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The View From Four Score

Photos by David Peck (1987)
and Alfred Brown Studios (1925)

The interesting thing about turning 80 is how much of the old stuff still clings. In the last few years, I’ve resumed contact with my two best friends from Boston Latin, the two most responsible for my involvement in classical music, Normie Wilson and Eddie Levin. From before high school I have paltry musical memories: failed piano lessons with a birdlike spinster at age 6, years in bed with rheumatic fever and a tinny radio playing dance-band hits. At 14, I modulated into a brighter key. Normie played the piano — better than Paderewski, it seemed to me at the time. He played a fancy solo from the Grieg Piano Concerto at every school assembly, and so that concerto was the first recording I bought. Eddie collected records, so I heard a lot of music at his house. My mnemonic for the opening of the “Eroica” was “The worms crawl in . . .”

Eddie’s records all had program notes, and I remember being fascinated by the ways you could describe music in words. My first records came on some cheapo label without program notes, so I wrote my own. Something about this accomplishment really inflated my own self-image (which needed inflation at the time, since my premed studies, mostly undertaken to indulge my parents’ “my son the doctor” ambitions, were going nowhere). Somebody in physics lab one day showed me a book by Sir Donald Francis Tovey full of marvelous musical descriptions: A main theme in César Franck’s symphony returns “striding grandly in its white confirmation dress.” From that moment on there was nothing I wanted to do more than write about music. In Harvard’s music department there was the spellbinding G. Wallace Woodworth, who could lecture on musical form so that every transition became a cliffhanger worthy of a Saturday-matinee serial. A course with Woody on classical symphonies further stoked my passion. A letter to Rudolph Elie, music critic of the Boston Herald, taking issue with some trivial point he had raised about a Mozart symphony and awash in self-importance, got me the offer of a job as a stringer at three bucks a column. After graduation (in 1945) it was on to New York, where stringers at the New York Sun advanced to the lordly sum of $7.50. There was no turning back. I have all that stuff in a box. Wild horses couldn’t get me to look at it.

Even so, the contents of that box were enough to persuade UC Berkeley to overlook my lousy pre-med grade points from Harvard and admit me as a graduate student in music. I had the idea that a solid musical education might set me apart from most music critics, even at the expense of time spent singing correct intervals and working out 16th-century counterpoints. From Roger Sessions — speaking oraclelike through a dense cloud of pipe smoke — I learned to chart the exquisite logic of classical structure on huge expanses of squared paper. From humanist musicologist Joseph Kerman — soft-spoken and immensely witty — I learned how music reaches its hearers through the interplay of a work’s own logic with the usage of its era. Blending these two kinds of teaching, I learned how to get music into my bloodstream. One sublime example was my discovery, in a Mozart seminar, of the G-minor String Quintet. When I decided to write this article, that one work clicked into place. Thirty-three years ago, halfway between Berkeley and today, I had already found the words for that particular obsession. (See sidebar.)

Schubert was another Berkeley discovery, thanks largely to Leon Kirchner, a fellow grad student and already an important composer. Leon had the magnificence of spirit to tolerate my terrible piano playing, and we shared in amazed discovery of this great composer’s four-hand piano pieces — the F-minor Fantasy, the A-flat Variations — that nobody seemed to know at the time. Thus inspired, I did my M.A. thesis on Schubert, earned a year abroad, and returned with every expectation of a career in advanced scholarship. My Ph.D. orals, wherein it was assumed that I could recite from memory such burning issues as the content of the card catalogs of major libraries, suggested the necessity of finding other paths.

Actually, I had already embarked on one. Berkeley in the 1950s was the home of KPFA, the first-ever venture in non-commercial, listener-supported broadcasting, with all the maverick programming those concepts entailed. I joined the staff after returning from Europe, resigned a few months later, then came back after one of the frequent palace revolts. Our doors were open to politicians and philosophers of all stripes, and to composers as well; I encountered new music and its creators not on the UC campus but down the hill in KPFA’s makeshift studios: Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Ravi Shankar. I put Pierre Boulez on the air during his first American visit, and I cherish my tape of three local composers totally undone by every one of this arrogant young Frenchman’s revolutionist theories. The San Francisco Symphony was in the hands of an inadequate conductor named Enrique Jordá, whom the society dames adored and whom the newspaper critics at least tolerated. I didn’t, in my weekly tirades, and one of KPFA’s major donors, J.D. Zellerbach of the toilet-paper millions, threatened to withdraw his support. KPFA’s founder, the visionary Lewis Hill, told him to climb a tree.

 

 

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 Times and 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.

When I arrived in Los Angeles, the musical power structure was uniquely strong and active, and it gave the lie to the suspicions my New York friends frequently voiced, that I was out of my mind to give up a power job in the East and move out to where nothing ever happens. The Philharmonic’s Ernest Fleischmann had taken unto himself a lot of the music director’s prerogatives, which had made Giulini happy and, before him, Zubin Mehta. It enabled Fleischmann to scour the world for young talent: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Simon Rattle on the podium, and the lamented Robert Harth in the front office. It also encouraged Fleischmann to create brave new programs like the “Green Umbrella” series, and promote them properly. Lawrence Morton was still on hand here; he had run adventurous new-music concerts, first as “Evenings on the Roof” on a rooftop studio in Silver Lake in 1939, now as the “Monday Evening Concerts” at the County Museum (where they’re still going on, under Dorrance Stalvey’s astute leadership). Leonard Stein, Arnold Schoenberg’s right-hand assistant at one time, ran the Schoenberg Institute at USC and organized musical events and symposia all over town. And Betty Freeman spent her money wisely to pay composers’ rent and underwrite recordings of their music, and invited them to her home to talk about their music to small gatherings and have it performed by excellent local musicians.

Win a few, lose a few. Los Angeles finally gained its long-overdue professional opera company, although there was some ominous symbolism in the fact that the opening-night curtain on the company’s first-ever performance, in October 1986, stuck halfway up and resisted all efforts at dislodging for several throat-tightening minutes. Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena’s ideal small concert hall, was shuttered in the collapse of its fundamentalist governing board and looms unused to this day. The excellent Sequoia String Quartet fell victim to internal dissent, as did the well-attended Chamber Music L.A. concert series at the Japan America. After two or three exhilarating seasons of amazing fare brought in from all over — including Osvaldo Golijov’s St. Mark Passion and György Ligeti’s Piece for 100 Metronomes — Orange County’s Eclectic Orange Festival appears to have been squeezed dry, from the look of next season’s ordinary playlist. Inside and out, however, Walt Disney Concert Hall sounds almost as good as it looks, and gives the concept of music in Los Angeles an enhanced stature at a time when that kind of boost is sorely needed.

 

Music, it is an open secret, is in bad shape: orchestras folding, composers reduced to waiting on tables. Criticism, oddly enough, may be in better shape, so long as people realize why it’s important. I write criticism as a way of reporting on the rise and fall of the cultural health of the community. Sure, most of the events I write about are history by the time my report gets into print. What remains, I like to think, is the extent of my reaction: The fact that I got worked up about Esa-Pekka Salonen’s performance of such-and-such a new work, or Mitsuko Uchida’s way with a Schubert sonata, or Robert Wilson’s staging of Madama Butterfly, will make people want to experience these people’s work the next time around. A city that can support, and fill, a Walt Disney Concert Hall night after night — and can turn out in fair numbers for an all-Bartók concert at the County Museum, and for Jordi Savall’s viola da gamba at the Getty — is the city I feel like writing to, sharing my enthusiasms with. When I run out of great performances to write about, there is always great music to be discovered and, a few years later, rediscovered. I don’t think I will ever run out of new things to discover in the Beethoven “Eroica.” Or that Mozart quintet. Or Renée Fleming singing Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume.” Or . . .

 

When New York magazine gave me a page of my own, with the implication that I could be trusted to write about whatever interested me so long as I kept the magazine out of the courts, I succumbed to the delusion that I knew something about everything. Those early pages, which I keep as a kind of memento mori, contain some pretty embarrassing stuff from beyond my field of awareness, about Balanchine’s choreography and rock & roll. I got a free trip to London from RCA to hear its new star David Bowie, and came back with a clever headline — “I’ve Been to London To Visit the Queen” — and no valid information at all. My worst howler, long before New York, was to condemn Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms as “sentimental.” (It didn’t, you see, sound like the Rite of Spring, which was the only Stravinsky I knew.)


Rich in 2004
(Photo by Debra DiPaolo)

If I’ve learned anything over the past few decades, it has been that there is nothing disgraceful in recognizing one’s own limitations and operating within them. My admirable colleague, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross — 45 years younger by his own admission — is doing now, wisely, what I tried to do, unwisely, back then. With the background and the breadth of intellect that I only imagined I possessed, he has reinvented musical criticism and made it stick, relocating the boundaries of the territory so that he can write about Sonic Youth and the Beethoven Fifth and locate them exactly in the broader scheme of things. His long article from last February, “Listen to This,” a map of the territory brilliantly plotted and drawn, is on his Web site (www.therestis noise.com), and it’s required reading. It tells me, as clearly as any evidence I’ve come across in a very long time, that there’s hope for us, after all, and for music, too. So far, in other words, so good.

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