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All the News That Fits the Print: The Failure of Arts Journalism at a Time of Cultural Need
Bruce Ridge, Chairman
International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM)

October 1 was a difficult day for the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, a day that marked the one-year point of the managerial imposed lockout that has silenced an orchestra once called “the best in the world.” That morning, their beloved Music Director, Osmo Vanska, delivered his resignation, precisely as he said he would if the lockout did not end. The relationship between Vanska and these musicians had begun to reach the status of legend; a unique pairing of leader and orchestra that had the potential to approach Szell and Cleveland, Ormandy and Philadelphia. So, on this dark morning the Locked Out Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra did the only thing they knew how, and the only thing their years of dedicated study and training would allow them to do—they went out and served their community.

That morning, those heavy-hearted musicians performed a free concert for school children at a high school in Minnetonka, Minnesota. As the high school’s website described the event, it was a concert “for educational purposes meant to enlighten orchestra and band students at Hopkins High School.”

But as the musicians gave the very best of themselves that morning, a writer in Britain was preparing to dump his very worst on the world through drivel that a major newspaper, The Telegraph, would actually publish even though it would likely have failed a third-grade writing assignment. As those musicians performed selflessly in a high school auditorium, The Telegraph was putting ink to fish wrap with words describing the musicians as “greedy, complacent, gilded, spoiled, and princely”. Harsh words to be directed at people who haven’t received a paycheck in over a year because their management sought to fix a hole in the roof by burning down the house.

The writer goes on to offer an analysis of the American orchestral scene as he sees it, which is apparently through a blindfold. “In recent years, there has been a spiraling of salaries, and only the stark fact of mounting deficits has brought some orchestras to their senses.” To prove his point, he cites the Los Angeles Philharmonic, saying “Take the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the richest of the lot” and he assails the increasing salaries there “as an astonishing sum.”

It is true that the musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic are paid in accordance with professionals who have reached the top of their field, but it is also true that the organization has achieved a surplus in ten of the past eleven years. There is no “mounting deficit” in the writer's example, but I don’t mean to confuse him with facts.

This isn’t meant to dispute that the week of October 1 was a tough week. It was heartbreaking in many ways. The resignation of Osmo Vanska was reported on the same day that the New York City Opera announced it would be filing for bankruptcy. That legendary organization, dubbed “The People’s Opera” by none other than Fiorello La Guardia, had served the people of New York for 70 years, and its loss is a bitter occurrence, but not an unexpected one. The company has been struggling for a number of years, exacerbated by a terrible managerial decision to move the opera out of its newly renovated theater at Lincoln Center in 2011.

The bad news from these situations dominated arts journalism. Apparently, there are some reporters who tend to like stories that don’t require the intensive research of a Google search. These events led to headlines such “Classical Music’s Hell Week” and “It’s Been a Really Bad Week for Classical Music” and of course, the execrable “US Orchestras are Greedy and Overpaid.”

But there was other news that week, though you had to dig pretty furiously to find it (and after reading the articles referenced above, furious was my mood.)

But these items received nary a mention in the national or international press.

Maybe the most troubling example of the failure of arts journalism came from National Public Radio (NPR) on October 5. It was intensely disappointing, and one musician confided in me that he actually threw his radio out the window after he listened to the dramatic misinterpretations and oversimplifications that were spread to a national audience.

The summary of the story promised that NPR would “sort through the wreckage” and explain “why (these) problems represent a larger and more troubling trend” for classical music.

Of course, the feature shed no light on any wreckage, and explained absolutely nothing. But it did fill four minutes of airtime, which apparently was its main purpose.

Perhaps musicians find the faulty reporting on NPR most disturbing because we generally respect the network so much. NPR aspires to a higher ideal, and when they fail to reach that height, it disappoints. In this case it barely seemed like they were trying.

In the October 5 NPR story, two on-air personalities analyzed the developing “wreckage” of classical music with such profound expressions as “Yikes!” In fact, “Yikes” was so profound they used it twice. (After all, the format does provide for extended coverage.)

“Yeah. Yikes. I mean, I feel like it's a week when the classical music world tried to one-up Congress and the government shutdown.”

The unlistenable banter focused on three (and only three) events:

What does a strike by stagehands, totally out of the control of any orchestra, have to do with anything? In fact, the commentators could have used it as evidence of the flexibility and commitment of orchestral musicians to their communities, as the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra worked quickly and cooperatively with their management, waiving multiple contractual issues, to allow for a free “pop-up” concert back home in Philadelphia that played to a sold out hall, even though it was announced at the last minute. That is the positive orchestral story to come from the IATSE strike. But no, the generosity and dedication of those musicians didn’t fit the script that NPR had in mind.

But worst of all, NPR provided a microphone for the analysts to refer to the yellowest of journalism, the aforementioned and dismissed piece from The Telegraph.

“I don't know if you read. There's a very interesting article in The Telegraph this past week, the London paper, from Ivan Hewitt, a classical music critic. He was extremely blunt, saying that U.S. orchestra musicians are grossly overpaid and greedy. ”

I want to assure all British musicians that the musicians of American orchestras will always be their advocates, and we will always praise their artistry as we seek to assist them in bettering their livelihoods. Their positions cannot be improved by attacking ours.

In all of these stories, the illusion of fairness could have been created by reporting a story that I can only dream about. What if instead we were to read:

“The Minnesota Orchestra situation is a tragedy for the community, and the loss of the New York City Opera marks the end of a grand era for the company. But the news is largely good in this climate for classical music. Orchestras in Dallas, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington DC all settled contracts quite amicably and with modest gains for the musicians. Arts giving is making a healthy recovery from the recession, orchestras are innovatively reaching out to larger audiences with new technologies, and the cautionary tales from Minnesota can be utilized by a field that seeks to preserve a great tradition as it reaches an expanding audience that benefits economically, spiritually, educationally, and in issues of personal health from exposure to music.”

But that is not what we read. Oscar Wilde said that “In old days men had the rack. Today they have the press.”

I am not just a critic of arts journalism; I want to help. For their next articles, journalists might explore these facts:

ICSOM Chairman Bruce Ridge
(Photo: Eric Arbiter)