Last week I participated in the inaugural edition of the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism at Oberlin, an experiment in fostering future practitioners of an endangered art. Stephen Rubin, a publisher with a sharp musical ear, engendered the project, and David Stull, dean of the Oberlin Conservatory, fleshed it out. It was partly a symposium of present and former critics (also present were Anne Midgette, John Rockwell, Heidi Waleson, Tim Page, Don Rosenberg, Charles Michener, Daniel Hathaway, Mike Telin, and Brian Alegant) and partly a workshop for student fellows (ten young writers from the Oberlin community). Oberlin set up a starry array of concerts for the student critics to judge: performances by the Cleveland Orchestra, Jeremy Denk, Apollo's Fire, and ICE. On Sunday, we selected one winner (Jacob Street) and one very honorable mention (Megan Emberton). The generous prizes that they receive are designed to enable travel abroad.
I didn't know until the proceedings were under way that the prize was partly inspired by one of my own crucial early experiences as a critic. When I started out as an exceedingly junior, free-lance critic at the New York Times, in the early nineties, I had traveled once to the British Isles but had never been to continental Europe. One day in 1994 I was talking to John Rockwell, who had just returned from a stint as the Times's European cultural correspondent, and he more or less commanded me to go abroad — not just a five-day jaunt to Salzburg, or what have you, but an extended trip. I remember John telling me that it was the kind of thing I could do only when I was still young. I persuaded the Times to buy me a rail pass and give me a thousand-dollar advance; somehow, I survived on that amount for the entire summer of 1995, sleeping in various fleabag hotels and on various friends' couches. I went to Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Hamburg, Prague, Terezín, Garmisch, Lockenhaus, Vienna, Paris, London, Aldeburgh, Glyndebourne, Helsinki, and Tallinn, sending in reports to the Times. At the end of the summer, I wrote an essay on musical observances of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II; that article, edited by James Oestreich, became the germ of The Rest Is Noise. I'll always be grateful to John for giving me a life-altering piece of advice.
In my address at Oberlin, I quoted E. M. Forster's lecture on criticism at Harvard in 1947: "The critic ought to combine Mephistopheles with the archangels, experience with innocence. He ought to know everything inside out, and yet be surprised.”