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Critical Sinking

Plain Dealer music writer Donald Rosenberg covered the Cleveland Orchestra for 28 years. That is, until his critiques of Franz Welser-Möst apparently unseated him from the prestigious role. What happened along the way gives a rare look at two powerful institutions and raises the question of what it means to be a critic.
By Jim Vickers
Donald Rosenberg never brings a reporter’s notebook to Severance Hall.
A classical music writer for more than a quarter-century, he jots notes on the night’s program for fear that the flip of a page might be a distraction.

Though many others in the audience have cast aside their formal attire, some even refusing to change from their denim, the Plain Dealer critic sports a coat and tie out of respect for the institution.

Tonight, music director Franz Welser-Möst is conducting the Cleveland Orchestra through the music of the less-popular Strauss brother, Josef, whose waltzes are tinged with melancholy.

But Rosenberg has scrawled his disappointment in the margins before the first piece, “Dynamiden,” is over. To Rosenberg, the waltz, beautiful in its blend of the bittersweet and the exuberant, is plodding along in Welser-Möst’s hands. The nostalgic moments, he will write in his review, are “overly weighty and restrained.”

And the lively passages? “Essentially joyless.”

For Rosenberg, a man who relishes the details and who co-workers describe as meticulous, this is pointed criticism. Compared to the review by the other critic at the spring 2007 concert, Rosenberg’s words are harsh. The Akron Beacon Jounal’s Elaine Guregian will describe the music as “dreamy,” “wistful” and creating a sense of “lush extravagance.”

And while all critics occasionally disagree, Cleveland Orchestra officials and others have grown increasingly frustrated by Rosenberg’s views on how Welser-Möst interprets music. They complain, in a steady trickle of letters to the PD and in public, that Rosenberg criticizes the conductor relentlessly, even when he praises the players. 

Check back April 1 for the full story.

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