Rubin Institute: An Affirmation of Music Criticism

Janos Gereben on October 28, 2014

During his decades of work as a prominent music critic, San Francisco Classical Voice founder Robert Commanday twice served as president of the North American Music Critics Association. This is his report on the upcoming Rubin Institute of Music Criticism at the S.F. Conservatory of Music.

Alex Ross and Stephen Rubin at a Rubin Institute event
Alex Ross and Stephen Rubin at a Rubin Institute event

For five days next week, there will be an extraordinary affirmation of music criticism here, happening in the face of the precipitous decline of newspapers and the resulting reduction of working critics. (At this point there are only three, perhaps four, full-time music critics on the West Coast.)

Next week, the country’s prominent music critics will assemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for the next biennial series of The Stephen and Cynthia Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.

With an optimism that bespeaks the confidence that the practitioners must have, there will be workshops for the Institute’s 17 fellows, aspiring young writers; presided over by Anne Midgette (Washington Post), Tim Page (Annenberg and Thornton Schools, USC), John Rockwell (New York Times, retired), Alex Ross (The New Yorker), Stephen Rubin (the Institute’s benefactor, president, Henry Holt & Co.), Anthony Tommasini (The New York Times), and Heidi Waleson (Wall Street Journal).

Leading off the Institute events, Tommasini will give the keynote address on Nov. 5 at 5 p.m. in the Conservatory Concert Hall. On Nov. 6 at 2 p.m., Tim Page will moderate a panel on the subject “Introduction to Criticism” at the Conservatory. At 7 p.m. Alex Ross will give the pre-concert lecture before the San Francisco Symphony concert in Davies Symphony Hall.

Institute events and panel discussions in the Conservatory and at Cal Performances are open to the public without charge, but those before performances require tickets from the presenting organizations.

On Nov. 7 at 7:15 p.m., Heidi Waleson will give the pre-concert lecture before the Philharmonia Baroque performance in the Calvary Presbyterian Church. On Nov. 8 at 2 p.m., Page will moderate a writers' panel on the subject “Everyone’s a Critic,” in the Conservatory. That evening, at 6:35 p.m., Anne Midgette will give the lecture before the San Francisco Opera’s performance of Tosca.

On Nov. 9 at 11 a.m., in UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall, Page will moderate the panel on “Criticism and Creativity” followed at 2 p.m. in UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall by Rockwell’s lecture preceding the 3 p.m. performance by the Czech Philharmonic and Choir.

Beginning at 10 a.m. Nov. 10, the Institute awards ceremony will take place in the Conservatory Concert Hall.

In an unusual, possibly unique challenge, members of the audiences at the four performances are invited to submit reviews to be judged by a panel of four critics, Joshua Kosman (San Francisco Chronicle), Robert Commanday (SFCV), Wynne Delacoma (formerly Chicago Sun-Times, and freelance), Steven Winn (formerly San Francisco Chronicle, and freelance).

There will be a finalist chosen for the best review of each performance, and an “Everyone’s a Critic Public Audience Prize” of $1,000 for the best single review. That will be awarded along with the $10,000 Rubin Prize in Music Criticism for the best review by one of the Workshop Fellows at the closing event, at 10 a.m. Nov. 10 in the Conservatory Concert Hall.


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