Classical music doesn't exactly make it into the newspaper these days. You'd almost never know that there's a thriving community of performers in the Triangle playing in orchestras and singing in choirs, performing dance and opera and chamber music. If you want to know what's playing, Classical Voice of North Carolina is the place to go. The online review has published more than 1,000 reviews in its four years, covering the performing arts across the state. And while it might not be a money-maker, CVNC is serving a large, diverse artistic community that's almost entirely neglected by other local media.
That need arose as newspapers--including this one--began to cut back on coverage of classical music, dance, opera and theater. John Lambert was a classical music critic at the Spectator until it dropped classical coverage altogether in 2001. Meanwhile, his friends Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn, freelance critics for the Independent, were frustrated with the loss of space and the flagging interest of their editors.
One evening before a concert, Lambert, the Kahns and another critic, Bill Walker, were standing in the lobby of Hill Hall, UNC's music auditorium, with musicians and arts supporters when someone asked where they would be writing. "We all sort of stood there with our mouths hanging open, and then someone piped up and said, 'Well, what are you going to do about it?'"
Lambert knew a fellow music critic named Robert Commanday who in 1998 launched San Francisco Classical Voice. "It was the first large-scale, multi-critic, online, nonprofit journal of its kind," Lambert says. He got his friends excited about the idea. "The four of us thought, why don't we just start this thing?"
They knew calendars would be key. Compiling the calendar is typically grunt work assigned to a junior staff member. But Lambert had the idea that detailed calendars compiled by knowledgeable people could be a service to readers and arts groups alike.
They set up CVNC as a nonprofit with seed grants from the AJ Fletcher Foundation and Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, and the site launched in fall 2001.
"John is indefatigable," says Elizabeth Kahn. "This has been a real mission for him. He believes in it and he believes in music criticism in a way that is really his passion, and because of that he has been willing to do virtually all of the grunt work this site has required." Lambert combs community newspapers across the state for performing arts listings, then e-mails them asking if they'd like to be listed on the site. He is the primary editor, fundraiser, grant writer, proofreader, link-checker--you name it--and he does it without remuneration, while holding a full-time job with the state. "If it weren't for John, there would be no CVNC," Kahn says.
But paying the critics is a priority for CVNC. Out of last year's operating budget of $18,600, $18,000 went to pay writers. Lambert believes compensating the writers is crucial to maintaining a high level of professional integrity, and that criticism in turn is crucial to the support of the creative community.
Lambert's love of music began at home in Raleigh. His mother was a musician and teacher. "She was in the back of the trenches of orchestras and bands and so on." After going through ROTC at UNC, Lambert was called up for the Navy, got married and was shipped off to Vietnam. "Frankly, I never expected to come home. But I did." After taking graduate courses at UNC, Lambert began writing classical music reviews for the News & Observer in 1977. He took a day job at a farm equipment dealer. "When I first started writing chamber music reviews, people would come up to me at string quartet concerts and I'd be wearing my cowboy buckle and cowboy boots, and they'd say, 'What do you do for a living?' And I'd say, 'Oh, I'm in the tractor business.'"
Writing was the perfect creative outlet, he says. "I felt that I could make a contribution doing this. If you just keep at it," he adds, "you develop a sense of the tradition and the history and how the arts are developing."
CVNC continues to expand, both in geography (with writers in the Triad and in the western and eastern parts of the state) and in genre. Lambert wants to find critics to cover modern dance, world music and jazz. A redesign last November has boosted traffic, which averages 327,000 hits per month, and made Lambert's work a little easier. "Most startups go out of business in a year," he says. "The fact that this one has been as well supported as it has been and the readership as good as it is tells me that we're filling a need in the community. And that in its own is gratifying and more than ample compensation for me."
Arts Web sites based on the same model have popped up across the country in the past four years, says Commanday, "but very few that can be considered institutions of professional journalism on par with CVNC. His commitment to step in and fill the void caused by the print media's diminished arts coverage is of incalculable value to the larger community CVNC serves. For this, John Lambert is nothing less than a state treasure."
For more information, visit the Classical Voices Web site at www.cvnc.org.