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As classical music faces a changing world, so do its critics

Graphic by Darrel Frost.

Old-school stereotypes divide the coverage of classical music into two apparently opposing camps. In one, the genre and its media are elitist and inaccessible—created only with aging, upper-class audiences in mind, and analyzed using jargon familiar only to readers with formal musical training. In the other, growing commercial pressure to market to a wider demographic has compelled radio stations and streaming services to lower the barriers to entry. It’s the equivalent, wrote violinist and critic Jennifer Gersten, of “advertising themselves as musical sanctuaries” and selling classical music as a “balm for anxiety,” instead of embracing its depth. 

“Both,” Gersten went on, “seek to put classical music into a padlocked box, when a more enlightened view of the music would come from encouraging us to think about it for ourselves.” 

During this period of upset, classical-music criticism faces a challenge: the language writers use to describe the music, Gersten wrote, “shapes how people experience this art form—especially those encountering it for the first time.”

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More and more, critics are going beyond reviews that focus on musicality and technique to report on problems concerning diversity, politics, and workplace culture. Independent publications such as I Care If You Listen, NewMusicBox, and National Sawdust’s The Log reflect a more diverse creative landscape and a more politically-conscious audience. There’s an increasing drive, Gersten tells CJR, “to ask what a given concert is doing for the reputation of an institution and for the field at large…Can we use this concert, this particular piece, as a sign that there are better things to come?”

In February 2019, VAN magazine, an independent online music publication, ran a groundbreaking investigation documenting a culture of fear and abuse presided over by Daniel Barenboim, the music director of the Staatsoper, perhaps Berlin’s most prestigious opera house, and principal conductor for life of its orchestra the Staatskapelle Berlin. Several major media organizations, including The New York Times and the broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, later built on the complaints that surfaced in VAN’s original reporting.

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“We want to write about classical music the same way one would write about any other genre: from a place of love, but without thinking it’s any more superior to other kinds of music,” Jeffrey Brown, an editor at VAN, says. “We’re crazy about classical music as an art form, but don’t always love the way things go in the industry, especially with respect to working conditions for musicians.”

A growing number of musicians are now becoming critics. Simon Cummings, the author behind 5:4, a classical-music blog, is a composer himself; Gersten, in addition to writing, is pursuing a doctorate degree in violin performance at Stony Brook University.

In a manner similar to The Players’ Tribune, the outlet founded by Derek Jeter in which professional athletes publish their own stories, composers and performers write the majority of articles on NewMusicBox, an online media platform. “When you’re dealing with music that is so cutting-edge, allowing artists to speak about their work in their own words is an effective and maybe even essential approach to best showcase what the landscape really looks like,” says Molly Sheridan, a co-editor of NewMusicBox.

For those without classical training, honing a more inclusive style may be a matter of ditching the “critic” voice and writing as a fan. Brown wrote one of his first features for VAN in October 2016 on slash fiction about composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. “We’re trying to uncover musicians and audiences who have a more radical perspective on classical music,” he says, “which is more likely to happen in a place like Pitchfork than in Opera magazine.”

Unsurprisingly, finding a sustainable business model for classical music criticism remains a challenge. The number of full-time staff positions for arts critics has decreased significantly over the past several years, particularly at local dailies and weeklies.

Some publications have toyed with a nonprofit model. In October 2016, the Rubin Institute at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which focuses on the field of criticism, partnered with The Boston Globe and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation to fund a 10-month classical critic position for Zoë Madonna, who continues to write regularly for the Globe. NewMusicBox, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in May, is owned and funded by New Music USA, a New York―based nonprofit that has distributed nearly $3 million in grants for creative projects over the past six years.

Still, virtually all classical-music writers avoid pronouncing the death of their field. “The conversation about the ‘death’ of classical has been part of my entire adult life, and so much about the genre has changed in that time period,” Brown says. “I don’t find it to be a helpful attitude anymore. When I first started at VAN, we were determined that the magazine would be a place where the phrase ‘classical music is dead’ would never appear.”

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Cherie Hu is a freelance music and tech journalist based in New York. She writes regular columns for publications including Billboard, Forbes, and Music Business Worldwide. Follow her on Twitter @cheriehu42.