(Above: Two of the nastiest critics of cinematic history. Can you name them?)
A couple of weeks ago in this space, I chronicled the request made by classical pianist Dejan Lazić that the Washington Post remove from its web archive a semi-unflattering review by critic Anne Midgette of a 2010 recital he gave in Washington. Apparently, the review tends to come up prominently in web searches of Lazić’s name, and he would rather not be dogged by it any longer. The Post said no.
Whatever you think of Lazić’s request, you should note that the tone of the discussion was mostly very civilized, rather like a comedy of manners or, for that matter, a typical classical piano recital, such as the Chopin and Schubert program that was the subject of the review in question. For all the ardor and passion displayed by Lazić, no knives were sharpened, no one got flamed, no rotten vegetables were flung, metaphorically speaking.
Those metaphors, however, can be taken pretty danged literally in another critic vs. artist dust-up recently covered by the Post. This time, though, the subject is not the “food of love,” as Duke Orsino describes music in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” but actual food, as prepared by star chefs in Dallas’s toniest restaurants — then skewered, roasted and sometimes burnt to a crisp by Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner.
Well, the star chefs of Big D, members of a profession not known for self-effacement or modest egos, don’t care one bite for Brenner and her salty opinions, and are banding together in an attempt to trim her down to size. You can read about what they’re doing and what effect its having, if any, in the Post piece.
What I’d like to call your attention to is the decidedly uncivilized tone of some of the chefs’ arguments, particularly that of John Tesar, chef and owner of a restaurant ominously called Knife. As you can read, Tesar and Brenner are old combatants, going back to his days working with superstar chef-writer-TV host Anthony Bourdain, himself a man of piquant opinions and spicy language. So long before the most recent plate of hate came out of the kitchen, the table was set and the participants primed for a major beef.
Finally, when Tesar felt insufficiently buttered-up by the three-star review given to Knife in the Morning News, he plated and served the pièce de resistance of anti-critical invective, in the form of this searing tweet to Brenner:
@lesbren f*** you ! Your reviews are misleading poorly written,self serving and you have destroyed the star system and you really suck
Now then…on the one hand, I’m very glad I was never toasted as thoroughly as this during my radio career. Sure, when you’re in the public eye or ear as I was, you have a good flambé coming once in a while. When you get it, you have (to mix both metaphor and recipe) to take your lumps along with the gravy. But no one should regularly have to be spattered with hot grease like this. It hurts.
On the other hand…I’m jealous. Why couldn’t I have been in a pickle so delicious that it made the national news, complete with photo of yours truly? I could just see it now: “Crusty Radio Host Likens Symphony Concert to Fallen Soufflé, Is Called Half-Baked By Maestro.” What fun!
But for that to happen, we would need one unfortunately missing ingredient: A classical music scene that folks care about as much as they do restaurant reviews, cooking shows and other trappings of foodie culture. And by “care,” I don’t just mean in number. I mean especially in passion, as if what went on inside classical music was important enough to drop f-bombs over. You know, like in TV, or sports, or politics. Sure, I believe in civility in public discourse. But when the contents of an art form are under pressure, eventually, the steam has to be released. And occasionally, someone stands to get scalded. At present, classical music in the U.S. is at a low, slow simmer, barely hot enough to cook a soft-boiled egg.
Yeah, we had the 2008 case of Cleveland Plain Dealer critic Donald Rosenberg vs. the Cleveland Orchestra, one which resulted in Rosenberg’s demotion and subsequent laying-off by the paper. The case got some national play, but was mostly confined to the musical press. And opera is still good for an occasional kerfuffle, such as that surrounding the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer.
But for the most part, what happens in classical music stays in classical music, with little notice taken outside the art form. Whether it’s orchestras locked out, or the war between opposing classical styles, or a major, potentially controversial classical premiere, the classicalsphere gets mildly excited, the rest of the country yawns — even the smart and cultured cohort. For there to me a more vigorous, scathing and even profane debate over classical music would not itself be a cause of the music’s revival. But it would be a sure sign of it. And if you don’t agree, well — goshdarn you!