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.