The financial leaders in Washington formulate their notion of the end of the world, while the cultural leaders in gray, dismal Cleveland accomplish much the same for theirs. Surely you’ve seen the news. Don Rosenberg, music critic for lo these many years at Cleveland’s leading paper The Plain Dealer, is asked to turn in his badge and leave off writing about the one internationally-honored cultural asset that city possesses, its symphony orchestra. The circumstances, though dire, are hardly unique. Every city’s cultural resources, at least in this country, are governed by boards of that city’s most prominent moneybags, who also own businesses that take out the largest ads in that city’s newspapers. An editor’s door, therefore, is always open to visits by members of those boards when some aspect of the cultural events the bankroll do not follow their own definition of the pleasure principle. It does not necessarily follow that those board members know shit from shinola about whatever artform they serve – an opera company, a symphony orchestra, a museum. At the end of the day, they expect to be pleasured by that artform, not forced to think very hard about its content, and have their egos massaged by the critics of their local press, to whom they look for confirmation.
Don Rosenberg of the Plain Dealer denied them that confirmation, more often than they would have liked. I don’t know him very well, but I’ve read him fairly often on the matter of the Cleveland Orchestra and its current conductor, Franz Welser-Moest (henceforth: FWM), who currently owns the podium once trod by George Szell, and more recently by Christoph von Dohnanyi, to the orchestra’s greater glory. I love the sight and sound of the orchestra’s Severance Hall; I’ve heard FWM in action there and also here, as guest with our own Philharmonic. Most of the time I’ve been unimpressed, never shocked but never truly moved. His one saving grace is the Cleveland Orchestra’s own pride of place, a tradition that goes back to the George Szell days. There’s a kind of chamber-music thinking that Cleveland players inherit and pass on; I’ve talked to many of them about this. Perhaps it’s their awareness that they’re all the city has.
Anyhow, Don Rosenberg – past president of the Music Critics Association, currently still on its board – may be over-reacting just a tad in his steadfast unwillingness to forgive FWM for not being Szell or Dohnanyi, but he has a point. What’s more he has the education, prestige and experience to deserve the job he has held until now. The legendary Claudia Cassidy at the Chicago Tribune couldn’t forgive a whole roster of conductors for not being Frederick Stock. Our own Martin Bernheimer could never forgive Los Angeles for not being Vienna. The worst that can happen to a critic under these circumstances is to become predictable, but that doesn’t constitute grounds for firing, or – in Rosenberg’s case – demotion. I must say, the Plain Dealer’s action in this case – keeping Don on staff but blindfolding him to the existence of the Cleveland Orchestra, the one reason for a music critic to function – is shameless to a fault. On the same day that the NYTimes carried the demotion story the Plain Dealer published a blatant, ass-kissing tribute to FWM and the orchestra, by the intern who’s now been handed Rosenberg’s job, a 31-year-old writer of feature stories, Zack Lewis. I don’t envy him, risking being booed by the Severance Hall audience as he takes his aisle seat.
Naturally, there has been an outcry by a lot of what remains of the musical press, here and abroad. Steve Smith’s story in the Baltimore Sun covers it all, and is followed by a long string of reader comments, pro and con, that I find really instructive as to who it is the remaining few of us are really talking to.