Monday, September 29, 2008

Critical Mass

I wrote the article below in 2005 for the Cleveland Free Times; it earned an award in 2006 for Best Media Criticism from the Society of Professional Journalists.


Conduct Unbecoming : Plain Dealer Music Critic Spins Orchestra's West Coast Press

It's no secret to Plain Dealer readers that the paper's classical music critic, Donald Rosenberg, is not a fan of Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst. Ever since the Austrian conductor assumed the post in 2002, Rosenberg has spilled copious ink lamenting the orchestra's supposed error in judgment. After the end of Welser-Möst's first season, Rosenberg wrote a year-end review listing Welser-Möst's numerous perceived failures. Observers in the music community were taken aback by the vociferousness of the criticism, especially so early in Welser-Möst's tenure.

The years seem to have increased, rather than tempered, Rosenberg's choler. In a June 19 column, Rosenberg released another fusillade, this time questioning the conductor's worthiness to continue through 2012, the length of his recently extended contract. “That's a long time for a Cleveland treasure to be guided by a conductor of high proficiency and low inspiration,” Rosenberg caviled.

Rosenberg supported his criticism with a rather creative reading of reviews garnered by the Cleveland Orchestra on its recent West Coast tour.

For example, Rosenberg paraphrased the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed thusly: “Swed heard something new in Welser-Möst's conducting, though he couldn't pinpoint exactly what. Of a performance of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Swed wrote that he was “still trying to figure it out. It wasn't explicable.”

Swed did write that. But he also wrote this:
“The tightness of ensemble, the depth of playing in every section (what's to say about those violas but “wow'?), the transparency of textures, the athletically smooth muscle of not just brass and percussion but even the delicate harp was all there to hear and savor Welser-Möst can drive the orchestra hard and he can relax in and relish its sweetness, but there is always a kind of restlessness to his performances. His rhythms have a lilt. He seductively anticipates or hesitates after the beat. These are fraction-of-a-second anticipations and hesitations, but they lead to a complex, fluid, grainy sound.

“I was continually taken aback by his Dvorák, by the stridency in the first and last movements and by his ability to make the winds steely when I thought the Czech way would be to make them burble. Welser-Most was not showing off the orchestra; he let the sound thicken, clot. The [Bartók] concerto's middle movement, an elegy with its weird sound effects and big tune, became haunted-sounding. The fugue at the end, based on a near-jazz riff, wasn't jazzy but something else.

“What else? I'm still trying to figure it out. That's what keeps people wondering about Welser-Möst. And for those who don't like to wonder when they hear a great orchestra play familiar music, he can be, I suppose, alienating. New tastes often are — until you start to crave them.”

So while Swed's review questions some of Welser-Möst's musical choices, it's hardly the unmitigated pan Rosenberg's selective abridgement suggests.

The Orange County Register 's Timothy Mangan wrote: “The jury would seem to be still out on this conductor. At least on this occasion, he proved to be neither the most charismatic of podium personalities nor a particularly imposing one. His interpretations were warm and genial and eminently flowing, their detail natural not forced.” And, a bit further into the review: “The reading [of Dvorák's Fifth] was smooth, flowing and properly flowery — the woodwinds extolling in ripe colors, the strings exhibiting a flawless sheen and evenness and never overplayed the exotic Slavic colorings.”

Rosenberg, however, quoted only this from Mangan: “[A] listener felt no strong individual point of view emanating from the podium, or from anywhere else for that matter. How much this mattered to the individual listener, in the face of such supreme orchestral talent, depended upon his or her focus. As for these ears, they remember when conductors had faces.”

Again, a mixed, mostly positive assessment was interpreted as a negative one by Rosenberg. Mangan's positive review of the orchestra's performance at the Ojai festival: “[In Mozart's ‘Linz’ Symphony], Welser-Möst worked with greater intensity of expression, coaxing from his eloquent Clevelanders a reading lacy in texture and delicate in poetry.”

Also unmentioned by Rosenberg were enthusiastic reviews in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer , Seattle Times, San Jose Mercury News and Ventura County Star.

Last Sunday, the Plain Dealer 's new “reader representative," Ted Diadiun, took up cudgels in Rosenberg's defense (though he didn't reveal who had complained to the PD). Diadiun's column reiterated the old trope about how critics are entitled to their opinions, that they know more than the rest of us do, especially when it comes to highbrow stuff like classical music ( “He hears things in the music I do not hear, and recognizes possibilities beyond my ken.”)
Perhaps he didn't know that Rosenberg has offered not just his opinions — to which he is indeed entitled — but also distortions of other critics' opinions. --- Pamela Zoslov

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