Tuesday, April 23, 2024

retiring critic

Here's the news: Joshua Kosman, classical music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, is retiring after 30 years as the paper's chief (and mostly only) classical critic.

Kosman could be a thoughtful reviewer, and I've sometimes found it useful, when we covered the same concert, to triangulate my views against his, especially as our tastes often differ. And I appreciated some of his cultural commentary, especially his recent analysis of what led the SF Symphony and music director Salonen to a parting of the ways. But his frequent tendency to begin - or sometimes spend the entirety of - reviews with complaints of how he disliked the repertoire seemed unprofessional, and a couple times on tangential matters he's seemed to me to cross the line of intellectual honesty.

Still, even with that, it was better to have him than not have him - the more intelligent reviewers out there, the better - and I entirely agree with the thesis of his farewell piece, that a music critic is just a listener - any intelligent, articulate listener - with an opinion of how the concert went. It's your reaction to the artistry displayed before you that counts. But, he adds, how good a critic you are depends on skills that you've learned, and I've found that so. My professional reviewing grew out of my blog reviewing, though it's developed into an idiom of its own, and I've learned a lot in the 20 years I've been doing this.

Kosman says he discovered classical music in his early teens and "knew it was going to be a lifelong commitment." I had the same - I think I was 12 when this happened - though I'd phrase it more as realizing that this was the music for me, the kind of music I'd wanted but didn't know it. Kosman says he had been "an ordinary pop music buff as a kid," but I was not. I detested most of the pop music of the time - and I'm only a couple years older than he is - and floated around listening mostly to comedy songs and musical theater, liking it (as I still do) but not feeling emotionally satisfied until I found the big heavy classics, starting with Beethoven.

Kosman is going to be giving a conversation in a cafe-cum-auditorium in the City next week. I hesitated about getting a ticket, because I wasn't sure what it meant on the announcement page when it said "A free live stream of the event will be available with RSVP." What did that mean? Was it an ornate way of saying that you had to get a ticket to access the live stream? Or did it mean it will be accessed through a program, like Zoom, whose name is "RSVP"? But it didn't make any difference, because by 8 AM when I finally went over to the ticketing page, the free live stream was sold out (how can a free live stream be sold out? that sounds like a contradiction in terms) and I nabbed one of the last live tickets instead. So I guess Kosman has a lot of fans, or at least curious readers. He'll take questions, it says, but I should probably bite my tongue.

One thing he probably won't know is: who will be replacing him? If anyone? And how good will they be? And what will they think of Salonen's successor, whoever that will be?


  1. Unless the Getty and Rubin Foundations step in to fund or partially fund a full-time critic, I'd be surprised if JK is replaced by a full-timer. That is not the trend in newspaper journalist. He addresses the question himself in an interview: https://missionlocal.org/2024/04/a-cultural-mission-bids-adieu-to-the-chronicles-classical-cat-joshua-kosman/

    The Washington Post and NY Times are the newspapers I'm aware of that in the last few years have replaced retiring classical critics with a full-timer.

    I'm fine with critics who say they don't like the particular works under review. It means the reader can more accurately evaluate the critic's opinion, by taking their dislike into account. Similarly, if the critic says they really love something that the reader does or doesn't, it's a useful data point.

    1. I don't have trouble setting aside my personal likes and dislikes of the work in a professional review, and I find it enhances my evaluation of the performance, which is what I'm there to cover, not to be distracted this way. What I can do, he could certainly do. Frequently not doing it just makes him look cranky.