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With friends like this, Franz Welser-Most hardly needs enemies

September 26, 2008 |  3:45 pm

Most Like most American music critics, I am dismayed about the latest revelations in the Rosenberg Case.  No not that one, the one concerning Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg's being removed from his duties covering the Cleveland Orchestra.  But unlike many of my colleagues, I am not surprised.  Ever since Franz Welser-Most became music director in 2002, Rosenberg has been a thorn in the Cleveland Orchestra's side.  He apparently doesn't find the young Austrian conductor a suitable leader for what may be American's finest orchestra.

The newspaper is not saying exactly why Rosenberg — who has been the paper's critic for 16 years, has reviewed the orchestra for 30 and is author of a history of the orchestra — has been replaced on this beat by a 31-year-old staff writer.  I can't imagine that the orchestra has not been complaining to the newspaper about Rosenberg's sharply negative reviews.  Heck, the administration complains to everyone, me included.  The publisher is on the orchestra's board.  This great orchestra, moreover, is a great source of pride for an economically depressed city.  Sooner or later, the paper was going to do something about a critic who found little to like in a music director whose contract has been extended until 2018.  You can write a lot of negative reviews in 10 years.

One reason I hear about the administration's complaints is that I happen to think very highly of Welser-Most.  For Don, who reveres Christoph von Dohnanyi , the orchestra's previous music director, for his seriousness of purpose and incredibly solid musicianship, Welser-Most lacks substance and character.  I, though, find in the younger man a wonderfully supple sense of lyricism that Dohnanyi lacked.  I also admire the way Welser-Most has attempted to make Cleveland nearly as daring in its programming as the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Concert after concert, Cleveland programs pieces new and sometimes not so new that you can't hear anywhere else in America.

Comparisons with L.A. are, indeed, very much in order.  Cleveland is allowing a young musician with great promise to grow.  We did that with Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen and will again with Gustavo Dudamel.  Nor is Welser-Most exactly chopped liver.  Many reports about the Rosenberg Case point to critical ambivalence toward Welser-Most, but he has recently been appointed music director of the Vienna State Opera, which gives him control of not only one of the world's most important orchestras but also one of its most illustrious opera companies.  As good an advertisement as any, I think, for Welser-Most and Cleveland is a recent DVD of the orchestra playing Bruckner's Ninth Symphony on tour in Vienna.  The performance has a glowing intensity.

And it is my admiration for Welser-Most and what he is attempting that makes the Rosenberg Case so disturbing.  Rosenberg's inexperienced replacement, Zachary Lewis, who now has the title of music critic (Rosenberg has become a "reporter," although he is still reviewing non-Cleveland Orchestra concerts) assumes his post with zero credibility.  Anything positive he writes will be automatically suspect.  In an interview with the conductor, about the only thing he takes the orchestra to task for is not inviting the critic to Welser-Most's house to see how he lives and to meet his wife.  You see why I'm worried?

Clearly what Cleveland — and anybody who cares about this orchestra — needs is conversation, not censorship or partisan criticism.  Don's expertise cannot be discounted.  But other points of view can be expressed  as well.  The Philadelphia Inquirer has two music critics of equal standing.  One is progressive.  They trade off reviewing the Philadelphia Orchestra, and every so often they have a dialogue in print.  Both sides are well served.

The Plain Dealer, on the other hand, now gives the impression that it will deal its reviews from a stacked deck.  In one impressive fell swoop, it has destroyed the career of a respected critic, created a sticky situation for the conductor and orchestra it hopes to serve and harmed the paper's credibility at a time when newspapers need all the help they can get.

— Mark Swed 

Photo of Franz Welser-Most by Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times 

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