5-Day Boot Camp Drills Reality Of Music Criticism

Rubin Insitute benefactor Stephen Rubin, center, with the 17 Rubin Fellows in San Francisco.  (Photo by Scott Wall)
Rubin Insitute for Music Criticism benefactor Stephen Rubin, center, with the 17 Rubin Fellows in San Francisco.
(Photo by Scott Wall)
By Mike Telin

SAN FRANCISCO — “I was surprised by how much the institute felt like a reality television show along the lines of Top Chef — most of all the $10,000 prize.” This is how Joe Cadagin, a second-year doctoral student in musicology at Stanford University, described his experience as a fellow at the second Stephen and Cynthia Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Founded by philanthropist Stephen Rubin, president and publisher of Henry Holt & Co., the biennial Rubin Institute is the only program of its kind focusing on music criticism. First held at Oberlin in January 2012, the 2014 institute took place at the San Francisco Conservatory from Nov. 5 to 10.

Rubin Institute winner Zoe Madonna, center, with Page, Midgette, Waleson, Ross, Rubin, and Rockwell.
Winner Zoë Madonna, center, with Page, Midgette, Waleson, Ross, Rubin, and Rockwell.

Throughout the five-days, 17 Rubin Fellows representing the Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Stanford University, University of California-Berkeley, and the Yale School of Music worked with noted American writers and classical music reviewers. Anne Midgette (The Washington Post), Tim Page (professor of journalism and music, University of Southern California), John Rockwell (writer and arts critic), Alex Ross (The New Yorker), Heidi Waleson (The Wall Street Journal), and Stephen Rubin joined the fellows in public and private panel discussions of reviews of performances by the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and Cal Performances, who were the institute’s performance partners

The institute also offered ample opportunity for the fellows, the critics, and the public to engage in dialogue about the many challenges facing the industries of classical music and journalism. Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of the New York Times, gave a thought-provoking keynote address. “What should and can critics do about the challenges within classical music?” provided participants with plenty of food for thought. To read more about these informative sessions, visit the Rubin Institute website.  

Joe Cadigan
Joe Cadagin

The schedule was grueling. Each morning by 7:30, the fellows were required to submit a 400-word review of the previous evening’s concert. Two hours later, they workshopped the reviews with the Writers Panel (the fellows were divided into small groups, which then rotated among the panel members).

“I thought the institute would be a bit more like a conference or a lecture series,” Cadagin said. “I didn’t foresee the sessions with the professional critics. These were, of course, the most helpful and interesting parts of the week. I hadn’t realized that I would be able to discuss my work to such an extent with these world-famous critics. I’ve read so much of Alex Ross’ work, and now it was the other way around — a thrilling, but also daunting experience.”

Daniel Hautzinger, a  third-year, double-degree student at Oberlin, agreed with Cadagin about the thrill of discussing his writing with the panel members. “I came here intimidated by the fantastic writers who are serving on the critics panel,” he said, “but being in a room with them every day, I found them to be just as interested in us as we are were in them.”

Daniel Hautzinger
Daniel Hautzinger

The task of submitting the four overnight reviews did take its toll on the fellows — writing while sleep-deprived became the norm as well as the inspiration. Joseph Christianson, a master’s degree candidate at the San Francisco Conservatory, recalled one such evening. “With a $10,000 grand prize on the line, none of us got very much sleep,” he said. “One night, for a brief parole from my writers’ block, I took a walk around my neighborhood at 3 a.m. with a grande coffee and a venti headache. I was stuck figuring out the best way to express how deeply a piece of music had moved me. It struck me that the better I become at articulating the impact that music has had on me, the more effectively I will be able to impart it to others.”

The Everybody’s a Critic Audience Review Prize provided the public an opportunity to join the fun and win $1,000. Audience members were invited to submit reviews alongside Rubin Fellows of the same four performances. All told, the Audience Review Prize Panel received 23 submissions.

Joseph Christianson
Joseph Christianson

“I was maybe not surprised but certainly happy at the quality of the reviews,” said Wynne Delacoma, contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Classical Review, and Musical America, and member of the Audience Review prize panel. “It’s not easy to write a coherent, well-thought-out, concise 400-word review, especially of an opera, on a relatively short deadline. Some of the reviews could have been published with very little editing. A few of the submissions approached the music from unusual angles. One writer explored Tosca from a feminist standpoint, a tale of a woman facing impossible choices that is all too relevant today. But we were happy the writers felt free to try something different.”

In addition to Delacoma, the selection panel included Joshua Kosman (San Francisco Chronicle), Robert Commanday (founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice), and Steven Winn (San Francisco Classical Voice).

Everyone's a Critic Panel: Delacoma, Winn, Kosman, Baumer
Everyone’s a Critic Panel: Delacoma, Winn, Kosman, Baumer

On Monday morning, Nov. 10, in a ceremony held in the San Francisco Conservatory’s concert hall, the second Rubin Institute culminated in the awarding of the two cash prizes. Zoë Madonna of Oberlin College was the recipient of the $10,000 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism and Karen Baumer of San Francisco won the $1,000 “Everyone’s a Critic” Audience Review Prize.

Madonna, an East Asian studies major and avid photographer, singer, pianist, and accordion player, will use the prize to support further study in the field of music criticism over the next two years. “I was the last person I would have expected to win, so I didn’t even have that on my mind until maybe the very end,” Madonna said. “I came in with one of the least-stacked bios. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me what I could contribute, if anything at all. But when I got there, I found that everyone was interested in meeting, bonding with each other, and geeking out on music together. It was a very friendly atmosphere, and I know I’ll keep in touch with a lot of the people I met at the Rubin Institute for the rest of my life.”

That camaraderie did not go unnoticed by Stephen Rubin. “Opening up the institute and competition to five schools gave us a huge diversity of backgrounds and ages, including undergrads, grad students and even Ph.D. students,” he said during the closing ceremonies. “It was extraordinary how the 17 fellows all bonded and fed off each other. The sessions the critics had with the students were all unusually productive because of the feedback of the students. Their honesty made the critics’ job much easier.”

During the closing ceremony, David Stull, president of the San Francisco Conservatory, underlined the impact of the event. “The Rubin Institute provided a transformative experience for both students and critics during the last several days,” he said.

All of the fellows said they were going home better writers because of the experience. Christopher James King, a music history undergrad at Berkeley, summed things up. “This experience was tremendous: exciting, informative, and exhausting,” he said. “In addition to the invaluable knowledge that the panel of critics has shared with all the student fellows, I am also taking home a sense a sort of living history on criticism,” he said. “A major point at the institute was to talk, not about criticism of the past, and certainly not just about its current state, but where it can possibly go in the future.

“I am someone who had never written any criticism before — I have spent all my time honing the skill of writing from an academic point of view. And the two styles are so different!  I feel like I have definitely become a better writer because of the experience. After writing four reviews in four days, I just felt so much stronger. I still have a long way to go, but the Rubin Institute certainly has set me on the right path.”

Mike Telin is executive editor of ClevelandClassical.com and team-teaches “Introduction to Music Criticism” at Oberlin College.