On the one hand, that's not exactly what Tommasini is saying, and if Lisa had read Tommasini's book The Indispensable Composers, which she ignored because it's for general beginners and she's not its audience, his position might have been clearer than it is in the abbreviated space of the quoted interview. I picked up a cheap copy of the book out of curiosity.
On the other hand, Lisa turns out to be exactly right in describing this as "a truly appalling act of critical timidity."
Tommasini omits recent composers, he says, not because he dislikes their music - he says in his book that he enjoys both the disparate pair of Britten and Boulez, and throws in Sondheim and Lennon to show his catholicity - but because "we are too close [in time] to say" whether the recent composers will take a "place in the pantheon" of the "indispensable and indisputably great," and that we are "too immersed in the exciting newness of the music to care."
In other words, he's claiming a wider perspective to judge older music that is simply not yet available to newer music, and this particular book is about the music that can be judged by that perspective.
But even leaving aside that much of this music is no longer very new - both Britten and Boulez came to public attention 70 or more years ago - what is that perspective that the newer music doesn't have? Surely Tommasini has ears and can make his own judgments as to what is great. But that's the point: he doesn't want to. What makes the "indisputably great" composers indisputable is that critical consensus on them has solidified (or ossified). He doesn't have to decide; others have decided for him.
That's what the newer composers lack, the consensus judgment of history. Tommasini doesn't say so explicitly, but he's frankly terrified of being recorded as making the wrong judgment. In the introduction to his book, he gives as an example of his dilemma John Adams's The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Tommasini says it has some good music in it, but he finds it too long and slackly paced. But then, when Schubert was new some people considered his music to be overlong and slack, and they look pretty foolish today, don't they? On the other hand, you could praise a new composer who in the long run is completely forgotten. Tommasini doesn't give an example, but Bernard Shaw, who among other things was (indisputably) the greatest British music critic of his day, thought that some now-obscure German named Hermann Goetz wrote a greater symphony that anything by Mendelssohn, Schumann, or Brahms. (Here it is if you want to judge for yourself - to me it sounds like a few dozen other obscure middling-quality 19C symphonies I've heard, but I'm not Bernard Shaw.)
Tommasini doesn't want to risk making any judgments that might get overturned by history. Now that's timidity. He reminds me of Michael Kinsley's parody of Hugh Sidey speaking on Agronsky & Co.
HUGH SIDEWALL: ... These are all very, very difficult challenges for the nation. But as for what comes next, we just can't say, Marvin. It's too early to tell.Lisa points out that when Brahms died in 1897, the Times "didn't hesitate to go out on a limb and say that he'd be taking his place among the titans of music." But if some 19C Tommasini had been writing the obituary, I suspect he would have chickened out. For all those who hailed Brahms as great in his own day, there were others who thought his work was a load of old fudge. (His Fourth Symphony got some terrible reviews when it first arrived in the US.) For that matter, there are still respected critics with a strong distaste for Brahms. The difference is, now there's a consensus judgment of history that Brahms is great.
MARVIN JERKOFSKY: I see. Well, tell me this, Hugh. If, as you seem to suggest, you know nothing about anything, why do I pay you to drone on week after week on my show?
SIDEWALL: Well, you know, Marvin, that's a very good question ... But there are no conclusions at this point, and we'll just have to wait and see. It's hard to say. No one knows for sure. Any guess would be premature.
JERKOFSKY: Hugh, do you have any brains left at all?
SIDEWALL: I don't know, Marvin. We just can't say.
But there's another answer to Lisa's implied question, how would you have judged Brahms at his death, or in 1920?, that she'd probably abhor more than cowardice. And that's the answer that I suspect would have been given by Tommasini's NYT predecessor, Harold C. Schonberg. What I think Schonberg would have said is something like, "Sure, Brahms was recent then. But he was also Brahms! It's not hard to judge the greatness of a true giant even if he's right next to you. It's the pygmies of today who are harder to judge."
This attitude, that greatness is purely a feature of the past, is exuded by Schonberg's book The Lives of the Great Composers, published in 1970 in the midst of his tenure at the Times. I got this book when it was new as a present from grandparents who knew of my budding interest in music. I read it avidly and it was the source of much of my basic knowledge. It covers a lot more composers than Tommasini (about 70 rather than 17), and as the title suggests it's more biographical, but it doesn't stint on critical views, and Schonberg is not afraid to give them. It starts with Bach and Handel, but the only then-living composers included are Copland ("the urbane, respected symbol of a half century of American music" - high praise for Schonberg), Stravinsky (who may "end up living more for what he did to music rather than for what his music did to the majority of his listeners" - what damning with faint praise), Shostakovich ("Not until there is a major upheaval and reorientation in the aesthetic and political thinking of the Soviet Union will the country produce music that has any chance of survival"), and Milhaud ("Very little of Milhaud's music remains in the permanent repertory"). (What about Britten? He is only mentioned in passing in the Puccini chapter as evidence that any post-Puccini operas "have not been able to establish themselves," so much for him. Boulez is mentioned frequently in the book, but only as a polemicist.) Schonberg's last chapter is on the Second Viennese School, whose then-current influence he notes.
But then there's a postlude saying flatly that "it seemed apparent," here in 1970, "that there was a hiatus in the mighty line of powerful, individualistic composers that extended from Johann Sebastian Bach through Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg." And next to Tommasini's timidity, that's about as sweeping a dismissal of anything contemporary as you can imagine.
In a revised version in 1981, Schonberg adds an opening chapter on Monteverdi and a concluding one on newer music, mostly focusing on serialism but also giving due attention to Messiaen, Cage, and Carter. But despite his conclusion that audiences react well to minimalism and neo-romanticism, and that the composers have personality and talent, which is what he says he wants composers to have, he still insists on closing with the same insistence that there's "a hiatus in the mighty line." You can't argue with somebody in the grip of a preordained conclusion.