A fight between a critic and conductor drags two Cleveland icons through the mud

The cold fluorescent light shining down on Franz Welser-Möst stands in stark contrast to the exalted glow in which Clevelanders usually see him: leading the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall in the great symphonies that define European musical history. But in a deposition from July 2009, the conductor looks straight ahead, his face expressionless as he responds to a lawyer's drill of questions.  

After a series of basic queries about Welser-Möst's life and career, the proceedings veer sharply toward the matter at hand: the steady criticism of Welser-Möst's performances by Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg.

The lawyer quotes from a 2002 review of a Beethoven symphony, in which Rosenberg claimed that the conductor "largely rendered the idyllic scenes lifeless and subdued."  

"Do you believe that the idyllic scenes were 'lifeless and subdued,' or don't you agree with that?" Welser-Möst is asked. 

"I only can say . . . that a critic has an artistic opinion, and a conductor has an artistic opinion," responds the conductor with cold control.

"I don't think when I'm onstage I am lifeless."

It's one brief exchange in a deposition that goes on for hours, but it gets to the core of the issue: The Plain Dealer and the Musical Arts Association — the group that manages the Cleveland Orchestra — are ensnared in a civil lawsuit brought by Rosenberg seemingly because an internationally renowned conductor couldn't stomach a steady diet of criticism throughout his eight-year tenure here.

Late last month, a judge sealed all documents entered into evidence for the case, which is slated to go to trial in July. The attorney representing the Musical Arts Association declined comment on behalf of the conductor and orchestra; Rosenberg, Plain Dealer editors, and their attorneys also declined to be interviewed for this story. But their arguments are laid out in detail in the depositions and documents obtained by Scene prior to the judge's order.

"I don't believe it should have ever gotten to this point," said Tim Smith, the Baltimore Sun critic who broke the story of Rosenberg's reassignment. "A paper with a sense of perspective could have solved this a lot differently. Cooler heads would have said, 'We're not going to let this become a national and even international incident.'"

The relationship went sour from the very beginning, when Rosenberg covered Welser-Möst's 2002 appointment as music director not with fawning adulation, but as an unvarnished news story. In the piece that introduced Welser-Möst to Cleveland, Rosenberg ran with several juicy bits from the conductor's past, including his controversial tenure leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the fact that he was adopted as an adult by a baron from Liechtenstein, and that he subsequently married his own stepmother — the baron's ex-wife. For two professionals charting a new course together, it wasn't the friendliest of welcomes.

But the real issue has always been the music. Almost from the start, Rosenberg's reviews made it clear that Welser-Möst didn't measure up.

The feud escalated in 2004, while Rosenberg covered an orchestra tour in Europe. The critic reported comments Welser-Möst had made to a Swiss magazine in which he described Cleveland as "an inflated farmers village" where maintaining such a magnificent orchestra was dependent on relationships with "many wealthy widows." At one point, Welser-Möst referred to the "blue-hair ladies" who come to matinee performances because they are too tired for evening concerts. Rosenberg shared it all with Cleveland readers. 

A spokeswoman for the orchestra at the time said there would be "consequences" for reporting comments that weren't intended for a hometown audience, Rosenberg claims in his deposition. And soon the prophecy was fulfilled: The orchestra stripped Rosenberg's access to its archives and barred him from an office in Severance Hall that he long had used to file reviews immediately after concerts. Following years of unrestricted access, he was forbidden from going backstage during tours — a ban that Rosenberg claims amounted to the orchestra shooting itself in the foot.

Andrew Fischer was the Musical Arts Association's limo driver early in Welser-Möst's tenure. In depositions, he describes having heard loud, closed-door meetings between Welser-Möst and others, discussing what could be done about the critic. 

He recalls another incident in which Welser-Möst got into the car and was "more upset than I'd ever seen him. He stated that he was upset because of a review written in The Plain Dealer by Donald Rosenberg." He remembers hearing the conductor declare that "Don doesn't get it," and that the critic will soon change his ways or find himself looking for another job."

But Rosenberg was hardly alone in his criticism. By 2007, plenty of critics in the U.S. and Europe were giving Welser-Möst similar marks.  After praising his rendition of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" symphony in an October 2007 concert at Carnegie Hall, the preeminent critic for The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini wrote, "But the concert began with a strangely listless performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 28.  . . . This was one of several ineffective Mozart performances I have heard from Mr. Welser-Möst."

During that autumn tour, which proceeded from New York to Europe, the conductor garnered more mixed reviews.  Under the headline "Snoring Through Mahler With Welser-Möst," critic Larry L. Lash wrote, "It also sounded as if the conductor had eschewed the composer's obsessively detailed directions altogether, in favor of a broad-stroke, 'Cliffs Notes' version."  In the Austrian daily Der Standard, critic Ljubisa Tosic said Welser-Möst's performance of a Mozart symphony "sounded a bit dry, almost mechanical and well-behaved — the little gem was dispatched in a rather offhanded way."

 To Welser-Möst, it seemed, tepid reviews from random critics around the world came and went. But the sting of the hometown scribe always lingered.

Performers often get crabby about the words of newspaper critics, and usually that's where it ends. When someone is upset enough to voice complaints to the paper, the editor typically stands by the critic. 

That's how it went for Baltimore Sun critic Tim Smith. "I've had delegations from orchestras come to the paper to demand that something be done about me. I've arrived at a concert hall to find chairs leafleted, saying please contact the paper about me. And let me tell you, it was wonderful that the paper's management said, 'Are you kidding? This is what we hired him for. Go away.'"

For years, that's what former Plain Dealer Editor Doug Clifton did, even as the Musical Arts Association lobbied against Rosenberg — complete with charts that documented every Welser-Möst review he wrote from 1993 to 2005, weighing each one on a scale from "positive" to "neutral" to "negative." The chart skewed sharply to the negative.

When Richard Bogomolny, then-president of the Musical Arts Association board, wrote a spirited three-page letter complaining that Rosenberg's commentary "exceed(s) the normal bounds of legitimate criticism," Clifton again stood by his man. It seemed not to matter that Clifton's own boss, then-Publisher Alex Machaskee, was an orchestra trustee, as is current publisher Terrance Egger today. 

"My sense is that Don's criticism is based on an honest and strongly held belief that Franz is not up to the job," Clifton wrote in a response to Bogomolny. "In the end . . . we must tread lightly on the independence of our critic. To overrule him in the face of protest would make a mockery of the critical process." 

Clifton encouraged Bogomolny to submit his letter for publication in the paper's opinion pages. That version of the letter never came. 

But Susan Goldberg, Clifton's successor at The Plain Dealer, was perhaps not as confident in her critic as Clifton had been. When she took the helm in 2007, it was on her watch that Rosenberg dared, week after subscription concert week, to be critical of the conductor.

 The final straw may have been a November 11, 2007 article in which Rosenberg concluded that "to experience the orchestra at its best these days, listeners need to hear a concert at Severance or Blossom led by guest conductors who convey something specific and distinctive to the musicians and loyal audiences alike."


In January and February of 2008, orchestra Executive Director Gary Hanson and Musical Arts Association board President Jamie Ireland met with Goldberg and others at The Plain Dealer, according to depositions. Rosenberg claims that during the February meeting, Hanson "presented several requests to The Plain Dealer, including stopping [Rosenberg's] participation in tours, hiring someone else to review the orchestra on occasion, and thirdly, assigning someone else to write news stories about the Cleveland Orchestra."

Six months later, when Welser-Möst's contract was extended through 2018, the orchestra specifically asked that a different reporter — Rosenberg protégée Zachary Lewis — cover the news. Goldberg complied, but sent Rosenberg along with the rookie when another editor complained that the orchestra was controlling its story.

Rosenberg's deposition describes a meeting with Goldberg and Assistant Managing Editor Deborah Van Tassel-Warner during which he was informed that the situation between him and the music director had become "untenable." 

 Goldberg reassigned Rosenberg in September 2008, leaving him to cover the region's other orchestras, conservatories, recitals, chamber music, and dance performances — anything but the Cleveland Orchestra.

Three months later Rosenberg sued, claiming that The PD discriminated against him because of his age (he was 57 at the time the suit was filed).

At the same time, Goldberg issued a decree forbidding the critic from pairing the terms "Cleveland" and "orchestra" together in anything that he wrote. Judge John Sutula later allowed Rosenberg to add the claim of "retaliation" to the suit in response to Goldberg's embargo.

Rosenberg's suit also charges the Musical Arts Association with "maliciously intentionally, willfully, unlawfully, consciously . . . retaliatorily . . . tortiously . . ." and in more than a dozen other ways interfering in Rosenberg's relationship with his employer.

The Plain Dealer rightly argues that Rosenberg still has a job and a veteran's salary, which is more than many journalists — even those at The PD — can claim. But to Rosenberg, the reassignment represents a defining blow to his life's work. "The Plain Dealer took my career away from me," he told The Cleveland Jewish News one month after filing his suit.   

The Plain Dealer's classical beat now belongs to Lewis, a onetime arts contributor for Scene who, according to depositions, was unable to identify the scores of several pieces of music the orchestra had recently performed, and which he had recently reviewed. Lewis also maintains a weekly column on health and fitness when he isn't covering the orchestra. Such is the world of today's ever-shrinking newsrooms and the multitasking journalists who cling to jobs there.

 Rosenberg, meanwhile, has said he doesn't want to be reinstated as Cleveland Orchestra critic. He is seeking only $25,000 — a fraction of the annual salary The Plain Dealer still pays him.  

Some observers wonder whether the larger score wouldn't be in transforming his experience — and the thousands of pages of depositions that chronicle its every turn — into a book. Convincing Rosenberg not to do that might cost a lot more than $25,000.  

Baltimore critic Tim Smith says the case has implications for anyone who writes opinion. "It looks ridiculous," he says of the fracas. "You wouldn't dream of doing this to your political commentator because he attacks the mayor week in and week out, or your local sports team. Who hasn't been in a town with a sports columnist who is constantly knocking the hell out of the coach of the football team? And who then would take him off that beat?" 

The Plain Dealer's own newsroom may be divided on the case, but one of its most prominent figures weighed in with a 2008 letter in support of Rosenberg that was entered as evidence.

"The only reason you are no longer assigned to cover the Cleveland Orchestra," wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz, "is because you insisted on doing your job, not its supporters' bidding."

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