A Critic Who Strives to Hit the Right Note

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Zachary Woolfe grew up in a musical household. His parents were big fans of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and often played their music throughout their Long Island, N.Y., home.

So when he, as a teenager, hung a picture of the dramatic soprano Birgit Nilsson above his bed, they were supportive, he said, if a bit confused.

“I was a serious cellist from elementary school through high school,” said Mr. Woolfe, 39, the classical music critic for The New York Times. He began taking private lessons when he was about 9 and played in all-county and all-Long Island orchestras, and his love of the genre has only grown.

Now, 13 years into a career as a music critic at The Times — he began as a freelance critic in 2011 — Mr. Woolfe has carved out a niche among classical music critics. His goal is to make the genre accessible to readers new to the art form, as well as interesting to aficionados who may be attending their 25th performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

“I think what people are interested in is passion,” Mr. Woolfe said. “Even if you didn’t understand every word, my goal is for you to be drawn into my pieces because you can tell that I really care about what I’m writing about.”

In a recent phone conversation, shortly before he attended a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, Mr. Woolfe reflected on the importance of covering classical music across the globe and the future of the genre. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

When did you first become interested in opera?

Not long after I started playing the cello, I heard a clip from “La Bohème” on Encarta, the Microsoft CD-ROM encyclopedia. I was stunned. I asked my grandparents, who lived in Manhattan, “Can we go to the opera?” So my first opera was “Bohème” at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1995, when I was 11. I was drawn to the whole spectacle of it.

How many nights a week do you typically attend performances?

It really depends on the week — this week, for instance, I’m going to Carnegie Hall two evenings in a row to review performances by the Boston Symphony. A few weeks ago, I was covering Prototype, which is this contemporary opera and musical theater festival. I went to five or six performances that week. And I try to see shows I’m not reviewing as well — as much as I have the energy for.

In the past year, you’ve written articles from more than half a dozen cities around the world, including Berlin; Chicago; Salzburg, Austria. Do you find it important to cover performances outside New York?

We want to present the full range of classical music to our readership, which means we need to cover the institutions, personalities and composers that we feel are worthwhile around the world, not just in New York. Last year, I spent a week in Tbilisi, Georgia, with one of the world’s greatest opera singers who had been struggling with vocal problems over the last few years. That article just wouldn’t have been as vivid if I wasn’t there with her.

How do you balance writing for readers who may be less familiar with classical music and those who are more knowledgeable?

It’s a constant work in progress: how to make everyone feel like an article was written with them in mind. You want experts to be able to glean something, and for the neophytes to feel challenged, but not left in the dark or talked down to. And that comes down to choices about how to describe things and how much insider language to use, like “diminuendo” or “staccato.”

I’m always absorbed by the lively language of your reviews. How do you accomplish that?

There are always lazy, easy ways I could convey something, but I want to push myself and think of the more vivid, visceral, interesting comparison. I have tried to work on conveying more of what things feel like to me, not just what they sounded like.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that classical music will face in the next 10 to 15 years?

With costs spiraling and revenues pretty static, the viability of the big opera company and the large symphony orchestra continues to be in question. For me to say “There will always be music” is true, but it’s also glib, because there are certain things that large, tenured, unionized symphony orchestras and large opera companies can do that otherwise can’t be done or that you wouldn’t want to hear another way.

What do you wish readers knew about you?

It makes me super happy when there’s disagreement about my reviews. I do not aspire to them being universally agreed with. I enjoy the conversation. But hopefully there’s a sense that I’m operating in good faith and with fairness, even if you disagree with the conclusion.

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