Scoring a review in the NYT

A couple of days ago I had the good fortune of sitting down with the chief music critic for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, to get the scoop, directly from the source.

Actually, we talked on the phone, deterred from meeting both by the blizzard and the new subway fare hike.

It is hard to give a precise idea of my mental state at the start of our conversation. Anthony Tommasini is big. Real big. It’s like talking to the inventor of the wheel.

Well, maybe not the inventor, but the person who decides where the newly invented wheel gets to be used. (The wheel, in this case, is a music career.)

Elusive creature

For many musicians, a New York Times review remains an elusive creature.

You know it is out there, but catching it is like playing golf with the philosopher’s stone while sipping life’s elixir from a straw.

The closest I ever came was a journalist named Sally, who I dated briefly until her love of cats made continuing our friendship too hard on my growing allergic condition.

Imagine a publication so influential that with a single review it can make or break your career. Now imagine the person in charge of writing that review. That is Tommasini.

But it turns out that Anthony Tommasini is a very relaxed and personable guy just interested in music and writing about it. I let out a deep sigh of relief and began.

Be newsworthy

At the end of the day the New York Times is a newspaper, and they cover the news.

Make your concert newsworthy.

That doesn’t mean burning down Lincoln Center or taking a sledgehammer to your Steinway.

Be newsworthy by programming interesting music. Play something from your cultural background that hasn’t been played before.

Possibly by a living composer. If you can get him to come to the concert, even better.

Timing

It turns out that ‘when’ you schedule your concert has a lot to do with how likely it is to get reviewed.

Allan Kozin, the only other music person ‘on staff’ at the New York Times, who also agreed to talking with me, gave me exact time periods.

“There are only so many Handel Messiahs one can listen to in a given season”, so it turns out mid-December to beginning January is a good time.

Also good are June-July and mid-August to mid-September. Oddly, the worst time to schedule a concert is Sunday afternoon.

The Process

Every week a master list of all ‘reviewable’ events in New York is created.

What makes this first cut is up to Gail Slatter, whose job consists of putting this list together.

After showing some concern about this, Tommasini assured me that most concerts make it to the master list.

Then, during a weekly staff meeting, they divvy up what each journalist will cover.

“You can send your press release to Gail as soon as you know about your concert, but if you are sending something personally to me”, he candidly admits, “I usually can’t remember anything more than a week in advance.”

When I express some scepticism about the process, Tommasini calmly reminds me I contacted him with a simple unsolicited email.

Unimaginable power

I am fascinated by the unimaginable power of Tommasini, yet he has an apparent lack of ego or presumption.

In some ways I’m reminded of Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who drives an Acura and lives in a rented house.

On the other hand, I can’t forget that after playing in Carnegie Recital Hall and Merkin Hall, even presented by the New York Philharmonic Chamber Series, I am finally only talking with the New York Times to, in a sense, review them.

Tommasini is right, though. It was simple. I went to the website. Found his email address. Emailed him, and he replied. Yet I can’t but wonder how receptive he would have been if I had been asking for a review instead of asking to do an interview.

So I ask about Tommasini’s own career.

“I am a pianist”, he begins to tell me, but I interrupt with the question: “Did you ever get a review in the New York Times?” After some initial hesitation, he finally admits, “Well, no, but I did once get a review in The Boston Globe.”

Julian Gargiulo is a pianist and composer who divides his time between wishing sabre-toothed tigers weren’t extinct and making paper pirate hats out of his old bios.In between his involvement as fundraiser for and friend of www.diabetes.ky, he also finds time for touring with his new album mostlyjulian, working on his nonprofit 16000children.org, curating the Water Island Music Festival in the US Virgin Islands and Crossing Borders of Hunter College in NY, and endlessly walking the streets of New York in search of people to add as Facebook friends.You can contact him on [email protected]

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