Banned in Boston!

Suddenly I'm notorious!

I was stunned but not totally surprised when -- the day my Boston Symphony piece ran in the Wall Street Journal -- I got e-mail from a Boston Globe reporter, asking for an interview. I was stunned because I'm not used to that kind of visibility. I've been interviewed before, but never in such a prominent newspaper for anything I myself have done!
But I wasn't entirely surprised, because I know what a Boston institution the Symphony is, and what a Boston legend the very appealing Seiji Ozawa has become.
Here's the story, as it ran in the Globe the next day:

Ozawa's supporters rebut Journal attack

By Maureen Dezell, Globe Staff, 12/16/98

Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Seiji Ozawa was winging his way toward an evening of accolades in Paris yesterday when The Wall Street Journal landed with a thud at Symphony Hall.
In an article that had BSO supporters crying ''foul'' and ''unfair,'' Journal critic Greg Sandow excoriated Ozawa as a musician and an institutional leader, and compared the celebrated orchestra to ''a painting that badly needs to be restored." More provocatively, he insisted that his assessments are widely shared in the classical music world. The BSO has ''the worst reputation of any American orchestra,'' Sandow argued, and quoted several unnamed sources to support his claim.
Ozawa, who is scheduled to receive the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest civilian honor, at a gala benefit concert tomorrow night, could not be reached for comment. BSO board chairman R. Willis Leith Jr. issued a statement saying, ''We respect the right of The Wall Street Journal to express its opinion. We at the Boston Symphony have enjoyed twenty-five years of extraordinary music-making with Mr. Ozawa and ... look forward to continuing this successful relationship for many years to come.''
Symphony managing director Mark Volpe downplayed the significance of the piece but did not dismiss it. ''This is the opinion of one guy who is so obviously biased, he lacks some credibility,'' said Volpe. ''All the critical comments are from unnamed sources.''
One of the few sources who is quoted on the record in Sandow's article, Volpe reiterated what he acknowledged in the Journal story. ''Seiji is controversial. He does have his detractors,'' he said. ''He also has people who give him credit for growing, including [Globe classical music critic] Richard Dyer. Am I aware that there is an element in my industry that has taken exception to Seiji's music? Of course I am. Is it unanimous? Of course not.''
A musician and veteran critic, Sandow said that of six BSO concerts he attended at Symphony Hall and New York's Carnegie Hall in the past year, only one ''was worth hearing - the one in Boston led by principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink.''
Paraphrasing a ''prominent conductor'' Sandow wrote that during his 25-year tenure, ''Ozawa had so weakened the BSO that it couldn't play with crack unanimity even under better leadership.''
Volpe scoffed at the ''notion that the BSO plays badly. If you look at the reviews, it's obvious he heard different concerts than other people'' did. The New York concerts ''were reviewed in the [New York] Times and [New York] Daily News by reviewers who've been critical in the past, who heard a different concert,'' he added.
Symphony staffers yesterday compiled packages of those reviews, along with rave notices from the orchestra's European tour last winter, to send ''to board members who've been calling in saying [the article] was a hatchet job,'' said Volpe. ''We try to provide perspective - not overreact. Not every review is glowing, of course. Every article, including this one, is part of a composite.''
One concert Sandow used as an example of Ozawa's ''dismaying'' work was last April's New York performance of Bach's ''Passion According to St. Matthew.'' The piece, Sandow wrote, ''is a world of its own, a profound expression of human pain, faith and triumph, and yet I have no idea what Mr. Ozawa thinks of [it], or what he was trying to express.'' He also called the performance ''mostly blank.'' The New York Times headlined its review by critic James R. Oestreich ''St. Matthew Passion reveals a matured Ozawa'' and called the performance ''a joy.''
The buzz among a handful of BSO observers who were aware of the article yesterday was that Sandow might be sharpening blades for BSO members with axes to grind, such as concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and principal cellist Jules Eskin, who signed a letter sharply critical of Ozawa that appeared in a summer 1995 issue of a BSO musicians' newsletter. Sandow quoted extensively from the letter - without noting that it was written 3 1/2 years ago.
Neither player returned calls seeking comment on the article yesterday. Sandow, for his part, called the suggestion that any orchestra member had encouraged him to write the article ''nonsense.''
''I found them, they didn't find me,'' he said, referring to BSO musicians and others quoted anonymously in the story.
''People should be aware that I went out of my way to find someone who would be pro-Ozawa. I never did.'' Sandow said the opinion he has of ''Ozawa's direction of the BSO and the way it plays under him is virtually unanimous'' in the classical-music world.
Local music critics would argue that the claim is overstated. Reflecting on Ozawa's 25th anniversary as BSO music director last September, the Globe's Dyer, an ardent critic of Ozawa in the past, noted a ''new concentration and emotional depth [that had] appeared in his conducting - although some of his perpetual critics fail to hear it.'' Among those is Pulitzer-winning classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz. ''Over the past quarter of a century I've heard a handful of performances (four or five) that I've really loved,'' Schwartz wrote in The Boston Phoenix this fall. ''I couldn't say even those performances set my absolute standard for musical satisfaction ... The general, week-to-week level of performances, even after the word has been emanating from Symphony Hall about a `new Seiji,' has remained pretty low.''
The orchestra, Sandow acknowledged, is divided in its opinion of Ozawa as well. ''I'd say one third actively don't like what's going on, one third likes it, and another third is on the fence,'' he said.
As for those who see evolution in Ozawa's direction, Sandow said, ''Classical music journalism is very soft core. You don't find critics and journalists talking to musicians and administrators the way I did. You don't get a sense of the field.
''It's not like sports where, say, the New York Mets acquire Mike Piazza, and within a couple of days, the sports pages are talking about his strengths and weaknesses - he's a major acquisition. In classical music, if he's not good, it's `Oh, don't attack him. Give him a chance.' It does a disservice to the public, who doesn't know what's going on.''
As Sandow sees it, he is performing a service.
Volpe, not surprisingly, disagrees.
''He's taken someone he considers an icon and smashed him,'' he said. ''He's got an agenda. Ask Bill Clinton what happens when someone has got an agenda.''

When I read this, I was surprised that Maureen hadn't asked me to respond to that "agenda" charge. She'd raised two other points that might have come from the BSO -- the business about me writing the piece because some BSO musician asked me to, and also a claim that my specialty is contemporary music, which allegedly would mean that I'm not qualified to judge a mainstream orchestra. (Which is funny, when you think of it. If I'm acute enough to know whether an orchestra plays a complex contemporary score well, wouldn't I have an easier time rating them in Mozart or Mahler?)
Mostly, though, I couldn't quite believe that Mark Volpe, a smart and capable man, had fallen back on that stale, implausible "agenda" business. I mean, he has an agenda, obviously, and an honorable one -- he's required to defend his institution..
But am I someone who goes around smashing icons? I'm certainly unconventional, in classical music terms, but I don't think you'll find much icon-bashing in my writing on this website. In fact, my previous piece for the Journal was about Aretha Franklin, and what I loved about her was precisely what makes her an icon.
I'm disappointed, to tell the truth. Mark didn't need to resort to a personal attack -- and he certainly could have found a more plausible spin.