By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In 1960, KPFA acquired WBAI as its New York outlet, and I was sent to help run things, as St. Paul to the Romans. This provoked a clash between my California idealism and New York political hardball beyond the powers of my gamesmanship. One day I walked over to The New York Timesand asked whether they needed another music critic. As it happened, they did. As low man in a five-man department, I covered a steady stream of sad, hopeful debuts, usually at 5:30 on Saturday afternoons, when Carnegie Recital Hall could be rented on the cheap, and quite a few first-performance-on-this-planet events whose perpetrators imagined as advancing the cause of new music. Sometimes, however, they were right; my days at KPFA had softened my sympathetic ear toward the early escapades of Yoko Ono, the topless cellist Charlotte Moorman and the outpourings of La Monte Young, whose fortnightlong recitals on a single sustained note represented the birth pangs of what would later take on the name of “minimalism.” I think I was fairly successful in isolating a thread of sanity in these events, even when my presence in the hall represented half the audience.
You couldn’t pretend that the cause of new music was getting much support from the New York press, however. Harold Schonberg, the Times’ top critic, demanded that his one staff member with compositional talent, Eric Salzman, choose between the two hats; Eric chose composition and departed. In 1963, when the Herald Tribune offered me the top job to replace its retiring critic, Columbia musicologist Paul Henry Lang, the only message Lang had to offer at the changing-of-the-guard lunch was the hope that I would continue his vendetta against his Ivy League composer colleagues. I’m afraid I let him down.
Lincoln Center opened Philharmonic Hall in 1962, and its other components soon after, setting the pattern of the cultural supermarket that other cities soon followed — Los Angeles with its Music Center in 1964. Governmental subsidy for the arts, with all its enablements and its dangers, became a reality in 1965. Leonard Bernstein strode to glory on his New York Philharmonic podium and in the national media as well. He even attempted to drag his orchestra into a confrontation with the present day, programming an “avant-garde festival” of music by John Cage, Pierre Boulez and other violators of the public tranquillity. Having no real feeling for this kind of music, he turned the event into a laff riot. “If you can understand what this music is all about,” he told the audience one night, “please tell me.” “Mr. Bernstein used everything short of a Flit gun to wipe out the avant-garde at Philharmonic Hall last night,” I wrote in one of my first days at the Herald Tribune.
Eventually the Trib succumbed, except for its Sunday magazine, boasting its Milton Glaser artwork and its with-it masthead — Tom Wolfe, Gail Sheehy, Jimmy Breslin, Gloria Steinem, Clay Felker and me — which survived as New York magazine and which flourishes still. It was at New York — thanks not so much to Felker’s editorial guidance as to his willingness to leave me alone — that I assumed the freedom to invent the kind of first-person, personally involved writing about music that I did then and have been doing ever since.
By 1970 the skies brightened perceptibly over the new-music scene. Boulez took over from Bernstein on the Philharmonic podium, bearing the news that the musical establishment might have a message or two for young ears about the vitality in the contemporary creative scene. Kids in jeans showed up for meet-the-composer concerts at Alice Tully Hall, and for informal Boulez “Encounters” in Greenwich Village. There was talk of minimalism, and it blended with talk of Dylan and Perotin and Mahler and Stockhausen. In later years, several hundred thousand people would swear they were at the Metropolitan Opera House on the two November nights in 1976 for the Philip Glass–Robert Wilson Einstein on the Beach.
In 1979, New York cloned itself as New West, and I was dispatched here to function for a year as a bicoastal music critic. California’s principal orchestras had distinguished new conductors: Edo de Waart in San Francisco and Carlo Maria Giulini in Los Angeles. Opera was thriving up north, and there were stirrings in Los Angeles and San Diego. I was to find a critic for classical music on the West Coast, turn over the keys to the kingdom, and return to the real world. Instead I’m still here. The new-music scene in Southern California was lively and well-run, yet held in durance vile under the snide negativism of the Los Angeles Times’ Martin Bernheimer, who fancied himself the incarnation of Austria’s Eduard Hanslick but merely ‰ skimmed off Hanslick’s virtuosic vitriol, with little of his profound aesthetic sensibility. It saddened me to attend interesting concerts here and overhear audiences parroting Bernheimerisms in the guise of musical wisdom. From such a dragon Los Angeles needed and deserved rescue. Within three months, Bernheimer and I were no longer speaking, a situation that did not forfeit me my claim to have truly lived.
I made the rounds through local journalism: New West and its equally hapless successor California, KUSC, KFAC, Newsweek, the Herald Examiner of fond memory. The day the Her-Ex folded, I was actually on the Times’ payroll for approximately three hours; guess whose foot went down on that one. Never mind; when Bernheimer finally gave up on his efforts to remake Los Angeles as Vienna West and departed eastward, the Times hired Mark Swed, a fellow enthusiast in matters of contemporary music. The Times came out ahead, I came out ahead, and the two of us now give the area a lively musical outlook that not many American cities can match.