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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 

Comments () | Archives (9)

To rally in support of Donald Rosenberg and to sign a petition to reinstate him as MUSIC CRITIC WITH NO RESTRICTIONS at The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Email: FreePressCleveland@live.com. Details with the content of the letter/petition (which will be sent to The Plain Dealer/Editor Susan Goldberg/PD owner, who happens to be on Cleve Orch's Board of Directors/etc.) may be obtained by going to: clef notes baltimore sun (Tim Smith's Blog)...the point being: CENSORSHIP & BULLYING IS WRONG AND WILL NOT BE TOLERATED! Opinions of Rosenberg, Welser-Most, The Cleveland Orchestra's management, The Plain Dealer, Susan Goldberg, etc. abound all over the internet, but regardless of these opinions, the issue IS CENSORSHIP/INTEGRITY, which should NOT be tolerated. Perhaps the Cleveland Plain Dealer may entertain the fair and diplomatic idea of "Rosenberg & Lewis" (ala Siskel & Ebert)...just a thought.

This situation reminds me of the Queen Elizabeth-Mary Queen of Scots incident. When told her cousin had been executed, the Queen evinced surprise, and protested that she had never authorized such an act. No doubt she also breathed a sigh of relief

While I'm not a particular fan of FWM as a conductor, and Rosenberg has indeed been consistently harsh in his reviews of FWM that I recall reading, that is no justification for dumping Rosenberg from his beat like this. No one in authority at the Plain Dealer is going to give the "real reason" for shifting Rosenberg away from his old beat, nor would the Cleveland Orchestra dare to even hint at their influence on this matter. So that leaves the rest of us to "connect the dots", to the detriment of the parties as Mr. Swed's final paragraph notes.

There's the old Oscar Wilde quip that "There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about". This flap in Cleveland may be one exception to that rule.

Welser-Most was 42 and had far more high-profile work under his belt when he became music director in Cleveland than Mehta and Salonen had, or Dudamel will have had, when taking over in LA (at 26, 34 and 28, respectively). Now 48, FW-M hardly qualifies as a "young musician with great promise to grow."

Mark, it's not too late for you to trade places.

People who have worked with editors like this will recognize the pattern that likely led to a seemingly abrupt personnel change.

Chamber of Commerce types whom the editor courts lodge complaints regarding the work of the critic or City Hall reporter or restaurant reviewer. Editor takes a stab or two via mid-level editors at toning down the staff member in question.

When that fails, and old-line people of influence continue to complain to the editor at the Rotary Club luncheon or Chamber of Commerce dinner or United Way organizational meeting, the editor orders said writer off the beat, brooking no further discussion.

This management style immediately solves the editor's headache --- and creates other, more serious ones.

There's much more to this story, Mark. Daniel Wakin (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/25/arts/music/25crit.html?ref=music) gets a lot of the back story. Carolyn Jack (http://blogs.geniocity.com/jack/2008/09/a-critical-moment-the-control-of-ideas-by-authority-grows/) ties it to the current authoritarian media and political environment. Maybe this blogger (http://blog.genegaudette.com/the-blog/65-the-donald-rosenberg-affair) is right -- there's likely more to the story, and it smacks of tawdriness and corruption.

I'm in favor of the two reviewer solution. Though we can go on and on about Rosenberg being censored, as a reader I can tell you there comes a point when a reviewer really has an antipathy toward a conductor where you just stop reading the man's reviews altogether. Did anyone in Chicago need to bear another week of Claudia Cassidy's railings againat Rafael Kubelik before they got the point the woman just couldn't abide the man? It became tiresome to read and so has Rosenberg, even though I think he's a fine critic in other respects. I respect his right to have his view. I felt the same way about Ormandy most of the time, and Maazel almost all of the time, but it's time to either let readers have another perspective or now that FWM is going to be around a long time get someone who at least doesn't have such a visceral hatred of the man's work.
And just to make my point clear, I'd feel the same way if a reviewer were slobbering over a conductor week in and week out as well.

You won't hear too much overt protesting on the part of the players in the Cleveland Orchestra. They are a repressed, fearful lot who know that retribution can be swift in the current environment there. Only the most tenured players who dare to speak-up would do so but in this case probably not because it involves the highest levels of the Cleveland Orchestra food-chain. Sadly, there is a silent majority of players who agree with Donald Rosenberg's reviews of FWM but are inclined not to expose themselves to the consequences of standing in solidarity with him. They have to pay the rent.
On the two reviewer solution stated earlier in this blog while it sounds like a compromise and more even-handed way of delivering the reviews, there was a time in Cleveland where you could get reviews in other papers to compare and contrast. Oh, I forgot, those papers were swallowed up and for a while now Cleveland has been a one-paper town. In the end, it really boils down to the audience and their response to a performance. For instance, I had the opportunity to hear a Mozart Symphony performed with FWM at the helm not too long ago. I cringed at the bombastic, loud, shapeless assault I paid good money for and the rhythms were clearly untidy and lifeless. Surely a far cry from the Szell or even Maazel days... And, what was even more alarming to me (since our seats were close to the stage) were the expressions on the players' faces. Nobody had a look of joy or exuberance. There were no signs of musically connective tissue between the sections, no glances, no communication-just a bunch of unhappy people mailing it in... That's a Music Director problem, not a player problem. The guy conducts in a silo. Donald Rosenberg is a great music critic and has been more than fair where this MD is concerned and I do not take lightly his demotion for removing only the top-coat of the emperor's clothes...


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