Another critical loss

There is sad irony in the fact that I read of classical music critic Allan Kozinn’s dismissal from the New York Times on the “Slipped Disc” blog of British classical journalist Norman Lebrecht.  While no uncritical fan of classical music critics, I always looked forward to reading Kozinn’s reviews and features, which struck me as fairer, more open-minded and more audience-focused than those of most of his peers.

On the other hand, while his up-to-the-minute coverage of classical news performs an important service, Lebrecht is an unreliable sensationalist whose frequently outrageous opinions (here’s the latest) and titillating headlines seem geared more for attention than enlightenment.  “Audience whoring click baiting” is how the widely-read “On an Overgrown Path” blog puts it.

I’m sure that many classical musicians feel that for their own benefit, they need to stay on Lebrecht’s good side, much as celebrities and their agents felt about scandal-mongers like Walter Winchell back in the day.  But among the classicalsphere, i.e., the pundits, critics and other wordsmiths one encounters on the net, the verdict is all-but-unanimous:  Kozinn and other “serious” critics good.  Lebrecht bad.

No question, I would rather read a hundred Allan Kozinn pieces than one by Norman Lebrecht.  But that’s not because Kozinn is a high-minded critic and Lebrecht a more populist one.  It’s because I think Kozinn is better than Lebrecht.  In an ideal world, where classical music appealed both to a small group of connoisseurs and to a larger fan base, there would be room for journalism that reached both cohorts.  They’ve certainly figured out how to do this in film, television and pop music journalism.

But in the U.S., there isn’t much room for either, at least in the general press.  You could put all the full-time classical critics in America in one hotel conference room, and still have room, I suspect, for the local chapter of the Lions Club.  (It’s not just classical critics, by the way.  I saw the same shrinkage in my field, classical public radio.)  As to covering the domestic classical scene in print with a more popular touch — who do we have?  Am I missing someone?

And I would say that the lack of the latter, more “popular” kind of critic is every bit as much an indication of the perilous current state of American classical music as is the Times’ layoff of Allan Kozinn.  Classical will always have its connoisseurs, who know how to find and share smart opinion about the music on the internet.  But if the American classical audience grew to the point where we could develop and sustain our own Norman Lebrecht — hopefully a more reliable, less obnoxious one — that would be a sign that classical music was on an upward, less overgrown path.

(P.S.  For those seeking lively daily coverage of the national classical scene, good old public radio does have at least one excellent choice!)


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