Classical Chronicler Supreme
Interview by Jason Gross
If you know Anne Midgette just as the first woman to review classical music for New York Times, you need to also know why she got that long-overdue, vaunted position. She is one of the greatest chroniclers of classical music in the 20th century and her work in the new millennium for the Washington Post is no less impressive. Her article from early this year about phone-hold music,her #MeToo article about the classical world article from 2018 and her listing of the top 35 female composers from 2017 is proof of that.
Even with all of those recent highlights, she's decided to bow out of her role at the Post so that she can return to her original love of writing books. As something of an exit interview from the world of criticism, I arranged a phone interview to speak to her about her career, her future, her thoughts on the on the #MeToo movement in the classical world now, what she hopes the future of classical itself will be and more.
We're also proud to present a reprint of Midgette's 2002 piece for andante, "A Critical Difference," covering women in the classical realm.
Also see Anne Midgette's website
PSF: Could you talk about your decision to leave The Washington Post?
AM: I felt like it was really time to move on. I could see myself doing the same thing for the next 20 years and I don't want that. I've always wanted to write a book. I've been working on this particular book for a long time, around the other books I've written and it's not really possible to do unless I really take some real time to do it and the Post doesn't really give 'book leave.'
Music has never been my ONLY interest and it's always bemused me a little bit that I ended up as a classical music critic; I wanted to see what the next chapter brings. I'm sure there is a next chapter and I know it will include writing and I know it will include writing about music, but maybe not in the four-nights-a-week, work-every-weekend relentless newspaper format. Which doesn't fit everybody. Alex Ross and I have talked about that a lot because he did the daily newspaper thing at the New York Times and went to the New Yorker and said that the New Yorker was a much better fit for him. And I have enviously said, 'Yes, I can imagine!' (laughs) You know, something different than the grind that keeps you writing about the National Symphony Orchestra every Thursday night. At a point, you just don't feel like you're writing that freshly about that every week. And the readers have a right to hear from somebody else too, right?
PSF: You mentioned a book that you're working on now. Can you share some details about that?
AM: Yeah, it's a book that I've been working since before I came to the Post. It's an historical novel and you can't sell a novel unless you've written the whole thing, unlike a non-fiction book. I've written two non-fiction books for Doubleday and for those I only needed to write a sample chapter and an outline to get the contract. But for a novel, you have to write the whole thing.
It's about the woman who built pianos for Beethoven- her name is Nannette Streicher. And it's putting women back to the heart of classical music, so it's not at all a departure from what I'm already doing. It's just a different angle on it.
PSF: Is this something for next year?
AM: Well, I have to write it. I have a chunk of it written, but the whole thing has to get written. I'm going to let it take its time. I've been working on deadlines for so many years. It's going to be my main focus and I imagine that it's going to go fairly quickly when I have full time to devote to it, but I won't make any predictions. (laughs)
PSF: You had mentioned before that the job at the Post was something that you fell into. What did you mean by that?
AM: You mean, how I began as a music critic?
PSF: Right- that's what I was asking about.
AM: I went to Europe to write a novel after graduating college and was mad about opera and hung out with opera singers and lived with an opera singer for a while and really learned a lot of vocal knowledge from him. We used to spend hours listening to records. So opera was this huge passion of mine. I was a writer so I thought, 'Maybe at some point, I could write about opera.' And I wrote Opera News a letter and they ignored it. And after I failed to publish my 'great first novel' at the age of 24, I was sort of casting around and at a crossroads in my life. I began editing a monthly magazine for English residents in Munich. It was before the Internet so people who lived in Europe as expats but didn't have lots of language skills really depended on our magazine. So despite the fact that it was really homemade, it got a good audience and advertising. And the woman who published this magazine, her husband was the music critic of Time Magazine so they sent copies to all their friends who then read it. And their friends were people like the editor of Opera News and the cultural writer for the New York Times. So these people were actually seeing my work in this little magazine. And Opera News bought a piece of mine out of this magazine and then assigned me a feature which they then put on their cover, which was a huge break for me. I was a nobody in Germany.
And then they called me into their office on a trip to New York and they said, 'We've decided to make you our critic for Germany and Austria.' And I remember that I sat in the office and said 'I can't do that. I don't have the background to be a critic. I don't have the knowledge. I don't have the desire. I want to write about arts but I don't want to be a critic.' And the editor in chief said, 'You'll learn.' And he assigned me the world premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen's ''Dienstag" from the "Licht" cycle at the Leipzig Opera so that was my first ever published music review.
So I jumped into the deep end but it was funny that I went into it saying 'I can't do this and I don't want to do it' and ended up doing it. And I held forth to John Rockwell of the New York Times at quite some length about how I wasn't a critic and would never be a critic because it was turning on the artists, and I was on the side of the artists, and critics are horrible. And years later, he said, "So how's that working out for you? You're writing quite a lot of reviews.' John was the one who brought to the Times.
Fast forward ahead, I move back to New York after 11 years in Germany and I'm kicking around, freelancing there for the Wall Street Journal, which I started doing in Europe. I heard that the New York Times needed a new stringer, a new freelancer for classical music. They never had a woman review classical music so this was a really sore point and they really needed to get a woman. So they had three women on the short list and I got it. So I became the New York Times stringer just at the point when I was about to leave journalism to write my book. I just gotten married and the New York Times called so I thought, 'Oh well, I'll stay a couple of years and try out this New York Times thing.' And here I am.
So that's a very long answer to your question, but that kind of explains how somebody falls into classical music reviewing, because you'd think that being a classical reviewer for a major paper is not something you fall into. (laughs)
After a while at the Times, it became clear that I wasn't going to get hired. They didn't hire anybody for years and years later, long after I left. Then there were a couple of other papers that had vacancies that approached me or I approached them, but I really didn't want to leave New York. Then the Washington Post opportunity came up and I suddenly thought 'I'm stuck here and I don't want to be at the Times forever and there's not going to be another big job coming along like this and this is kind of it.' It was supposed to be a temporary six months position since Tim Page was going to take a semester in California and his job became a permanent job, so my job became a permanent job.
PSF: When you started to write for these big publications, did that change how you thought about your work?
AM: I found that the way I write changes very much from one publication to another but I've had the weird good fortune to write for mostly blue-chip (publications). I mean, my first piece when I was writing in Europe was for Opera News and then the Wall Street Journal, which was one of my main outlets when I lived in Europe, and I went all over Europe reporting for the Wall Street Journal Europe and it was just... I never had so much fun before or since as a writer. It was just like 'oh, I want to go to Dubrovnik and check out the music festival there,' and they'd be like 'OK, fine!' And I would go and spend a week. And then I'd say 'Oh, I want to go to Vienna and learn about Franz Schubert because it's his anniversary and I really don't know much about Schubert,' and they'd be like 'Fine, knock yourself out!' (laughs)
So, I had a WONDERFUL time going around Europe and writing for the Wall Street Journal was great because it was a page for all Europe, so you really couldn't write a review of a particular performance in one city and assume people would have seen it. You had to explain why they should be interested in what you had to say about it. So each piece was like a little feature article/review; you don't just say 'I was this opera last night,' you say 'this is the composer and this is the opera and this is why this production is interesting.' It's a story. And that's really standard for daily reviewing because EVERYTHING is a story, you know, all reviews you write.
But as far as responsibility, when I came to the Times, I was kind of this maverick. I was this woman and they never had a woman. And I felt that they were really aware of it. There were these kind of incredibly amusing awkwardnesses - 'well, guys...and gal...' (laughs) I was also a gadfly there because there was also so many other critics that I felt a lot of freedom. At the Times, I was much more of a hothead and much newer to it - I mean, being a newspaper critic involves a lot more than being a critic for Opera News. You're thrown into it and you have to do all kinds of stuff that you're not an expert in. You have to learn really quickly on your feet, how to write about whatever it is that you're not an expert in, but you're still responsible for it.
When I came to the Washington Post, I felt that I got more of a sense of responsibility. Feeling that you were the only or the loudest voice in town does give you a sense of balance. I mean, you never want to be equivocal. You never want to say 'Well, they tried hard! Good for them!" Nobody's going to want to read that, and damning someone with faint praise doesn't help anyone. If somebody reads your faint praise and then discovers that the piece you faintly praised is a piece of crap, they're not going to trust you any more anyway, so you might as well be honest. But I did get more measured when I got to the Post. Also, a lot more freedom and autonomy and I got to review whatever I wanted. And it's a real gift to be at a paper like this and decide what the coverage is going to look like.
PSF: You touched on being a woman in the classical reviewer field and how there was some awkwardness about others accepting you. Could you explain more of how you saw that?
AM: I did a whole piece about this for a site called andante.com (2002) which is now defunct and took everything down so you can't find it anymore. It was about being a female critic for the Times, assigned by Jeremy Eichler, who's now the classical music critic at the Boston Globe, and who was a fellow stringer at the Times for a while. In any case, I didn't think being a female critic was particularly a big deal until I got to the Times and then people kept coming up to me and making a big deal. Women of a certain age were going 'Sisterhood! Powerful!' And other people REALLY pushed back. I look back at that and shake my head because there were reviews that I got attacked for, and I look at them now and I don't even know what there was to get upset about. My style was different. Something was different. I got a lot of hate mail, and colleagues of mine now downplay that and were like 'Oh, you're too sensitive.' But my husband, who's also a critic (Greg Sandow), says, 'No, you were really, really attacked when you got there!' That might have had something with being the first woman, but I have an unorthodox background and I wasn't writing with their template of review style. I try not to write in that template, although after 11 years at the Post and 7 years at the Times, it got a little more template-y.
But I remember someone coming up to me and saying 'I never want you to review ME!' I do remember getting questions about press seats a few times. I was already 36 when I was at the Times so it wasn't like I was some 20 year old ingenue. I had an usher come over and say 'those are the New York Times seats, you have to move!' And I had a woman say... I saw the reserved seats sign for the New York Times and I moved it away and sat down, and she said 'Oh, THAT was a creative idea of how to get a seat...' (laughs)
So there was a bit of education involved. As you get older and more established — in Washington, people kind of know who I am so it doesn't happen anymore. But back then, I do remember thinking, 'It's 2001, people! It should not be big news that a woman is writing.' But in this piece that I wrote for andante, I said that I can't tell how far my writing is colored by the fact that I'm a woman. I think the fact that I was a very critical woman made me more of a target than a very critical man. I think that makes me kind of 'shrill' and 'bitchy,' you know?
PSF: You've done some excellent reporting about #MeToo in classical, particularly involving violinist Zeneba Bowers.
AM: Well she was one of a number of voices but a prominent voice. That's a piece that I wrote with my colleague Peggy McGlone, the arts reporter here. We did that together.
PSF: Where do you think things stand now with the #MeToo issue in the classical world?
AM: There's more awareness but the institutions REALLY don't want to change. We're seeing how slow it is. We're seeing, not just in classical music, a lot of the people who were brought down by the #MeToo movement are kind of creeping their way back. We're very uncertain as a society about how long these people should be punished. And you don't want to bury someone or string them up, but yet if someone has been involved in actual legal rape, they shouldn't just get a pass to waltz back in after the proper atonement term has passed. So, it's evolving.
I think some of the people... we named three or four people in our story and many of them were brought down immediately. They all lost their jobs and they've all come back to some degree since then. But now we're seeing the whole Placido Domingo thing and the Curtis Institute, (violinist) Lara St. John- she accused her Curtis teacher of raping her when she was 14 years old. And Curtis' first reaction was to send a note to the alumni saying 'don't talk to the press about this,' which is not very smart. And now they've hired a firm to investigate sexual abuse at Curtis which is looking to be a long and juicy investigation. And David Daniels right now I believe is on trial in Texas for the rape of a young man. So each of these cases is surrounded by a lot of push back and a lot of misconception of what journalism is involved.
This is a bad time for journalism and there's this ridiculous idea... that anybody can just go to a journalist and tell their story and publish it and there's not a shred of proof. After what we went through to get our story in the paper, I can only roll my eyes and laugh at that, because it took us six months of exhaustive editing and lawyers going through it with a fine-tooth comb — which is good because when it comes out, it stands. But it taught me a lot about a side of journalism that I hadn't previously had a lot to do with. If you think these stories go out unvetted, it's just not accurate. Maybe at a tabloid but not at a major publication.
PSF: Do you think that all that work that needs to be done holds other stories like that back?
AM: Oh, absolutely. I mean, look at the Domingo story. It took literally two years to get that story out. She's done a couple of them now — she, Jocelyn Gecker at the AP. And I mean, look at the Olympic gymnasts who were all abused by that doctor- that was a two year story. Any of these stories takes ages, and I think one problem particularly in classical music about it is a lot of critics will be approached by (people saying) 'Oh, you better look into this!' But critics are not investigative journalists and don't necessarily know what to do if someone comes to them with a story like that. By some flukey thing, I ended up doing all these interviews and then I really had to go to Peggy to bring it home. I didn't have the experience with that kind of writing to actually make a story out of what I had. Peggy is a reporter who's been doing this for a long time. I mean, I've been doing it for a long time too, but writing music reviews is not preparation for serious investigation - you have corroborate all this stuff and you have to call up supporting sources and call up lawyers. This is all stuff that I could do, but the ways that you have to establish fact are not ways that you're used to dealing with, even in features in classical music. It's a different animal.
PSF: I'm sure you're aware of the whole story about R. Kelly and underage girls.
AM: Yes, of course.
PSF: I interviewed Jim DeRogatis recently about his new book which covers his 20 years of investigating that story. His heart goes out to these woman who were abused but he admitted that he couldn't keep pursing the story after doing this work for decades as it took a toll on him and drained him.
AM: It does. It's not why I'm leaving (The Post) but there's also a point where it's not not a factor. You think of it as one of the many reasons that it's time to go.
PSF: How so? What else have you been hearing about this problem in the classical world otherwise?
AM: You get so worn down by it. Also, it's so pervasive. We did a huge major story and we named a bunch but there's a bunch that went unnamed that I know about and can't do anything about. That's been REALLY, really hard to wrestle with. What can you do? I mean, I talked to 75 people and I have a bunch of other people that I know did bad things that I couldn't for one reason or another... A lot of the people that you'll never read about are the people in small towns. Then it's not worth a big newspaper's effort. And they (the local people) do almost the worst damage. Some guy in some small Midwestern university may have all the woman at that university COMPLETELY traumatized, and those people never make the New York Times.
But there were some big names too, and there were just enough people where I said to myself 'Wait, I don't particularly want to write about people who have #MeToo allegations against them, that I believe, but I can't say that 'I'm not reviewing you because..'' because that gets into the territory of libel. So, that's been a tricky line to walk.
PSF: DeRogatis was also saying something similar about other women out there. After the Kelly book, they were contacting him to say that they want the world to know about other celebrities that abused them and he referred them to investigative journalists who could possibly help them because again, it was just too much for him after all these years.
AM: That's very similar for me because I became like... the person you came to if you had a problem. People would just call me and say, 'You need to know about this.' And there were some cases where I really tried hard to include them in the first piece. There's a lot of cutting-room floor stuff too. At a point it was exactly like Jim where you have to say, 'Look, I'm sorry, I really feel for you but...' And you feel like you're pulling away their hope too.
PSF: But would you do the same and hand these stories over to investigative journalists also?
AM: Oh sure. I mean, I co-wrote this piece with Peggy and she's still there and on the case. The tricky thing too is that with newspapers, there's been so much #MeToo writing that they think that moment is gone. The appetite for this on the wane. I say, 'This is still news!' It's important. But to spend that long and put that much resources into a story like this, which is what it takes, you have to really make sure your target is worth it. Because it's true that everybody could just work all the time on #MeToo stories, and for diminishing returns. So, I can see both sides.
There's the guy in England, a pianist and musicologist named Ian Pace, who made himself the point person for the sexual abuse of minors in music schools. And I had a long talk with him, before we decided not to write about stories outside the U.S. in our piece. Anyway, he said that he had to take a year off of it because he was just starting to have mental problems because of all of the stuff that he was hearing, especially when it's about underage children and a lot of suicides, it was just horrible.
PSF: What's your thoughts about the graying of the classical audience and the need to find a younger audience to sustain it? Is it really an issue to worry about and address?
AM: I'm definitely concerned with broadening the audience. I'd love to write a review that somebody might read, even if they're not that interested in my field, which is hard to do in classical music because it comes with its own set of expectations and limitations. But the hope of reaching new audiences is one reason that I advocate tough love. I think you really have to be honest and not necessarily negative but if you don't like something, you have to say it and say why. People get SO terrified about writing something bad about a performer. When you're reviewing a Hollywood movie, you wouldn't say 'God, they spent so much money on it, they must have really tried! Look how hard they worked- it took them years to make that movie!' But we do that in classical music and I encounter other critics all the time saying 'Oh, I could never say that in print.' Or people will come up and say, 'Oh, that was terrible. I wish I was like you and could come out and say that.' What the hell is the point of reviewing it if you can't say it? And that's related to your question about a younger audience- they're not going to be interested in a world of mediocre performances or faint praise reviews.
As far as reaching a younger audience, there is a point... I mean, conventional classical music reviewing has to do with the opera house and the orchestra in your town. And yet there's a lot of other, funky, alt-classical things happening. I've definitely tried to be inclusive and write about as wide a range of things as I could under the classical music beat and keep people aware of that and open people up to new things. And of course it's been a great time for that in the last couple of years as all of a sudden, there's been a big push on women and diversity. So the field is... I don't know how far it's self-correcting but there's much greater awareness of that as a problem than there was five years ago in terms of opening things up. Some of the younger performers and younger composers want a music world that looks more like the world around it. Not just a white Beethoven-focused world.
PSF: Going along with that last point, what do you think would be needed to change things in the classical world so there's more parity? Would it be more women composers recognized or more women conductors hired or more women as the gatekeepers?
AM: Yeah, I think the gatekeepers are a big problem in our field. There is so much conventional wisdom of what you can do and what will or what won't sell. Obviously, it's easier for me to say because I don't have to worry about ticket sales. I'm just a critic, and of course ticket sales ARE a concern to presenters. But I wish there was more vision and more trust of the audience. The musicologist Douglas Shadle wrote a book called Orchestrating the Nation. It's about American concert music in the 18th and 19th century. And what he describes is a world almost like ours where the gatekeepers are like 'no, no, no, you don't like this. Europe is the greatest. This is what we must do.' And the audience is like 'but we really like this American composer here...' And it's like 'no, no, no, Brahms is much more greater!' And the critics are going, 'Well, this doesn't compare to Brahms.' And so, the gatekeepers worked to keep out this pretty active composing scene. To a degree, that's still gone on.
And this is the reason that I'm fed up with big music institutions, where you have these opera houses that need millions and millions of dollars to keep going so that they can present us Faust by Gounod yet again. (laughs) And when they do put on a new work, it's got to be in opera terms. It's like trying to find a designer to design an 18th century dress. It's still an 18th century dress and if you want a new design, have them design something contemporary. And the really contemporary opera is going on at venues that aren't opera houses for the most part, or being generated by the Prototype festival in New York, for example. And that's another thing- after this amount of time in the field, I'm ready to move on because I'm clearly starting to grouse. 'Oh, these damn institutions!' (laughs)
But to a degree I think we have to reinvent them because we do need institutions that are more diverse and more open to new things. I mean, look at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is a model for diversity and openness. There's all kinds of new stuff, new work. It's really an exciting place, it's dynamic. It was run by a woman for all these years and now Deborah Borda has gone to the New York Philharmonic, and the first thing she did was give 19 commissions over the new few years to female composers. This stuff makes a difference.
So orchestras CAN be dynamic and interesting places. They don't have to be stuffy. And opera houses too, just have to have the vision and the fundraising moxie and do it. I've had my say about this so much. Everybody knows how I feel about this. And to go on lecturing people about it for a while doesn't seem very productive either.
PSF: So do you think that the Los Angeles Philharmonic is more of a harbinger or an outlier then?
AM: I think it's going to have to be a harbinger because whatever anybody says about the greying of the audience, it is really happening. The classical audience is a lot older and in order to get new audiences, you're going to have to offer things that the audience wants to hear.
And people are interested in music. Igor Levit the pianist — this is my favorite example — got together with Marina Abramovic the performance artist, and they did this thing at the Park Avenue Armory, the Goldberg Variations. She did lighting and she made it this experience. He came out, and wheeled out at the piano, but he played the straight Goldberg Variations. He didn't play something with a microphone, he didn't soup it up. And it sold out, 8000 tickets. And then he came back and gave a recital a couple of years later at the same venue and it sold very well, like 500 tickets — there was so much less interest. This is an example that shows people will listen to Bach in rapt silence for two and a half hours if you put it in the right venue, but they don't want to go and sit in a theater in this stuffy elite ambience . They want to listen to it the way Marina Abramovic presents it. You don't have to tart it up and give it some pop-crossover bullshit. You can just find a different way to make it interesting. And the fact that this seems so hard for people to figure out is bewildering. I think there will be a sea change as younger people take over, because otherwise orchestras are going to just start folding frankly.
PSF: With all the performances you've seen, are there any that stand out as really transcendental moments?
AM: Oh absolutely! And before I leave (the Post), I should make a list of my all-time highs and then I'll look back at reviews and go 'oh, I forgot about that one!' But absolutely, I have a few and I mention hearing Kurt Masur play Bruckner's 7th (Symphony) at the Sankt Florian Church in Austria where Bruckner was organist for years, on the Bruckner anniversary. It was really amazing! Kurt Masur was just a great Bruckner conductor. And of course, I got to interview him in Leipzig before he came to New York so I had a history with him, but that was pretty great.
I will say that right here in DC, there was a season (2015-16) that they did the (Wagner) "Ring" cycle, which was the best "Ring" cycle I've ever seen, bar none, not because I'm a Washington loyalist. It was really just great art. And the rewritten version of Philip Glass's "Appomattox," which I think is one of his greatest operas, in the same freakin' season. And audiences were up in ARMS 'cause 'oh, this terrible season!' (laughs) And no, really here in Washington, on my life list of good performances, two things in one season!
So those are among them but there's been many amazing performances I've heard. I also heard (opera singer) Mirella Freni in Munich and (singer) Margaret Price back in the day.
PSF: When you're watching a movie and you hear a piece of classical music come into it, as someone who's so immersed in the genre, what goes through your mind then?
AM: Well you know, movie music is usually composed for the movie. It's not that often that classical music is incorporated in. When it is, it's really interesting. I did a piece actually after Manchester By the Sea, and there was a lot of classical music in that. And Minority Report, the Stephen Spielberg movie used the Schubert "Unfinished Symphony" a lot. But I did a piece for The Post about classical music as opposed to music scores, which is also a legitimate form of music. Classical music will DEFINITELY grab my attention in a movie if it's a familiar piece because it has a whole world of connotations to me that it's not going to have for the mass audience, which is another interesting thing. Your average movie goer maybe doesn't know that particular piece and doesn't have the same reaction when they hear it in that context as I do. So then the music becomes another character in the movie and that was the premise of my piece.
But yeah, I definitely notice, but I've been historically obtuse about movie music- about appreciating it and also listening to it. I always get really wrapped up in the movie. I'm a very naive kind of movie goer. (laughs)
Also see our follow-up interview with Anne Midgette by Kelly Ferjutz
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