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Laurie Niles

The Last Classical Music Critic

July 9, 2008 at 3:43 AM

“You were smart to get out of the newspaper business -- I can feel the industry crumbling beneath my feet.”

This is what a good friend – an arts journalist and classical music critic -- wrote to Robert and me last Christmas.

I fear for more than his job, and the jobs of his colleagues. As a professional musician, I dread the idea of communities across the United States losing their local classical music critics. And that appears to be what's happening.

On Tuesday, the journalism website Poynter Online published a letter from the Music Critics Association of North America that was sent to several newspapers. The letter calls for newspapers to stop firing their classical music critics. It came in response to the fact that several major newspapers, in communities with thriving classical music scenes, have cut their classical critics. Those newspapers include the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Seattle Times, Kansas City Star and Miami Herald.

I've disagreed with the local critic, and I've laughed at the local critic. I've been taken by moments of lucidity and poignant writing, and I've had my blood boil over.

But I can't imagine life without the local classical music critic. That person is a glue, arguably THE glue, that holds the classical music community together. This is a person who...CARES! The critic channels a community's concerns about its symphony, its symphony hall, its scene, its up-and-coming artists, the artists that visit the city. The very existence of the classical music critic reassures us of the existence of this form of fine art in a community.

I am reminded of a concept brought up in a book about a different kind of art: gourmet cooking. In The Last Chinese Chef, author Nicole Mones describes the concept of “meishijia,” the gourmet: “Great food needed more than chefs; it needed gourmet diners. These people were as important as the cooks.”

To thrive, art needs its connoisseurs. We need them like we need money, instruments, and a hall to play in. A classical music critic helps a community to develop and hold the interest of this very important group of people. The critic's comments give us a common measure, a place to begin when talking about a performance. Whether we disagree, find holes in the critiques, feel indignant when he or she doesn't show up for a certain event, we have a place to start.

Not only that, but the classical music critic also helps shape public sentiment about a city's public and private artistic projects. Most often the critic is also the arts journalist, and we hold that person accountable for how everyone sees the musicians' union strike, or whether or not the fundraiser raises enough funds or which conductor is chosen as the orchestra's next music director.

Critics play a huge role, and the time is ripe to recognize this, before it is too late. Write to your local newspaper; let them know how important their coverage is to you, and how crucial their role is to the local arts community.

But why should anyone outside the arts community care about the plight of classical music critics? So what if classical music falls by the wayside?

No, the world won't fall apart. Our cities will keep humming, our cars will keep running, and our days will continue to wind from one to the next.

The consequence really is quite worse. If some of the most deeply beautiful and divinely crafted music that humankind has ever produced falls silent, we'll have a sad problem indeed: We'll never know the difference.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 9, 2008 at 4:28 PM
Poignant, but if no one reads the newspaper what difference does it make?

Our newspapers have become irrelevant so culture suffers.

From Bonny Buckley
Posted on July 9, 2008 at 4:50 PM
Newspapers will always be a part of our culture, whether in hard copy or online form. The things that sell those papers and ads really do have to be heard loud and clear by the publishers and indeed it is up to us to make that happen. Your writing is eloquent and touches on a major sore spot I feel for our culture. The more we teach, the more we respond to this arts editors 'firing' issue, the more we actively cultivate the beautiful aspects of classical music, our greater collective voice for what is able to elevate society will be heard.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 9, 2008 at 9:53 PM
The more newspapers come to resemble advertising circulars, the less relevant they become. Music criticism is one of those areas where a newspaper shows its discernment and expertise, in other words, something of value that readers can't get just anywhere. Yet newspaper owners and management stand bewildered and ask, does it sell newspapers?

Well, let's look at another example: The gift shop at Disney World makes money, but the castle doesn't. So tear down the castle! It's a losing proposition: you have to clean it every day and paint it every year...and how much money did it take to put that fancy schmantzy mosaic in the castle, and how many people really look closely at it? Keep the gift shops, lose the castle. And for that matter, the carousel doesn't make money either....

I do think that journalism will survive in some form, and maybe even some of the larger/better media outfits will morph into new media. Whatever happens, I'd like the art of music criticism to survive in some manner, and I believe it is up to those of us who can articulate the value of this kind of journalism to make a stink about it.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 10, 2008 at 3:05 AM
At least in the old "if it bleeds it leads" days you knew what was determining the lead.
From Jon O'Brien
Posted on July 12, 2008 at 4:40 AM
In my opinion current journalists - at least in Australia - have diminished most journalism into a fairly cheap circus. Anyone, it sometimes seems, who represents a dissenting voice is pushed away or not given a job. It is really 'in' in journalism, for instance, to believe in 'science by consensus': the science of "we are the cool scientists, not the uncool ones, and what we say is how it is. Listen to us or you, too, will not be cool like we are". Journalists have bought into this scam.

The very fabric of good journalism and good science is thus eroded. The unclean love affair between what journalists now call 'science' and 'journalism', in our time, has diminished both disciplines. It is science by: "it's like this, baby, 'cause we just said so", not science by scientific method. So if newspapers etc are suffering, it is largely the fault of the journalists.

Historically, the institution of the church in the West weakened itself by abusing its power and influence. We see the same happening now to jouralism and science.

Very true what you write about the importance of the local music critic.

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