This interview is posted with permission.
MuseNews Backstage Interview with Norman Lebrecht, assistant editor
in charge of the arts for The Evening Standard (ES) in London (Wall Street
Journal Europe, July 2002).
Some ten years ago, Norman Lebrecht published "The Maestro Myth," a lacerating account
of the outsized salaries and godlike power accorded a few men with no
interest in sharing. In another dourly entertaining volume he
announced the demise of the classical records enterprise. Merciless to
fools, he's acquired his share of enemies --which he enjoyed tormenting
during his many years at London's Daily Telegraph where he wrote a
This March jaws dropped when Lebrecht was handed a plum job: to rethink
the arts coverage of the Evening Standard, London's hugely influential
tabloid with daily sales of around 420,000. His orders were to take
the arts upmarket and make the coverage smarter. Yes, that's right.
Make it better and smarter. Not dumber! Last week, he spoke to
MuseNews editor Manuela Hoelterhoff about his astonishing new life.
MuseNews: What's going on at the ES?
Norman Lebrecht: A new editor, Veronica Wadley, had the idea of
restoring the arts to the heart of the paper and asked me to lead the
project as Assistant Editor of the paper. It was an offer I could not
refuse - minimum four pages a day, rising to eight, and an agenda that
could be as gritty and serious as I wanted. It was also an opportunity
to liberate arts journalism from the arts schedule. Instead of being
driven by events, I lead every day with a major essay which may, or may
not, relate to current happenings. We follow that with a features
page, and then with two or three pages of overnight reviews - fresh
from the front row.
MN: Was there a bloodbath?
NL: To get the tone and content I envisaged I had to make a number of
personnel changes. I hired a completely new team for classical music -
Brian Hunt (ex-National Post, Canada), Barry Millington (ex-Times),
Stephen Pettit (ex-Times). Fiona Maddocks (ex-Observer) is chief opera
critic and writes our Thursday interview. I also introduced routine
coverage of world music - at least twice a week - and engaged two
ballet critics, Sarah Frater and Judith Flanders. In all, I took on
twice as many critics as I let go. In addition, I hired Andrew Renton,
a leading contemporary art curator, to comment weekly on the cutting
edge of new art - one week from Jerusalem, say, the next from Basle.
The ES is no longer a London paper as far as the arts are concerned.
It is an international newspaper that happens to live in London. I
also try to encourage debate within the paper and across the art forms.
There is room for serious writers like Arnold Wesker and Sarah Dunant
to have their say. Fiona Hughes, formerly of the Telegraph, is the
arts editor; she does most of the commissioning. My role is mostly
MN: How have your readers responded?
NL: Mostly with a "Wow, look what's happened." And we have gone
international. We are read worldwide. Our site,
www.thisislondon.co.uk/arts is one of the buzziest sources for what's
happening in the busiest arts town on earth.
MN: And advertisers?
NL: Appear to love it. We charge more per square centimeter for arts
and entertainments advertising than any UK paper - and they are still
fighting to get in.
MN: Any other papers follow suit?
NL: The Guardian has added extra pages and a new books section. The
others are watching warily, sometimes sniping.
MN: What are the important topics or personalities right now in the
cultural life of your nation?
NL: I can't be bothered too much by the nation. The arts are a global
village. The key question is how we embrace multi-culturalism without
destroying traditional cultures. Co-existence is the burning issue of
MN: Tony Blair seems hardly aware there is a cultural life in London or
NL: Dead right. He's a disaster for the arts. But the arts are
extraordinarily resilient and they are learning to ignore government
and seek funding from private sources. The major arts institutions -
like Covent Garden and the South Bank - are less central than they were
a decade ago. Much of the art is happening unofficially.
MN: What about classical recordings. You seem to have underestimated
the role of the small independent labels and Internet....
NL: Not really. Sales and margins are so slim that their existence
could hardly be more precarious. It's going to be a long haul, but
recording is on its last legs and will be replaced by live delivery of
events on the Internet.
MN: Editing a daily and large section isn't all you do. You have kept
up writing a weekly column that now appears in the Standard; you also
host a monthly radio program, LebrechtLive for BBC Radio 3 . How the
heck do you find the time?
NL: Sleep less.
MN: What's on the horizon?
NL: I have my first novel coming out August 26. It's called "The Song
of Names "and deals with the disappearance of a musical genius on the
day of his international debut. I suppose you could call it a
psychological mystery, but what it really describes is the relationship
- the transaction - between artists and non-artists. What artists
steal from the rest of humanity in order to feel part of it.
Basically, it's a love story, with lots of painful twists.