Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Critical voice, July 2016


An esteemed arts editor giving up and quitting after three decades—just a few years from retirement. A host of dedicated freelancers—all making next-to-nothing writing about the arts, but doing so with intelligence and enthusiasm—terminated at Boston's paper of record. Full-time critics ushered out in California, Florida, Dallas, Cleveland. Reports that the New York Times is next—about to lay off, buy out or just stop engaging most of its critics.

Nobody needs to read these words to know that the newspaper business has broken. Despite the constant hunger for news, and the reliance of common reviewers for advice on all sorts of decisions, nothing has been able to stop the diffusion of information sources. 

That's the real change. Not a lack of interest in the news, or in critical opinion. It's the diffusion of places where it can be found, and with that, the abandonment of critical authority. A thousand reviews on a consumer site—one each from previous purchasers—somehow have become as trustworthy as an expert opinion. 

The time to lament the loss of newspaper outlets that will support music criticism has come and gone. I once wrote for a big-city daily paper, and that was wonderful. Now I freelance for dozens of papers, and a terrific public radio station web site, and that holds many blessings. But it will only get worse as time goes on, by the looks of it. Newspapers certainly haven't figured out how to compete with the dizzying online resources, or the changing nature of information exchange.

But it's time for self-examination. People are interested in the arts—amazingly so. And if the easy (using that word lightly; it was never "easy" to get a job writing for a newspaper, and certainly not "easy" to do the work) method of publishing—getting someone else to do it for you—has gone, then do it yourself. It seems like the last option.

But that's only part of this self-examination. It seems like we're failing to represent our enthralling art form with any of its own inherent creativity and enthusiasm. Classical music wears its burdens of proper behavior, outdated performance styles, and knowledge-aforethought heavily. The beauty and immediacy of a great performance of interesting music lies buried beneath preconceptions. It's our job to bring that to an end. 

That's the real challenge for the modern critic. We can lament the loss of colleagues, and of opportunities. I do. But our challenge lies apart from the abject business of publishing in the early second millennium. Our challenge, our obligation, lies in making sure that the intimate listening experience that has been cultivated for centuries doesn't get lost in the noise. 

Jeremy Denk, Medieval to Modern, Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, 24 Aug. 2016

Remembering Ina Hahn