Oberlin College senior Zoë Madonna earned top honors at the 2014 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, a five-day, invitation-only competition held November 5-10 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Madonna, an East Asian studies major from Maplewood, New Jersey, bested 16 other students—including several doctoral candidates—from Yale, Oberlin, Stanford, San Francisco Conservatory, and the University of California, Berkeley. She earned a grand prize of $10,000.
A second award of $1,000, called the Everyone’s a Critic Audience Review Prize, went to Karen Baumer, a San Francisco-based technical writer who previously attended Oberlin. Three other current students at Oberlin—Daniel Hautzinger, Jarrett Hoffman, and Aaron Wolff—also took part in the institute and earned high praise from the judges.
Founded by philanthropist Stephen Rubin, president and publisher of Henry Holt & Co., the biennial Rubin Institute is the only program of its kind focusing on music criticism. Throughout the competition, its panel of esteemed critics provided in-depth analysis of the industry and insightful critiques of the young writers vying for the title.
The inaugural Rubin Institute took place in 2012 on the campus of Oberlin College and Conservatory. It featured 10 student participants, all of them from Oberlin.
"Opening up the institute and competition to five schools gave us a huge diversity of backgrounds and ages, undergrads and grad school—even PhD students," says Rubin. "What was extraordinary was how the 17 fellows all bonded and fed off each other. The sessions the critics had with the students were all unusually productive because of the feedback of the students. Their honesty made the critics’ job much easier."
Madonna participated in the audience competition at the 2012 Rubin Institute, where each of her three reviews advanced to the final round. Her outstanding performance inspired her to take the conservatory's Introduction to Music Criticism class, taught by Mike Telin, Dan Hathaway, and Donald Rosenberg.
Her 2014 title follows five days devoted to critiquing concert performances by the San Francisco Symphony, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the San Francisco Opera, and the Czech Philharmonic and Prague Philharmonic Choir.
“I was the last person that I would have expected to win, so I didn’t even have that on my mind until maybe the very last moment,” says Madonna, an avid photographer, singer, pianist, and accordion player. "I was going in with one of the least-stacked bios. I looked at the other fellows’ bios, and they had played with great symphony orchestras. It wasn't immediately obvious to me what I could contribute, if I could contribute anything at all.
"But when I got there, I found that everyone was interested in meeting each other, and bonding with each other, and geeking out on music together. It was a very friendly atmosphere, and I know I’ll keep in touch with a lot of the people I met at the Rubin Institute for the rest of my life."
National critics participating in both the 2012 and 2014 event included Anne Midgette of the Washington Post; Tim Page, professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California; writer and arts critic John Rockwell; Alex Ross of the New Yorker; and Heidi Waleson of the Wall Street Journal. Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times offered the 2014 keynote address.