Oberlin launches Rubin Institute for Musical Criticism
with fall term course and intensive program in January
By Mike Telin and Daniel Hathaway
“My wife and I were both appalled at what we saw to be the demise of really good classical music criticism”, said Steven Rubin (left), who in partnership with Dean David Stull and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music have set out to do something to reverse that decline. From January 18-21, the biennial Rubin Institute for Musical Criticism will convene for the first time on the Oberlin Campus, bringing seasoned music critics and students prepared through a new fall semester course together with four artists or ensembles with close ties to Oberlin for concerts, seminars and the daily writing and vetting of reviews.
Rubin, who is currently president and publisher at Henry Holt, spent twenty-five years at Random House and before that was a journalist who wrote “a lot of high visibility profiles for the New York Times”. His late wife was a prominent music manager and PR person who worked with “a slew of people like Ana Moffo, Sherrill Milnes, Houston Grand Opera and Santa Fe Opera”. Over the years, the Rubins noted and lamented the disappearance of classical music coverage from newspapers and magazines and felt that as a result, “fewer talented people were going into classical music criticism. We felt that the level of many of the papers and magazines was, to put it politely, ordinary to low”.
The idea of doing something about that situation was postponed by Mrs. Rubin's illness and death, but then Steven Rubin's friend and Oberlin graduate Eugene Carr, founder of PatronMail, suggested that he needed to bring the idea to Oberlin. Carr set up a meeting with Rubin and David Stull. “David walked into my office and within three minutes — well, he's very persuasive”, Rubin notes. “Once he told me what he could do and once he began to focus on what was a well-meaning but unfocused idea, I trusted this guy immediately”.
Reflecting on that meeting, David Stull gives most of the credit to Steven Rubin. “He made all of it happen. I was just fortunate to be standing there, and provided a sense of what we might do with this kind of an opportunity. I told Steve that Oberlin was uniquely equipped because not only do we attract phenomenal artists, but there is a real intellectual community here, one that has an abiding interest in music, and the students we attract are capable of thinking and writing about music, generally at a very high level. We wanted to start a program that would cultivate interest in that and set up the parameters through which they could have an experience that might prepare them for the profession”.
The first step in that process was the creation of “Introduction to Music Criticism”, a fall semester course to be team-taught by long-time Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg and ClevelandClassical.com founders Mike Telin (Oberlin '84) and Daniel Hathaway, with guest lectures by former New Yorker editor Charles Mitchener. The course began meeting for four hours a week in September with an enrollment of eleven students. “It's a chance for students to expand their minds and write intelligently about music”, Stull says. “I do believe that writing about something is very liberating when developing one's own perspective. And it advances the conversation about the importance of art to all of us, and that can take place in many forms”.
Intensive exercises in comparative listening and critical writing about music were designed to prepare the students for participation in the four-day Rubin Institute from January 18-21, when ten students (Rubin Fellows) will work with five invited critics (Alex Ross of The New Yorker, Anne Midgette of The Washington Post, Heidi Waleson of The Wall Street Journal, Tim Page of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism, and retired New York Times critic John Rockwell) and will attend write reviews of live performances by The Cleveland Orchestra, pianist Jeremy Denk, Apollo's Fire and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).
One Fellow will be awarded the $10,000 Rubin Prize in Music Criticism selected by Dean Stull (left), Mr. Rubin and the Institute's Writers Panel. The Rubin Prize, which may be used to support further study or internships in the field of music criticism, and which will be dispersed over a two-year period, will be awarded on Sunday, January 22 at 11 am.
David Stull's vision of the Institute includes bringing performers and critics into a conversation. “We have the opportunity to see an extraordinary array of artists in very different genres — and I'm proud to say, all with substantial Oberlin connections — a family, part of whom are on the stage and part are writing about music. Then it requires a discourse to bring those two together”.
The public is invited to be part of that conversation: each concert will be followed the next day by a public panel discussion with the artists. “I am excited about having the musicians and the critics in the same room”, says Stull, “and come what may, that is where the rubber is going to meet the road. It will create for everyone a conversation about how music is functioning in culture and why it is important to us”.
Audience members will also be invited to submit reviews of the first three performances to be read by local critics Donald Rosenberg, Daniel Hathaway and Mike Telin. A $1,000 prize will be awarded on Sunday, January 22 at 11 am to the writer of the winning submission.
David Stull thinks that the vitality of the local classical music scene makes such a venture as the Rubin Institute possible. “We are incredibly privileged in Cleveland to have such a robust group of critics to teach at Oberlin and to have ensembles like the Cleveland Orchestra and Apollo’s Fire to invite into this festival. We should recognize that there is so much about it that is centered directly around Cleveland and this region, and that is a real hallmark of the excellence of the work that is done here. Looking at the national and international stage, we find here in our midst, the very best of the best”.
For further details, visit the Rubin Institute website.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com December 13, 2011.
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