One-Minute Book Reviews

September 25, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Babbittry at the Cleveland Orchestra?

A music critic’s demotion brings to mind Sinclair Lewsis’s great comic novel

Not many Americans still use the word babbittry, that wonderful term for naive boosterism similar to that of the title character of Babbitt. But babbittry may help to explain the plight of my former colleague Donald Rosenberg, who was demoted last week to an arts-and-entertainment reporter from his longtime post as the senior classical music critic at the Plain Dealer. His reassignment inspired a story in today’s New York Times and a cascade of comments on blogs, including posts at The New Yorker www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/goingson/?xrail and the Baltimore Sun weblogs.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/classicalmusic/2008/09/critic_who_dared_criticize_cle.html.

Much of the evidence suggests that this was a sad case of a critic punished for being — well, critical. Or, more specifically, for writing reviews of the work of conductor Franz Welser-Möst that weren’t boosterish enough for the orchestra management. And a Sept. 25 valentine to Welser-Möst www.cleveland.com/arts/ by Rosenberg’s successor, Zachary Lewis, strengthens that impression. No less startling than the timing of Lewis’s article was a line in it suggesting that the orchestra paid the bill for the lunch at which he interviewed Welser-Möst for the story. I took many authors to lunch in my 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and if I had allowed any of those sources to pick up the check, I would have expected not to have a job the next day. Lewis apparently permitted it and got promoted. Many newspapers consider it unethical for reporters to allow sources to pay for meals, so even those that allow the practice tend not to advertise the freeloading as Lewis did. And unless his comment about the lunch was misleading, you have to wonder if the demotion wasn’t symptomatic of something larger.

I have no inisde knowledge of why the reassignment occurred, but I admired the intelligence and professionalism Don brought to his work at the Plain Dealer, where he reviewed occasional books for me. So this is a reminder that if he’s lost his beat, you can still read his writing about the orchestra in a book: Don wrote the definitive history of the Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None” (Gray, 752 pp., $40).

Late Night With Jan Harayda is a series of occasional posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and comment on literary or related events but do include reviews, which appear in the morning or afternoon.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

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