MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Howler of the Week (Year?)

A little-known composer of obscurities

A little-known composer of obscurities

Arts journalism in Seattle — it just keeps getting better and more incisive. Here’s the Seattle Times trying to tell us that it’s reliably “covering” an institution as central to Seattle’s cultural life as the Seattle Symphony: see, we’re devoting a whole preview to this ambitious festival!

And so in this preview of Luminous Landscapes, the Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Festival, which started last night, we are educated about a work alleged to have been obscure for most of its history — the Violin Concerto (!):

Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto will make his Seattle debut for [sic] the often-revised piece, which seems almost to have been cursed during Sibelius’ lifetime; its 1904 premiere was a disaster, due in part to its difficulty, and it was unknown to much of the world until 1991.

Yes, the Wikipedia entry contains a discussion of the belated unveiling of the original version of the Concerto in 1991. (Sibelius had withdrawn that score after its ill-fated premiere.) One of the problems with relying on Wikipedia alone — even when the information is pretty good, as in this case — is that without knowledge of the topic in a fuller context, it’s very easy to skim too fast and come away with a false, superficial sense of “knowing” about something without noticing what’s actually at stake. The preview isn’t discussing the ur-Concerto, just the regular one that will be played next week in the second program of the festival: a recent find!

ADDENDUM: I should add that it has occurred to me that this embarrassing gaffe might not be the author’s fault but that of the Seattle Times editor. It’s conceivable that the copy that was turned in correctly explained the (otherwise essentially irrelevant) reference to the 1991 factoid and that this was haplessly mangled by an editor with limited reading comprehension skills (and even less knowledge of music).

I hope it’s obvious that this matter is far from a pedantic point about correct dates. In either case, it means that a Wikipedia article is more reliable than the information published by the Seattle Times. Of course the second scenario — the one about the unreliable editor — would only further underscore my real point here: that the deteriorating state of arts journalism is doing a terrible disservice to a large population of readers who are genuinely interested in the arts.

Surely we haven’t already reached the point where accuracy in reporting by the “newspaper of record” is considered a luxury? Or have we…..

Filed under: journalism, Seattle Symphony

How City Arts Tried to Hijack a Seattle Symphony Premiere


Leah Baltus, City Arts Editor in Chief

UPDATE: 16 December 2014: Leah Baltus has published a retraction:

City Arts‘ slickly calculated clickbait strategy

The arts journalism scene across America couldn’t really deteriorate further, could it? Pull your head out of the sand and shed that last shred of optimism.

Along comes the platform site City Arts, where “we aim to feed cross-pollination [sic] and shake things up a bit.”

Those who know and love the arts in Seattle are all too aware of the currently bleak situation regarding coverage of the arts here. The city has suffered more than its fair share of the decline in serious critical engagement with what’s happening all around it — and this just when there’s a remarkable array of significant creativity taking place all across the arts. Sadly, a huge amount of this is ignored, or treated as punchy ad copy, or shoehorned off into some automaton editor’s cubbyhole.

But that’s another, much, much bigger story.

I’ve written for City Arts on and off from its inception in print form, under its smart and creative originator, Jeffrey Hirsch — who has since moved on to other things (to City Arts’ loss but the Frye Museum‘s gain). After a long hiatus, I started again this year to make the occasional contribution.

But yesterday I was compelled to demand that my latest one be pulled within hours of its publication; you can now find it here, on my own blog.

Why? Here follows an exasperating amount of detailed exposition  — but it is necessary, as the record does need to be made clear. For years I have written about the work of the composer Mason Bates, for a variety of national publications — and of course about the Seattle Symphony. So naturally I was interested in a story about one of the SSO’s big commissions this year: a new Cello Concerto by Mason Bates written for Joshua Roman as the soloist.

I was on the verge of pitching one of the national magazines when City Arts took the initiative to commission me to write a preview. I accepted the commission since I realized that, for now, this is an important Seattle arts story and I wanted to bring it to the attention of local readers.

Never mind the insulting, shamefully sub-market fee CityArts offers for fully researched, reported articles. Never mind the blatant hypocrisy of their pushing a sub-minimum wage fee structure for freelancers. (But Jonathan Zwickel is too hip to worry about tarnishing  Seattle’s “progressive” cred: “Seattle has evolved so far so fast that the hyper-progressive trinity of marriage equality, legal weed and $15-an-hour minimum wage is already a just another bullet point…” Who cares if CityArts has no intention to practice what it preaches?)

I filed my copy by the deadline — several days before the SSO’s world premiere on 11 December 2014. In my typical experience, these sorts of previews have been posted, with minimal touch-up editing, at the very latest a full day before the event in question.

But still on the day of the premiere, my concerto preview was nowhere to be seen. I sent a query to the assigning editor, who had confirmed original receipt of my copy days before. She responded by immediately posting the piece, writing “It’s up – we were (and still are) having some internal debate over Bates’ recent offensive tweets. Sorry for the delay” — acknowledging the fact of a delay according to normal City Arts procedure.

I in turn asked what she was referring to, since no one from City Arts had contacted me regarding any unusual issue with Mr. Bates or any rethinking the story that was desired, nor had I heard a single reference to unruly happenings in the Twittersphere — “offensive” or otherwise — on the part of Mr. Bates.

To this the assigning editor offered no response. That response came when I was alerted a few hours later to the appearance of a “counterattack” piece on City Arts by Mr. Nat Evans: “Know Your Racist Composers”, with a quote from my own just-published preview. City Arts‘ own plug reads “The case against Mason Bates and the Seattle Symphony’s unanswered misstep.”

The obvious — and obviously intended — implication is that there had been an ongoing debate regarding “the racism of Mason Bates,” that City Arts was presenting a reasonable pro and con exchange about a well-known public controversy — and, significantly, that the “other” side (meaning my preview, as somehow representative of SSO’s position, and the SSO itself) was stonewalling or otherwise ignoring an uncomfortable matter. City Arts, by contrast, was taking a noble, righteous approach, publishing “the other side” to make all views are given equal airing.

Except that there WAS no exchange. No one from City Arts contacted me. No one expressed an interest in getting Mr. Bates’s response on the record to these sudden allegations. Mr. Evans never contacted me, nor did he even contact Mr. Bates for comment.

Since I’m not a stalker of Mr. Bates on social media, I don’t follow and track every photo he posts. Call it journalistic negligence, but I failed to do just that when he posted pics of his family for Halloween this year. Follow Mr. Evans’s piece for the in-depth background on and analysis of the offensive picture that is the basis for his accusation.

But note that, as a commenter writes there, Mr. Evans blatantly omitted the apology Mr. Bates posted on 2 November on Twitter:

Instead of reporting the complete facts, Mr. Evans extends his charge of racism to promoter of genocide: “The underlying conclusion was that whites were right in forcibly removing or committing genocide against the indigenous people of North America.”

As an internationally recognized phenomenon in today’s new-music scene, Mr. Bates has, not surprisingly, become the target of a considerable amount of resentment and elicited envy from less-successful peers.

Jonathan Zwickel, City Arts Senior Editor; photo (c) Joe Mabel

Jonathan Zwickel, City Arts Senior Editor; photo (c) Joe Mabel

It became instantly obvious that Leah Baltus and her accomplice, Senior Editor Jonathan Zwickel, had decided to push the “Bates-the-racist/genocidal maniac” story pitched to them by Mr. Evans. When the piece originally commissioned came in — my piece — they held on to the copy in bad faith to tee up the attack by Mr. Evans without consulting me to 1) reveal that this was an issue and 2) allow for a response or pose a followup question to Mr. Bates.

Even more than sex, a charge of racism is what sells these days. City Arts wanted to push this narrative — without fact checking, without consulting the author of the major interview they had just commissioned with the composer being attacked. This is Propaganda 101, the stuff they learn at the Julius Streicher Academy for Character Assassination. Even Fox News, on rare occasion, gets embarrassed stooping to such tactics. Ms. Baltus allowed this knowingly to happen — and it all amounted to essentially the same as trolling one of their own writers.

I demanded that my original piece be removed from this context that was constructed on the sly around it in a slickly calculated clickbait strategy. It took two requests before Ms. Baltus responded, disingenuously — and dishonestly, according to the prior email testimony of the assigning editor — “That both pieces were published today is coincidence, based on the timing of the show.”

Ms. Baltus, whose credentials as City Arts editor in chief apparently extend to an omniscient awareness of the personal moral failings of all artists covered by her site, helpfully adds in her email response: “For me, running both pieces effectively considered the new Bates composition AND the implications of his personal behavior on broader social issues. Both merit attention in my view.”

However, in her fervor to “shake things up a bit,” Ms. Baltus pre-emptively decided that Mr. Bates himself did not merit the fundamental journalistic privilege of the right to comment on a very grave charge.

Nat Evans

Nat Evans

Mr. Evans informed the public of his scoop on the day of the premiere, pontificating that Seattle’s “cultural leaders should follow suit” — that is, should show respect and empathy for Indigenous Peoples by having refused to perform the new work.

Why, then, did Mr. Evans wait till the very last minute to reveal his findings? If he did have a conversation with “cultural leaders”/SSO staff and told them of the serious injury they would be committing by continuing with the performance, why does he not mention this? If not, why did he not have that conversation?

A final note: Mr. Evans’s and/or Ms. Baltus’s reliability with regard to the comprehension of simple factual prose is open to question. The first sentence of Mr. Evans’s piece declares that Mr. Bates “is the second-most performed living composer in the orchestral repertoire.”

But the copy I originally submitted to City Arts had clearly stated the context: that the ranking was based on programming for the current season only: “In October the Baltimore Symphony announced the results of a study investigating programming trends this season among 22 major American orchestras. They found that Bates is the second most frequently performed living composer (after John Adams — the other Adams, no relation to John Luther Adams).”

UPDATE (Friday 26 December 2014)
Reading through various end-of-the-year lists, I was struck by a couple of glaring examples that brings to light the hypocrisy of City Arts‘ editorial “policy” with regard to the very real problem of racism. Over the past summer, a heated controversy raged in response to the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s anniversary production of The Mikado.

The matter could not have failed to register on the radar of anyone remotely connected to Seattle’s arts scene.
And City Arts savvy coverage of the matter? Here it is, in all its glory.

And in May rap star Macklemore performed before a worshipful crowd at a concert celebrating a new exhibit at Seattle’s Experience Music Project Museum, for which he donned a costume that was rightly denounced as anti-Semitic. Macklemore’s wishy-washy response was disingenuous enough, but take a look at Ms. Baltus’s morally courageous position on this issue, which was widely covered elsewhere by Seattle media (and beyond): “I’ll suggest that the fiasco is fraught with many layers of truth that are hard to reconcile.”

So much for City Arts‘ proclaimed indignation and firm commitment to ensuring its readers are aware of all sides to the debate when it comes to these sensitive matters….

UPDATE (Sunday 14 December 2014)

I just received a request from Nat Evans to include this additional background information:

Towards the end of November I read that Mr. Bates had a piece being performed here in Seattle. Like many of my colleagues I was really upset and disgusted by his posts around Halloween, and when I heard about this performance I contacted the symphony through social media as well as emails letting them know that I felt it was detestable, that they have a responsibility as an organization to be accountable for who they commission, etc. I never received a response to any of my queries, and did not set out with the intention of writing about it publicly.Eventually I decided to contact a couple people to see if they’d publish an open letter to the symphony/Bates calling on them to address the issue. City Arts was interested, but suggested I re-write my letter in the form of a short article instead. Editor Jonathan Zwickel told me all this in a brief phone call, during which he mentioned that there was going to be a ‘little preview thing’ – or something to that effect – that to me indicated it would be a short paragraph or something – not a full article, and he did not mention that Thomas May would be writing it.

I wrote the article, then Jonathan took over. He edited the piece extensively without consulting me on it, and what must’ve been last minute added the sentences up top linking to Mr. May’s article which, again, I was not aware of. I did not even realize that this had happened until it was live. I found it very odd and had mixed feelings about the product that had been put out into the world because I hadn’t been consulted on Jonathan’s edits. This included a short sentence about Bates apology – which – I don’t know what happened but it did not make it in after Mr. Zwickel’s edits and when I emailed City Arts to correct it they declined to do so.

Although I stand by the article as I think it is important to keep each other accountable for our actions, I sincerely regret the way City Arts handled this issue, especially in regard to Mr. May, who is a valuable member of our arts community here whom I hold in high regard. Clarity, openness, and accountability were the aim of my actions, but it is a shame that the same values were not followed at City Arts.
— Nat Evans

Leah Baltus and City Arts crew, on the other hand, have yet to extend an apology to me for their unprofessional conduct. [UPDATE: as of May 1, 2015 — despite their outright RETRACTION of the smear piece (see below) — there has still been no apology. Not that this is surprising in the slightest, but it does add a lovely grace note that speaks volumes regarding the professional character of Leah Baltus.]

UPDATE: 16 December 2014

Leah Baltus has published a retraction:

Monday, December 15, 2014 | by Leah Baltus

The following is an editor’s note:

On Thursday, Dec. 11, City Arts published two related online posts. The first was a preview about a concerto written by Bay Area composer Mason Bates, which was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and premiered at Benaroya Hall Thursday night. The second post was a guest opinion piece written by a local composer and focused on a series of Tweets by Bates, in which he shared a photo of himself and his family dressed as Native Americans on Halloween, as well as subsequent Tweets in which he addressed the photo in the wake of online criticism. The post strongly criticized Bates and implicated the Seattle Symphony.

Though we stand by the merits of the preview, it was removed from the site at the request of its author. We have also removed the guest opinion piece upon discovering fundamental errors that we failed to identify, most especially that the Seattle Symphony previously knew nothing of the Tweets.

We regret this failure.

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, commissions, journalism, new music, Seattle Symphony

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