The impetus for this creative, idiosyncratic envisioning of arts coverage is something with which you are tasking the writers themselves to do – to think outside the box, as it were?
Oh, yeah, totally. This is really dependent on thinking. It’s much more difficult. It used to be: I see this performance, I know what I’m expected to do. I know the format, I know in advance the word count, I’ve done that a lot of times, and I can do that. And this is really asking for more. That’s the transition we’re going through at the moment, which is: I’ve seen this performance; how should we cover it? Or, I’m going to see it; how should we cover it? Looking at this performance, should we cover it in advance? Is the way to do it to review it? Is the way to have gone and keep that under your hat, and wait for more data points for a bigger piece about something?
What I’m hoping for the writers is to just be taking in an enormous amount, and then be thinking really creatively about how to tell the stories, and to kind of curate this classical-music world in such a way that they’re bringing in the performances that they’ve seen, but in a wide variety of means, not purely the single-performance, 400-word review. Which is not to say that we’re not doing them – there are single-performance reviews that are happening. There are events that should be recorded. That’s part of our journalistic responsibility.
We still have the same writers, they still have the same intelligence; it’s a question of, how can they be seeing and putting together what they’re seeing in new ways. And in a way, it’s interesting, because what I would love from them is more, bigger pieces. I think what succeeds in a digital environment, reviews and otherwise, are bigger statements – which is not to say that everything has to be “the best” or “the worst. But to kind of be curatorial is to say, “This is important,” and not just say, “This happened.” That’s to me not enough.
I have to ask about one specific feature that’s been the subject of real debate and skepticism, “The Week’s 8 Best Classical Music Moments.” What prompted that feature, and how have you viewed the feedback?
The idea was, if we’re thinking about new ways in which we can cover our field, and considering that there were going to be some performances that we might not be able to cover in full reviews but that we wanted people to be at, to kind of be on the lookout – like, if I go to all these piano recitals, somehow those conclusions like the one that Tony came to in that debut piece would come up. But on the way to those bigger pieces, we might not be doing all of those incremental steps – the same thing with the farm bill that I spoke about. So what do I then do with those incremental steps? And the “Moments” thing I had conceived of as just a way of making a virtue out of that necessity – which is to say, we cannot do 400-word reviews for these x-number of performances, but I want to cover them in some way. Can I turn that into something that can be framed as something that will actually be interesting to promote on the homepage, or that will catch people’s eye when it pops up on their Facebook feed?
We all have this [experience] where you go to a performance and there’s a moment that jumps out. It happens to me, where it was like, that one chord in that piece – sometimes ones I know to look out for, and sometimes a surprise. It’s a snapshot, and it could be a minute, or it could be a second. It could be an aria. It’s broadly construed. And so the idea was, don’t think of this as a review; this is an impression of a particular moment that stood out for you. You do seven or eight of those and it’s frameable as “The Eight Moments of the Week.”
And I think that there was a sense – it proves the point, in a way, because I think people were disproportionately seeing this online rather than in print, where it was printed above a review – that this had somehow replaced the other reviewing activities. Which just proves, in the digital space, everything lives in a vacuum.
It’s an infinite flat horizon, and things don’t stand in relation because of type size or spacing or a big photo adjacent.
Totally. In the original framing text it wasn’t properly explained that this is meant to be another thing that we do, not the thing that we do. This is not going to be the full brunt of our energies; this will be just another thing for people to find their way into. I got really supportive feedback, I’m not making that up, both from within the field and without, and then people who were super-critical. Which is awesome: that is great to see, that people care. Any idea reinforcing the idea that people care about our coverage is fantastic. And I am also open to doing things that are unpopular, but I want it to be for a reason.
So over the course of those next weeks, it was like, how can we do this a little bit better, and not make people have what I felt was an incorrect impression. So what it now has become is actually sort of different: Rather than this being a way to cover this performance that we wouldn’t otherwise cover, it becomes a way of further exploring something that we might have done a full review of, anyway. So if I go to Mitsuko Uchida’s recital, I did a full review of it, and my also putting it in “Moments” allows me to link to the full review. So the thing becomes more of a newsletter or digest of what we’ve been doing elsewhere for the past week. It’s kind of like a one-stop shop: look at the highlights of our week, and if you’re interested in reading more, we give you lots of ways to further explore the coverage. Or, I would be totally open to people whose full engagement with the Times classical coverage is to read the “Moments.”
The downside is that hypothetical piano recital I was hoping that this would be the way to cover, even if we weren’t otherwise covering it, the alternative isn’t then to review it; the alternative is that it continues to go under our chapeau, and we move on to hopefully or possibly thinking of larger things relating to it. That’s sort of the paradox, which is, again, we go back to x-number of resources and we want to do a certain number of things. We’ve never been able to do everything, and that’s still true.
I should also say that some of the concern when we were first doing this was, is this going to now overemphasize the big institutions? If we’re doing less, does that mean we’re going to just be doing the Met?
The idea that if you’ve eliminated one-off performance reviews, you’re never going to visit Le Poisson Rouge or Spectrum again, for example.
And I think the opposite, in a way: When you’re thinking curatorially, especially, new performers, new composers, new voices – finding those is ever more important. Think of a museum curator: Part of the job is of course to curate the permanent collection, and to keep up with the Rembrandts. But a huge part is finding the new artists and bringing them before the public in a way in which people outside of an incredibly small, insular world will be able to listen to and understand their work in context. If there’s a composer who excites me, how can we present that in such a way that there’s a way in? If I’m passionate about it, I want a lot of people to be passionate about it. How can we do that in a digital environment?
There are so many tools at our disposal that weren’t there just in print, so the opportunity is great. For instance, there was a second cast of Aida opening at the Met, and I went; the review was on the schedule, and there were important singers. And it was, to me, such a bland performance that I killed my own review. There’s no reason to do things that we’re not passionate about. Which, again, is not to say it’s only the best and the worst, and everything is going to be this sort of super-heightened thing, but who am I serving by dutifully reporting something that I didn’t feel urgency to talk about?
There always used to be this sense of, we wrote about Andrew Norman five years ago, so we can’t write about him again. Or, we did the Arts & Leisure preview of that production, so we’ve checked that box.
“We’ve said our piece.”
If we think Andrew Norman is important, as we do, we should write about him every year. We should write about him twice a year. We should write about him however much we do it. If that new production is really interesting, let’s do four features and a review. It’s the idea of taking the habit out of what we do, taking the sense of dutifulness out of what we do, and replacing it with really being able to follow what seems urgent to us.
When Beyoncé put out Lemonade and the Times famously ran seven different articles, so many people were saying, “Seven pieces on Lemonade?” But think about it: What if there are actually seven interesting stories to tell about Lemonade, because it is that good and that significant?
Exactly. I want to do the review and do the “Moments,” because there are going to be people who didn’t catch one or the other. For the vast majority of our readers, something just drifts across their Facebook feed, so everything stands on its own. Most readers probably only saw, let alone read, maybe one of those Lemonade pieces. The people who noticed are people who are extremely vested in media.
Well, to be fair, if you came to the arts page on the website that week it was pretty hard not to notice them all clustered together there, or the related links plastered across the top of any given article.
Yeah, but frankly, the vast majority of online readers never even come to the home page, let alone the arts section front or the music front. The way in which people are coming to Times content is from outside.
Via individual social-media links, exactly.
The home page is still an importance source of promotion, and there’s a lot of interest that comes from that. But for most of the millions of people who are reading our stuff, that’s not where they’re coming from.
Finally, I’m going to assume for a moment the role of devil’s advocate: At a time when the fine arts and classical music occupy as small a role as they seem to in the quotidian lives of most average Americans, and when the values and priorities of our society seem to reside elsewhere, why shouldn’t there be less coverage in The New York Times?
Because it is an integral part of cultural production in this country and in the world. These are big and small, important and vibrant institutions that we cover because we exist in New York and because we love this art form, because there are people who are thinking about this art form and how it can be relevant to our world, how it can stimulate and console and excite – all of these things. And I think in our current climate, and given the values – culturally, politically, socially – that prevail, classical music offers also craft and professionalism and the idea of rehearsal, the idea of rigor, and values that I think are less and less important in a society that more and more fetishizes amateurism and the myth of the outsider. I think the beauty of classical music, when we perceive it as we inevitably perceive it, and music broadly construed, when it is perceptible as it always is, is the antithesis of that.