Arts and entertainment are one and the same, so the thinking goes, both trivial – or at least way down the pecking order when it comes to things that are genuinely important.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Things are tough, these days, for classical music critics. In Toronto last month, Arthur Kaptainis, a well-respected Canadian critic, resigned from the National Post after his review of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Rossini’s Maometo II was taken down and amended – without his consultation or approval – at the behest of the COC’s publicist. Last week, the O.C. Register’s well-respected critic, Tim Mangan, was, out of the blue, given his walking papers; the Register is evidently keeping both of its pop critics on staff, but somehow found Mangan expendable – conveniently ignoring the fact that Southern California is one of the most vibrant and innovative playgrounds for classical music, new and old. And, close to home, the Boston Globe is following suit, with the quiet announcement that it’s cutting off, among others, its prestigious stable of freelance classical music writers. Just two full-timers, Jeremy Eichler and Steve Smith, will remain to somehow tackle all that’s going on in the area.
In a sad sense, this last development almost feels like it’s overdue: you can count on one hand the number of papers-of-record (in this country, at least) with more than one classical critic, full- or part-time, on staff. But at the same time, the Globe has seemed something of a shining beacon of late as arts coverage has diminished or completely vanished from most American news publications; here, at least, was a newspaper that recognized the scope of the area’s artistic life and endeavored to cover it with some thoroughness.
Alas, those days seem to be over. Dwindling readership and falling revenues have spoken and, in much the same way as state governments (and the Feds, for that matter) traditionally like to shore up their finances, the arts are among the first to get the ax. To some, this may not matter much. Arts and entertainment are one and the same, so the thinking goes, both trivial – or at least way down the pecking order when it comes to things that are genuinely important. Besides, critics get everything wrong anyway – what’s a few less? Surely there are more important things going on locally that the Globe ought to be covering. Time marches on, and so forth.
Of course, one might make an argument about the cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual value of the arts – and I’m speaking here of all of them: visual art, theater, literature, film, sundry kinds of music – and insist that a thorough experience and understanding of them is vital to individual and civic health and well-being. We could refer back to John Adams’ letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he lays out the goal of his own study of “Politicks and War” to be to allow for his grandchildren to have “a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” One might also undertake a survey of the arts and the myriad ways in which they have, historically, engaged some of those “more important” subjects (i.e. science, technology, politics, mathematics, etc.). You might be surprised by what you find.
As for the value and worth of critics, well, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Suffice it to say, if the arts reflect society and our shared life experiences, informed commentary on them is both necessary and invaluable. The art of criticism is far more than simply passing a judgment or providing supplemental publicity for events, organizations, and individuals. At its best, arts criticism advances an aesthetic philosophy, a notion of what the arts are, what role(s) they play in our society, which artists realize these artistic goals (and how they accomplish that end). There’s an educational component to it, certainly, but also a transformative service to be done: not so much by interpreting artworks for the masses as by providing them a rallying point (typically through reviews) for further discussion and examination. The greater the number of informed critics involved in these discussions, then, the livelier the discourse, the richer the conversation; the better our understanding of the arts and, through them, ourselves.
Or so my thinking runs. Of course, all of this may be a bit idealistic and Romanticized, but there’s truth in it – not to mention the examples of critics who did (and managed) just these things: Hanslick, Shaw, Mencken, Thomson, Kael, among them.
There’s also the economic value of the arts, which is not insignificant. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh recognizes this fact (and, on top of that, seems to have a genuine knowledge of and interest in the arts), which makes his commitment to expanding their reach and tapping their potential to enrich lives around the city all the more commendable.
So, clearly, the arts have value. Just not enough to warrant more than cursory coverage in the Globe anymore, it seems. And, apparently, there’s no way that’s better, more creative, or healthy for the Globe to stop hemorrhaging money and tighten its financial belt than to bid farewell to its freelancers. Never mind that those freelancers – paid per service, without benefits or union protection – offer the Globe a cheap route to cover lots of things going on in this busy city, especially the offerings of small, non-flagship ensembles, troupes, and companies. No: to borrow from Allan Kozinn’s devastating piece in Classical Voice North America, for the Globe it seems that “inexpensive isn’t inexpensive enough.”
And, as far as the Globe’s classical freelancers go, the paper’s been getting quality writing for a mighty inexpensive rate. It’s not too much to say that each of the Globe’s top classical writers are musical scribes, thinkers, and hearers who add immeasurably to the area’s musical life through perceptive reviews and sharp discussions of repertoire. Any of them – David Weininger, Matthew Guerrieri, and Jeffrey Gantz among them – could be the chief critic for the leading paper in any major American city. Guerrieri in particular, with Score, his regular, insightful series of analytical essays, has even given the Globe a sort of tie back to the earliest days of music criticism in the early-19th century: serious, in-depth discussions of actual pieces of music. Such a thing is, admittedly, rather old-fashioned and, it appears, out of step with the direction in which the Globe seems to want to head. Still, that doesn’t make things like Score bad, unnecessary, or redundant. Quite the contrary: writing of this caliber and kind ought to be embraced, encouraged, and celebrated, ideally while it’s still in print.
For the fact is that the writing of each of these critics, taken individually or collectively, exponentially enriches the quality of the product that the Globe offers. This is something the paper ought to be proud of – proud enough to insist on keeping. And, in a perfect world, it would do just that. Unfortunately, ours is quite the opposite.
So what’s to be done? Well, with the Globe heading down the same path as the Herald (coupled with the loss of the Phoenix a couple of years ago), things look grimmer for arts criticism in Boston, generally, and classical music criticism, in particular. But all is not lost. There are several websites – including The Arts Fuse, the Boston Classical Review, and the Boston Musical Intelligencer – that seek to provide an accounting of all the major (and more than a few of the minor) classical performances going on in and around Boston during the year. And resources like WBUR’s Artery, with its contributions from Keith Powers and Lloyd Schwartz, play an increasingly vital role in keeping the public apprised of the countless cultural events occurring in many disciplines. Between them, they cover much and, with the Globe now necessarily focusing on fewer reviews and more previews, the role of these online journals in Boston’s cultural life is enhanced proportionally.
That said, as the city’s flagship paper, the Globe really ought to be taking the lead in covering the arts in Boston. That it can’t and doesn’t seem inclined to do more to make them one of its chief priorities is a sad statement on its (and its ownership’s) current focus and a dispiriting intimation of where the gaze of its vision for the future lies.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette