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Anthony Tommasini, classical critic for the Times, looks back ahead of retirement

Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for <em>The New York Times</em>.
Tony Cenicola
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for The New York Times.

Being a journalist can take you just about anywhere. For Anthony Tommasini, covering classical music for The New York Times has taken him from a perch at Carnegie Hall to grandstand seats at Yankee Stadium. He's traveled the globe to cover world premieres in places like London and Salzburg, and he's reported on labor disputes, scandals and musical trends here in the U.S.

Tommasini has been the chief classical music critic of the Times since 2000, but at the end of this year he will lay down his pen and retire from the paper. But that doesn't mean he won't keep writing about classical music, as he told NPR's Scott Simon in a collegial "exit interview," which you can listen to in the audio player above and read excerpts from below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Scott Simon: As you look back on your life and career is there, when you were young, a piece of music that kind of ignited you in this direction?

Anthony Tommasini: There are so many, but I remember particularly one concert when I was in high school that Bernstein did with the New York Philharmonic. And the first half was the Beethoven "Eroica" Symphony and the second half was Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. They were both thrilling, but there was this wonderful reciprocity between old and new. He made the "Eroica" sound like a shocking, radical piece, and he had this Rite of Spring sounding like a piece that had deep roots and history and a kind of Russian depth to it. I really took that away, and that stayed with me for a long time – that old and new are not so different as we like to think of them in any of the arts, but especially in classical music.

And how do you wind up being a critic from there? What was the path? You also are an accomplished pianist.

I fell into this. It was a surprise. I was a pianist, I made a couple of recordings, I was teaching music in Boston at Emerson College and I lost my job in the mid-eighties. But it turned out to be the most fortuitous thing that ever happened to me in my career, because there I was in my mid-thirties, and I knew Richard Dyer, the critic at the Boston Globe, and I said, "Hey, want to try me out?" The first review I wrote ran in the Boston Globe, and I learned everything else after that on the job.

How much do you think a critic should criticize and how much should they appreciate?

That's a very good question – that's at the heart of everything I've done. A review is part opinion piece and part news report. If there's a new opera at the Met, a new piece at the Philharmonic, I have a lot of work to do. I have to convey to readers what it was like, what's at stake for the company, what's at stake for this composer, not just what I felt about it and what my opinion was. Sometimes I have a strong opinion. Sometimes I don't particularly have a strong opinion and I still have to report on it. I do think that a review is my personal take, but I also have always tried to put it in a larger context.

But that raises the question: What's the role for a music critic in these times, when people can walk out of a symphony and just thumb a review on Google?

Especially with social media, people who are immersed in the field can immediately start a kind of chat about it online. What does it matter what I say? But you could argue just the opposite as well. That maybe because of all this chatter, there's more need than ever for a voice that is trustworthy, that has the backing of an institution like The New York Times, where readers know I've been edited. Also, I'm not a specialist. I'm not stuck in one corner. I have a broad range of interests and things that I write about. So in a way, I would hope that enhances my trustworthiness.

Let me ask you about a line of yours that's been quoted: "American orchestras should think a little less about how they play and a little more about what they play and why they play it."

Yes, that's very important to me. I love classical music with a passion. My one frustration is, by any measure, we are probably the most conservative of the performing arts in that we are most stuck in the mainstream repertoire. We all love that repertoire, but there just has to be more of a balance and more new and recent art constantly coming into the mix. Also, the level of playing I have found, over the 20 years I've had this job, has gotten higher and higher and higher. For a while, at Carnegie Hall, there was the series that brought orchestras from other regions that don't get to Carnegie Hall very much. And the Alabama Symphony would show up and they played really, really well. And it made you realize that we revere the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra, but maybe they're not quite as important as just the overall health of the field.

And when you talk about new voices, would that open the field more for women and composers of color?

Absolutely. There's been a big change, and not fast enough, not enough. And still, these voices have been marginalized. And that's the case in a lot of fields of the arts, but certainly in classical music. And I think we are finally making amends for that, and it's just thrilling and a relief to see that happen. I reviewed the world premiere of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the opera by Terence Blanchard, in St. Louis. Then I reviewed it again when it came to the Met, making it the first work by a Black composer in the history of the Metropolitan Opera – 138 years. So that was both a milestone and inspiring, and shockingly overdue. The power structures just have to change and open up.

I have to ask – in line with your eloquence on this – you wrote a book, The Indispensable Composers. Seventeen great composers, and you took some criticism for only writing about expired male Europeans.

Yes. In the introduction I take that on and I say that we have an obsession with greatness, the greatness complex. On the other hand, these giants are giants for a reason. And what I tried to do in that book was explain to general readers what's the big deal about Mozart? What's the big deal about Verdi or Stravinsky? And I try to write about them as if they were contemporary composers, presenting them in their day.

But then why not put two or three more modern composers?

In this crucial opening chapter, I said that the thing I love about contemporary music is that for a moment you hear this new piece and you don't think about where it's going to fit in the pantheon. You're just excited. Will literary historians look back and say, "What was the big deal about John Irving? We don't get it. Why were his books so popular?" But they're good reads and people love them, and he's a good writer. But, is he in the pantheon? So I'm eliminating composers of the last 50 or 70 years. We're just too close to them. And that's another book. And I'd like to write a book on the music of the last hundred years.

You will, in retirement, still go to symphonies, seek out new experiences?

Absolutely. In fact, editors are urging me to even now and then keep writing for the Times. And I've been talking to some schools about doing some teaching and I have two more book ideas, so I have to formulate them and get going.

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