It wasn't just by dint of his incredibly long career in music that Alan Rich deserved the title Dean of American Music Critics. When he passed away last Friday at the age of 86, he left behind a cultural legacy that owed as much to his enormous depth of experience as to his razorlike gift for spotting the issues in the classical, opera and new-music spheres he explored. As he knew, the pivotal issue was whether or not the music mattered.
I was Alan's editor at L.A. Weekly for 10 years; his last writing for publication was for my bluefat.com magazine. At the Weekly, once or twice a week we'd go over his copy and iron out the kinks. Quite often I'd object to a bit of odd syntax or his occasional repetition of a word, or I'd suggest that he was perhaps being a bit of a crabby apple, too harshly condemning in his evaluation of an artist's shaky performance.
“It doesn't bother me,” was his standard response. I learned to live with it.
What bothered him was mediocrity, or pretension, or lack of imagination. Alan pulled few punches when he felt it was time to flatten inflated egos and pretentious pomposity. And he did this not just because he'd rolled out of bed on the wrong side, but because he really believed that his greatest contribution to the art of pushing the music forward was his ability to speak the truth about its glories and miseries, whether we liked it or not.
Alan was one of your cultural coal canaries; he remained prescient right up to the end. Somewhere along the line he acquired a reputation as a gadfly, a status he thoroughly enjoyed. He'd been radicalized personally and artistically by his experiences as a student at Berkeley in the 1940s, where he rubbed shoulders with many of the future giants of the new music, including Lou Harrison, John Cage and Harry Partch. He never lost his passion for the new and pioneering “serious” music, and helped promote a long list of moderns, including Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. He was also an avid supporter of Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel. And he dug Radiohead.
Alan didn't write to be liked, that's for sure. Yet whether he was effusively praising an artist or tearing him or her limb from limb, he did so with an enormous amount of credibility; he literally had history to back him up. (The story is that he'd actually attended the premiere of Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1945, when he was a student at Harvard.)
Alan told me privately, however, that his biggest joy — outside of the music itself — was the idea that he had provoked readers to think for themselves.
Bon voyage, Alan Rich. And thank you.