her own music, art and literary critic. The Louisville Times published its last issue on February 14, 1987 for heaven’s sake!  The Courant in Hartford, Connecticut has obviously decided that, of those subscribers still remaining, not enough of them care whether or not the Hartford Symphony Orchestra is playing well.

However, I commend them for wanting to continue to publish feature stories that might stimulate people to attend one or more of the orchestra’s concerts!  We need all the help we can get.  Remember my friend in Louisville?  I eventually brought him to one of our concerts.  He was blown away! Just on a technical level, having struggled with problems of ensemble while jamming with three of his friends at home, he could not believe that eighty musicians could play with such precision – as though they were one player.  Go to a concert!

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