The Best Listener in America

Indeed, in his New Yorker columns and on his blog, Mr. Ross has been an early and enthusiastic champion of young composers. He was one of the first major critics, for example, to write about the 36-year-old British composer Thomas Adès, who was recently the subject of a retrospective of his work at the Barbican in London; and a piece he did in 2004 presaged the success of such student composers as Nico Muhly, whose commissioned score for the American Ballet Theatre premieres later this month.

“There’s kind of a great new sense of energy among younger composers,” Ross said. “I don’t really know how to define it. In some ways it’s total chaos, because there are so many things going on at once. But there’s also a sense of optimism, sort of. I think they also see possibilities for classical music.”

In some ways, Mr. Ross continued, “classical music is the new underground. That may sound ridiculous, but there’s a grain of truth to it. People are talking about the power that comes with being apart from mainstream pop culture. You can make a living and get stuff performed.”

The classical performance industry—the opera houses and symphonies and chamber music societies, the conservatories and the festivals—“is this very weird combination of ultra-establishment things, and the underground, especially contemporary music,” says Mr. Ross. “It’s a very interesting, fluid situation.”


WHILE SHOWING THE OBSERVER AROUND THE CHELSEA apartment he shares with Mr. Lisecki, Mr. Ross pulled a program booklet for the 1980 world premiere of the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag aus Licht, which Stockhausen had autographed for a fan—and signed off with a cartoon heart. He also played a recording of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, in which he is heard yelling, in his thick German accent, into a wire recorder given to him by his student: “You mean I should speak now?” His wife is heard in the background, and he barks at her: “The noises that you make are recording!” Mr. Ross seemed delighted at this; famous classical music composers yell at their wives! And don’t know how to work the damn machine!

Both of these artifacts are kept in Mr. Ross’s office, which is home to thousands of classical CD’s and books, all housed in floor-to-ceiling shelving Mr. Ross had custom-built when he moved into the apartment in 2001. More books—mostly British literature and poetry, German literature and (thanks to an article he wrote) true crime—line the hallway; the living room holds his impressive collection of talk-show host biographies (Cavett, by Dick Cavett; I Kid You Not, by former Tonight Show host Jack Paar), which he needed for a New Republic article, and the DVD collection, which is heavy on the Criterion Collection and HBO series, particularly The Sopranos and The Wire. “We’re also very into Heroes and Ugly Betty,” he said.

On top of the television are four curiously shaped gold statuettes. “Every year, Jonathan and I host an Oscar party,” he explained. “The winner of the bracket gets a spray-painted Aunt Jemima as a prize. We’ve won four. We spray-paint them in the stairwell. So far, no one’s caught us.”

The Best Listener in America