Last Monday, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, a four-day-long workshop hosted biennially at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), drew to a close. After days and nights of rigorous writing, critique, and revision, the 18 fellows celebrated the joy and necessity of classical music criticism, a profession and practice that has been under threat for decades. Faculty writers — 10 in total who represent publications like the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and The New York Times — recognized Emery Kerekes with the $10,000 Rubin Prize in Music Criticism and Lev Mamuya with a $1,000 runner-up award. The ceremony took place at SFCM’s new Bowes Center, which opened last year.
The Rubin Institute is one of the only of its kind left, a fully funded program that covers participants’ travel expenses while convening full-time classical music critics from outlets across the country to provide students with instruction and feedback. The 18 participants came from universities across the country and Canada; some were music students enrolled at conservatories such as the Eastman School of Music and SFCM, while others studied at schools like Hunter College and Stanford University. Visiting critics included Zachary Woolfe, chief classical music critic at The New York Times, and Tim Page, who won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
Between their arrival on Thursday, June 16, and their departure on Monday, June 20, students attended four back-to-back concerts at venues including the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and SFJAZZ. They were expected to quickly turn around reviews of the shows and discuss their work with fellow participants and the critics present.
“It was a great learning experience. I learned so much about my process and my style. I have better experience having worked with the country’s top critics for four days in a row,” Kerekes said. “It was the first time in ages that I put my entire life on hold for something for four days.”
“I was participating in the Rubin Institute for the first time, and it was inspiring to witness the talent and dedication of all the fellows, and how much they grew in just a few days,” Woolfe said in a statement. “Our deliberations were lively because of just how impressed we were by so many of these young critics; we can’t wait to read many of these names as bylines in the years to come.”
This year was Kerekes’s third time applying to the Institute. He first applied as a freshman in college and credited the application process — which required a written review — with stimulating him to write music criticism for the first time in his life. “It was terrible. I refuse to look at it now,” he said, laughing. Even then, he knew that music writing would always be part of his life, whether in the form of reporting or criticism. In youth he had been a cellist and vocalist, but he knew early on that the practice room wasn’t his preferred domain. Nevertheless, he also knew that he wanted his career to be in the music world. “Music is my everything,” he explained.
He spent a summer in college living in New York and interning for Opera News, doing copyediting and proofreading tasks. But he went to concerts in the evenings — over 50 in total by the end of the summer — and reviewed them for his personal blog, “Classical Music Geek.” Although he calls a lot of those reviews “hairy,” they gave him needed experience and helped him hone his voice.
Kerekes’s preferred critical style is to be accessible. “The thing I always try to do is bring the audience with you. They should feel like they know what you’ve heard and know why you loved it or why you hated it,” he said.
Both Kerekes and Mamuya will be offered internships as part of San Francisco Classical Voice’s Emerging Writers Program, for which they will submit one review per month from wherever in the country they are based.