Nobody’s a Critic

Category : Blog Archive, Uncategorized Sep 18th, 2008

I was listening to a segment on my local NPR news station today called “Arts Unscripted,” which is a weekly 5-minute-long bit where the two local music critics (and really, there are only two city-wide who are well known) chit chat about local happenings in the arts. I occasionally cringe when I catch the segment, usually because it can be on the corny side.

Today, though, their commentary entitled “The Columbus Symphony: The Silence Now” just made me angry. You can listen online here.

I may as well lay it out from the start that I am biased towards the musicians in the whole CSO fiasco. I grew up backstage at the symphony, babysat for members’ kids, and received my musical training almost exclusively from CSO musicians.

So it upsets me to hear the two people in this city with the most power to reach out to prospective audiences saying that “we probably could have spoken about [the potential demise of the symphony] every week, which we…decided would not be productive for anybody.”


They later go on to lament the fact that people will soon begin to forget about the Columbus Symphony.

I direct this criticism mainly at Barbara Zuck, the critic for the Columbus Dispatch. I don’t think it is the job of the critic to remain detached in a situation like this. Aren’t critics, after all, paid to give their opinions? Both Purdy and Zuck seem determined to remain neutral in this battle between the board and the musicians. It’s the same kind of dispassion that always pervaded Zuck’s CSO reviews. I know she probably had an impossibly early deadline to make the next day’s print edition–my mother worked at the Dispatch for a number of years–but I always felt that her reviews were very general (not that she didn’t manage to find plenty of negative things to pick on) and could have been phoned in without having seen the actual performance.

It’s very tempting for me to lay out a number of recent reviews to illustrate my point, but I’ll stay on task here: her commentary about the CSO crisis has been very pale. In one review from right after the board proposed to cut the number of full-time players, she wrote:

Columbus Symphony lovers can be doggedly determined. Ignoring frigid weather, a near-capacity crowd at the Ohio Theatre last night came to hear, and perhaps buoy the spirits of, the orchestra at the end of a week of bad news.

Perhaps I just don’t like being described with an adverb that likens me to what the Oxford English Dictionary calls “certain breeds of dogs,” but what really bothers me is the underlying implication there that the CSO isn’t worth waiting out in the cold to see.

“PICK A SIDE!” I want to yell. I’m not sure if critics like Zuck who write curt reviews are following any particular model of criticism, but no nineteenth-century critic worth his salt would be standing silently on the sidelines as most of the classical musicians in the city were about to lose their jobs! Even in terms of contemporary styles of criticism, I’ll be damned if readers prefer bland and detached over emotional and engaged. I’d even rather see Zuck take the side of the board than to fail to ignite any debate or discussion.

Zuck and Purdy critiqued the overly emotional tone of the blogs. Have they read Eduard Hanslick? Or Schumann? Berlioz? George Bernard Shaw? Olin Downes? Lester Bangs, for that matter? I think it’s very telling that some of the most impassioned opinions and moving rhetoric has come from non-music columnists (see this and this–God bless Joe Blundo) or from critics based outside Columbus.

So here’s my request to Columbus’s arts critics: leave the impartial reporting to the reporters, get your hands dirty, and let’s get people talking about the role of a symphony orchestra in our community.

I’ll end this rant by promising to put my money where my mouth is, and let George Bernard Shaw have the last word:

A critic who does not know his business has two advantages. First, if he writes for a daily paper he can evade the point, and yet make himself useful and interesting by collecting the latest news about forthcoming events and the most amusing scandal about past ones. Second, his incompetence can be proved only by comparing his notice of a month ago with his notice of today, which nobody will take the trouble to do. Any man can write an imposing description of Madame Calve, or of Slivinski, but if you turn back to his description of Miss Eames or of Sapellnikoff, you will find, if he is no critic, that the same description did duty for them also, just as it did duty, before he was born, for Catalani and Pasta, Cramer and Czerny. When he attempts to particularize the special qualities of the artists he criticizes, you will find him praising Sarasate and Paderewski for exactly those feats which their pupils, Miss Nettie Carpenter and Miss Szumowska, are able to copy to the life. Whether he is praising or blaming, he always dwells on some of the hundred points that all players and executants have in common, and misses the final ones that make all the difference between mediocrity and genius and between one artist and another.

How to Be a Music Critic (1894)