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Michael Steinberg remembered

July 26, 2009 |  4:29 pm

Michael Steinberg photo by Terrence McCarthy I have many times quoted from the program notes of Michael Steinberg, and I expect I will do so many more times. They include some of the finest writing on music that I know. But, sadly, there will be no new material to turn to. He died of cancer at 80 this morning.

Michael had been a mentor to me, as he was to a great many of us in many walks of music. Not only writers came under the spell of his words, and of the man, but also musicians, composers and administrators. And, most important of all, audiences. 

He addressed all of us and brought all of us together. The last line of his last book, “For the Love of Music,” which was published three years ago, is: “When you do get the right audience, it is a beautiful reminder of music’s power to unite us all.”  That sentiment is also a beautiful reminder that when Michael wrote the notes or gave a preconcert talk, as he sometimes did at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, his doing so ensured that we got the right audience.

Born in Breslau in 1928, Michael was one of 10,000 Jewish children saved from Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport, which ferried him and his mother to safety in England. After immigrating to the U.S., he trained as a musicologist. In 1964, he became music critic of the Boston Globe. 

He was revered -- and feared -- in Boston.  His writing was erudite yet personal and accessible.  He created, among his readers, a community. They fell in love with the music he loved. They rushed out to  hear or buy what Michael told them to hear or buy. But he could also be devastatingly pointed.  He once wrote, I remember, of a Seiji Ozawa performance with the Boston Symphony that it generated plenty of fire but little warmth.

After 12 years at the Globe, Michael needed greater challenges. Despite his having acted as gadfly to Ozawa’s BSO, Michael became the orchestra’s program annotator. Suddenly, people started showing up at concerts a half-hour early to read the notes. In fact, sophisticated subscribers who had lost patience with Ozawa began showing up just to have the notes.  

I met Michael when he was with the BSO, and my first impression of him was that of a brilliant and formidable bastion of the Boston intellectual musical life and tradition. In 1974, composer Charles Shere, then music critic of the Oakland Tribune, had called a remark of Michael’s “so awfully damned East Coast,” and I know what he meant. 

But Michael surprised everyone in 1979 by moving West, joining the San Francisco Symphony as publications director and artistic advisor. It proved a musical education for him and for us. 
Michael continued to place Beethoven and Mahler symphonies or Tchaikovsky and Mozart concertos (and all else) in historical context with a strikingly contemporary attitude. Always alert to the music of his time, he also championed the East Coast academic music he had grown up with. 

But he kept his eyes and ears open.  He found there was room in his cellar for California wines alongside the French he knew so well, and his pantheon was opened for admission by California composers, if they met his incredibly high standards.  He became not only whom you wanted to read writing about Anton Bruckner and Milton Babbitt but also about Lou Harrison and John Adams

He recognized talent wherever he found it. One of Michael’s accomplishments at the San Francisco Symphony was to persude the board to hire as artistic administrator the young director of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society. That launched the orchestral career of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s president, Deborah Borda. 

In San Francisco, Michael married the orchestra’s associate concert master, Jorja Fleezanis, and he followed her to the Twin Cities when she became concert master of the Minneapolis Orchestra in 1989.  But that was just a base of operations. By then, Michael was America’s annotator-at-large. He wrote for the New York Philharmonic. He lectured everywhere.

Michael’s program notes have been collected into three volumes, devoted to the symphony, the concerto and choral music. I recommend them to everyone, so that we may all learn to listen as he did. He contributed essays to many Nonesuch discs.  Those on John Adams operas are among the best firsthand source material we have ever had on a major composer. 

I cannot summarize what it is that makes Michael’s writing great, because he was always full of surprises. But here is one example of him combining historical perspective with modern life.  In writing about applause between movements, or even in the middle of a movement, he points out how common that was in Brahms' day.

“But we seem to have fogotten that,” Michael wrote in that postlude to “For the Love of Music”:  “Applause in the ‘wrong’ place is now a sin, like driving an SUV, eating red meat, and smoking cigars.” 

Reading Michael, your ears -- and your heart -- grow large. 

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Terrence McCarthy 

Comments () | Archives (6)

I never met Michael Steinberg, but growing up in Boston when he was writing for the Globe, he was my first and best teacher. Thank you., RIP

Thank you, Mark, for this wonderful tribute. As well as I thought I knew Michael, I'm always learning something new and amazing about him, as I did from your piece. You can imagine what his loss means to Music@Menlo, where he set a standard for scholarship, eloquence and passionate curiousity that will continue to guide us for years to come.

Mark--This is a beautiful tribute. You give such a powerful sense of Michael--of who he was, of how much he accomplished, of how much he meant to so many. Thank you.

An excellent piece about a superb intellect, and an uncommonly decent human being. A word more about his mentoring...

After I had finished grad school at Stanford, I was invited to speak at a conference on Furtwängler. To my horror, Michael Steinberg was in the audience. I stumbled through and he came up after, offering undeservedly kind comments, other points of view, and complete respect to a young and inexperienced colleague. A few weeks later came the phone call.

He asked if I would give a talk at the San Francisco Symphony that summer. I did, he came again, and it led to a 10-year 'pre-curtain talk' relationship with that excellent orchestra, all of it in the shadow and standards (or so I hoped) of this sweet and decent man. Numerous lunches and phone calls followed, and all were incredibly generous, challenging, and in the best way argumentative.

I think there were dozens like me. From all of us, Michael, thank you.

It was in 1975, not 1974 as he later recalled in his book For the Love of Music, that I met Michael and made the remark you quote; he was then no longer a critic on the Boston Globe. You and I, Mark, were not the only ones who "knew what he meant": he did too, as he reveals in the paragraph in which he recalls the event. He was a gracious and intelligent man; I liked him a lot. My own recollections are on my blog The Eastside View.

Mark, Thank you for this informative and affectionate remembrance. You remind us of one of Michael's most important qualities - his delicious wit - and give us an idea of just how immense was his influence on those of us who play or think about or write about or just listen to music. It's hard to imagine life without him.
-Kathryn King


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