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Critics and the Internet
By Mort Levine

Our opera and classical music critics are a vanishing breed as newspapers cut back, but useful websites are rising.

Readers of our daily newspapers are witnessing a major meltdown of arts coverage. These are definitely not good times for critics. They are being edged out by hardpressed newspaper managements, either induced to leave through a “buyout” or simply laid off. A sizable number are eking out a living doing freelance reviews for their old employers or have gravitated to a new phenomenon: the arts website.

The Bay area has at least two such excellent websites. Each can claim a retired music critic as its progenitor. The San Francisco Chronicle’s ex-critic, Robert Commanday, began his San Francisco Classical website ten years ago when he saw the handwriting on the wall. Arts coverage was shrinking in print, and staffs were beginning to do the same. What was a slow erosion then has turned into a nationwide avalanche today. Hardly any US daily papers have escaped.

The other important local website was started when San Jose Mercury’s fine opera and classical music and dance reviewer, Paul Hertelendy (, took an early retirement a decade ago. His site, SF Music and Dance, is a highly personalized take on opera and the other arts in our region.

When Richard Scheinin, the San Jose Mercury’s current music and opera critic, spoke to a Foothill Club group last year, he lamented the reduction in space and staff which has led to many omissions in coverage. In the ensuing twelve months, readers of the Mercury can see that the situation has gotten worse as the paper downsizes.

For opera goers and classical music attendees, the vanishing critical writing leaves a void. But for arts organizations and presenters it can be disastrous.

The movement to the world wide web for this kind of information and informed opinion is a hopeful sign. By enlisting a cadre of excritics and talented musician-writers, these sites offer a bonanza of reviews, background
news and features as well as complete future concert calendars. For example, has since its inception run reviews of 49 operas, 58 symphonies,104 chamber music groups, 26 chamber orchestras and 47 new music events
plus a raft of festivals. These totals were as of last year. Since their new design a couple of months back, SFCV is doing even more.

The opera fans of New England now have a similar Classical Voice and so does North Carolina, South Florida and the twin cities in Minnesota. Its a major movement that has really taken off.

It is premature to say daily newspapers are about to disappear, nor is the commitment to cover at least some of the arts events going to vanish from print media. But the trend lines are clear whether you’re in Kansas City, Seattle, Miami or Boston. And San José has joined the list as well.

Websites can take up the slack but they haven’t yet created a stable long term financial model other than the founder working endless hours without pay. One possible idea for the future was put forth by a music critic for New York magazine, Justin Davidson. His suggestion is that independent, ultra-local websites should be constructed with the shared support of all of the arts organizations in a region. A small stipend from each could provide seed money, mailing lists, advertising and enough money to hire an editor who had the experience
of a former newspaper cultural writer abetted by freelancers. Museums, orchestras, opera companies, dance and performing companies could benefit greatly from such an informative and critical resource.

It, of course, is going to have to have a guarantee of editorial independence--which might well frighten some groups away.

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