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, thePlain 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. TheAkron 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 thePD and in public, that Rosenberg criticizes the conductor relentlessly, even when he praises the players.
Back in 2005, Richard Bogomolny, the chairman of the orchestra’s parent company, even wrote to thePD to say Rosenberg had lost credibility and was hurting the newspaper. Orchestra executives lobbied for more positive coverage, going so far as to document every sentence Rosenberg had written about Welser-Möst over 12 years.
“Every time he wrote an article, he was asking the board to remove the music director,” says Robert Duvin, the lawyer for the orchestra’s parent company.
In the 18-month crescendo following the Strauss concert, Rosenberg will say that Welser-Möst “sapped the music of all character,” led an “unformed account” and was guilty of “pressing the orchestra to ear-shattering harshness.”
In the same time frame, the orchestra will extend Welser-Möst’s contract to 2018, essentially ensuring his stay with the Cleveland Orchestra through the rest of Rosenberg’s writing career. AndThe Plain Dealer will demote Rosenberg from one of the premier music-critic positions in the world, drawing international scrutiny among fellow critics and causing others to question whether the newspaper bowed to the orchestra’s gravitas.
Rosenberg will ultimately sue both the orchestra’s parent company and his employer.
But on this May night, Rosenberg sees himself as just doing his job, without fear of retribution. When the performance ends, he scoots out of Severance Hall. He doesn’t want anyone to influence his perception of the concert. He heads to the parking garage underneath the concert hall, drives home and writes his review first thing the next morning.
Donald Rosenberg’s first foray into newspapers came in 1977 while working at a Westwood, N.J., bagel shop.
Fresh out of Yale with two master’s degrees in music and no job prospects, he was boiling dough to support himself and his new wife, who he’d met in the school’s horn section.
He’d been playing the French horn seriously for 11 years, his talent putting him on the stages of Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center and the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont.
He had played under legendary conductor Pablo Casals and alongside music icons Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Franklin Cohen (who is now principal clarinetist in the Cleveland Orchestra).
One day, Joseph Polisi called the bagel shop. The admissions officer and eventual president of the revered Juilliard School told Rosenberg a newspaper in Akron, Ohio, was looking for a music critic. TheBeacon Journal called five minutes later. The interview went well, until they asked for some examples of Rosenberg’s work. All he had to send was his master’s project on the Wagner tuba.
Rosenberg’s musical chops had way more bite than his writing experience, but they invited him for a tryout anyway. By October 1977, he had his first newspaper job reviewing concerts by the Cleveland Orchestra, 35 miles away.
His first reviews took him four hours to write. But he learned on the job, writing for theBeaconfor more than a decade before making a quick stop atThe Pittsburgh Press. Then in 1992, he reassumed his role as critic of the Cleveland Orchestra, this time forThe Plain Dealer.
During Rosenberg’s time as a critic, three different music directors — Lorin Maazel, Christoph von Dohnányi and Franz Welser-Möst — have led the orchestra; Severance Hall has undergone a $36 million restoration; and Rosenberg has toured the world, covering concerts in some of classical music’s most prestigious venues — including the orchestra’s regular engagements at Austria’s Salzburg Festival.
In 2000, Rosenberg penned a 768-page history of the Cleveland Orchestra. A year later, his peers selected him to lead the Music Critics Association of North America for two terms.
Now, Rosenberg says, he can write and file reviews in a half-hour, always turning in meticulous copy with not even a comma out of place.
Over the years, Donald Rosenberg and Gary Hanson, the orchestra’s top executive, had practically become friends, enjoying an occasional glass of wine and dinner at each other’s house.
Hanson’s rise through the ranks in the Musical Arts Association, the orchestra’s parent company, included a stop in the communication department — which deals with the news media and thus, Rosenberg.
It’s not surprising the two men enjoyed each other’s company. Some of the same words can be used to describe them: professorial, meticulous, confident, thoughtful, connoisseurs.
They shared lunch at an upscale restaurant in Central Dublin in 2004, while the orchestra was on its summertime European tour. It was just days after Rosenberg published a story in thePD that included comments Welser-Möst made to the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche.
Welser-Möst called the Friday matinee audience members at Severance Hall “blue-hair ladies ... who are too tired to attend performances at night.”
In describing the city, he said: “Cleveland is an island. Here we have a world-class orchestra in what I call an inflated farmer’s village. For me, who loves the country, it is wonderful to live there among the green.”
The article went on to say, in Welser-Möst’s words, what large donations will buy you in Cleveland. $5,000? “You don’t get a handshake.” $10 million? “Of course, you go to dinner.”
Rosenberg understood that Welser-Möst was speaking to Europeans, and in Europe, it is unfathomable that the public would donate much. The state funds the arts. Rosenberg printed the conductor’s comments as the second item in a roundup of news from the orchestra’s tour across Europe.
The orchestra’s administration wasn’t pleased. Rosenberg says he received a stern phone call from public relations head Nikki Scandalios, warning there would be “consequences.” (Scandalios would not comment on the incident for this story.)
But Rosenberg expected that any lingering concerns could be worked out with Hanson at lunch.
At the restaurant, Hanson was surprised he didn’t get a heads up about the story, but otherwise didn’t discuss the article much.
In retrospect, Rosenberg says, “I don’t think [Hanson] had pondered the ramifications of it. It probably took him another week or two to realize how Franz’s comments had played in Cleveland.”
When the neworchestra season began that September, Rosenberg was no longer permitted to use Nikki Scandalios’ office to file deadline reviews forThe Plain Dealer. He was redirected to a small office with no windows. Rosenberg says it resembled a “broom closet with a desk.”
TheBeacon’s Elaine Guregian, who often criticized similar points as Rosenberg, but did so less bitingly, continued to write from the office next to Scandalios’.
Not all of Rosenberg’s comments about Welser-Möst were negative. Many times he complimented him, especially when working with operas. But there were plenty of criticisms: “Welser-Möst was the wrong maestro for the job,” he wrote about the playing of a January 2005 Maurice Ravel piece. “Welser-Möst insisted on soft dynamics that became meaningless, and he was unable to inspire the ensemble unity that is a hallmark of this orchestra,” he commented in a review of a concert later that month, as the orchestra played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.
Robert Duvin, the Musical Arts Association’s lawyer who spoke for the orchestra due to the lawsuit, says the reviews of the music director’s performances became increasingly harsh. And while the “blue-hair ladies” story was distressing to the orchestra, it is not what caused its ire to rise.
“That was a spat that came and went in days,” Duvin says. “This is about music.”
By May 2005, Rosenberg struggled to nab interviews with Welser-Möst. What used to take a single request took 10 weeks. When they finally met, Hanson sat in on the interview, something he’d never done before.
In June, in the middle of the orchestra’s West Coast trip, Rosenberg was informed his normal courtesy ride on the orchestra’s tour bus had been revoked. To get from San Francisco to Sacramento, he took a Greyhound bus.
And in Vienna in the fall, he was removed from two rehearsals and told he was no longer allowed backstage while the orchestra was on tour.
“I always had free access. I thought it was crucial I be able to observe the activities backstage, talk to the musicians and staff, in order to write stories. I got a lot of color that way,” Rosenberg says. “The whole process of touring and music-making needed to be explored in all its aspects.
“I tried to take the high road and be as professional as possible,” he says. “My editors wanted me to maintain a certain distance. I just tried to do my job within the new constraints.”
Rosenberg says it felt like a campaign to oust him by one of the most powerful institutions in the city — one people throughout the globe associate with Cleveland.
Duvin says it was just frustration by lovers of the revered orchestra sick of Rosenberg’s downer attitude.
“In my opinion, what happened is the people who love music — some of them directly associated with the orchestra and some of them not — couldn’t take it anymore ... and fought back,” he says. “But they didn’t fight back illegitimately. They didn’t go on a smear campaign. They presented their opinions toThe Plain Dealer and exercised their First Amendment rights. They didn’t carry pickets. They didn’t engage in harassing phone calls. They didn’t run around saying bad things about him personally. They strenuously disagreed with his professional criticisms.”
Letters complainingabout Rosenberg’s reviews of the orchestra had been arriving at a steady pace of two to three per week during 2005. Editor Doug Clifton heard criticism of Rosenberg all the time.
Newspapers routinely get negative comments about critics, but the complaints about Rosenberg were lobbied everywhere. Clifton heard them at benefits, out socially and, because he and his wife regularly attended orchestra performances, at Severance Hall as well.
He even agreed with some of the detractors.
“As a person who went to the orchestra, I did feel he was hypercritical,” Clifton says. “That was just my observation, and it was an uninformed observation, because I would never stack my experience and expertise against Don Rosenberg, who is well schooled in classical music.”
Clifton says he even heard gripes from the publisher ofThe Plain Dealer, Alex Machaskee, a board member with the Musical Arts Association. (Machaskee did not return calls seeking comment.)
“Alex never once asked me to remove Don,” Clifton says. “He bitched and moaned about Don. No question.”
Then in June, Clifton received a letter from Richard Bogomolny, the chairman of the Musical Arts Association board. In the letter, Bogomolny said, “A legitimate goal of a great newspaper is to publish news with appropriate commentary. In the case of criticism, opinions can encourage discourse, even controversy. As a result of lack of credibility, Mr. Rosenberg has made himself the subject of this controversy. It has become all about Donald Rosenberg, not about the music where it legitimately belongs. ... Mr. Rosenberg’s bias runs the risk of damaging the credibility ofThe Plain Dealer. I, for one, would not like to see that happen.”
Clifton responded in a letter back two days later: “We must tread lightly on the independence of our critic. To overrule him in the face of protest would make a mockery of the critical process.”
Gary Hanson asked Clifton for a meeting to discuss Rosenberg further, and Clifton agreed.
For the meeting, Julie Clark, working for the orchestra’s media relations department, assembled a point-by-point critique of all 150 sentences Rosenberg had written about Welser-Möst, from his guest-conducting performance on Feb. 12, 1993, to the latest concert before the meeting. She rated each sentence as “positive,” “mixed” or “negative.”
They met at 10 a.m. on Aug. 3, 2005, inThe Plain Dealer offices downtown. The orchestra wanted the paper to stop sending Rosenberg on tour, to balance him with other critics, not to allow him to choose the alternate critics and to remove Rosenberg from his duties covering the orchestra for news stories, according to an internal orchestra memo sent to prepare key Musical Arts Association officials for the meeting.
Clifton now says he doesn’t even remember this meeting.
He does recall, however, that he began to preface conversations with Gary Hanson with a predicate that Rosenberg would not be removed from his job as music critic. “We don’t let the news sources dictate who will cover them,” he says.
Tom O’Hara, the No. 2 editor at the paper at the time, says the paper had confidence in Rosenberg. “For somebody like me, who knows virtually nothing about symphonic music, it is difficult to determine whether the critic is being even-handed or not. Don had a tremendous background and a long history of covering these things. He had the expertise. At no time did Doug talk about yanking Don out of the job.”
The conversations did lead to some changes, including asking revered dance writer Wilma Salisbury to review some concerts.
“I thought at the time there was a problem being one critical voice speaking about the orchestra,” says Karen Sandstrom, former features editor. “Whether it’s criticizing the orchestra or fawning on the orchestra, it’s one voice. We did invite Wilma to take some of the concerts. She’s knowledgeable, and she had a different take.”
But adding another voice didn’t quiet the critics, Sandstrom says. The complaints about Rosenberg never slowed.
“One of the things I respect about Don is I’ve always believed his issue is he’s always wanted the best for the orchestra,” she says. “He’s wanted the leadership to always get the most out of the orchestra, and for the city to get the most out of them musically. I truly think he always operated with that in mind.”
Not every co-worker felt that way. There seemed to be universal respect for Rosenberg, but some say they don’t think anyone could have put aside the feelings Rosenberg had to have experienced with such major changes to his access.
“I would say that any critic who has the kind of experience like Don had would on every conscious level be doing everything to avoid a situation where it becomes personal,” says one staff member. “But everyone knows all kinds of circumstances influence how you think below that level.”
According to Rosenberg’s lawsuit, Clifton did step in once, deciding not to run a column in which Rosenberg said the orchestra sounds better under guest conductors than Welser-Möst. Clifton, however, does not remember killing such a column.
“Most of the performances he led during the 2005-06 season lent credence to the growing belief that mediocrity takes up residence at Severance Hall when Welser-Möst is on the podium,” the unpublished column provided toCleveland Magazine argued. “At the end of his fourth season, the music director has had few positive effects on the orchestra, aside from helping to secure European engagements and going out into the public to schmooze on radio programs and appear in TV and print ads.”
When new Plain Dealer editor Susan Goldberg arrived in May 2007, she quickly learned of the discontent surrounding Rosenberg. The letters never ceased. The complaints levied to Clifton were now levied to her.
Rosenberg took Goldberg to the see the orchestra in July. They talked throughout the night, and he asked if he could send her the spiked column. He wanted to know if she would have run it.
She replied to his e-mail: “I had a great time Saturday! Thank you. As for the decision to kill the column ... I might have some word-editing thoughts, but I don’t understand why the column was killed. S.”
Four months later, though, things had changed. She received a pointed letter from Robert Baumann of Gates Mills, an adjunct professor of history and philosophy at Cuyahoga Community College and Lakeland Community College. He argued that Rosenberg’s columns could be used “as examples of informal fallacies” in his courses.
Goldberg responded to the letter in February 2008 after Baumann wrote a second time, again complaining about Rosenberg.
“I agree that we have a credibility problem when it comes to Don’s reviews. He clearly does not care for Welser-Möst’s musical interpretations the vast majority of the time. We are discussing ways to deal with this, including adding other voices for our orchestra coverage. ... Don is very well schooled in the field of classical music criticism; most of us are not, and we are proceeding with great caution.”
Goldberg says her letter was an honest response to an honest reader inquiry. “I think the letter speaks for itself,” she says. “It’s a letter to a reader who wrote with a concern. People write me letters all the time. What the letter shows is this was a matter of discussion atThe Plain Dealer for a long time.”
Baumann, an orchestra subscriber since 1971, says he has no other affiliations with the orchestra. He wrote simply because he found Rosenberg’s critiques to be “mean-spirited, not objective” and “quite personal.”
Goldberg’s response, Baumann says, was a surprise. “Only because I thought she was quite frank about her own dismay. Usually, people are not that forthcoming.”
In June, according to e-mails obtained byCleveland Magazine, Gary Hanson offeredThe Plain Dealer “advance information and exclusive access to Franz [Welser-Möst]” and himself for questions if the paper assigned Zachary Lewis to cover the music director’s contract extension.
ThePD agreed to assign the story to Lewis, a former intern for Rosenberg who went on to cover the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra forThe Patriot-News before returning toThe Plain Dealer.
But Debra Simmons, managing editor, later e-mailed Hanson to add a caveat: “If the announcement is significant, it may warrant our pulling in a second writer.”
The result: A story about Welser-Möst’s six-year extension written by both Lewis and Rosenberg.
“That tells you people can ask for whatever you want, but in the end, we make our own decisions,” Goldberg says. “It is not wildly unusual to be approached by a news source wanting to embargo information and sometimes suggesting one person cover it over another.”
Features editor Debbie Van Tassel told Rosenberg they needed to talk. It was September, just before the orchestra’s season was to begin. As he headed for her office, she redirected him.
That’s when he knew it was coming. “I was not surprised that this could happen, given the events of the year, the escalating sequence of undermining my position,” he recalls.
Susan Goldberg was already waiting there in the cold conference room when Van Tassel led Rosenberg in.
Goldberg did almost all of the talking, Rosenberg says.
“She said, ‘I’m removing you as the critic covering the Cleveland Orchestra.’ She said that the situation had become untenable forThe Plain Dealer, and that I had been covering the orchestra for a long time and we needed to make a change.”
Rosenberg protested: She was caving to outside pressures. She was going to have to answer a lot of questions. He wanted to know how he was supposed to respond to this. Should he lie?
“No, do what you see fit,” he recalls her saying. “I know you’ll do it in a classy way.”
She told him to think about what he’d like to do at the paper and asked him not to say anything to anyone until the official announcement.
The Newspaper Guild called for an all-staff meeting in which Susan Goldberg spoke. With Don in the middle of the room, she stood before her staff to explain. The situation, Goldberg said, became “untenable.”
Much of the newspaper staff was shocked Rosenberg, 57 at the time, had been removed from his beat. There was a gut reaction: Did the paper bow to a powerful institution? And a personal reaction: What would happen to Don?
Goldberg assured the staff this was not acquiescence to a powerful institution.
That assertion was met with some grumbles, according to one staffer. “Clearly, there was a feeling that his independence was being punished,” the staffer says.
Goldberg offered to answer questions.
One by one, she gave the answer journalists hate to hear: “I’m not able to comment on that.”
It was a personnel matter, and she wasn’t willing to discuss it, even though Rosenberg was happy to consent. The questions started out journalistic but eventually turned emotional: “How could you do this to Don?” asked one staff member.
“I’d be leery if I started writing stories critical to Forest City,” says one reporter now. “Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, but it’s still something you have to think about.”
Critics throughout the world wrote in Rosenberg’s defense, including two former Pulitzer Prize winners. They wrote a letter to Goldberg.The New York Times,Washington Post andThe Wall Street Journal all published stories.
Even with such criticism, Goldberg maintains that the decision was her own, not the orchestra’s. “We made a decision, a journalism decision,” she says.
Goldberg says she wants to make it clear that the paper is committed to strong journalism: “We want, and we currently have and will continue to have, vibrant arts coverage inThe Plain Dealer. We want our critics to be critical, fair and honest with readers about what they hear. That has been a tradition at the paper. We have continued it and will continue it in the future.”
But over time, the hullabaloo died down. The Newspaper Guild did not protest. No writer atThe Plain Dealeror any of the music critics at other papers pulled their bylines in a symbolic sign of solidarity.
And Rosenberg fell from the critic of one of the most prestigious music institutions in the world to covering general assignment arts and dance.
This conflict, he says, has ruined the remainder of his career.
“It’s a very special honor and responsibility to write about one of the great orchestras of the world, and very few critics in America have the opportunity to do so,” he says. “There’s no question that it’s not nearly as compelling to go to work as it was before. I was covering one of the great orchestras of the world, and nothing can replace that.”
Goldberg replaced Rosenberg with Lewis, whose first bylined piece since taking over full time as music critic was a front-page story on Welser-Möst, the misunderstood conductor.
“It is a little awkward,” says Lewis. “I talk to [Rosenberg] every day. We work on stories together. Personally, we’re very close. This topic is just something we don’t address.
“I have tremendous respect for Don,” he adds. “I grew up reading him. I’m in this business because of him. I trust his opinions, even though I don’t always agree with him.”
Two and a half months after his reassignment at the paper, Rosenberg filed a lawsuit against bothThe Plain Dealer and the Musical Arts Association.
AgainstThe Plain Dealer he alleged defamation and violation of Ohio’s free speech principle. He accused the orchestra’s management of both defamation and performing acts with malice against his economic, employment and business relationships.
He eventually dropped all claims against the paper except for those of age discrimination, hoping to keep the case out of federal court.
Rosenberg’s lawyer, Steve Sindell, says this is a special case because it touches on larger issues that should be addressed by a court. He takes issue with the idea that, because Ohio is an at-will employment state, an employer can demote someone for any nonprotected reason.
“The employers of the world have more power in many ways over the lives of people than does the government itself,” he says. “It’s time that we started to recognize that unlimited laissez-faire corporate power, which goes under the name ‘at will,’ shouldn’t be some automatic, unbridled corporate right.”
In the suit, he points to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. He says he believesThe Plain Dealer violated that code.
But how is that against the law? “The law has to be a living, dynamic thing that applies old principles to new circumstances,” Sindell says. “I’m not real comfortable with people who say that’s not the law right now. The law is what the courts and legislatures say it is.”
Sindell says other claims in the suit are more traditional. Interfering with an employment relationship, as Rosenberg accuses the Musical Arts Association, is well rooted in the law. And to be a victim of age discrimination doesn’t mean you have to be fired or have your pay cut. He says a decrease in prestige is damaging as well.
“There was a huge reduction in force at thePD,” he says. “Don was not terminated, but he was demoted in the sense that he was exiled from writing about the main thing a music critic would write about. It’s like telling someone who is covering the Cleveland Indians that now you’re covering high school softball.”
The orchestra’s lawyer, Duvin, says he can’t believe the pomposity of this suit.
“The hypocrisy of a music critic challenging the right of other people to respond to his criticism is based upon the arrogance of modern media in general,” he says. “That they believe they actually own the First Amendment and it belongs to them. And they believe it’s their right. It isn’t opinion. It’s gospel. Like they carried it down on a tablet from the mountain.”
He says the orchestra administration had every right to complain about Rosenberg. He says reading other critics provides the perfect defense to their complaints.
“It wasn’t just the people from the Cleveland Orchestra that responded to Don Rosenberg,” he says. “Every time the Cleveland Orchestra got a rave review in New York or Chicago or San Francisco or Vienna or London or Paris, it stood there in stark contrast to the often angry and harshly critical reviews of Rosenberg.”
Duvin says he doesn’t question Rosenberg’s free speech, and he can’t believe Rosenberg would call the orchestra’s free speech into question.
“He has a right to that opinion. But he doesn’t have the right for others not to have an opinion on him. And he doesn’t have a right to be the sole critic for the hometown paper of the Cleveland Orchestra.”
Rosenberg puts on his sport coat and tie — the same ones he used to wear whenreviewing a concert.
He drives to Severance Hall and parks in the same attached lot.
Herbert Blomstedt is conducting the November concert, Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, one Rosenberg has been anticipating for a while. He’s enjoyed Blomstedt’s work with the orchestra before, and the piece has a special place in his heart. Rosenberg once played the Wagner tuba in Bruckner’s Eighth.
He decides to go at the last minute. His wife, a fifth-grade teacher in Shaker Heights, doesn’t want to give up her sleep, even though she’s a classically trained musician and orchestra lover herself. So he goes alone.
While he contends its management is responsible for his job loss, he still loves the orchestra. For 28 years, when he attended the orchestra, he was working.
This time, there is a difference: He buys a ticket.
The ushers escort him to the balcony. He is above his normal seat on the main floor, but the acoustics are beautiful in the balcony.
“The ushers recognized me. They were very welcoming and very sweet, and very happy to see me,” he says. “I even saw a few of the orchestra players, and they were very happy to see me. It was very nice to be back, but then again, it still hurts. It’s probably going to hurt for a long time.”
As the crowd applauds, he doesn’t linger. He files out of the balcony with everyone else and heads to his Toyota Camry Hybrid. He didn’t take any notes in the program. But he’s sure of his analysis.
The concert was phenomenal. He would have given it a glowing review.