Perfect Sound Forever

ANNE MIDGETTE


A Critical Difference


ED NOTE: this article originally appeared in andante © June 2002.


Music criticism was once as all-male as the Vienna Philharmonic. Anne Midgette, the first woman ever to review classical music for The New York Times, explores the stereotypes of women in the audience - and on the aisle.

Arts are for women. That's the conventional wisdom these days. Take, just for example, the ubiquitous television commercial for my own main outlet as a freelance writer, The New York Times. One vignette shows a couple curled brightly together on a sofa. "On Sunday morning, we catch up on what we really love," he tells us, "She goes straight for Arts & Leisure; I check out the magazine."

What does "she" want? According to the mainstream media, "she" goes for the people angle, the human-interest stuff: real-life made-for-TV dramas on the Lifetime channel, the misty-eyed bios of athletes that have turned coverage of the Olympics in this country into a travesty, nearly devoid of actual footage of the events themselves. In arts-coverage terms, this means more profiles, fewer "think" pieces. (After it was announced in January 2001 that I was to become the first woman to review classical music for the Times, a publicist -- a woman -- said in all innocence to my husband, "Now we have someone to pitch the human-interest stories to.")

In keeping with this, the classical music world views "her" mainly as a passive consumer. "She" doesn't buy classical records -- statistically, men overwhelmingly outweigh women as record purchasers -- but "she" does go to performances, dragging her unwilling husband (Jonathan Miller is said to have called the Royal Opera House "a place where businessmen dump their wives in order to keep them quiet"). "Her" influence seems to have colored the very latest orchestra-conducted market research, according to which "she" attends concerts more for the experience -- some vague general haze of romance and well-being, with pretty music in the background -- than for specific performances or pieces.

But now, increasingly, she writes about it. An off-the-top-of-my-head list of female critics for American daily papers includes Wynne Delacoma at the Chicago Sun-Times; Nancy Malitz at the Detroit News (now an Assistant Managing Editor at the paper); Sarah Bryan Miller at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Lesley Valdez, formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer, now of the San Jose Mercury News; Janelle Gelfand at the Cincinnati Enquirer; Heidi Waleson at the Wall Street Journal; and Shirley Fleming, now at the New York Post. Apologies to all those -- and I'm sure there are many -- I've left out.

Isn't it funny that her increased acceptance in the ranks of critics -- that is, among the shapers rather than receivers of opinion-- happens to coincide with the striking decline, purely in terms of space, of classical music coverage in news outlets across the nation?

In an exchange on ArtsJournal.com about the ongoing decline in arts coverage, Gwendolyn Freed, a writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, wrote, "With men being the big readers of sports coverage and 75 percent of the senior decision-makers in our business being male, I would suggest ... that the shrinking of arts coverage is not a bad writing thing. It's a guy thing."

And still "she" is not what we expect of a critic. Historically, the more classical music has been associated with women, the more men have protected their status as its privileged interpreters. Take the piano, a ubiquitous salon instrument in the 19th century, part of a young lady's education, and nonetheless largely the preserve of male concert soloists even well into the 20th. (Yes, there are exceptions; but look at the percentages.) Take, most notoriously, conductors.

Take critics. The assumption that's led to the critic's current role is an idea that also threatens classical music at the core: the idea that to interpret or even understand classical music you need to be privy to a huge, arcane body of knowledge. As purported possessors of that knowledge, critics have come to assume a role akin to that of a high priest, interpreting the word for the faithful.

This kind of thinking has some unfortunate consequences for classical music. For one thing, it absolves the audience of the need to take an active role: consumption and appreciation are separate activities. A concert is something you sit through without actually interacting with it, because you won't understand it anyway (and women are supposed to be in the majority of the ones doing the sitting). For another, it's confused the role of the critic with that of advocate: priests are not supposed to challenge the word they preach, particularly when the ship of faith -- of classical music -- seems to be foundering.

And priests are, traditionally, men.

Challenging expectations, and the status quo, is part of the fun of being the next generation in any field, whether you're a man or a woman. As a woman, I can't help but challenge people's expectations, in person, at least: I seem to fit nobody's idea of what a critic is supposed to look like. People are always trying to chase me out of the reserved seating section at concerts, hissing, "Those are press seats!" A Lincoln Center usher this season came over to inform me that I was sitting in the New York Times seats; on learning I was entitled to them, he explained, "I think of a critic as someone with dark glasses and a big nose." "You're like a secret weapon," another publicist observed at an awards ceremony, "you could overhear all kinds of conversations here, and no one would ever suspect who you are."

Professionally, interestingly enough, being a woman has never been an obstacle for me; rather the contrary. In my experience, newspapers are sensitive about the relative dearth of women in the classical-music field in the past, and eager to hire women. Indeed, being a woman only helped my cause at the Times; many of the people who are in charge today were embarrassed, even outraged, that there had never been a woman in the position before. This is a pretty bitter irony for women a generation ahead of me, who say they found the doors there closed against them (although I know at least one woman who was approached about reviewing classical music for the Times many years ago, and for her own reasons, which I don't know, decided against it).

In any case, I'm sure there are other women besides myself whom people would be readier to accept as critics. The larger issue for all female music critics -- akin to that faced by female conductors -- is how to find and assume the kind of authority they need to help their statements be heard. It seems to me that as music critics, women come in for a certain amount of negative stereotyping: too shrill, too dumb, too ineffective. One of the leading critics in Munich, where I lived for a number of years, was universally referred to as "the old goat" -- "the old she-goat," in fact, since German is a gender-specific language. The degree of scorn people reserved for her -- when, after all, plenty of her male colleagues were old goats as well -- seemed to me to reflect a vestigial idea that women aren't supposed to do this sort of thing, that it's vaguely unladylike to express strong opinions in an unvarnished manner.

I lack the objectivity to say how far my own critical writing is marked by the fact that I'm a woman. The perspective that I bring to the table includes a number of things that may or may not be gender-specific. When I'm writing a review, I do want to set a scene; to communicate something about the experience; to give my (necessarily subjective) opinion; and to write something I think someone might want to read, according to my own possibly idiosyncratic views of what constitutes that.

But I also seem to have a reputation as a ball-breaker, even though I feel I'm often pulling my punches. "I never want you to review me!" a conductor interrupted my conversation to announce at a recent event. And when someone attends the same concert I did and thinks I was gentle in the review -- which has happened not infrequently -- they react in astonishment: "You were so kind!" as if that were completely unexpected.

I think this does reflect that issue of what is seen as ladylike, intensified by the particularly conservative filter of the classical music world, which tends to maintain a high-church purism on a range of issues (take, just for instance, pop culture). In any case, a lot of female music reviewers on this continent are equally "unladylike," in that they say what they think: from Manuela Hoelterhoff (no longer active), who won a Pulitzer Prize for her Wall Street Journal criticism, to Tamara Bernstein, whose damning Salome review in Canada's National Post this January sparked a public exchange of correspondence with the opera's director, Atom Egoyan.

In fact, classical music badly needs to be helped out of its privileged position and to play on the same field as the other arts. Film critics, after all, men and women, express themselves strongly all the time, in terms that would make classical audiences sputter in horror. Unlike film, pop music, art or literature, classical music is widely seen as an endangered species that needs special protection, special advocacy. Meanwhile, it threatens to lapse into mediocrity, in part precisely because its pretensions of privilege ensure that many non-aficionados in the audience, when they fail to be transported by an orchestra concert, assume that the fault lies in their own lack of understanding rather than in the indifferent quality of the event itself.

For any critic, one of the points of the exercise is to speak out and make clear to readers why it is that we care. And ultimately, as classical music coverage seems increasingly at risk, the issue of being a woman critic seems to me less about being a woman than about being a critic: the challenge of how to make what we do more vital and reach as wide an audience as possible, but by virtue of the inherent merits of our art and our writing, rather than by dumbing down in deference to anyone's idea of who "she" is and what "she" wants.


Also see our interview with Anne Midgette


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