A View of Cleveland from Toronto

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By now, it’s well known among those who write about music that Donald Rosenberg, a critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, lost his lawsuit against his employer and the Cleveland Orchestra. (To make a long story very short, Rosenberg alleged that the Plain Dealer "reassigned" him because he was writing too many unfavorable reviews of the orchestra. More details may be found here.)

I mention the lawsuit here because it’s a problem that may benefit from a "Torontonian" perspective.

Now that so many North American cities have become one-paper towns, often with only one classical-music critic, de-facto "monopolies of opinion" have arisen. This is bad for criticism, bad for newspapers and bad for music. And it’s this structural problem that’s at the root of the "Rosenberg Affair."

In my view, healthy criticism thrives in an environment of diverse opinion. Such an environment helpfully underscores the subjective nature of criticism: when there are many critical voices, it’s obvious to everyone that a review is simply one individual’s subjective opinion. But when there’s only one person in town whose job it is to write about classical music (or any other kind of music), that one person is becomes "The Critic."

One of the complaints expressed by an editor at the Plain Dealer about Rosenberg’s reviews of the Cleveland Orchestra was that his columns were "predictable." Rosenberg didn’t think much of Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting, and he said so, consistently.

In a way, I sympathize with this concern: if I were a newspaper editor, I would find "predictable" coverage problematic. Why would anyone bother continuing to read reviews in The (only) Newspaper if The (only) Critic clearly doesn’t like The (only) Conductor? The editor’s job is to keep the Lively Arts section lively.

But expecting Rosenberg to moderate (i.e. falsify) his opinions in the name of "balanced" criticism is just plain wrong: it’s his job to be honest. And "re-assigning" Rosenberg was a very crude solution. How’s about bringing in a second critic, with different views, to alternate with Rosenberg, or to appear in print alongside his columns?

As I said, I speak from a Torontonian perspective. I live and write in a North American city with four daily newspapers, three of which cover classical music. When three differing reviews of a concert appear in print, it makes for interesting reading. And when three reviews appear that all offer the same verdict on a concert, that’s interesting, too.

By comparison, criticism in a one-paper town looks to me like a hobbled enterprise. Alternate voices are not heard, newspaper readers lose interest in reviews, editors fret about predictability, the critic is isolated and can’t be compared to other critics, critical consistency becomes a failing, and musicians must endure a "monopoly of opinion." It’s not an ideal situation for anyone involved.