Sunday, August 8, 2010

Hubris on All Sides...

I’ve written on this matter before. So, a quick summary: Donald Rosenberg was the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s lead Classical Music critic for many years. His primary job was covering the Cleveland Orchestra. In 2008, he was reassigned by the paper’s editor, Susan Goldberg, and now covers other musical and dance events.

Prior to Franz Welser-Möst’s taking the baton, Rosenberg’s reviews of the Orchestra had been consistently laudatory. But in 2002, his reviews began to take on an almost unrelentingly negative tone. The Plain Dealer reassigned Rosenberg to cover non-orchestra events, and replaced him with Zachary Lewis, a clearly less qualified (but perhaps more open minded) reviewer.

Being the Plain Dealer’s critic for the Cleveland Orchestra has its perks: free tickets always in a great seat, use of the orchestra’s Green Room while writing one’s reviews, being able to hobnob with movers & shakers – all part of the job.

When Rosenberg was reassigned, he lost the privileges of membership. Neither his pay nor his benefits were cut, but his ego must have been bruised. This would have been especially humiliating for Rosenberg because he literally "wrote the book" on the Cleveland Orchestra.

Rosenberg sued, alleging that the Plain Dealer reassigned him under pressure from the MAA as a result of his reviews. He further alleged age discrimination. 56 at the time of his reassignment, that’s a tough complaint to swallow.

This past Friday, the jury decided against Rosenberg. I can’t say I am surprised by this. Barring a prior contractual agreement, a newspaper has the right to assign its reporters to any beat it wishes. In addition to the age discrimination complaint, Rosenberg was unable to prove that his reassignment has harmed his career. Is his book about the Cleveland Orchestra, Second to None, any less respected than it was before he was reassigned? Hardly. Indeed, the publicity surrounding the trial has probably boosted sales. (The book does not cover Welser-Möst as it was written prior to his tenure here.)

As I have stated elsewhere, I don’t agree with many of Rosenberg’s reviews. When it comes to his critiques of various piano based events, from the local piano competition, to recitals and concertos, he’s out of his depth. (This is more than a matter of differing taste, but many factual errors on his part. Sadly, Rosenberg’s reassignment has resulted in him covering precisely these kinds of events.) But Rosenberg’s reviews of the orchestra were written from a knowledgeable perspective – the guy knows his onions. I also think it is fair to state that Rosenberg was biased against Welser-Möst – and slavishly devoted to his predecessor, Christoph von Dohnányi. But if every biased critic were removed from his post, there would be precious few reviewers. Harold C. Schonberg, for many years the New York Times’ lead music critic, had an axe to grind with many musicians, from Leonard Bernstein to Glenn Gould to Ivo Pogorelich, and it showed in his reviews. If there is an influential critic, it’s one who writes for the most noteworthy paper in the cultural capital of the nation. Despite frequent letters to the editor protesting Schonberg’s reviews, Times’ management never considered removing him from his post. I am unaware as to whether New York Philharmonic management tried to exert pressure for Schonberg’s removal or reassignment, but if they did, the Times ignored it. That paper stood by its man. Plain Dealer management tried to have it both ways by reassigning Rosenberg without firing him.

On the other hand, however, Schonberg scrupulously guarded his integrity – to the extent that he avoided cultivating friendships with musicians that he reviewed (following his retirement he reached out to many of them). Schonberg would never have considered “advising” the orchestra that Bernstein had to go, as Rosenberg has admitted doing with Cleveland Orchestra staff regarding Welser-Most. A critic advising the orchestra in any place other than his written reviews is a serious overstepping of boundaries and sign of personal hubris.

I’ve had my own complaints about Welser-Möst’s tenure at the orchestra: the continued over-emphasis of Germanic repertoire (which started under Dohnányi); the lack of a clear interpretive point of view; the eclipsing of the orchestra’s sharp aural profile in favor of a soft, marshmallowy sonority. But I’ve also maintained an open mind, and come to the conclusion that Welser- Möst’s conducting has improved over the last few years. Franz (he insists on being called by his first name) seems to have hit his stride. Also, to his credit, the current conductor has responded to tight economic times by taking a substantial cut in pay. And he involves himself with Cleveland’s everyday folk in a way few conductors would. Dohnányi, the anti-populist, wouldn’t have been caught dead conducting a July 4th concert as Welser-Möst has done.

If he’d still been reviewing the orchestra over the past two years, would Rosenberg have had the same response? Would he still be harping on Welser-Möst, and telling management the conductor “had to go”? Thanks to Welser-Möst’s thin skin, Rosenberg’s own hubris, and the caving of the Plain Dealer’s editorial team, we may never know.

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