An arts-journalism revolution begins in Boston.

On Oct. 31, the Boston Globe became the epicenter of the arts-journalism world when it announced that Zoë Madonna, an award-winning classical music critic who’d been contributing to the paper as a freelance reviewer and reporter since Sept. 2015, had been engaged to a temporary full-time position that would be funded by an outside entity: specifically, a consortium of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

Detailed reports regarding the announcement be be found on the Globe’s website and on The New York Times website, as well. But here’s the gist: For the 10 months that Jeremy Eichler, the Globe’s full-time staff classical-music critic, is on leave for a prestigious Radcliffe Fellowship, Madonna will fill his role: reviewing concerts, reporting stories, writing features and think pieces, and so on.

Now, I don’t have any skin in this game, as they say, beyond a keen desire to see arts journalism and criticism preserved and promoted – precisely the same impetus that prompted National Sawdust to launch this journal. But I do have a unique perspective, seeing as how I was the Globe editor who initiated Zoë’s association with the newspaper. And in the face of social-media postings and comments threads that range from unvarnished enthusiasm through warranted skepticism to outright scorn, I feel compelled to lend just a little bit of context to this bold and unorthodox new appointment. No insider scuttlebutt – just plain talk.

Left, Zoë Madonna (photograph: Erich Burnett); right, Madonna (center) with Tim Page, Anne Midgette, Heidi Waleson, Alex Ross, Stephen Rubin, and John Rockwell (photograph courtesy of San Francisco Conservatory)

I first learned of Zoë and her work while I was engaged as an assistant arts editor at the Globe, when I read a press release naming her the winner of the 2014 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. The prize – awarded after she and other institute participants had spent five days reviewing on deadline performances by the San Francisco Symphony, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the San Francisco Opera, and the Czech Philharmonic – was determined by a panel of blue-ribbon critics: Anne Midgette (Washington Post), Tim Page (University of Southern California professor, formerly The New York Times, Newsday, and Washington Post), John Rockwell (The New York Times); Alex Ross (The New Yorker), and Heidi Waleson (Wall Street Journal).

A starry jury, to say the least! That compelled me (as an avid reader and as an ambitious editor, I’ll admit!) to look at Zoë’s writing. In her Rubin reviews – which you can find archived on her website (here, here, here, and here) – I found writing that was both informed and unpretentious, fresh and personal yet infused with a sense of tradition and craft. Seriously, just look at the way she opened her Philharmonia Baroque review:

Recently, NPR Soundcheck’s “Tough Critics” web series asked three grade schoolers for opinions on Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The verdict was unanimous disdain. “It’s what they play in cartoons when the character gets really rich, and they show them drinking wine with their pinky out,” explained one boy.

That’s unorthodox, inspired, and instantly engaging. The Czech Philharmonic review had a more conventional opening, but was accessible and gripping from the start:

Antonin Dvorak’s Stabat Mater is not a Mass, but it is massive. Created after the composer’s three children died in quick succession, it is an ocean liner of a masterwork, sailing slow and heavy at no tempo faster than a funeral march.

I wrote to Zoë immediately, offering congratulations and telling her in no uncertain terms that if she found herself in Boston I’d gladly make a spot for her among the tight circle of superlative Globe staff and freelance critics. As it happened, Boston proved an amenable destination for personal reasons. In Sept. 2015 – after she’d already written several times for an excellent local web journal, The Boston Musical Intelligencer – she began her Globe association with a review of a concert by the Claremont Trio at the Gardner Museum. That this was followed by a review of a show by the Canadian postrock cabal Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Paradise Rock Club was meant to demonstrate Zoë’s versatility and range, while also serving notice that conventional boundaries between musical idioms would not be heeded.

The point that I want to make with all this background is simply this: Zoë Madonna earned her spot among what I regarded (and still do) as one of the top assemblages of classical-music reporters and critics in the world – alongside Jeremy Eichler, Jeffrey Gantz, Malcolm Gay, Matthew Guerrieri, and David Weininger – on the strength of her writing alone. The Rubin award had served to draw my attention, and surely that of other editors, too, but talent and inspiration were what actually sealed the deal.

This feels important to underscore in light of the reporting and commentary that has appeared since the Oct. 31 announcement of her new engagement. (I hasten to add that apart from giving Zoë a warm recommendation I had absolutely no role whatsoever in the arrangement that was hammered out by the newspaper and the granting consortium, all of which transpired after I left the Globe for National Sawdust in August.)

Rightly, there are concerns; truthfully, I share some of them. Certainly not about the Rubin consortium’s admirable intent to preserve classical music journalism in the mainstream press by any means necessary. Certainly not about the Globe‘s unanticipated and remarkable embrace of an unprecedented arrangement, which comes with the attendant benefit that money saved on Zoë’s salary will be directed toward keeping the paper’s superlative and deserving freelance critics engaged – a win/win situation for Bostonians and those who follow the city’s culture from afar. And least of all about Zoë herself, whose integrity is beyond reproach.

Still, Anthony Tommasini, chief classical-music critic for The New York Times and a Boston Globe distinguished alumnus, alludes on Twitter to “complicated issues for journalism.” Michael Cooper, in his report for the Times, points out the most pressing concerns:

The San Francisco Conservatory, for example, has notable alumni who may perform in concerts [Zoë] attends. The Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation provides financial support to many musical institutions, so at times it may find itself underwriting both a performance and its critic. Mr. Getty is himself a composer.

Michael Billington, writing on Nov. 1 for The Guardian, echoes precisely those concerns, and adds another nuance:

The danger, in such a situation, is not that the critic will give a soft ride to her fellow beneficiaries, it is more likely that she will be unduly rigorous in order to display her independence.

Those concerns, apart from a putative hardening of Zoë’s character, are unsurprising and proper. It will fall now to her, to the Boston Globe, and to the Rubin Institute to prove them unwarranted. The newspaper that gave the world Spotlight presumably will recuse itself from covering any program or recording that includes a composition by Gordon Getty. Perhaps Zoë will have to spend time combing the C.V. of every artist she considers covering in order to disclose any connection to the San Francisco Conservatory, and likewise every institution to avoid promoting one underwritten by the Getty Foundation. I’m not being glib: Those are strictures implied in this new arrangement. How onerous they will prove is something only time can show.

The potential payoff, I contend, validates the experiment. Let’s not gloss over the basic fact that precipitated this entire scenario and made it not only feasible but desirable: Arts coverage of the depth, breadth, and excellence to which cognoscenti have been accustomed for decades is endangered – period, full stop. The Boston Globe, as august an institution as any that exists, cut space and trimmed budget for the arts – and for several other departments and disciplines – during my time there: no state secret, and one of numerous reasons that prompted me to accept an invitation from National Sawdust to venture an alternative.

As important to note, though, is that talented, diligent Globe editors from the top of the masthead down have committed to find ways in which to perpetuate and preserve arts coverage in some serious, rigorous form, while also endeavoring to protect the institution’s larger mission, preserve jobs, and find novel solutions to emerging problems. This Rubin association certainly fits that last category, and I applaud the Globe honestly and heartily for undertaking a venture that only recently might have been viewed both within and without as anathema, and one that everyone involved surely knew would invite skepticism.

That the nonprofit sector invested in the arts should extend that investment to protecting and perpetuating objective arts coverage is not only natural, but long overdue – particularly in light of the successes shown in commercial-media partnerships with nonprofit reporting ventures like ProPublica and the Marshall Project, cited by Michael Cooper in The New York Times, and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, well known to readers of alt-weekly DigBoston.

So think of Zoë Madonna’s wholly earned spot at the Boston Globe, if you like, as an endowed chair in the humanities at your local university, or a named associate concertmaster position at your local orchestra. What’s most important now is that we do think about it, watch what transpires, learn from whatever mistakes might occur, and then adopt and apply what works. – Steve Smith

6 replies
  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    The Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation contributes to every major music organization in the Bay Area and also is a major funder of San Francisco Classical Voice (http://www.sfcv.org/). If there were a nonprofit-funded music critic here, it would be a huge problem to try to observe the stricture about not reviewing orgs supported by the foundation.

    Also Bay Area performing arts organizations occasionally perform one of Getty’s own works, such as last year’s “Usher House” at SF Opera.

    Reply

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