Allan Kozinn: The Times Eats Its Own

by Sedgwick Clark

The word spread like wildfire: Allan Kozinn, a classical-music reviewer at the New York Times for 35 years and a staffer since 1991 had been transferred from the reviewing staff to general cultural reporting. His last review ran on Monday, September 3, Labor Day – the same day that Norman Lebrecht broke the story (see link below), alleging that the change in Kozinn’s status was the result of Culture Editor Jon Landman’s poisonous office politics and a knife in the back delivered by longtime Classical Music Editor James R. Oestreich, his friend of three decades, who feared for his own job. (For the record, I know all of the dramatis personae except for Lebrecht and Landman, and have edited articles by all of the writers mentioned below except for Tommasini, Wakin, and Eichler.)

Classical-music fans are enormously loyal, but even so, the response to Kozinn’s sacking as a reviewer was astonishing, with musicians, writers, and readers in often vituperative discussion. Readers responding to Lebrecht’s blog wrote of Kozinn’s “lack of personal bias and agenda” and “trustworthy standard of intelligence, erudition, sensitivity, and judiciousness.” They called him “a truly eloquent lover of music” and “a tremendous loss for the Times [and for] the music world.” There was even a “Save Kozinn” petition that had over 500 signatures by midday Tuesday!

To me personally, the overriding merit of Kozinn’s reviews has always been his exceptional ability to describe what the music and performance sounded like, which is no easy task. I can’t get to every concert I wish, and I’ve counted on Kozinn to elucidate the baroque and contemporary repertory he had staked out at the Times. Kozinn covered more concerts than any of his colleagues, some 250 per year. He has always been there for his editors. (When John Cage died suddenly, Kozinn wrote a 3,000-word obit in four hours!) If I believed that the executive editors still give a damn about classical music in this time of newspaper death throes and the worldwide embrace of popular culture, I would suggest that they will regret this move.

Here’s the inter-office skinny: When staffer Bernard Holland (whose elegant pen is greatly missed) retired in 2005, his position was not filled, leaving only three full-time staffers (Anthony Tommasini, Oestreich, and Kozinn) and three stringers (currently Steve Smith, Vivien Schweitzer, and Zachary Woolfe) who are limited to three reviews a week and occasional features. Landman (who I had never even heard of before Labor Day) and Oestreich (whose grumpy reviews share Kozinn’s clarity) are dying to get Woolfe on staff – understandably so, as he is highly readable and controversial, especially in opera (whose aficionados detest him). But apparently the only way to finagle that was to banish Kozinn from a classical beat altogether because Dan Wakin does a superb job covering classical news. The Times has an abysmal record of late in keeping its best classical stringers: When the paper refused to put them on staff, Alex Ross left for The New Yorker, Anne Midgette for the Washington Post, and Jeremy Eichler for the Boston Globe.

Evidently, Landman and Oestreich have no wish to repeat such blunders. But Landman has already proven himself to be an ignorant judge of the Times’s classical readership. It may be small, but it’s loyal and buys newspapers – or whatever technological form the news comes in for the time being. The good grey lady as cannibal is a sad image for this Times reader of five decades to countenance.

Lebrecht blog:

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