So Far, Still Good

Art by Robert GrossmanAT 75, GIUSEPPE VERDI WAS CLIPPING rave reviews for his Otello and toying with an opera about Falstaff. At 75, Igor Stravinsky produced Agon, a major step forward in his compositional outlook. At 75 -- as of yesterday, please omit flowers -- I sit here in a pink cloud of self-congratulation, examining navel lint and figuring how to get into words my reasons for justifying the title of this small essay in terminal smugness. Critics, after all, don't usually deserve the major-birthday tributes earned by operatic sopranos and middle-of-the-road composers. The only music critic I can think of whose name lives on is the late Alfred Frankenstein of San Francisco, and he was born lucky.

A knock on the door; the wispy, willowy interviewer arrives. "How did it start?" is the correct first question.

It almost didn't. At 6 I could pick out on the piano the tune the cleaning lady sang -- "A little rosewood casket" -- well enough to convince my mother of my musical potential. A maiden-lady piano teacher was convinced otherwise, even though I had triumphantly delivered "The Cricket and the Bumblebee" at her annual student recital. We parted company soon after. At 9 I was sent to bed with rheumatic fever (no antibiotics yet), where for the next four years the only music that spoke to my soul was the Ray Noble recording of "Isle of Capri" on my bedside radio.

But how, then . . .?

In high school (Boston Latin, '41) I got into dangerous company. My friend Eddie collected symphonies on discs you could get with newspaper coupons. He played them on a turntable you hooked up to the radio, using needles that were actually cactus thorns that you sharpened after every side. I blame Eddie for everything that has happened to me since. (He got in touch again a few years ago, after 50 years, but the friendship was doomed. All he wanted to talk about was Sibelius.)

Shortly after I discovered music, I discovered writing about music. It happened in the physics lab at Harvard (where I had gone to metamorphose into My Son the Doctor as filial duty ordained); the guy at the next desk had a copy of Donald Tovey's Essays in Musical Analysis and was doubled up laughing over a description of a moment in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with "flashes of red light from the trumpets." I borrowed the book, read it all night, and awoke in another world. A week later I sent off a zippy letter to Rudy Elie, the Boston Herald's music critic, fussing over a minor point he'd made about Mozart's K. 364, couched in the pomposities that are the lingua franca of Harvard sophomores. He wrote back offering me a job -- stringer at $3 per review. Bye-bye, My Son the Doctor. (After maybe 300 hearings of Beethoven's Ninth, I still hear those trumpets as flashes of red light.)

Okay, speed it up, baby, we've only got this page.

The little bundle of Herald clippings got me into UC Berkeley as a grad student in music. Some profs were horrified that I planned to turn all their revered teaching into a career as a (shudder!) critic; some weren't. I helped found KPFA, the first public radio station, where I got to hurl weekly thunderbolts at the San Francisco Symphony in its pathetic days under Enrique Jordà. Then back in New York -- where KPFA had dispatched me, as Paul to the Corinthians, to bring its newly acquired WBAI into the fold. Print beckoned. By 1963 I was at the helm of the sinking ship known as the New York Herald Tribune; it had just given birth to a Sunday supplement called New York, which has long outlived its parent. There was no Lincoln Center then (nor Kennedy Center, nor Los Angeles Music Center), no National Endowment, no operas on videotape. Leonard Bernstein was riding high, but Beverly Sills was singing small roles at the New York City Opera and Pavarotti might have been delivering pizzas for all anyone knew.

In 1979 I moved back to Los Angeles, intending to stay a year to help New York misguidedly clone itself as New West. That year became two, then forever. Out here I've written for weeklies on slick paper, for monthlies on even slicker paper, and, since 1992, on the paper you now hold, suitable for wrapping chicken parts. I've done quickie radio commentaries and extended series; people claim to have found me on the Internet. But I did my first writing, 55 years ago, on newsprint, and that remains my medium of choice. Writing weekly, furthermore, remains my rhythm of choice.

Is it a life?

It's a good life, and I say that in the present tense. For lousy but adequate pay I get to make my own choices in what to hear and what to avoid; most of the time, the concerts and operas I attend for my column are events I'd go to even as a civilian. (Most of the time, I said.) In my seven years here I haven't once attended an event so uninteresting that I took away nothing worth writing about. At home I listen only on purpose: the slow movements of Mozart's G-minor Quintet and Schubert's in C-major for proof of God's hand; the basses' duet from Don Pasquale instead of Prozac; Stockhausen's Kurzwellen in place of a cold shower. I know many people -- perhaps you're one of them -- who use music as wallpaper. I think they're nuts, and I also pity what they're missing: that chill when Mozart takes his first violin up to a high D and we forget to breathe, and when Schubert pins us against the wall with the intense radiance of his closing measures.

And for posterity?

If I have any advice for hopeful critics, it's simply to write as much as you can, and spend your study time learning about music as an art. I never took a writing course; if my job is to write about the things I know and feel, I don't need anyone to tell me how to do it. The actual writing is the easy part, although it helps to have an editor to protect you from ravaging fact checkers.

So far, I think I've done all right. At least I've learned to stop lying about my age.