Klaus Mäkelä’s path has been golden. Just turned 27, the Finnish conducting phenom has already been appointed music director of the Orchestre de Paris and chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic. Last year, he released a full Sibelius symphony box set for Decca Records. The worldwide press has reacted to his guest performances with nearly lockstep rhapsodic abandon. In one of myriad examples, when Mäkelä debuted at the Chicago Symphony last year, the Chicago Classical Review called the concert “a riveting performance of kaleidoscopic brilliance and whipcrack energy.”
Having read so many rave reviews over several years, I was amazed just after Christmas to read an article by San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman about the limits of child prodigies, featuring Mäkelä’s picture at the top. The article began:
How old do you have to be to conduct a professional symphony orchestra? . . . . Doing so takes a rare confluence of gifts under any circumstances—physical, musical, interpersonal—and some people do start amassing them alarmingly early in life. But that doesn’t mean it’s an uncomplicatedly good idea. The latest musical phenom to raise this concern is Klaus Mäkelä.
Normally one of the more agreeable voices in music criticism, Kosman had penned a rare tepid review of Mäkelä’s San Francisco Symphony debut in April. But to follow up eight months later with a sequel intimating that the conductor was too young to stand on the world’s biggest stages? It seemed oddly uncharitable, not to mention uncalled-for. But even before I reached the telltale paragraph, I had an inkling of what had happened: Alex Ross must have said that it was okay.
I was right.
There, in the sixth paragraph, was a quotation from Ross, criticizing Mäkelä for his “oddly cultish aura,” and predicting that he would one day be “embarrassed by [his] premature debut.” A hyperlink led to the original article in The New Yorker, published a mere five days earlier: “Looking Past the Celebrity Conductor: Hype is buoying the young phenomenon Klaus Mäkelä, but Xian Zhang, at the New Jersey Symphony, shows a better way forward for the art.” The argument was a vintage Ross performance—a contrarian opinion cutting a much-feted young artist (who just happens to be a white man) down to size, while proposing an artist we ought to regard more highly (who just happens to be a nonwhite woman) as a foil.
I rolled my eyes. What bothered me was not Ross’s contrary artistic opinion of Mäkelä. Right or wrong, contrary views nearly always advance the conversation. Rather, it was the call-and-response routine he had executed with Kosman. It was one more (albeit small) manifestation of a phenomenon I have observed several times over the last few years: that taste in American classical music is a signaling cascade, and that the man upstream of everyone else is Alex Ross.
That’s an unlucky thing for the rest of us because, over the last five years, Ross’s writing has become so deeply steeped in the political orthodoxies of social justice that it is no longer possible to accept his criticism at face value. Yes, Ross has an erudite and creative musical mind. I have long recommended his The Rest is Noise as a primer on the musical sea changes of the twentieth century. And the old Alex Ross still surfaces from time to time, as in parts of his 2020 book Wagnerism or his brilliant August 2022 eulogy for the music historian Richard Taruskin. But Ross’s transformation is nonetheless clear. While his work once sought to explain music for the benefit of the everyday listener, much of it now focuses on applying political ideology to music in an attempt to influence the priorities of musicians, other critics, and, ultimately, the listening public. Thus far, that attempt has been working.
Ross trained with composers, and his calling card has always been his interest in composers and repertoire, not just performers. It was in this arena that the new woke Alex Ross first caught my attention. In February 2018, Ross penned a column on the work of Florence Price, a then relatively unknown early-twentieth-century black female composer from Arkansas. “The Rediscovery of Florence Price,” Ross’s apologia for Price’s charming but musically undistinguished output, would set the agenda for a Price revival across the American classical music landscape—one that continues to this day.
In the article, Ross test-drove several arguments that music organizations and music media would employ over the ensuing years to keep criticism of Price’s music at bay. There was Price’s political significance. (“She seems to speak from an imaginary past, from an alternative history of an America that lived up to its stated ideals.”) There was the idea that we ought to regard racism and sexism as the exclusive reasons why we don’t all know the name Florence Price. (“The reasons for the shocking neglect of Price’s legacy are not hard to find. In a 1943 letter to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, she introduced herself thus: ‘My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race.’”) And lastly there was the idea that the absence of Price and other minorities from the classical music canon invalidated the canon itself. (“If racism and misogyny had not so profoundly defined European and American culture, would as many white male composers have prospered?”)
Since space here is limited, I direct the reader to my detailed article on Ross’s masterminding of the Florence Price phenomenon for further details. But suffice it to say, his article unleashed an avalanche of Price puffery riffing on all the themes enumerated above—in outlets from the Washington Post to the Financial Times to the San Francisco Chronicle to Bachtrack.
Buoyed by the mass approval of the critics and undeterred by the indifference of audiences, orchestras nationwide have regularly programmed Price’s symphonies and symphonic poems ever since. The Philadelphia Orchestra programmed her music six times in the calendar year 2021 (more than Brahms or Mahler). Meantime, the League of American Orchestras has continued to push Price on orchestra administrators in the pages of its Symphony magazine, leading conductors like Yannick Nezet-Seguin and Miguel Harth-Bedoya to encourage us—rather preposterously—to regard Price’s contributions to the repertoire as equal to Brahms’s or Dvorak’s.
One distinct attribute of the Price boom has been its relative disinterest in the content of her music relative to her political significance. This trope originated with Ross; in his Price paean, he made do with facile comparisons of her work with better-known repertoire. But this practice is observable in other writings of his as well. When Ross stumps for underrepresented composers, both the quantity and quality of his actual music criticism usually declines. A particularly vivid example would come three years later, in 2021, when he attempted a similar puff piece for Julius Eastman (1940–1990), a black and gay minimalist composer whose troubled life bears some comparison with the ingenious New Orleans pianist James Booker.
In the article, Ross not only reprised the argument that audiences’ unfamiliarity with Eastman owes to his race and sexual orientation (I have my own theory that Eastman’s use of racist or homophobic slurs to title many of his compositions may have something to do with it). Ross also claimed that in Eastman’s 1979 piano piece Gay Guerilla (which quotes the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God”), “The composer is serving clear notice that the entire history of music will be his raw material. He has now become part of history himself, all the more influential for being impossible to define.” I recommend flipping to a random page of The Rest is Noise, reading it, and then rereading the passage I just quoted. It is a sobering reminder of how far the mighty can fall.
In September 2020, Ross nailed a Black Lives Matter mezuzah to his doorframe when he published an article called “Black Scholars Confront White Supremacy in Classical Music.” The scholar at the center of the piece was Philip Ewell, a music theorist from Hunter College, whose scholarly interests seem to lie less in the analysis of music than in the application of critical-theory principles to our understanding of music historical figures.
Ewell is best known for two contributions: first, calling Beethoven an “above-average composer”— a claim that elicited “hysterical complaints” from Ewell’s critics and was consequently dismissed by Ross as mere “provocation.” And second, his argument that Heinrich Schenker, a nineteenth-century Austrian music theorist, whose methods of analyzing large-scale harmonic form remain unparalleled as analytic tools, was a racist (true), that his techniques of music analysis are suffused by racism (spurious), and that therefore using his techniques today makes us complicit in his racism (absurd). It is by using racist systems of analyzing music such as Schenker’s, Ewell argues, that we end up with the “white racial frame” that defines which music we claim to enjoy and which we do not.
Served straight-up, Ewell’s invective might once have been too high-proof for most musicians and administrators, but after Ross amplified it during the summer of George Floyd, it became less so. Consider this 2021 example from National Flute Association Diversity and Inclusion Committee Chair Mariana Gariazzo, who advocated, citing Ewell, for “a new frame of practice. This new frame, dismantled of the idea of mainstream European superiority, may include not only people of color but also other groups that have been historically marginalized based on gender, LGBTQIA2s+, ethnic, religious, disabilities, or cultural identities.”
Ross’s focus on Ewell—at the time little known outside the insular field of music theory—was meant not to challenge him, but to build on his arguments: “The whiteness of classical music is,” Ross wrote, “above all, an American problem. The racial and ethnic makeup of the canon is hardly surprising, given European demographics before the twentieth century. But, when that tradition was transplanted to the multicultural United States, it blended into the racial hierarchy that had governed the country from its founding. The white majority tended to adopt European music as a badge of its supremacy.”
Hearing America’s leading music critic tell American concert audiences that they like the music they like not for its entertainment, intellectual, or spiritual value, but because it helps them exert power over minorities, lands us squarely in Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory. It was reading this passage a few years ago that first convinced me that the music world might have lost Alex Ross for good.
Citing Ewell, Ross advocated for musicians to jettison the “sacralized canon” of classical music. He prescribed that orchestras perform more works by black composers including Florence Price, William Dawson, and Joseph Bologne. “Yet,” he warns, “such activity goes only so far in challenging an obsessive worship of the past. These works remain largely within the boundaries of the Western European tradition: if Schenker could have overcome his biases, he would have had an easy time analyzing Price’s music according to his method. Furthermore, this programming leaves intact the assumption that musical greatness resides in a bygone golden age. White Europeans remain in the majority, with Beethoven retaining pride of place in the lightly renovated, diversified pantheon.”
Ross’s prescription is for classical music to “commit itself more strongly to the present,” since “black composers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have staged a much more radical confrontation with the white European inheritance.” Recommitting to the present may have much to recommend it, but Ross’s racial argument for doing so is tenuous. The one concrete example he offers of a black composer whose music moves past the racialized “frame” of European-derived concert music is Julius Eastman, though he offers no argument for why Eastman’s oeuvre diverges from that tradition to a greater extent than those of white avant-garde minimalist contemporaries like Terry Riley or Frederic Rzewski.
Despite (or perhaps because of) Ross’s tendentious reasoning, his conclusions have been hugely influential. In the Spring 2022 issue of Symphony, League of American Orchestras President Simon Woods—the most listened-to orchestra executive in America by the people who select what we hear at our local concert halls—wrote an opinion column cribbed from Ross. “It is time to abandon the word ‘canon’ and the reductive thinking that flows from it,” Woods wrote, “which slows down the evolution of our art, favors one set of voices to the exclusion of others, and closes off the possibilities of speaking to today’s audiences through today’s voices.” He admitted that the works of Beethoven and Brahms “represent timeless values and the reassuring comfort of long familiarity. But those traditions,” he concluded, “also risk stifling us in our journey to create an art form that is vibrantly alive to the present.” Ross would be proud. (For a more complete analysis of Woods’s article, I refer the reader to my “The Can(n)on Fires Back.”)
It can seem, based on their relatively small representation in classical music, as though Ross writes about black musicians and scholars a lot, and he does. But a second look reveals that, in fact, he writes only about a rather small subset of black musicians—those who demonstrate a commitment to his political project.
Witness, for instance, the near absence of black conductors like Thomas Wilkins (who has little public interest in political antiracism) from his writing. Or, if we compare apples to apples, the difference between Ross’s coverage of rising black soprano Angel Blue (who rates an occasional mention) and rising black bass-baritone Davóne Tines (the sole subject of one breathless Ross profile as well as glowing cameos in other Ross articles).
The difference? Blue, a glorious lyric soprano, is at most a tepid fellow traveler in Ross’s project, whereas Tines is a true believer. He is a consummate Alex Ross type: he went to Harvard, uses phrases like “lived experience,” and tells Ross that “Julius Eastman was Black and gay like me—he’s someone I idolize.” Most importantly, Tines devotes most of his operatic energies to political opera (leading roles in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, John Adams’s Girls of the Golden West, Anthony Davis’s X, Michael Schachter’s The Black Clown).
Ross takes particular interest in Tines’s vocal recitals, which tend to blend his race-conscious repertoire with Bach and other classics. For his profile of Tines, he spoke with the young singer over a “sausage-and-spinach scramble” about the ways in which he “is challenging the conventions of classical music, tackling themes of race and sexuality and expanding what it means to possess an operatic voice.” Over the months following Ross’s Tines profile, the music-criticism establishment joined his chorus of praise for Tines—observe, for instance, this mid-2022 New York Times review, which credits Tines with “honing the recital form to a fine point.” (In his profile, Ross had described Tines’ recital as “a sustained creative statement, almost a composition in itself.”)
In one of the Ross articles in which Tines played a supporting role—a review of Davis’s opera X (on the life of Malcolm X) and Brett Dean’s Hamlet—Ross debuted the style of article he would later employ again in his comparison of Mäkelä and Zhang. It’s a review of two operas—one good, one bad.
One guess on which is which. Tines, as Malcolm X, “mesmerized the audience before singing a note,” whereas in Dean’s adaptation of Hamlet, “I struggled to hear an individual voice—the kind that is evident in just a few bars of Davis’s ‘X.’ Nor could I divine what this ‘Hamlet’ has to say about our time. It seems to emanate from somewhere in the middle of the late twentieth century.”
It is difficult to say exactly when or why Ross became so political and so predictable. As we saw in his article on Florence Price, his transformation predated 2020 and America’s interminable “national conversation on race.”
It is just as hard to discern a consistent organizing principle in his transformation. He tends to exhibit greater nuance when discussing individual thinkers or musicians for whom he has personal affection than when he is lambasting that great evil monolith, “the whiteness of classical music.” When Ross wrote his valediction for Taruskin, he criticized Taruskin’s (in Ross’s view) spurious accusations of anti-Semitism against John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer while still warmly honoring his contributions to musicology. Ross does likewise in Wagnerism—in which Richard Wagner fares significantly better in Ross’s eyes than the aforementioned Heinrich Schenker (who broadcast his racial prejudices less noisily than Wagner did).
But Ross’s approach to topics bigger than one man or one piece has clearly changed. Consider this charitable passage from a bygone thoughtful era of Ross music criticism. It is from an article he wrote in 2013 on the advance of female composers: “The average orchestra plays, at most, one or two works by women each year. Often, such imbalances arise not because misogyny runs rampant but because only a few slots for new pieces are allotted, and these go to safely familiar male names. The problem would ease simply if more new music were played.” Surely, today’s Ross would have a far less nuanced explanation, and his Price article gives us a good idea of what it would be: Misogyny. Misogyny, all the way down.
Ross is as adept a predictor of the political tides as any arts writer in recent memory, and when it comes to industry influence, this intuitiveness has served him well. But he is no longer a great music critic. His taste has become far too compromised by ideology in recent years to be trusted for impartial artistic judgments. Ross closed one recent article on the Ojai Music Festival with the observation: “Sometimes, politicizing art makes it more beautiful and true.” Perhaps sometimes it does. But can the same be said for music criticism? Hardly. As we have seen in Ross’s appraisals of Florence Price, Julius Eastman, Philip Ewell, and Davóne Tines, mixing art and politics makes a critic (even a brilliant one) doltish. A good critic cannot serve both art and ideology. When the two conflict, one side must prevail. Ross has chosen his side.
It’s time for us, in turn, to choose ours. When it comes to evaluating artists and performances, it is high time that we stop treating Ross as a giant among men and see him for what he is: one voice (erudite but somewhat eccentric) among many. Maybe Klaus Mäkelä is overrated, and maybe not. But it should not be Alex Ross who decides for the rest of us.
Photo: Joaquin Corbalan/iStock