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The world of the classical music critic is small and intimate. Tim Page who is senior classical music critic for The Washington Post said in a recent interview that there are only twenty to twenty-five people making the bulk of their incomes in this way. He says he can name most of them.


For Page, the legacy of Virgil Thomson as a classical music critic serves as a fraternal glue among friends and colleagues who are working or have worked in this field. For example, in talking about his career—how it began and developed, Page spoke about Anthony Tommasini, senior music critic for the New York Times, and John Rockwell, longtime New York Times music and arts critic. Page, Tommasini, and Rockwell all knew Thomson personally and worked with him on books that featured Thomson and his work:

    Selected letters of Virgil Thomson, edited by Tim Page and Vanessa Weeks Page

    Virgil Thomson: Composer On The Aisle, a biography by Anthony Tommasini

    The Virgil Thomson Reader, co-edited with Virgil Thomson and introduction by John Rockwell

Page said that Thomson had a "huge influence" on him and that Thomson was a "fan of mine, which made me feel very flattered. At parties he was always saying nice things about me to the New York intelligentsia." Still, Page says he does not want to be a "relativist" about Thomson. "His opinions were wrong a good deal of the time but he [Thomson] was more fun to read than a critic like Olin Downes." Page said Downes is "practically unreadable today" with "romantic" prose that "gushes."


To understand Page's approach to classical music criticism, which includes an element of teaching the public about classical music, one needs to know about his career path. In 1979 after graduating from Columbia University with a degree in literature (however, he also studied at Mannes College and considers his primary training was as a composer), he sent an unsolicited review of Pierre Boulez's recording of Anton Webern's music to the Soho News, a small arts paper located in lower Manhattan. His review was published and then he was hired to be the Soho News music critic for a sum that eventually grew to $100 a week.  

In the early 1980s after losing successive jobs at Soho News and Saturday Review because the publications folded, Page was invited by John Rockwell to be a regular stringer (paid-by-the-job reporter) at the New York Times. In the introduction to Music From The Road, Page's first collection of critical essays on music, Page describes the five years he spent writing for the Times where suddenly what he wrote was being "debated in Lincoln Center restaurants" and around the world as working in a sink-or-swim maelstrom. He said that making an error in a New York Times review made the sky fall. In 1987, he became chief music critic of Newsday and in 1995 chief classical music critic of The Washington Post. In 1997 Page won the Pulitzer Prize for "his lucid and illuminating music criticism" in The Washington Post.


Page said, "There is no bar to pass in music criticism. If you set yourself up as a music critic and someone pays and prints you, you are a music critic." In the preface to Tim Page On Music, his second collection of critical essays on music, Page outlines what he calls the duties of the classical music critic: "get the facts; cover the news; remember your position, but don't let yourself be seduced by it; say it straight; and be courteous." Page said he believes in providing a "dispassionate report on what I heard." He is also careful to say that dispassionate does not mean non-passionate but he wants to avoid hysterical hype and prejudgment.  

Image-Peter Schutte
Since September 1995 with a 14-month break from June 1999 to September 2000, Tim Page is the chief music critic and culture writer of The Washington Post. In 1997, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism for articles published in The Washington Post. Prior positions as music critic include such publications as The New York Times, New York and Long Island Newsday, Saturday Review, and Soho Weekly News.

He has published or edited fourteen books including his latest title "What's God Got To Do With It?": Robert Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk and the Separation of Church and State. He has produced, hosted and contributed to radio, television and film programs including co-hosting with Shelagh Rogers in 2002 a day-long program devoted to Glenn Gould on his 70th birthday which was carried nationally throughout Canada over the CBC Radio Two.

In 1980, he helped prepare orchestral and vocal parts of Satyagraha, an opera by Philip Glass, for the Rotterdam premiere. From 1972-1974, he helped found, played keyboards and composed for "Dover Beach," an experimental rock band whose repertory included a 45-minute rock symphony, "Prometheus Unbound."

He has taught at such places as the Peabody Conservatory, University of Missouri-St. Louis, and The Manhattan School of Music. He earned a B.A. in music and literature from Columbia University and enjoys an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Connecticut

An element of fairness always pervades Page's approach to his criticism. "I don't make up my mind in advance." One news event that remains indelibly in view for Page as an item of hype is the American debut of Australian pianist David Helfgott who was celebrated in Shine, the popular 1996 film that touted the sad life of the mentally ill classical pianist. Referring to Helfgott's debut as a scandal, Page said, "Shine was a good film, but the pianist was a schizophrenic and not a good pianist." In the Tim Page On Music introduction to his review of Helfgott's North American debut recital in Boston [March 6, 1997, The Washington Post], Page wrote, "…at a time when thousands of pianists were struggling to make any kind of career, I was unhappy with the idea that Helfgott, with no credentials except a sad story, should have become the year's great classical 'hit.' It was the beginning of a ghastly trend—Andrea Bocelli would be next."

On the dry and serious side, Page said, "critics can't be bought' and what the critic provides is "one person's educated, disinterested, cultivated view on a musical event or artist." On the juicy and somewhat comic side, Page quoted Virgil Thomson, "Criticism offers the only antidote to paid advertising."


Without disparaging either the New York Times or the Washington Post, Page drew a sharp comparison between the classical music review requirements of these two influential newspapers. "The New York Times is an elite newspaper not just aimed at New Yorkers. [Critics] Tony Tommasini and Allan Kozinn at the Times can get away with technical language and obscure references that I can't. The Washington Post focuses on people in the DC area. What I write [for the Washington Post] must be completely understandable to everyone. TheTimes aims at a higher level and it's where the critiques matter the most." Page also said, "At the Post I put in explanations.  I tread a careful path because I am trying not to offend the people who know something about music. Teaching is part of what I do. Musical education in this country has gone to hell."

When asked if the Internet is playing a significant role in influencing young people to come and see live performances of opera, Page said he would guess so but he just barely keeps up with his own email. As to the bloggers, he is impressed with sites like Charles Downey's Ionarts and what the better known writers such as Alex Ross and Terry Teachout present on the Internet. "I think if I was ten to fifteen years younger, I would be blogging away with the rest of them."

As to the course his career has run, Page said, "If you asked me at 25 if I thought I would be a music critic at 51, I would have said I don't think so." Although he likes a lot of what he has composed, Page quipped, "I was a good enough critic to know I wasn't an outstanding composer."


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©2006 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Karren LaLonde Alenier, an award-winning Lindy Hopper,
is the author of five collections of poetry,
including Looking for Divine Transportation,
winner of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature.
Much more at www.steinopera.com
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For more of her commentary and articles, check the



Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Performing Arts and Media

august 2006

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