Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 28, 2009

NY Times music critic rips Leon Botstein

Filed under: bard college,music — louisproyect @ 6:46 pm

This is an article posted on a NY Times blog by music critic Allan Kozinn who blasts Botstein for his views on whites playing jazz and the role of classical music in a period of financial crisis. As much as I enjoyed Kozinn’s words, some of the comments went even further in reassuring me that I am not the only person in the world who thinks that Bostein is a horse’s ass.

Conductor Gives Wrong Cues

By Allan Kozinn

One of the nicer touches of Leon Botstein’s American Symphony Orchestra concerts at Avery Fisher Hall is that in addition to the Lincoln Center program book, listeners are given a large-format booklet of notes, essays and vocal texts. Among the essays, invariably, is a rumination by Mr. Botstein, who in addition to conducting this orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony, is president of Bard College and is comfortable writing academic prose.

Usually, Mr. Botstein’s notes take umbrage at the music world’s neglect of whatever repertory he is conducting that day, and when he is at his most convincing – both in his notes and in his performances – his listeners can take that umbrage to heart and undertake further exploration on their own, usually through recordings.

This is a gambit Mr. Botstein has been using since he took over the orchestra in 1992, and it’s harmless enough, even if listeners soon come to discover that the music he has introduced them to is not quite as neglected as he makes it seem. But it’s less harmless when the rarities Mr. Botstein has selected are rare for a reason – mainly, that they are far removed from the composer’s top drawer – or when his performances are so workaday that even interesting music sounds dull. In those cases, neither the composers nor the listeners are well served.

But back to the program notes. On Sunday, Mr. Botstein led a program devoted mostly to music of William Grant Still, who is usually said to have been the first black American composer to have his works performed by major American orchestras and opera companies, back in the 1930s and 40s, when classical music was still largely segregated. A discussion of this segregation and the “arenas,” as Mr. Botstein put it, in which black and white musicians flourished, led him to a bizarre assertion.

“Whites who reveled in jazz,” he wrote, “were, despite themselves, engaging in a form of condescension.”

What an outrageous and ludicrously out-of-touch thing to say. Might it not have been that white listeners who loved jazz were attracted by its virtuosity, originality and improvisatory flair? Might they have found in jazz a vital music that spoke to them, while in the classical music of the time they were put off by what they regarded as abstruse modernism, on one hand, or throwbacks to the 19th century, on the other?

Were white musicians who played jazz, like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, condescending as well? And did the condescension keep rolling down the generations, so that white fans of early rock who idolized Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Smokey Robinson were actually engaging in condescension too?

Until I read his program essay, I had thought that Mr. Botstein would have trouble topping, for silliness, the comments he made during an interview on WNYC (93.9 FM) last week. Discussing ways to find new classical music audiences, he proposed that in the current economic climate, when people have extra time on their hands (because, he said, they can’t go shopping), they might devote some time to studying classical music and other subjects “of no utility.”

Now there’s an inviting way to describe classical music: it’s useless.

I feel sure that jazz’s proponents can describe the music they love in more appealing terms, and without being accused, in most quarters, of condescension.


Hurrah for Mr. Kozinn. Botstein’s words were dopey and pretentious. Also he is about the only conductor around who makes Marin Alsop and Frans Welser-Most seem musical geniuses by comparison.

– Jeff Wagner

We all know our Leon’s foot and mouth are in a warm and fruitful long-term relationship. Rumor has it they married years ago, back when Blithewood was still Blithewood.

Don’t try to break them up. It could only end in tears.

– nm

Bravo, Mr. Kozinn!

Despite the many positive contributions that he has made, Leon Botstein is one of the greatest fakers (If this weren’t a “GP rated website, I’d use stronger language!) of all time.

Botstein is a 4th rate conductor, with the charisma of a trash can. He knows distinctly less about music and culture than he thinks he does.

In sum, Leon Botstein, to use a favorite epithet of a friend of mine, thinks he walks on water, and he is correct, because fecal matter is often buoyant.

Thank you, Mr. Kozinn, for exposing and challenging this self-aggrandizing, egocentric phony!

– Oscar the Grouch

More discouraging in all this is the fact that William Grant Still is being proposed as being unjustly neglected, presumably because he is (was) African American. Instead, one can quite reasonably simply listen to the music for the pleasant competence most of his works demonstrate. He’s little different, in quality, from a host of other composers of his era… color of their skin not considered…. and singling him out, merely because of his race is in itself a form of condescension.

Still and his music do not benefit from having Botstein “do him a favor”. The only favor done here is one of Botstein to Botstein. William Grant Still is little better and certainly no worse than 50 other journeyman composers of the time.

– Andrew Rudin

Will somebody explain the career trajectory of Leon Botstein? It is as mysterious to me as the career trajectories of, say, Marin Alsop and Rob Kapilow, two other boomerangs who just keep coming back, no matter how much we try to ditch them?

– Tim


As a musician who has worked with the “Maestro” I agree whole-heartedly with Oscar the Grouch.

Botstein belongs in Academia and not on the podium.

– musician

My comment is awaiting approval:

I don’t know if Bostein belongs in academia either. He runs Bard College in the same manner as the strictest conductor runs an orchestra. As a Bard College graduate of the class of ’65, I have followed his presidency with some interest. People who step across a line, like Joel Kovel who made the mistake of criticizing Zionism, get fired. Botstein became an authoritarian figure at Bard because he had a talent for lining up major donors like George Soros. I would say that Botstein has as much business pontificating on a variety of issues that he knows little about-including jazz-as Soros does. In this world, money allows you to use the bully pulpit. That is one of the reasons there is so much hatred building up against the rich in this country, not to speak of foreclosures, bonuses and all the rest.

– Louis Proyect


  1. Bostein’s comments seem to me typical of what is found in all too much of the classical music studies scene, and the education world altogether for that matter. As a late life violinist, I encounter all the time individuals who view upper middle aged beginners as a group of hopeless cases, particularly we older people of color who stumble into classical form. I suppose we’re all supposed to stay in our sections, however race or class stratified they continue to be. Never mind what can be gained musically through wearing the classical influences musicians like Machito, Duke and Charles Mingus were examining through the lens of jazz. As a long time percussionist, I view classical discipline as something that can only make me a better musician for however much longer I am able to play, whether it’s my decades long road of Afro Cuban percussion or the new roads early music discpline will take me down.

    But then, that’s typical of much of teachers culture in the United States, forever hamstrung in “either/or”, a cult of specialists humming hymns to the individual that end in patronizing bromides whenever a person steps out of line with a desire to be a life-long learner or take on wider wingspan. Bostein’s comments on William Grant Still reveal him to be the six figure a year hustler in capitalist education writ large, typical of the regimented idiocy that attacks every new learner in this country from womb to tomb.

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — March 28, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

  2. Hello

    I am a composer from Argentina, who currently resides in Estonia. I would like to invite you to listen to my music. Here you can find my work:

    Thank you

    Comment by sebastian wesman — June 1, 2009 @ 5:27 am

  3. Mr. Proyect, perhaps you are slightly out-of-touch with the current situation at Bard College. Those of us who attend the school under the stewardship of Botstein–which, I stress, is a very, very different college than the one you attended in 1965–do not take as hostile a view of the man, and, would probably never term him as offensively or as ignorantly as you have. He is not an “authoritarian.” As far as college presidents go, Botstein is quite lenient and not only supportive of the activities of the students, but endorses the diverse ways creativity expresses itself on the campus, no matter what they may be. (For example, we have a student-run nudist magazine.) Under his presidency he has brought in a new era of arts-appreciation (of the famous and the neglected), academic excellence, and education. We have wonderful professors here, leading intellectuals from every field. (Now, I know, I sound like a prochure. But, please, allow me my school pride.) He has enabled the college to set-up radical high schools in both the United States and Palestine; we’ve founded the first liberal arts college in Russia; and, my God, we’ve even created summer camps for the underprivileged in New Orleans. He has never, in my time at the school, imposed himself, but, on the contrary, allowed almost anything go on the campus, so long as no one is harmed. When my close friend publicly criticized him, he asked to meet with her to discuss her concerns, and did so in a meaningful, attentive way. The students here admire him, honestly, and sometimes playfully, myself included (we all, of course, acknowledge the man has flaws–personal and professional).

    As for Kovel? Sir, please. Mr. Kovel’s anti-zionism–his, should I say, kitsch anti-zionism–was hardly THE reason for his termination. Not only was his rhetoric unproductive, but it detracted from the legitimate argument against the Israeli presence in the Arab world, among other things. Any of us who have attended the college while he was there know well that he was an AWFUL professor. Not only did he (famously, as it’s known around campus) run his classes poorly, but he rarely even showed up! He was not liked around the school, by any political persuasion. (For clarfication, I will say that I myself am not Jewish and not pro-Zionist.) He embarrassed himself as an academic and he embarrassed the college.

    You, sir, embarrass yourself with your comments, and, moreover, you betray your own distance from the actual situation on the ground. I am proud to call Bard my college in part BECAUSE of the radical work Botstein has done in the way we teach, the way we learn, and the way an institution can maintain an uncompromising, socially responsive academic culture.

    Comment by Alex Scott — June 20, 2009 @ 3:03 am

  4. Actually, Alex, I am not alone in my views on Botstein. Here are some comments from the Facebook set up to discuss Kovel’s firing–and these are from a student and from another professor who got the shaft from Botstein:

    1) The interesting thing, everyone seems so shocked by this decision. But it’s BARD! this is what happens, this is the experience and the cost of becoming a member of the bard community student, faculty, staff alike. You are raped of what you believe, of where you have come from, and whatever bit of individuality you have and if you begin to stand up for yourself, they offer you another option…the door!. At least, this has been my experience. But, it is groups like this and the beliefs of others that make the fight worth having.

    2) I agree with the sentiment that this issue is neither about politics or religion, per se, but has more to do with Leon’s style as president. There’s always been a fair amount of bad blood between various faculty members and the president, and he as availed himself of many opportunities, such as financial crises or even more paltry excuses, to make hire/fire decisions according to his peculiar whims. The difficulty, as Noam Chomsky points out, is demonstrating that these decisions are politically (or in my opinion, more likely personally) motivated, getting Leon to change his mind (ha!), or getting the Board to vote against him on a hire/fire decision. Having gone up against this same situation before, even after a hell of a lot of leg work it came down to a vote of no confidence among the trustees.

    full: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=55757456435

    Comment by louisproyect — June 20, 2009 @ 3:33 am

  5. Emperor Botstein has no clothes;

    Botstein, the grandson of Jews who died in theHolocaust opened the doors of Bard to Hamas and other Jew killers. The worst is he lied about it and claimed that the campus was not aiding the ISM and raising money for the Gaza flotillas or training human shields for the terrorists. The man is an overrated fool and liar to boot. That he is a third rate conductor also comes as no surprise…

    Comment by Lee Kaplan — January 19, 2011 @ 2:15 am

  6. Lee Kaplan, you are a stupid shithead.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 19, 2011 @ 2:24 am

  7. re: Alex Scott’s “an AWFUL professor. Not only did he run his classes poorly, but he rarely even showed up!” You’re welcome to your opinion, I guess. My experience as a student of Kovel was that of all the professors I had at Bard, he had the highest standards and challenged students the most. Apart from all questions of politics, the man was a dedicated educator.

    And yeah, Kaplan, what planet are ya from?

    Comment by MB — July 17, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

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