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Bowling with the Dean

Sometimes when navigating unfamiliar radio waves, usually on long road trips, I settle on the classical station long enough to nearly doze off, jerk my head back upright and change the station to avoid impending doom. It’s not that I don’t like classical music. I do, or at least I like the idea of liking it . . . The point is, I’m willing to learn.

“You’re the kind of person I write for,” says Alan Rich, who’s made his living as a classical-music critic for nearly three times my lifespan. Alan tells me he writes for “people and not experts,” though the experts read him too.

“I’m kind of the ‘dean’ of the field,” he admits. “I didn’t aspire to this, but that’s what other writers have been saying for a few years, so I guess it’s true.”

Watching Alan interact with his community at the Hollywood Bowl, you see little trace of the self-importance that his dean status might imply. Here and there he spots familiar faces and offers them a smile, though the conductor’s wife gets a kiss. Others come by his box and say, “So nice to see you.” He always answers, “So nice to have been seen by you,” which may be the 82-year-old’s way of saying: It’s good to be alive.

I was a timid intern and brand new to the city when I first met Alan at an L.A. Weekly staff meeting. When I told him I was a fan and that I wished I knew more about classical music, he offered to show me his stomping grounds.

“It would be an honor to experience the Bowl with such a connoisseur,” I said.

“I’d rather be a friend than a connoisseur,” he replied.

Like a good friend, he makes no attempt to sugarcoat Puccini’s Tosca, my first opera. “You won’t hate it,” he deadpans.

The night comes, the lights at the Bowl melt into the dusk, and I’m awash in anticipation anyway. When conductor John Mauceri walks onto the stage, you get the sense that the regular summer crowd knows him as an uncle. “We love you, John!” a distant voice screams, as if to a big pop star.

Like most big pop stars wouldn’t, Mauceri smiles warmly and waves back in the direction of the voice. Though I am thoroughly charmed, my host isn’t so easily had.

“Enjoy the show,” says one of Alan’s passing friends.

“I’ll try,” he quips. “It’s not easy, you know.”

Alan has seen Tosca more times than he can remember, and he’s hardly thrilled to see it again. He knows when every note’s coming, and he recites each twist of the plot with a hint of boredom in his voice. But he attends anyway, just so he can return to the computer in his West L.A. home and share with his readers whatever little nugget he found worthwhile. Knowing a whole hell of a lot about music is Alan’s job. Writing about it, it seems, is his love.

As the evening and opera unravel, a surrounding din of crickets takes over at each sonic lull, and I find myself tuning into their white-noise drone instead of the orchestra. If there’s a worthy little nugget happening, I’ve missed it. But the sudden crack of a cannon (the fugitive in the story has escaped from prison) jolts me out of my reverie, and Alan, who is the only person who doesn’t seem to have been surprised by the blast, turns and says, “Well, I guess they couldn’t do that in the opera house.”

During Tosca’s epic solo, in which she consents to give herself to the villainous chief of police, Scarpio, so that her imprisoned lover Cavaradossi can go free, you can sense that the end is near. Her voice fills the night — robust and passionate as it ascends in pitch and volume. The orchestra climbs a mountainous crescendo behind her until it reaches a mutual climax. The music inevitably descends back to the ground, and, as it does, the mostly gray-haired audience members release a collective sigh, many clutching their hearts.

“What do you think?” I ask Alan as the stage lights fade out.

He looks confused. “You mean, should we go?”

“No, no, I mean about the singing.”

“Oh, well, she’s okay,” he says.

“You were right about the opera,” I tell him, “I don’t hate it.”