Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Cleveland Orchestra hires its own critic: Give me the brain of Franz Welser-Most

By Barry Johnson

The new blog posts of Enrique Fernández on the Cleveland Orchestra website don't break any new ground, especially. But Fernández's title does. The orchestra recently named him "critic-in-residence" for its annual Miami residency.

I sputtered as I typed that last sentence. The Cleveland Orchestra is infamous for hounding the classical music critic of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Donald Rosenberg, out of his job. For that matter, Plain-Dealer is infamous for caving in to that hounding. And on the face of it, the orchestra is insulting the practice of independent arts criticism once again by hiring its own critic.

But this arrangement, this critic-in-residence idea, occurs within a larger context -- the number of practicing critics in newspapers has declined drastically in the general collapse of the newspaper business. Organizations such as the Cleveland Orchestra are attempting to figure out how to compensate for that loss of attention. (They aren't the only ones -- the LA Kings hockey team hired a sports writer to follow the team and our Metro agency did the same to provide ongoing coverage of its various meetings.)  At the same time, arts writers are attempting to compensate for the loss of their jobs. So maybe we can work something out?

Let's take a look.

Fernández defines his role in a very limited way, one that doesn't include critical judgments about the music of the orchestra (though he has said that it's "beautiful"): "In truth, I’m the online traffic cop and you, dear visitors to our website, classical music enthusiasts, Cleveland Orchestra fans and critics, are the traffic," he said in recent post. And a few days before he wrote that in the current media universe, the practice of professional reviewing was no longer necessary: "In this climate, then, the critic does not need to review, though the critical practice is still alive. Explain stuff. Point out what’s interesting."

I think I've got it, though I confess that I thought explaining stuff and pointing out what's interesting is a big part of reviewing. And that's what really gives reviewing its value, not some Final Judgment by the reviewer. So, I think that "professional reviewing" is still a viable and important enterprise.

I don't disagree, however, with the observation that symphony orchestras in general could do a better job of "explaining stuff" to their audience and communities, especially some of the behind-the-concert stuff. So, if Fernandez can help the music director Franz Welser-Most make the case for his choice of music to play for the music fans of Miami and then for his particular approach to that music, then he's done the orchestra, Welser-Most and those fans a service.  Is that Strauss on the docket for musicological reasons?  Because it balances or connects with another symphony on the program? Because you think it answers some question in the larger culture at this moment? And how does speeding up the second movement help accomplish that? Welser-Most (and lots of other music directors) could use a critic-in-residence to pose those questions and press for better answers.

If you are the critic for a newspaper (as Fernandez was), interrogations of this sort can occur, but they often involve a lot of sparring and posturing and less real investigation. The artist or music director rightly sees the interview as a public relations opportunity and conceals... well, whatever, he or she is concealing in the decision-making process. We know from our own decision-making processes how haphazard they can be, or how damaging or hurtful they might seem if the details were made public. An internal critic might be able to overcome the reluctance of subjects to engage the deepest questions as openly as possible.

You know who would benefit from this "inside job," though? The independent critic outside the organization. Understanding the intentions of the conductor is important. You can talk about why those intentions are important or not, for starters, and then discuss to what extent the music met them. The inside critic can't perform either of those functions, of course, not really, not believably. And those are crucial questions. We assume that the Cleveland Orchestra will play "well," even "beautifully." But to what extent does it matter to us? And to what extent are they playing what they think they WANT to be playing?

The problem with Fernandez's blog, from where I sit a continent away, is that it seeks to mediate and synthesize a debate that isn't clearly defined and thus doesn't exist. Did Welser-Most program "musical chestnuts" in the Cleveland Orchestra's first Miami program? Someone in the comments thread suggested that, but the observation was brief and very personal. Was the Bruckner ill-considered by Welser-Most? It's hard to get a sense of what the commenter meant when he advanced that opinion -- the comment was brief, after all. And then there was no real response to those sketchy observations. I'm not sure how there could have been.

But Fernandez can't supply either pole of the argument about a particular concert himself. And he misses something crucial because of that. One of the results of a clear, organized response to a work of art is the give-and-take it inspires, the conversation (internal and external), which can even use the critics' words against them! This argument, this struggle for meaning in the art, can crack the world open in interesting ways. It's an engaged mode, not a passive one. It activates rather than pacifies us. Ideally, it leaves things open, unfinished, to be continued. It's the opposite of the Final Judgment.

So, yes, he's going to have to go after other fish -- give us the brain of Franz Welser-Most! Or the soloist or a music historian or anyone who has a little internal musical debate going on as the music rushes past. Report, test, explain. Find the conflict, figure out what's at stake, write about it. Or he will need to stage the conflict between other writers, as they wrestle with concert itself, and hope they disagree on enough points to create a debate.

Fernandez has been a newspaper critic, and I've assumed that the orchestra has given him some independence to conduct his inquiries. But we can be forgiven for our skepticism about the arrangement, even without the orchestra's track record with critics. That doesn't have to be fatal, though, not if Fernandez can figure out how to give us something useful or even better, something amazing.  Given the state of things, a lot of arts organizations and arts writers will be watching to see if he can.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. The institution of the music critic is clearly crumbling along with newspaper relevance, but yours is the best post I've seen yet that gets into the question of "what next?"....

Adam Cathcart, Seattle

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. The institution of the music critic is clearly crumbling along with newspaper relevance, but yours is the best post I've seen yet that gets into the question of "what next?"....

Adam Cathcart, Seattle

Barry Johnson said...

Adam, Thanks... much appreciated.