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Classical Music and the Media: A Public Conversation

by Jerome Weeks 31 May 2011 9:44 PM

Amid all the semi-finals and marathons last week, the Van Cliburn Amateur Competition hosted a panel of classical music critics — the competition’s press jury — discussing the music industry, the media industry, their jobs as critics and whether the Met Opera’s simulcasts are an abomination.


Amid all of the preliminaries, semi-finals, lectures and marathons last week at the Van Cliburn Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, there was an open-panel symposium Saturday with members of the press jury,  headed up by Doug McLennan, the founder and editor of (left, next to Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe).

Great, a panel of classical music critics. What did they complain about more: the sorry state of classical music or the sorry state of professional arts journalism?

They didn’t complain (much) about either, it turned out, and one of the panelists, David Patrick Stearns (below, right), is even from Philadelphia — where the once-great symphony orchestra is currently in the business of trying to self-destruct. You’d think the topic might have come up. (Full confession: Doug and I have been colleagues for years. And last week, I lied to my next-door neighbor about my cat.)

In fact, precisely because the discussion pretty much avoided those two well-battered topics, it was one of the more engaging and informative media sessions in recent years. In North Texas, at any rate. From measuring today’s classical performers against yesterday’s recorded greats to the advantages/disadvantages of the digital simulcasts of the Met’s operas and the changes that online media have brought to classical music coverage, the panelists had intelligent points to make, even entertaining ones — which, considering they’d already spent a week listening to competitive performances and arguing about them, was no mean feat.

The single issue that linked much of what they talked about is product vs. performance — an issue, I realized, that bedevils music more than any other art form. The first question, for example, was which is preferable: A crystalline-perfect studio version of a work (more than likely achieved through multiple takes and post-production engineering) or a live performance that, although technically flawed, still has more color, more personality?

It’s a question that rarely arises in other art forms at such a fundamental level. Just about any art has elements of product and performance. A novel can have “performative” aspects to it, as we critics like to say, and many poets, since the days of declaiming bards to the age of slams, have made a name for themselves as public performers. But ultimately in literature, what’s judged, what lasts, is what’s in print.

The visual arts are also mainly static and preserved as items. To be sure, there are various kinds of “kinetic” sculptures and video installations, but the vast majority of visual art works do not exist so much “in time.” They are unchanging, material objects.

In contrast, theater is more ephemeral. Although there are stage dramas and Broadway musicals that exist in film and video copies, they’re a comparatively small number. A theater critic mostly deals with live performance.

Classical music deals in both. Any classical music novice has a huge CD canon to contend with just to gain a basic knowledge of his field. And so much of a classical music critic’s workload (and judgment) is tied up with both recordings and live concerts. The only other art form, I’d contend, with a similar relationship with its own past and current life is classical ballet. Ironically, that’s because ballet has such a comparatively small canon; nearly everyone interested in ballet can judge the newest manifestation based on knowledge of several Swan Lakes, Nutcrackers and Sleeping Beauties.

With this division in mind — is it live or is it Memorex? — it was interesting to see where (or how) the different critics arranged themselves. At one point, Doug asked about the experience the jury had this week — listening to performances by racing-car drivers and court judges. Does that knowledge of an artist’s background inform one’s listening? Doug cited two chamber orchestras he often hears, one professional and an amateur one made of up cancer caregivers. According to him, the amateurs did not approach the consistency of the professionals. Yet the professionals were, more or less, doing a job, while the medical folk were following a passion. Does a critic let such information influence his review?

Put another way, does life experience directly affect performance?

Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times (above, left, next to Stearns) repeatedly opted for the human element — he reveled in what individuals bring to music, to this music, performed on this particular date. So much so, Swed practically said that everything and anything was relevant in considering a performance. Needless to say, he objected to the Met’s simulcasts as sterile and lifeless. Stearns, on the other hand, would be the judge to have in a blindfold contest. What only matters, he declared with conviction, is what happens when the rubber meets the road.

Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post‘s culture critic, took a more balanced approach. Anything could be relevant — a performer’s background, the occasion of a concert — but it was the critic’s job to determine ultimately what mattered. And to make his case for it.

  • Aaron Majors

    Great article. I met Doug a few years ago at the League of American Orchestras convention and sat in on a panel discussion with other Marketing professionals in the orchestra/arts world. He always has vanguard ideas and I’ve always enjoyed what he brings to the table. It’s great that these types of discussions are happening in DFW.