Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Late night thoughts on reading the New York Times

Yes, I've decided to take to Seated Ovation tonight, and it's in the very old fashioned way that I used to use the blog -- circa 2010, senior year at Northwestern, when I was an anonymous outlaw shaking up the classical music institutions of Chicago.  Tonight, yes, is a screed night.  But it's for a good cause.

The only "reporting" being done on James R. Oestreich's recent announcement of his retirement is on a blog that I won't link to, because it is designed as linkbait, and does not need any more.  Needless to say, its writer clearly has a thing out for Jim, and he has expanded that grudge out into a general critique of the entire New York Times as an institution.  I'm guessing it has to do with this book review here.

I wanted there to be something on the Internet, not just in Twitter form, that fleshes out a bit the importance that Jim Oestreich's 24 years at The Times has meant to classical music.  Now, I know Jim personally, and he has edited my work for The Times, and for that I am ever grateful.  But I would not consider myself one of the "chummy" types who goes online to defend his friends, so maybe we can discount that idea up front.  I also am not part of any old boys' club of any kind, that I know of.

So let's talk about what 24 years at The Times means:

It means helping shape the careers of Anthony Tommasini, Vivien Schweitzer, Steve Smith, Zachary Woolfe, Will Crutchfield, Alex Ross, Jeremy Eichler, Anne Midgette, Dan Wakin, and many others I'm forgetting.  That's most of the best writers on classical music in the field.

It means writing about early music -- often controversially -- in a way that had not been previously pursued in a major newspaper, and rigorously staying on top of the New York early music scene.  And analyzing it in a manner that can only be called scholarly -- see this.

It means recognizing that shifts are occurring in the classical music sphere, and that they need to be recognized.  The fact is that the Times covers more new music now than it ever did, and is completely on board with the youngest generation of composers and following what they're doing.  That did not used to be the case: you would seek out Andrew Porter in the New Yorker, or Kyle Gann or Tom Johnson in the Voice, to find out what was going on in the non-symphonic world.  Jim, in cultivating writers like Alex Ross, Steve Smith, and now Zachary Woolfe, has cast a keen eye on the contemporary scene and helped nurture it.  New operas, major events at Le Poisson Rouge or Issue Project Room, weird avant-gardy things are all in the mix these days -- if there's ideology, it's mostly to be found in critiques of institutions like the NY Phil for not playing enough new music.  I'm not saying every writer says brilliant things about new music, but the coverage is there, and it's not dogmatic, pedagogical, or close-minded in ways it was several decades ago.

It means coverage.  This is a big deal.  I don't know if having a Classical Editor is the only way to guarantee coverage of classical music, but Jim has (from what I've heard from many smart people) battled his entire career for serious discussions of classical music in the mainstream media -- from High Fidelity to Opus to the Times.  There are no other resources that cover so much music in any kind of depth in comparison to the NYT; whether or not you like individual writers or pieces, the effort is there.  This is essential not only for the current classical scene -- which needs more critical scrutiny, not less -- but also for historians.  For a lot of these events, the Times Review can be the only historical record of its existence.  If those vanish, the memory vanishes.

Which brings me to the final "it means," and the most important one for the career I'm headed down.  Musicology has had a place at the Times since Jim's arrival 24 years ago.  A major place.  That has been spearheaded by Jim's relationship to Richard Taruskin, who is not only a great musicologist but a great writer for the public, who has proven controversial in many of the best ways that controversy can be used.  If you want to read the most scathing approach to academic serialism, read this.  If you want to read a brilliant analytical takedown of Carmina Burana, read this.  And let us not forget the Great Klinghoffer Controversy.  These can be harsh and I don't always agree with them, especially in the case of Klinghoffer: but by bringing an academic into this world, Jim has allowed for discussions of important issues that remain almost entirely below the surface in the world of classical music, exposing the political realities of how great (or not so great) music is made.  Taruskin's epochal Text & Act, perhaps the most important thing ever written on performance practice, was partially birthed from his work with Jim, and Jim gave Taruskin space to write:
[Opus Magazine] offered writers space and scope such as I have never enjoyed anywhere else, and an editor more devoted to airing serious, qualified opinion than any other with whom I have had the pleasure of working.  It still seems a miracle that Jim Oestreich took my big Beethoven review without asking for a single cut.  That piece would have been turned down by any schoalrly journal as too topical, by any Early Music forum as too impious, and by any record magazine as too detialed (not to mention long), but for Opus, or for Jim, it was just right.  I believe it to be perhaps the most valuable piece in the present book beause of how it immediately applies theoretical premises to the exercises of 'practical criticism.'  I would like to think it exemplary in its way, but there is no magazine in the world today that would print it. (Text & Act, 6-7)

Even with less space the Times, as Taruskin continues, the impetus to create vivid works of scholarship for a broad public remained.

Introducing controversial music scholarship to the Times readership allowed for introducing all kinds of scholarship to the Times readership: thus excellent recent work by W. Anthony Sheppard and Micaela Barnello, among others.  And, of course, I am ever grateful to Jim for covering UNC's recent Rite conference (that's some chumminess, I suppose).

This is the reality, sometimes unspoken, of a quarter-century of difficult work as a defender of the arts -- because that is, ultimately, what a great critic and editorial voice is.  In treating music with the rigor and thought that it deserves, Jim has contributed, and helped sustain, the vibrant cultural community that is New York City, and has showed it to the world.

Please contribute any thoughts in the comments, and, as always, you are welcome to disagree.


  1. Anthony Tommasini's last name is misspelled above.

  2. Oestreich has a rather narrow view of the world that was not appropriate for America’s paper of record. There has been a notable lack of international reporting in the music section (and no, NYC cannot by any means afford to ignore the rest of the world.) The scanty international reporting on a broad range of topics has left many Americans with a blinkered and parochial understanding of music in the international scene and has limited our intellectual life. This is especially apparent if one compares the music section of the Times to the more international reporting of other papers like Le Monde, La Corriere della Sera, the Guardian, or Die Zeit.

    Where are the articles in the Times looking at the larger pictures surrounding the US orchestral crisis? Where are the international comparisons that show how weak the U.S. arts funding system is? Why could the Times not spare a word about the fact that the USA only has three cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year? Why did the Times all but ignore the gender and racial discrimination of the Vienna Philharmonic, especially during the years it had no women members at all, and during the years it continued to exclude them even though it had officially claimed to allow them membership? So many other papers wrote often about the topic, but Times scrupulously avoided it. These glaring omissions reveal an antiquated and parochial worldview that I hope the new editor will remedy.

  3. Thanks Anonymous - as I liked to say back in Seated O's heyday, I try to include at least one typo per post to make sure people are reading carefully.

    William, I think some of your points are fair -- though you name all European newspapers, which are much better at covering pan-European states of affairs (and not necessarily so great at keeping track of what's going on in the States). I'm not sure if we can blame one editor for the lack of national arts coverage -- it's an unfortunate reality though. Issues like the orchestral crisis, arts funding, and the Vienna Phil could all be handled in more detail, I agree -- I think we need more arts reporters alongside arts critics, but I don't think the reality is any better at any other American paper (though in cities which are currently engaged in orchestral crises, of course, the coverage of the issue is much more substantial). I wouldn't call that antiquated or parochial, though I can understand why one would; and I also don't think that a new editor will necessarily mean better coverage of the classical world, either.

    1. Good points that moderate my harsh comment. With what the Times pays its stringers, I’m not sure more international reporting would be so expensive. I notice the webzine of Musical America has a large amount of European reporting that is very informative, even though it has far fewer resources. There are knowledgeable English-language journalists in most of Europe’s major cities who would love to write an occasional piece for the Times – and for low fees. It’s mostly a matter a creating a network of such qualified people and occasionally including their reports. This could set a new standard for other big American papers and open our eyes to a larger musical world. I think some of the other omissions in reporting I mention were ideological and not for a lack of space or resources.

  4. Very nice post, Will. A good editor is good at maximizing resources, in addition to improving a writer. Everything important in journalism comes down to space and money. If you want to argue that some things were not covered sufficiently, you have to wonder if the right trade was made for the things that were. This means tough calls have to be made on what is covered.

    Given the budget Jim had to work with, I can't see how it could have been spent better. Did he have sufficient funds to send reporters or critics to Europe more often than they did? Or pay writers in those countries to write for the NYT? As Will described, and I agree, I think Jim made the right calls. The world is a richer place on the strength of the Taruskin articles alone.

  5. Well, now that the spelling of Anthony Tommasini's last name has been corrected, my correction should be removed!

  6. I prefer to keep it as a momento of acknowledgment of my mistakes, unlike certain other bloggers who feel the need to disguise them entirely.

  7. Allow me to correct you on two points:
    1 Slipped Disc is not an aggregator but a story breaker. It broke both the Landman and Oestreich departures hours before the rest of the media.
    2 Any issues that I have with Oestreich are, on the whole, matters of principle that predate his dismissive review of Why Mahler? by up to 20 years. We see the world very differently. I wish him well in retirement.

  8. There are so many inaccuracies in this piece, it's difficult to know where to begin.

    Let me make just a couple of points: Allan Kozinn was at both Opus and the Times before Jim -- the Times, by 15 years, and he helped get Jim hired. But as a former editor once said of Jim, "I helped get Jim hired, and he cut off my b*lls."

    Jim did have an effect on Allan's career, but it wasn't anything he should be proud of.

    Your personal opinion of Norman aside, Norman has been getting his facts -- facts being the operative word -- from a number of key people at the Times, precisely because they knew Allan could not say a word, and things were amiss.

    I can see why the Times is such a stickler for fact-checking. And also why blogs that spout off without knowing what's real, make the Times all the more important.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Paula -- I didn't realize that Allan was at the Times before Jim. Given that you know the situation better than I do -- I'm essentially, an outsider observer in all of this -- I will strike his name from my post.

      I'm not sure what the other factual inaccuracies are here, since they are mostly general observations from a reader of the Times, or things I've heard informally from those inspired or edited by Jim. We obviously fundamentally disagree as to the nature of his legacy; I hoped that in sharing this blog post, I could offer a perspective that demonstrated his positive influence.

  9. Hi Will, how long have you been posting/blogging? Just read this post and it's a very good opinion piece. Nice work! Unfortunately i live outside of America and hence can't give a very insightful opinion on the matter of the New York Times.

  10. I really enjoyed this post. Keep up the writing!

  11. I am familiar with Jim's coverage of classical music. Very insightful indeed.