Everyone has an opinion. And when it comes to arts criticism, there are now more and more media outlets where those opinions can be expressed. But amidst all the quick-hit reviews and snarky witticisms, how do we give young people the training and skills to approach the arts from a more considered, complex perspective? Rather than watch by the sidelines as writing about classical music falls into what he describes an “appalling state,” Stephen Rubin decided to take action. Rubin—president and publisher of Henry Holt & Co. and a former magazine and newspaper journalist who profiled many classical musicians—became benefactor of the Stephen and Cynthia Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. The inaugural Institute takes place on the Oberlin College campus in Ohio from January 18 to 22. During the Institute, the ten Rubin Fellows—all students in Oberlin’s Introduction to Music Criticism course —will receive hands-on masterclass-style training in music criticism, learning from prominent critics and critiquing music performances by top performers in the field. Oberlin plans to convene the Institute every other year.
David Stull, dean of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, assembled top-notch musicians to perform during the Institute, with the Rubin Fellows reviewing one concert each by the Cleveland Orchestra; pianist Jeremy Denk; the baroque orchestra Apollo’s Fire; and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Professional critics serving on the Institute’s Writers Panel include New Yorker critic Alex Ross; Washington Post critic Anne Midgette; Wall Street Journal critic Heidi Waleson; former Washington Post critic Tim Page, currently on the faculty at the University of Southern California; and former New York Times critic John Rockwell. Rubin will also sit on the Writers Panel. At the end of the Institute, one winning Fellow will receive a $10,000 prize to be used to help him or her to advance with unpaid internships or other study in the field. Think you can write about classical music? A second $1,000 audience prize for best review by an audience member of a concert performed during the Institute will also be awarded.
Above: 2012 Rubin Fellows (top row): Meghan Farnsworth, Susan Lee, Megan Emberton, Gabe Kanengiser, Matthew Young, Charlotte Dutton. Bottom row: Jacob Street, Sam Rosenberg, Mandy Hogan, Chad Putka.
Just before the Institute got underway, SymphonyNOW spoke with Stephen Rubin and David Stull about their new undertaking.
How would you describe the state of classical-music criticism today?
Stephen Rubin (below): Classical music has always been a tremendous passion of mine, and I just felt that the state of criticism in this country was in such appalling shape that someone needed to do something. I mentioned it to my wife before she died—she was also into classical music, in fact that’s how we met—and she thought it was a great idea as well. Then a friend said, “You’ve got to meet David Stull.” I was so wowed by David. He took what was essentially a germ of an idea, and focused it.
Why do you say “appalling state”?
Stephen Rubin: For several reasons. First of all, a lot of papers are cutting back their coverage of classical music. And combined with that, I think there are only a handful of decent critics in the United States. I just feel that the combination of the papers cutting back, the coverage, and the paucity of really good music criticism, which might even give the papers more of an excuse to cut back, is a potent combination for disaster. And so at least if we can get some decent music critics out there, maybe there is a better chance for them succeeding.
“The fundamental objective of the institute is to focus on what it means to be a critic.”—David Stull
How would you describe the state of classical-music criticism today?
David Stull (below): I would say classical-music criticism is certainly in distress. And without question it’s migrating to an electronic format. What we don’t want to lose is the quality of the work. We need to preserve that. And because the internet allows for immediacy, occasionally that can erode quality. It’s very similar to what texting has done for communication, as we further and further truncate our thoughts into little tiny bits of information. Inevitably, complexity and subtlety are lost. I’m not saying it isn’t effective or that it’s even a bad part of our lives. I’m simply saying that if you were to trade moments of being able to read a complex text or engage a complex idea entirely for simply a simple exchange, then something would be lost.
How did the Institute get its start?
David Stull: Steve Rubin and I were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, Gene Carr, who runs a company called PatronMail and used to work for the American Symphony Orchestra years ago. Gene and I are both Oberlin graduates, and Steve was lamenting the challenges newspapers have faced—the cutbacks generally in media and journalism, which he saw as sort of a deterioration in the opportunity for discourse around classical music. Steve’s first inclination was to start a prize for music criticism of substantial value, and I said, what about starting a program where we might really consider engaging some of the great writers in our midst, and combine that with terrific artists and having a week in which we really focus on the discourse of music. We coupled that with a curriculum we teach in the fall for about twelve to fifteen top students in the college and the conservatory who have a strong music background but primarily are excellent writers and thinkers. The course is taught by local Cleveland critics, Don Rosenberg from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Mike Telin and Dan Hathaway, who run clevelandclassical.com. Charles Michener, who oversaw the music division at The New Yorker and was at Time for a while, came down and worked with the students as well. So they’ve been intensively prepped.
Could you talk about the meaning of critical perspective?
David Stull: The fundamental objective of the institute is to really focus on what it means to be a critic. How can we contextualize the discussion of art relative to an ongoing discourse about art? One of the things Steve has observed is—he and I discussed this quite a bit—that blogs are interesting, because they involve people in a much larger discussion, but essentially it’s a reactive mode. Meaning it encourages a reaction to an event. And this is really about trying to develop in the students a perspective on an event, meaning how do you contextualize it into a larger discussion.
“I felt that the state of criticism in this country was in such appalling shape that someone needed to do something.”—Stephen Rubin
What’s wrong with blogs? Lots of respected critics also write blogs.
David Stull: If you look at the list of writers we’re bringing to the panel, these are individuals who have developed a career, have developed a body of work around writing. We’re very much interested in that relationship between hearing music, thinking about music, and developing a perspective and writing about it. Jeremy Denk and Anne Midgette and Alex Ross … I would suggest that they all are writers first, who use blogs as a mechanism for writing. Alex and Jeremy developed their professional work and certainly their writing, pre-blogosphere. It was operatively different in its formative stages. This is really about being sure that we step back into the serious work, so that in a blog situation we’re giving the students a choice: are you going to be reacting to this, or do you want to write something that’s a bit more comprehensive and specific?
What sort of training should a music critic have? Is it necessary to have a full conservatory training?
David Stull: No, there are plenty of people who are highly discerning listeners who have never been trained. However, I do think a person has to be educated, whether it’s a self-education or a formal education, to be able to gauge music contextually, to have the resources they should be drawing on for developing that context. So a person certainly has to have what I would describe as a background that is substantial and has depth in music to engage it, but as to how they acquire it, I think there are many different means. I am more interested in them being really superb listeners and thinkers and writers. Those are the three critical ingredients.
Can technical, musically specific criticism be interesting to a wide range of readers?
David Stull: A brilliant writer can take fairly dense technical information and make it interesting, and through context illuminate it for you. Descriptive language is so effective and engaging that you develop an understanding. Those are rare individuals, but nonetheless those are the individuals we seek to cultivate. People who have the level of flexibility to go from, say, writing a review designed for a layperson’s perspective, to something with perhaps a bit more technical context to it. Especially in new music, to really go after the work, look at the score, discuss some of the composer’s strategies and be able to talk about how effective it was: did you feel it worked? In the end, you want someone who has that level of versatility. That would be the ideal person.
What do you think would be the best possible outcome of the Institute?
Stephen Rubin: That we trained a couple of really good young people who became really good critics.
Below, professional music critics serving on the Rubin Institute’s Writers Panel: Anne Midgette, Alex Ross, John Rockwell, Heidi Waleson, and Tim Page.