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Blogger of the Month: Critical Voice

It takes a special kind of critic to note that the audience at a Jethro Tull concert is about as aged as that at a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra. Charles Downey is that critic. Downey, proprietor of one of the most addictive and alluring blogs in the region, is the primary voice on a group blog called Ionarts, an elegantly-designed and rock-solid reliable daily diary of the classical music, art and film scenes in the Washington area.

Downey surprised his audience of a couple of thousand regular readers--and even surprised himself--by devoting a review to a concert by Tull at Strathmore--not exactly standard fare on Ionarts, which is given more to covering a recital by a Wagnerian tenor, explaining why there are all too many performances of Handel's Messiah this time of year, or taking in a concert of 17th century Neapolitan music at Georgetown University. That last review was typical of the insider approach that many of the pieces on the blog take, assuming that its readers can understand and benefit from this sort of writing:

"Reprising the hysterical and naughty intermezzo buffo by Giuseppe Petrini (Graziella e Nello) from their Siena performance, Ercolano and de Vittorio both sang en travesti. De Vittorio's campy antics even had the violin section at the edge of uncontrollable laughter. He also has an idiomatic and funny approach to the Neapolitan dialect, as in a selection from Faggioli's La Cilla."

But it would be entirely wrong to portray Ionarts as an esoteric backwater. To the contrary, the blog is a delight for the general reader as well. Under the headline "Someone Please Stop the Messiah Performances," Downey provides video of the Northwestern University Kazoo Choir and the Hallelujah chorus as lip-synched by a Nutcracker.

Downey started up Ionarts in blogdom's Paleolithic era, back in the summer of 2003. "It was a complete accident," says the singer and pianist, who teaches music and art history at St. Anselm's School in Northeast. Attending a seminar on technology and education, Downey was inspired by a friend to give web voice to his passion. He started writing reviews of local musical events, mainly for himself and for a small community of fellow bloggers. Ionarts, in addition to its reviews, carries an extensive and nearly exhaustive calendar of classical performances in the region.

Gradually, as such things happen, word spread about a place where music fans could find serious criticism and coverage of concerts and recitals too small or obscure to capture the attention of the Post's Style section. "With the unlimited space of a blog and a more specialized audience, there were things we could cover that the Post wouldn't or couldn't," he says.

Downey has added other voices to the blog over time, and now has contributors--all volunteers, like himself--writing about painting, film and the music scene in Munich. About 60 percent of Ionarts' readers are locally based, and Washington events remain the core of the site.

He'll occasionally dip into a jazz show, but the bulk of the entries stick to the classics, broadly defined. The Tull review was an anomaly, an experiment, and was actually better received than Downey had anticipated. "I do have a lot of readers who are very strictly highbrow," he notes, but there was not a single complaint about the foray into rock criticism.

Over time, Ionarts has drawn the attention of local concert presenters and record labels, so while there is no advertising on the blog--"The amount of revenue wouldn't justify the irritation of seeing the ads," Downey says--he is happy to be paid in access to concerts and new CDs.

This is a labor of love, and the blog's clean, smart design shows that. It's not that Downey wouldn't like to make money off his blog, it's just that in a corner of the arts and entertainment world that is itself struggling to figure out its financial future, there just doesn't seem to be much money for a classical blogger. Downey also writes, also without pay, about classical music for DCist.com, though he tends to write those reviews "in a slightly less specialized approach."

Remarkably, although there are quite a few D.C. area blogs that traffic in occasional commentary on things classical, Ionarts appears to be the only daily report on the classical scene here. So while Downey looks to broaden the blog's geographic scope, he expects that its content will remain heavily Washington-centric, which is good for those of us who have come to depend on its catholic interests and smart commentary.

In a tough, shrinking environment for classical criticism in the general press--many daily newspapers no longer have classical critics, though the Post has beefed up its Sunday arts coverage and still regularly reviews many local performances--blogs play an important role. "But it would be a shame for general newspapers to stop writing about classical music," Downey says. He envisions a time when "newspapers and blogs will merge in some way." If that happy day ever does come, blogs such as Ionarts will have pointed the way to showing how to mix video, audio and intelligent criticism in an accessible and easy-to-use approach with plenty of personality.

By Marc Fisher |  December 14, 2007; 7:26 AM ET
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Comments

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Well-deserved accolades for Downey and company.

Posted by: Lindemann | December 14, 2007 12:14 PM

Nope, his blog seems pretty esoteric to me. I nearly fell asleep just reading the opening paragraph of this blog discussing his blog.

Marc, you're kind of like the Howard Kurtz of blogs. Except instead of covering blogs in general, you cover only the most local/esoteric blogs, particularly those that cover unpopular music.

Posted by: Ryan | December 14, 2007 1:02 PM

Just 'cause you don't like it doesn't mean it ain't worthwhile.

Posted by: Lindemann | December 14, 2007 6:26 PM

We <3 Downey & ionarts. Bravo to Washington Post for running this, and sharing Downey with an audience that may be unfamiliar with his writings.

Posted by: Opera Chic | December 15, 2007 11:07 AM

The list of events at Ionarts is, by itself, makes reading it worthwhile. Am very glad to know about this easy way to find out about upcoming concerts.


Posted by: THS | December 17, 2007 5:26 AM

Blogging about a blog. That's just so wrong. Interesting, but wrong.

Posted by: Amy | December 17, 2007 7:22 AM

I do not dislike Charles by any means.
But there's a plain and inconfutable fact that Ionarts has been a four hand job. When it was not, as it was indeed in many an occasion, it seemed largely the contribution of jfl.

I find this unfair. If we don't want to use a techinally less accurate term. Annoying. I'm surprised no one has said anything yet.

Posted by: Consuelo Angio | December 17, 2007 8:01 AM

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