August 13, 2010 10:14 pm

When a writer faces the music

Donald Rosenberg lost. So did Cleveland. And so did journalism in general and the precarious practice of music criticism in particular.

Two years ago Rosenberg found himself sidelined for telling the truth as he saw and heard it. And just a week ago he lost a lawsuit against his employer, Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer, and the Cleveland Orchestra.

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Until 2008 Rosenberg was one of the most important music critics in the US. He covered the Cleveland Orchestra, which ranks as one of the best in the country, one of the so-called Big Five. Rosenberg supported that assessment and his perspective reflected love as well as authority. In 2000 he wrote the definitive history of the orchestra, chronicling the achievements of such resident conductors as George Szell, Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, Christoph von Dohnányi.

Franz Welser-Möst joined the parade of music directors two years later. Welser-Möst was born in Linz, Austria, in 1960 and rose to fame in various European locales before undertaking a stormy six-year tenure as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1990. It was there that he acquired the nom de poignard that has hounded his career: “Frankly Worse Than Most”. A happier engagement at the Zurich Opera followed the London trials.

Rosenberg, whose background includes three music degrees plus experience as a horn player, greeted Welser-Möst’s appointment with reserved cordiality. As seasons wore on, he found much of the music-making competent but cool, correct yet uninspired. This, of course, raised the ire of the maestro, his management, the board of directors, public relations chieftains and all-important fundraisers. Still, after 16 years in his post, Rosenberg seemed to enjoy the continued support of his employers.

Like all thoughtful critics, he defended his subjective responses with objective evidence but he did not shy from controversy in print. Accompanying the orchestra on foreign tours, he reported failures as well as successes. In 2004 he bruised egos by quoting possibly jocular remarks that Welser-Möst made to a Swiss publication. The conductor described Cleveland as “an island” where “we have a world-class orchestra in ... an inflated farmers’ village”. The article also quoted the maestro’s views on private subsidy of the arts: “$5,000? You don’t get a handshake ... $10m? Of course, you go to dinner.” Wesler-Möst said he had been mistranslated.

Even so, the establishment in Cleveland was embarrassed, and Rosenberg became persona emphatically non grata in crucially influential circles. The orchestra registered official complaints and withdrew customary press courtesies. In a move that shook journalistic and critical establishments throughout the US, Rosenberg’s editor Susan Goldberg removed him from his primary beat, citing Rosenberg’s “closed mind”. He could no longer write about the Cleveland Orchestra. Zachary Lewis, 25 years younger and far less sophisticated in musical matters, was given that assignment. Rosenberg was left to cover dance and relatively minor organisations.

Humiliated and devastated, also incredulous, he embarked on an apparent act of heroic futility. He sued The Plain Dealer for retaliation and age discrimination, and sued the Cleveland Orchestra for defamation and contract interference. Few could dispute the moral persuasiveness of his claims but the court proved unsympathetic to the legal arguments. Rosenberg remains employed at The Plain Dealer yet forbidden even to mention the Cleveland Orchestra. His future plans, he says, are uncertain.

With newspapers round the US shrinking at best, disappearing at worst, critics have become an endangered species. Some may thrive on bloggers’ websites, although these tend to confuse fans with professional commentators and the concept of expertise is blurred. The Rosenberg saga represents an alarming sign of the times.

As government cuts of arts subsidies start to bite all over Europe, especially in Britain, there is talk of relying on “the American model”. That means an increased reliance on individual contributions – which goes along with an acceptance, presumably, of the individual powers that accompany substantial donations. Where does critical independence fit into this?

Under ideal conditions, though, the “American model” can work wonderfully. Several lives ago I served as music critic for the Los Angeles Times, then flourishing. In some ways my situation paralleled Rosenberg’s. The young music director of the local philharmonic was a photogenic extrovert named Zubin Mehta. He made a mighty splash in heart-on-sleeve challenges but seemed insensitive to works requiring elegance, subtlety or introspection. My reviews offended the orchestral establishment. More important, they offended Dorothy Buffum Chandler, the Golden West’s powerful culture-booster, fundraiser and social doyenne. She was also the mother of Otis Chandler, publisher of the LA Times.

Mrs Chandler wanted me fired. Her son, bless him, had other ideas. He ran a full-page “house advertisement” in the paper, featuring my beleaguered mug and bearing a blush-inducing headline: “He faces the music even when it hurts.” Otis sent me this message: “Keep the faith, baby, ’cause your publisher boss (your only boss) is with you all the way.” The editors, bless them, seconded the motion. “You protect Beethoven,” they declared, “and we’ll protect Bernheimer.”

Who, one wonders, is protecting Beethoven in Cleveland?

Martin Bernheimer covers music in New York for the FT. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism while at the LA Times

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