Michael Steinberg remembered

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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