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Classical 101

Arts Writer Janelle Gelfand and Cincinnati Enquirer Part Ways

Janelle Gelfand covered music and arts for the Cincinnati Enquirer for 26 years.

It was a disappointment to many to learn that Janelle Gelfand, longtime cultural reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, is no longer with the paper. After a long career of very skillful writing on the arts in Cincinnati and environs, Gelfand reportedly was let go, terminated, fired, dismissed or whatever corporate euphemism one wishes to invoke, with very little notice.

There's entertaining hysteria over on Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc. Gelfand wrote elegantly about her departure:

"It's been a privilege. I can truthfully say I have loved every minute of writing about the arts in Cincinnati for the Cincinnati Enquirer. ... It has been a wonderful, totally unexpected ride that became 26 years almost overnight."

Gelfand departs just has Cincinnati's iconic Music Hall is set to reopen after extensive renovations, a story she covered for the past several years. It's a shame she won't be writing about re-opening day for the Enquirer.

Her departure seems to have been caused by declining newspaper sales, resulting in the regular layoffs that have been cutting down the industry for the past decade.

Gelfand will continue to write about music and the arts. Her work will always be worth reading, whether you live in Columbus, Ohio, Columbus, Georgia, or Colombia, South America.

You need only reach for reviews written by Virgil Thomson, Olin DownesW.J. Henderson and others, going back to Eduard Hanslick (who dissed Brahms and Wagner when they were making new music), to treat yourself to bracing prose. While reading, you'll want to listen to the Gustav Mahler symphony, the newest string quartet or Giuseppe Verdi again for the first time.

I worry about a city's cultural life when a newspaper critic departs. I grew up reading Michael Steinberg, longtime music critic at the Boston Globe. 

Warm and fuzzy he was not — in print, Steinberg took no prisoners (in person, he was a lovely man). He dismissed Van Cliburn and chided Maria Callas. His knowledge of music was exhaustive, and he had high expectations for his audience. 

I would have quaked in my boots had I been a performer facing him. On the one hand, I would have been inspired to give of my very best. On the other hand, Steinberg would show no mercy if the very best had not been good enough.

Writers on the arts and culture matter. Newspapers employ them and tell the world, "We, the Times/Dispatch/Herald/News/Buckeroo, know it's important to our readers to include regular coverage of the arts in our city. We want our readers to know and we want the world to know that our city supports museums, symphony, opera, dance, theater and those who make art. It is important."

Blogs work, too, but the arts deserve to be covered in long-established newspapers full-time, by well-compensated journalistic writers who are knowledgeable about what they are asked to cover. You wouldn't want a crime reporter writing about home design. Arts writers and communities need the imprimatur of a community fixture, the local paper.

Cities that eschew this kind of coverage go down a few pegs in the rankings. You can be a third-class city with good schools and low unemployment and few opportunities for arts audiences and professionals, but you can't be a first-class city. You can bring plenty of people in with sports teams, and maybe you can't draw as many with fine symphony, galleries and ballet. 

But they'll come all the same. They'll spend money, they'll stay longer and, if traveling, they'll go home to say, "The Columbus Symphony just performed a fantastic Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss! Nobody does this piece. It's huge! It's complicated. But Columbus, Ohio, knocked it outta the park. Here I am in Boston/Detroit/Montreal/Los Angeles. Why can't we do here what they do in Columbus, Ohio?"

Why indeed? Sadly there are fewer people in Columbus empowered to tell the story. I know the loss of cultural reporting was a great concern to the late Bill Conner, CEO of CAPA. We need the coverage to get first-class performers to come here. Locally, arts coverage is the purview of very talented stringers—fine writers, the real deal, but they aren't paid nearly enough and aren't promoted enough. And, yes, there are plenty of performances for them to cover.

For cities like Columbus, Minneapolis, Boston and Dallas to go without regular arts coverage is a waste. Such a lack tells the story of a city having trouble taking itself seriously. Yes, newspaper revenues are down. Revenues are always down (When is it ever enough?). What's needed is editorial and fiscal courage, to produce a newspaper commensurate with what a city is and wants to be.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.
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