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Attack on Boston Symphony unwarranted Music: Is a critic trying to further his career by bashing the Massachusetts orchestra in print?


In one of the rare instances in which writing about classical music gets noticed, a piece by music critic Greg Sandow about the Boston Symphony and its music director, Seiji Ozawa, in the Wall Street Journal last week has caused a storm in Beantown.

Comparing the orchestra to "a painting that badly needs to be restored," Sandow, without using a single named source to support his assessment, insisted that the celebrated orchestra now has "the worst reputation of any American orchestra."

Ozawa's concerts, according to Sandow, were "dismaying"; the conductor himself was "a samurai" who was kept in place because "he raises Japanese money the BSO can't do without."

It's little wonder that the orchestra's supporters are in an uproar and that some of the world's most prominent conductors -- Andre Previn and Bernard Haitink among them -- have rallied to defend the orchestra and its music director.

Some of what Sandow says is just wrong. Japanese support of Ozawa and his orchestra, while generous, amounts to no more than one or two percent of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's budget.

But why would a music critic -- Sandow is a free-lancer who works primarily for The Village Voice -- repeat rumors he knows to be untrue, and why does he have such vituperative opinions?

The Boston Symphony is a member of an exclusive symphonic club known popularly as the "Big Five" -- the others are the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. These are simply the five best orchestras in the United States. They are great because they have long traditions of greatness and because they can afford to pay their players the best salaries in the business.

Even if the BSO were the worst orchestra in the Big Five, it would still be the fifth best orchestra in the United States and certainly not inferior to the likes of the New Jersey Symphony, which, or so Sandow insists, "play[s] with a deep humanity the BSO couldn't touch."

As Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony's managing director, was quoted as saying, Sandow's clearly "got an agenda."

But what could such an agenda be?

The answer to that question is one of the dirty secrets of the music critic biz.

You get noticed by blasting an institution or an icon -- whether it is the Boston Symphony or the Beatles, Seiji Ozawa or Barbra Streisand.

I've been in this business long enough -- almost 20 years -- to know that most readers scarcely know of my existence. I can think of only two occasions when they did.

One of them was when, in a review of one of his recitals, I said that violinist Itzhak Perlman"played like a pig." Another was when I attacked the movie "Shine," which was then breaking box-office records for a film whose subject was classical music. I must confess that the phone calls and letters I got -- some from as far away as New Zealand and Australia -- were an exhilarating experience.

Such occasions -- if repeated frequently enough -- can also be very good for one's career. Harold Schonberg's attacks on such icons as Leonard Bernstein (back in the years when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic) in The New York Times eventually led to the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a music critic, and Martin Bernheimer's attacks on almost everybody in the Los Angeles Times led to the second.

How much of this was sincere, only the critics involved know. How much of Sandow's invective about the Boston Symphony was sincere, only he knows.

What I do believe is that the Boston Symphony is one of the world's great orchestras and that Ozawa, while perhaps an indifferent interpreter of Mozart or Beethoven, is a superb conductor of difficult 20th-century pieces by Bartok, Stravinsky or Messaien. And I know for sure that my editors at The Sun would never -- not even in an opinion piece -- allow me to use as many unnamed sources as the Journal permitted Sandow to do.

Pub Date: 12/22/98

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