The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New York Times classical music editor – and University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus – James Oestreich takes a buyout and will leave the Times. | January 26, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

I guess the same web-inspired blood-letting that drove The Ear out of the Madison-based print media continues.

In yet another round of buyouts, The New York Times, is seeking to have 30 employees retire.

Among those accepting a buyout this time is someone of local interest: Classical Music Editor James Oestreich (below). He is of local interest because he was born and raised in Wisconsin (I think the Appleton area) and graduated Phi Beta Kappa (sorry, I don’t know his major) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1965.

james oestreich

In fact, one of his professors was John W. Barker, the emeritus professor of medieval history who now also reviews music for Isthmus and for this blog.


Here are several links to stories relating to James Oestreich:

Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry about James Oestreich with a good summary of his career, which includes stints with other organizations and being a concert notes writer:

Here is a link to the New York Observer with some facts and context surrounding the overall picture, including how many buyouts are needed before layoffs begin:

And here is a link to a blog that includes both high praise from colleagues and competitors as well as sharp criticism (for ignoring current or new trends) of James Oestreich’s tenure at The New York Times:

And here is a link to some harsh words from famous and snarky critic Norman Lebrecht (below) along with the farewell letter that Oestreich himself wrote:




  1. Thanks again Jake for a timely alert to a situation I might have missed – and this from a guy who grew up in the shadow of Manhattan, reading the NYT nearly every day! The series of readers comments at the end of your last link in the post are worth a read, in case anyone seeing this comment missed them. On a personal note, I remember when I started my freelance career most unexpectedly at the LA Times in 1988: they had three fulltime staffers who wrote classical criticism (led by Martin Bernheimer, Dan Cariaga), and I was one of five or six freelancers. I averaged nearly two reviews per week during the fall/winter/spring season for two years…then they began cutting back gradually. But as some commenters have pointed out, there are a growing number of online sources…

    Comment by Greg Hettmansberger — January 26, 2013 @ 10:15 am

  2. Michael BB is exactly right. In common parlance, ‘classical music’ is music that takes some effort to listen to, and it’s sometimes too much effort for the majority whose neural pathways are not yet developed for making coherence of new music structures. For a work to become ‘classical’ in the sense of ‘venerable,’ requires both that we can follow what the music is doing through some familiarity with its tonal, harmonic and structural elements, but that it continues to challenge and hold our interest in spite of the familiarity — the ultimate in neural rewards. How can critics help listeners bridge the gap between incomprehension and pleasure?

    Comment by Susan Fiore — January 26, 2013 @ 8:19 am

  3. History, as far as I know. And a George Mosse student, too, Jake.

    All best,

    Andrew Patner — Chicago

    Comment by Andrew Patner — January 26, 2013 @ 7:21 am

    • Hi Andrew,
      I am posting this because it is good info and rings a bell.
      If you really don’t want it available to the public, please just let me know again. But it rounds out the Portrait of the Critic as a young man.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 26, 2013 @ 9:12 am

  4. Political liberals often make the point that conservatives are not really conservationists, especially when it comes to the environment. They are often accused of wanting Big Government to go away!, except when it suits them, like corporate welfare.
    I am of the opinion, as a musician composing in the 21st century, that there is no modern classical music, because sufficient time has not passed such that a judgement as to any given music’s classic, that is to say, timeless,qualities can be reached with any confidence.
    The audience for actual classical music, that is, music which has been deemed such by dint of historical repetition and the acclaim of longevity, is correct when it rejects new compositions as not being classical music.
    Modernisms of any sort are not Classicisms. They could be good now, they might still be considered good or at least influential in 75 to 125 years, but to make these judgments now is the responsibility of the fashion editor, not the classical Anything editor. Serialism has come and gone, neo-Romanticism is hanging around awhile, Minimalism gets some stage time, but doesn’t seem to be gathering much momentum. Experimentalism like post-Cage and Feldman music is still trying to get people to listen, with poor results.
    Pop. rock, jazz, and dance musics are all blending with folk musics from around the world. We are in a Time of such cultural whirlwinds that I, for one, would certainly not wish to be the person deciding which stuff is going to last, which styles and mashups might contain the germ of something lasting, in pop or Art music, or even movies and literature..
    My own music uses elements that are modern, without all the heavy number theory and mathematical bases that Serialists and the Elliot Carter crowd use. It doesn’t sound like Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, either, unless I am writing a historical set, which I have done.
    My opening remark is intended to make the point that , like current “conservatism”, current “classical” music seems a bit oxymoronic. And, by the way, Oestereich is German for Austria. If he wrote about old music, he was writing about classical stuff. If proponents of modern compositions want to be written about, they have to get the fashion editor on their side, or turn the Music thing into the same sort of revolving-door sideshow that the fashion pages usually are. That could be OK, It could even wind up being a Classic, but only Time will tell, and that takes, well, Time…MBB

    Comment by Michael BB — January 26, 2013 @ 4:28 am

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