Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Kosman speaks

I passed on the news that 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, and that he'd be giving a public conversation next week. That was Tuesday, and I went.

The venue was terrible. It was the stuffy, tiny back room of a bar in the Mission district, jammed with couches and folding chairs so that it was almost impossible to get past anybody. Sitting there was uncomfortable and cramped.

But the talk, essentially an interview with an audience question period, was very interesting. Some of the highlights:
  • Kosman became a critic when he got to university (Yale, I think he said) and found a classical review in the student paper. I can do that, he thought, and volunteered. It was a way to have "a career in music without [having] any particular musical talent."
  • When he arrived at the Chronicle in 1988, there were three full-time critics. Every Monday they'd have a meeting and the chief critic, Robert Commanday, would hand out assignments for the week. (I've read of other papers working the same way.) Now he's the only critic, and outlined his priorities for deciding what to cover: A-list performers (the SF Symphony, SF Opera, visiting big names), and otherwise what's interesting: new artists, unusual repertoire.
  • He enjoys his work - the point of doing this, he said, is not so much being paid as to get the free tickets - but it's a job. When he was single he learned not to invite dates to accompany him to concerts he was reviewing. "Don't bring a date to your job."
  • Try to write for a wide variety of audience, both specialists and the curious general reader. Don't write down to people, and don't write about artists you dislike: it doesn't do anybody any good. (I've noted that Kosman doesn't apply that stricture to works he dislikes.) He doesn't like to take notes: it leads to a boring play-by-play description of the concert. (I don't find it so.) Don't be brutal about bad performances (I agree): as an artist he'd criticized once told him, you can be both honest and a mensch. Try to keep a large vocabulary: "go to the well for words." The artistic possibilities are infinite.
  • The nicest performer he's ever met? Yo-Yo Ma. His best work? The recent commentary on the background to Salonen's resignation from SFS. (I agree.) His worst mistake? Praising David Helfgott's Rachmaninoff recording under the spell of the movie Shine. Best concert he ever heard? Victoria de los √Āngeles emerging from retirement at 72 as a substitute performer for a recital with SFS. He'd figured her voice would be gone, but the event was "transfixing, mesmerizing." Best anecdote? The time the SFS marketing exec invited him to lunch and slid over a piece of paper with the name of the next music director on the other side. According to the marketing guy, Kosman "jumped out of his seat" when he saw it was Salonen, because Salonen had told Kosman personally that he wasn't interested in the job, and he was the only plausible candidate whom Kosman would find exciting. Also, the time Michael Tilson Thomas - whom Kosman calls a superb raconteur - told Kosman about visiting the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, who in turn told MTT about visiting the French composer Olivier Messiaen. So there's MTT imitating Takemitsu imitating Messiaen, and Kosman said he couldn't possibly imitate that himself.
  • Asked about musical controversies in general, Kosman's immediate response was "Yuja Wang can wear whatever she wants." She's one of the great artistic geniuses of our day, he says.
  • The future of SFS? He wonders if it and the Opera aren't "punching above their weight." It's rare for an urban area this small to have such world-class institutions (what about Cleveland? I wondered), and guesses it may be inevitable that they'll go down a bit in prestige.
  • The future of reviewing? Moving online has changed things a lot: you're going for clicks, and Kosman found that an interview he did with Igor Levit about the rare Busoni Piano Concerto, in which Levit described it as the most challenging piece he's ever performed, got more hits than anything else he'd written when the paper used that comment as the headline without identifying the work: people clicked on the article to find out what it was.
  • But what will happen at the Chronicle after he's gone? He has no way of knowing. But at this point, a woman in the audience, apparently Kosman's editor, piped up to say that they'll cover the scene as best as they're able, whatever that means, and that they're looking for freelancers. (Will I try to sign up? Probably not. I have two venues that I'm happy with, and that's enough.)

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