Critical Condition

alan-rich“Music critics are not only a dying breed,” says LA Weekly music critic Alan Rich, “we’re an endangered species.”

Though his role may be moribund, according to Rich the music scene in Los Angeles is vibrant and robust — enough so to keep the 82-year-old and his walking stick of Indiana pine out to concerts as many as five nights per week.

Rich’s resumé is nearly as extensive as Mozart’s Köchel index: He’s been a music scribe for the Newsweek, The New York Times, New York magazine, and a long list of failed publications from the days when you had to turn a vinyl record over to hear the rest of a symphony.

At the LA Weekly, Rich has free rein with his column “A Lot of Night Music” — free rein that’s well deserved at his stage of the game, the stage when he “owns the ballpark.” On March 23 the Los Angeles City Council awarded Rich a citation (”not the parking kind”) for his invaluable contributions to the cultural life of the city. Rich’s latest book is “So I’ve Heard: Notes of a Migratory Music Critic.”

FineArtsLA sat down with Rich and discussed the current state of music and opera in Los Angeles, the waning interest in high culture he’s witnessed over his long career, and the beauty of silence.

FALA: What are your strengths as a critic?

AR: I know how to evaluate performance values. I’ve always been able to. The most important influence on my own musical education was Joseph Kerman at UC Berkeley. In addition to being one of the most respected musicologists in the world, he was a performer. He created awareness of performance values at Berkeley by performing — putting on operas and concerts of music all the way from Monteverdi operas to lieder recitals and contemporary music — and he made people aware of the fact that they had not only minds to memorize the dates of composers, but they also had ears to listen.

FALA: What are you listening for when you go to a concert?

AR: When I go to a concert I have a pretty good idea of the music I’m about to hear.

FALA: From recordings?

AR: I listen to recordings, I read scores, I think about what I know of the composer from a long lifetime of hearing his music, and I measure what I hear against what I think I should hear, or what I’d like to hear.

FALA: And the actual qualities of the music you’re listening for? The dynamics of fortissimo and piano? How well the musicians are working together?

AR: Yes, how well they’re working together. I listen for musical shape, both in a piece I know and in one I don’t know. After 82 years I know where a piece of 18th-century or 21st-century music should go based on what it tells me at the beginning. And I watch for how smoothly, successfully and cleverly it goes there. I think I know when a piece of music has reached a satisfactory time of ending. I’m really good at that.

A couple of nights ago I was hearing a whole program of piano music that I didn’t know, and every good piece of music on that program followed a curve and came to an end where it was supposed to. That was good; it kept me awake.

FALA: What is the current state of music criticism in Los Angeles?

AR: Well there are just two of us, really, and there are just two outlets: The LA Times and LA Weekly. There’s also Timothy Mangan at the Orange County Register. But the Times‘ Mark Swed and I both have a passion for new music, and realize that the future of music in Los Angeles depends to a large extent on our support of forward motion. Together we can take a lot of credit for the fact that this is the liveliest music center in the country, both in terms of a very progressive attitude toward performances and toward new music. In terms of quantity we can’t match New York or even Boston, but in terms of quality and state of mind I think we’re right up there, and this is becoming more and more recognized by our colleagues on the East Coast.

There was a story in the New York Times not too long ago called “Continental Shift.” It has to do with Esa-Pekka and concerts of new music, the management of the Philharmonic and at CalArts and other schools, and it has a little bit to do with Mark and me.

FALA: Why is new music important?

AR: That’s pretty obvious: You can’t play Beethoven and Brahms all your life.

FALA: But aren’t many orchestras content to do that?

AR: They might be content today, but sooner or later people are going to notice.

FALA: Does the audience want to hear new music?

AR: The audience doesn’t want to hear new music exclusively any more than we do. And it doesn’t have to be a piece copyright 2007, but it has to have a sensibility of novelty and intelligent programming.

FALA: So “new music” can include a piece of 200-year-old music that’s underplayed?

AR: Yes, or a piece of 200-year-old music that is well known but that be presented in a different light. When Esa-Pekka did the nine symphonies of Beethoven in his programming last year, he accompanied every one with a new piece of music that in some way, because of the contrast, said something about the Beethoven symphony.

FALA: How much time do you spend each day listening to music?

AR: Almost none. I can’t take music as wallpaper. I only listen to music that I want to listen to for learning purposes. If I’m preparing dinner or something like that, I’ll have Gilbert & Sullivan on, or something for sheer pleasure.

FALA: You don’t listen to recordings for a couple of hours each day?

AR: Not for a couple of hours, unless it’s a new recording that I want to review. I can’t put a symphony on while I’m writing. I’m a great believer in silence.

FALA: Are you a musician?

AR: I studied piano; I play at it a little bit.

FALA: What do you like to play?

AR: Schubert.

FALA: How does Los Angeles stack up internationally as a culture capital?

AR: It’s just beginning to happen, this whole metamorphosis of LA, and there are just a few people who are responsible, but it is happening — it’s not just bullshit. It’s happening at the same time that New York is moving in the opposite direction. What do they expect to accomplish with 80-year-old music director Lorin Maazel, for God’s sake? And that terrible hall that nobody seems able to correct. Somebody’s got to tell them to stop putting band-aids on Avery Fisher Hall and tear the fucking thing down and build a new concert hall there, no matter how much time and money it takes. Then they have to hand the orchestra over to someone less than my age, and there are a few people out there.

And the same thing has to happen in Philadelphia where they made this terrible mistake of building a concert hall that was no better than their last one, and hiring the wrong conductor.

The LA Opera does need better leadership. It serves no purpose to celebrate Puccini, for Christ’s sake, with three operas next year.

FALA: Because they’re so overplayed?

AR: Yeah, they don’t need it. Maybe they could do it with better promotion. The Philharmonic filled the hall with four Brahms symphonies.

FALA: Up until the ’60s Time magazine had something like six writers covering classical music —

AR: I was one of them.

FALA: — And now it has zero. What does that tell you?

AR: I was the last classical writer for Newsweek. In 1987 I was in Houston covering the world premiere of John Adams’ “Nixon in China.” I filed my story, and got a phone call an hour later: They were killing it for a Bruce Springsteen feature.

FALA: What’s changed? Why did Time and Newsweek have so many writers devoted to classical music a few decades ago, and today have none?

AR: Probably a reader poll or something decided it.

FALA: Then why do readers not want to read about classical music?

AR: I’m afraid I can’t answer that.

FALA: In the early days when Johnny Carson hosted “The Tonight Show,” the last 30 minutes was always devoted to an author. Now there would never be a writer on a late-night talk show. Haven’t you noticed a cultural shift of serious art losing grip over the average citizen?

AR: How could I not notice? It’s my bread and butter.

FALA: Then characterize in your own words what has happened.

AR: I don’t know why it’s happening. It may have been replaced by another kind of access to high culture, it may be because people get their culture from Amazon.com or their iPod.

I have couple of friends who are in musicology at UCLA, and I’ve read some of their term papers and I’m distressed at what passes for studying musicology now because it’s not what I took under Joe Kerman. They’re reading aesthetics. It seems to be secondary whether they listen to music or not.

FALA: It’s theory driven.

AR: It’s totally theory driven.

FALA: You and the other arts critics for the LA Times all seem to be over 50. Where’s the next generation of music critics? You were a 30-year-old critic once.

AR: We’re not only a dying breed, we’re an endangered species. Nobody senses the need for us anymore. Nobody’s going to hire anyone to replace me at the Weekly. I’m there because of my age and credentials, and because I can write a neat column that requires minimal editing, and because they can sell a page or two of classical advertising.

FALA: What’s your role as a critic?

AR: I’ve sold a few tickets.

FALA: I mean what’s your role to your readers?

AR: My role is to create a curious audience, to tell people, “I went to this concert, I’m really enthusiastic about it, they’re doing it again next week, so let’s go.” That’s the best I can do.

FALA: Then how has your role changed as a critic? Have you almost had to become an advocate as the arts have become endangered?

AR: Certainly. If I’m an advocate, it’s because I own the ballpark.

FALA: What’s the future of classical music?

AR: I think it’s goiing to continue, though not indefinitely. It has a few good years left, and at the end of that, it’s going to be doing something different. I think there will always be, at least in your lifetime, a reason to go to Disney Hall to take advantage of what sounds so wonderful: the sound of an orchestra. I don’t think we’re going to lose that very soon.

Opera is going to need a shot in the arm. It’s going to have to get rid of the Domingos.

FALA: What do you mean?

AR: It needs a little bit of a contemporary attitude. It just needs to freshen up.

FALA: With a kind of novelty factor? When you think of the opera singers that become minor pop celebrities, like Charlotte Church —

AR: Yuck!

FALA: — or Andrea Bocelli….

AR: No, that’s not the way. There’s a huge repertory like Kurt Weill’s “Mahagonny” that is still legitimate. Singers can be legitimately musically trained and still come out of Julliard, not wherever Josh Groban came from.

FALA: You said “yuck” when I mentioned Charlotte Church.

AR: That’s a particular sore point since I didn’t know who she was and I made the mistake of going to the Hollywood Bowl to hear her.

FALA: You didn’t enjoy it?

AR: No, I was ill advised.

FALA: She was incapable of carrying a concert?

AR: She was certainly incapable of carrying me.

FALA: What about musical child prodigies?

AR: Well I’m particularly allergic to teenage Oriental violinists. People like Sarah Chang, they’re terrible. They play the instrument, but they don’t play the music. And unfortunately there is a repertory, consisting of the Bruch violin concerto, that makes the violinist sound good.

FALA: What’s it like writing for the LA Weekly?

AR: Nobody understands what it is I write about, so I have complete freedom.

FALA: Would your editor catch an error if you wrote Schubert instead of Schumann?

AR: No.

(Photo courtesy of Raymond Richards.)

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