A funny thing happened this spring at the Pacific Symphony. Orange County’s largest orchestra made an unusual hire. It wasn’t a new violinist, a composer, or an assistant conductor. The 39-year-old ensemble named Timothy Mangan as its first writer-in-residence.
This new position was created specifically for Mangan, who from 1998 to 2016 was a staff writer and classical music reviewer for The Orange County Register. A well-respected critic with a national reputation, he is a recipient of several honors, including the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, the equivalent of an Oscar in the sphere of classical music criticism. His reviews are filled with lively and exacting descriptions, and he excels at writing about the aural qualities of music so that a reader can “hear” them. He can help you understand the progression and logic of a symphony, for example, and he persuasively explains what makes a concerto special. As other writers, reporters, artists, and editors at The Register lost their jobs in the cycle of financial woes and layoffs, Mangan hung on for years. Then, his luck ran out.
His job loss wasn’t just a fretful personal situation for Mangan. It was rotten news, too, for the Pacific Symphony—and the Pacific Chorale, Philharmonic Society, Baroque Festival of Corona del Mar, SOKA Performing Arts Center, and many other theaters and music organizations. It might seem a positive move to be rid of the nag who points out all the things you’re doing wrong. If arts groups are being truthful, though, they will tell you a different story.
In a press release announcing Mangan’s appointment, symphony president John Forsyte explained it this way: “The decline in traditional media has made it increasingly difficult for arts organizations to get their stories told to wider audiences as well as to reach new audiences. Creating the writer-in-residence position is our personal response to shifts in the media landscape.”
The Pacific Symphony’s hiring of Mangan is not unprecedented, though bringing a journalist on board at an arts organization is still rare; the Chicago Symphony hired the Chicago Sun-Times’ veteran arts editor Laura Emerick to oversee a digital magazine called CSO Sounds & Stories. With all the online resources available to arts organizations, what’s clear is that even digital tools are not enough to reach potential concertgoers. Why not? Just what is the special value of arts criticism?
It’s not something that’s easily quantified. Good arts criticism is simply one person’s truth, and yet the best writers’ conclusions can be profound and far-reaching. Criticism by its very nature is subjective, but the finest writing also weaves in facts, and these buttress and further the critic’s opinions. My favorite writers—The New York Times movie critic Manohla Dargis, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty, to mention two—put forth well-reasoned proofs, backed up with examples, and these lead the reader to greater understanding of a moment, a performance, a piece of art, an event. And their writing is simply beautiful, standing as its own artful object.
This all sounds more than a little high-minded. It’s a breed apart from the thumbs-up, thumbs-down style of reviewing, and even further afield from the random comments on crowdsourced reviewing websites, such as Yelp.
It’s one reason great criticism is important. Written by someone with a thorough grounding in a subject, it provides invaluable context and background. This kind of criticism stands alone atop a mountain of authority.
The authoritative voice is hard to duplicate. That’s why arts organizations can’t fill the critical void themselves, though they might attempt it with intelligent marketing copy. All the websites, blogs, and advertising create a cacophony of noise trying to get our attention. But it’s not the same as the experts we come to know so well through their essays and reviews, whose likes and dislikes we learn to anticipate. We end up having relationships with critics.
An arts review is not going to save a life. And yet, a review has the potential to have lasting influence. It’s a record of our culture at a specific juncture, a first-hand report that becomes a reference point for historians.
Occasionally, you write something that inspires people to take action, and that is a humbling and powerful experience. When I was dance critic for The Register, I wrote about the changes in leadership and the eventual dissolution of Ballet Pacifica, the beloved chamber ballet that Lila Zali started in 1962 in Laguna Beach. In a commentary, I praised the ballet’s Pacifica Choreographic Project, started by Molly Lynch, Zali’s former student and later company artistic director. It struck a nerve with a group of local arts supporters. Anne Nutt, Janet Eggers, Lois Osborne, and six other women raised the seed money to turn that workshop into the nonprofit National Choreographers Initiative, and they reached out to Lynch to run it. She has effectively raised the level of this annual dance-incubator festival, and it has become a significant local and national institution. It supports choreographers from throughout the U.S. and the creation of new dances. Ballet Pacifica is gone, but this one vestige survives and thrives, its effect rippling nationwide.
Mangan and the Pacific Symphony are still figuring out the nuances of his role at the organization, and it’s likely to evolve. He’s writing a blog and perhaps will do interviews with musicians that will be posted to YouTube. His first article—which was unfortunately difficult to find on the orchestra’s website—was an explanatory piece about Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem “Don Quixote,” which the orchestra played in mid-May. He wove together background about the composition with musician interviews. Frank Terraglio, the symphony’s vice president of marketing and public relations, wrote that Mangan won’t do the kind of reviews he did at The Register, but he might do some commentary. “Just as someone like Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate, helps wine enthusiasts to develop their palate and appreciation for fine wines, Tim will help classical music enthusiasts and culture-seekers to develop their palate and appreciation for fine music.”
Though Mangan is no longer a full-time critic, the symphony must certainly hope that as its writer-in-residence, he can maintain his critical authority, honesty, and distinctive writing style, and because of those qualities he will draw his devoted followers and attract new readers to the symphony’s website and, perhaps, to its concerts. In the press announcement, Forsyte acknowledged that some might consider Mangan’s job as “brand journalism” and “content marketing.” Forsyte hopes his writer-in-residence will strike a different balance.
These have been tough times for journalists; the profession has come under political attack, in addition to the stresses of the changing business climate. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 50 percent of newspaper jobs and 36 percent of magazine jobs in the U.S. have disappeared since 1990. Arts criticism suffers from the notion that it is not essential—an often-heard swipe against the arts as a whole. I think of our culture as an intricately woven fabric. If one thread is pulled out, it creates a hole, which before long causes the entire beautiful piece to unravel.