Anthony Tommasini, classical critic for the Times, looks back ahead of retirement : Deceptive Cadence NPR's Scott Simon speaks with Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for The New York Times, about his storied career and pending retirement.

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1065156796/1065477266" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What do Carnegie Hall and Yankee Stadium have in common? Practice, practice - it takes practice to get there. Anthony Tommasini has been to both places. He is retiring as chief classical music critic at The New York Times. He's had that post since 2000 and has traveled the globe to cover world premieres in London and Salzburg and report on labor disputes, scandals and musical trends. Anthony Tommasini joins us now from New York. Tony, thanks so much for being with us.

ANTHONY TOMMASINI: Thank you, Scott. I'm delighted.

SIMON: As you look back when you were young, is there a piece of music that kind of ignited you in this direction?

TOMMASINI: There's so many, but I remember particularly one concert that, when I was in high school, Bernstein did with the New York Philharmonic, and the first half was Beethoven's "Eroica Symphony."

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "EROICA SYMPHONY")

TOMMASINI: And the second half was Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring."

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "RITE OF SPRING")

TOMMASINI: 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 I really took that away and I - 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.

SIMON: Yeah. And how do you wind up being a critic from that? What was the path? You are also an accomplished pianist, of course.

TOMMASINI: 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 at Emerson College. It turned out to be the most fortuitous thing that ever happened to me in my career because there I was in my mid-30s, and I knew Richard Dyer, the critic at The Boston Globe, a little. And I said, hey, you want to try me out? And I learned everything else after that on the job. I always felt like I wanted to be a teacher. And once I got into criticism, I realized, you know, I'm still a teacher. I still feel like a teacher.

SIMON: What's the role for a music critic in these times when people can leave a concert or a symphony and, with their fingers, tap out a review on Google?

TOMMASINI: Maybe because of all this chatter, there's more need than ever for voice that is trustworthy, that has the backing of an institution like The New York Times, where readers know I've been edited and that I have a history. I have a broad range of interests and things that I write about. I would hope that enhances my trustworthiness, you know, that I know what I'm talking about, and I'm fair.

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

TOMMASINI: 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 a sense, in the mainstream repertoire, in the staples. And 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.

SIMON: When you talk about new voices and new artists, that would open the field more for women, composers of color?

TOMMASINI: Absolutely, and that has been happening. There has been a big change, and not fast enough, not enough. And still, these voices have been marginalized in a field where - that's the case in a lot of fields of the arts, but certainly in classical music. 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 terrific and inspiring and shockingly overdue.

SIMON: You took some criticism when you wrote in the Times in favor of doing away with blind auditions so that orchestras could take race into account in auditions. I have to ask, is that just racial bias dressed up as progressivism?

TOMMASINI: That's the charge. And I had that charge. And I knew it was controversial, but affirmative action, which I'm unfortunately, and to my view, is now coming in for much scrutiny and even in the courts has been empowering and amazing in the effect it's had in educational institutions. American orchestras have been exempt from it completely because we have this idea that merit alone, whatever that is - define that - is what - all that should matter, as if - if you get the absolute best violinists on some measure of bestness (ph) together in one violin section, you'll have the best violin section in the world when that's not true. It's camaraderie. You know, do you have the same sense of mission? - like, all sorts of factors that come into it. An orchestra can hire Black conductors, can have Black administrators, can recruit Black composers to commission them, can have Black soloists. Only when it comes to hiring players is there anything about the identity of who this person is blocked out, and it just seems to me that we're missing a chance to bring absolutely top-notch players into the mix.

SIMON: Yeah. You will still in retirement go to symphonies, seek out new experiences?

TOMMASINI: Absolutely. In fact, editors are urging me to keep writing for the Times. And I will, just not too much because I do want to move on. Remember I said how it all started, that I wanted to be a teacher? Well, I want to go back and get into classrooms. And I've been talking to some schools about doing some teaching. And I have two more book ideas.

SIMON: What are you going to listen to this afternoon?

TOMMASINI: I am now looking at my desk, and right on it is this tempting new recording that I've been listening to of the pianist Igor Levit playing all the Shostakovich preludes and fugues. And I can't stop listening to them. So even though I have the day off and I think I'm going to take a little break, I have a feeling I'll be putting on one of those discs again and listening to these pieces that are still not as well-known as they should be.

SIMON: Anthony Tommasini, who is retiring as chief classical music critic of The New York Times. Tony, thank you so much for being with us.

TOMMASINI: Thank you. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.