Thoughts on the Rubin Institute, for lack of a better title

“You mean they actually teach people to be critics?” commented one person on a link shared by music writer Tim Page, a few hours after the conclusion of the second biennial Rubin Institute for Music Criticism in San Francisco. No, Mr. Commenter, no one can teach you to be a critic. As the old cliché goes, everyone’s a critic. If you have pondered whether or not you liked the performance you saw, or if a recording failed to move you and you have voiced that opinion, you are as much of a critic as I am – and I just got handed a check for a hefty sum of money for showing “outstanding promise in music criticism,” so I sincerely hope I might be a critic. 

I learned at the Rubin Institute how to translate my opinions on music from wide swaths of abstract thought, fragmented observations, and fleeting flashes of emotion into under 400 English words. I tried submitting 401 once, and San Francisco Conservatory’s website didn’t let me. In short, I learned not how to be a critic, but how to clearly and concisely articulate criticism: lessons I eagerly absorbed and will do my best to put into practice.

The Institute was created and funded by wealthy publisher/philanthropist and former New York Times music journalist Stephen Rubin. This was the second such program, the first having been at Oberlin College in January of 2012. He invited five established classical music critics with various specialties and extra-musical interests to instruct the student Rubin Fellows (seventeen of us, undergraduate through doctoral, representing five schools) in the art of writing concert reviews.

Most of the Fellows were trained performers or composers of what Alan Rich would call “serious music.” Some were musicologists. Though the Institute bills itself as a training ground for the future of music criticism, none were journalism students. My fellow fellows and I were put through a five-day marathon of public panels, private workshops with the professionals, concerts by San Francisco’s most respected musical institutions, and receptions. It was a fine environment in which to discuss music and writing. The opportunity to spend so much time with so many intelligent people who care about some of the same things I do and enjoy talking about them was rare and wonderful. However, the way the Institute was programmed was decidedly not oriented toward the future.

New Yorker critic Alex Ross noted in his pre-concert lecture that many problems in the culture surrounding classical music are bound up in “repeating the familiar and rejecting the new,” a trend I saw in action too frequently at the Institute. I heard countless times that we youngsters were the future of music criticism, and I couldn’t shake the impression that I had been transported to a vanished past. The fact that the programs we reviewed included only music from the European Common Practice Era (roughly from Bach’s birth to the day before the Rite of Spring premiered) was the least of the dissonances. Oberlin College and San Francisco Conservatory’s fellows all had some experience writing concert reviews, but I learned that this was not a common factor. Because there were no contemporary works on the docket, there was no discourse or instruction about reviewing new music except for a thirty-second comment in a public panel from Tim Page. If I am part of the future of criticism, I need to know the differences between reviewing a classical chestnut and a world premiere, and the differences between critiquing a new work and how that work was performed.

Though the concerts we could attend were limited by what was being performed in the area during the Institute’s time frame, I find it hard to believe that there was no contemporary music or chamber music worth hearing in San Francisco during those five days. A new, daring group, hiccups and all, would have been much more interesting and conducive to productive conversations about the future than the well sung but decidedly complacent Tosca we saw at the San Francisco Opera. (Because really, what hasn’t been written already about Tosca?)

The ossification of the canon didn’t stop with the programs, as the newest ensemble we heard was the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Historically informed performance such as it presents is a relatively new practice, as Wall Street Journal opera critic Heidi Waleson explained in her pre-concert lecture. The ensemble was still formed before the oldest of the Rubin Fellows was born. In the world of this Rubin Institute, young, innovative musicians and concerts in spaces other than grand halls did not exist.

Added to that, the staff would have been ideal for an institute geared towards the future of music writing. Anne Midgette worked as a freelancer for decades before landing her first steady job (her current one, at the Washington Post); John Rockwell reviewed jazz and rock in addition to classical music for the New York Times; Alex Ross brought 20th century music to new ears with his warmly and engagingly written survey, The Rest is Noise. Rather than sharing their personal expertise, perspectives, and outlooks for the future, they patiently pored over our reviews of last night’s concerts of last millennium’s music.

Mr. Rubin stated over and over during the Institute that he had put the program together to maintain and elevate standards of critical writing in a world of knee-jerk reactions and online “verbal diarrhea.” However, the writing that the present needs and the future will need is not limited to postgame recaps of the established Western canon, which was the beginning and end of the writing taught and discussed at the Institute. Such can be an essential skeleton of modern criticism, but bones cannot stand alone.

“When they set me loose, I will write like they taught me to write here, about everything I couldn’t write about here,” I vowed in the small hours of the Institute’s final night, writing a letter to a friend. I never expected to be set loose with a check in my backpack, so now I suppose I really have to keep that promise. 

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