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Oboe kerfuffle: Classical music review launches social media maelstrom

For The Baltimore Sun
Critic's review of BSO oboist Katherine Needleman's CD prompts international flame war.

Normally a music review posted on a classical music website would not cause a blip on the media radar.

But a Hong Kong-based music critic's review of a recording by a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musician has resulted in the kind of international to-do typically suited to Reddit and Twitter than sites that traffic in Brahms and Beethoven. The tempest has prompted hundreds of angry comments on social media, accusations of mental illness, perceived insults to America, racially tinged remarks, the use of the term "oboe hate mob" — and the suspension of the freelance critic.

If such a kerfuffle over an oboe review isn't unprecedented, it certainly is rare.

For their parts, critic Wai Kit Leung stands by his review, and BSO oboist Katherine Needleman, after initially corresponding with a representative of The Baltimore Sun, has not responded to questions.

The controversy started with an April 1 review by critic and oboist Leung posted on MusicWeb International, a United Kingdom-based classical music website, of "Duos for Oboe and Piano." The independently produced debut album on the Genuin label features Needleman, the principal oboist with the BSO, and pianist Jennifer Lim.

Leung's review is mostly negative. It is packed with detail indicative of his knowledge of the oboe, if somewhat obscure to the lay reader. "I wish Ms. Needleman had used the forked F fingering instead of the left F fingering for some of the Fs," he writes. He reserves a few kind words for her playing but tosses off, "Get this album if you want David Ludwig's Pleiades or if you are a fan of the American style of oboe playing."

On May 12 or 13, Leung said, he received a Facebook friend request from Needleman.

"Thanks, Wai Kit Leung, for the terrible review," Needleman posted May 12 to her Facebook wall, linking to the review, saying he was "criticizing my playing in more detail than I have ever seen in a review."

"So not only does he insult me," she wrote, "he insults an entire nation or perhaps continent of oboe players as well."

On a Facebook page Leung later set up, he showed a screen grab of a Facebook exchange between the two, in which he wrote: "Ms. Needleman, I have untagged myself before you tagged me once more. Please stop this before things get much worse."

Asked whether that was a threat, he wrote: "I am asking you to stop harassing me . ... How is that threatening you?"

Thus the stage was set for a flame war of hundreds of comments — a huge representation for a small musical community. Comments appeared on the Facebook page of the International Double Reed Society and later on Slipped Disc, a cultural site that reportedly draws more than 1 million visitors a month.

The comments attacked Leung's expertise as a critic, his knowledge of the oboe, his command of the English language, his motives and his honesty. There were calls for his dismissal from MusicWeb, according to Leung. Several accuse Leung of having narcissistic personality disorder. Among comments still on Slipped Disc: "Stick to writing in Chinese about the cultural revolution and everybody will be better off" and "[G]o talk to a therapist, and spend time away from your computer."

Leung has responded personally to many comments.

Online, Needleman has said repeatedly that she did not urge her fans and fellow oboists to mob Leung — comments sometimes met by criticism that she did not attempt to stop the attacks on the critic.

Leung told The Sun that his editor, Len Mullenger, fired him and then backpedaled, telling Leung he was being put on probation. Mullenger disputes that.

"He took part in a Facebook storm which I thought brought MusicWeb into disrepute," Mullenger wrote in an email. "I put him on probation to cause no further trouble and to complete the reviews of outstanding discs he held after which we would review the situation."

By June 30, the flap caught the attention of Norman Lebrecht, editor of Slipped Disc. The dispute "has been the talk of the oboe world all month," he wrote. The site also posted a statement by Leung, saying he "was the victim of an oboe hate mob."

One of the few to come to Leung's defense online was the owner of Sweden's BIS Records, Robert von Bahr. Responding to email questions about the debate, von Bahr said: "I don't think that character/personal attacks are acceptable, nor have I ever seen one before anywhere near as harsh as this one." Social media, he added, brings "some cowards out of the woodwork, to express themselves like this."

Contacted by a reporter on behalf of The Sun, Needleman replied via email: "I'm pretty sure this is a non-story." She did not respond to questions.

As of last week, Leung, Needleman and others were continuing the debate. Leung created a Facebook page dedicated to the topic.

BSO spokeswoman Julia Kirchhausen noted that the back and forth is the result of a review of a CD that was not produced by BSO, and that Needleman is not representing the orchestra.

"The musicians ... are free to do whatever they want," Kirchhausen said. The BSO has no policies governing social media behavior by orchestra members, she said.

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