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A lovely spirit in L.A.'s music community

Times Staff Writer

Daniel Cariaga, who died suddenly and unexpectedly from heart failure at age 71 last week, wrote about music for this paper for 34 years. He wrote, as many have remarked, modestly. He was old school and never made himself the subject. He chose his words well and with great care. He was concise to a fault. He was a master of understatement. He was content to be read between the lines.

He might have been, in other words, the Raymond Chandler or Samuel Beckett of music criticism. Except that he wasn’t. Danny was exactly the opposite. What lay behind his lines was not noir, not cynicism, not sarcasm, not anger, not angst. It was sunlight. The room was always brighter when Danny was in it. The page was always brighter when Danny was on it.

I’m sure Danny had his dark side; he must have. But in the 30 years I knew him, I never saw it, and no one I’ve talked to since his death saw it either. He was self-effacing. He brushed away his own concerns and suffering, ever eager to give you a wise word of encouragement.

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He was a philosopher of pleasure. He had a highly evolved delight detector. And it was that delight that he wanted to impart not only to his colleagues but also to the fans who read him. Those fans, by the way, included most of the musicians whom he reviewed. Everyone loved Danny.

Critics, of course, aren’t supposed to be loved. But if Danny wasn’t hard-boiled, he wasn’t soft-boiled either. He was himself a fine and elegant musician who for many of his years as a critic somehow managed to maintain a sideline accompanying his wife, the mezzo-soprano Marvellee Cariaga, in recitals. His empathy with performers may have meant he was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. But he had great ears. He knew the repertory. And no one could put anything over on Danny. He didn’t suffer fools, although they usually weren’t clever enough to grasp his backhanded compliments.

Of course, Danny could be as bitchy as everyone else in the music world, only subtler and funnier. He sunny disposition inspired people to open up to him. His wife’s operatic career provided him with an insider look at the business and its personalities. He knew who slept with whom, who cheated whom and where skeletons were buried. But he never boasted of that. You had to pry it out of him, and here his mastery of understatement was particularly impressive and amusing.

Danny’s long years of writing about music are part of the legacy and the record of Los Angeles’ musical life for the last half a century. I trusted his ears and I trusted his judgment and so should historians. But Danny also affected many of us in other ways, particularly through his generosity.

When I started out, writing for the Herald Examiner, Danny immediately called me up and invited me to lunch. He simply wanted to welcome me to the fold, to give a kid, wet behind the ears, words of encouragement. As I recounted this to a couple of colleagues after hearing of Danny’s death Wednesday, they said he had done exactly the same thing for them.

Criticism can be a profession for the insecure. But Danny was more secure than any critic I have ever known. He was not a moth attracted to the flame. For all his years at The Times, he held the No. 2 position and didn’t apply for the top slot when it opened. As a musician, he trained as an accompanist.

I view this as a result of a higher calling than that of stoking the ego. He put music first. In his early years, he told me, he could only write if he put his typewriter on the piano.

Danny loved to eat and struggled with his weight. Often when I saw him sitting at his desk or at a concert, appearing round and contented, I thought of the Buddha.

The Buddha’s ideals were Danny’s. He believed life was to be lived in the moment. In his reviews, he liked to offer up small details, minor observations that made you realize that by overlooking nothing, you had a better chance of grasping the big picture. In his life, he took his pleasures, not himself, seriously. He looked for the good. And he knew where to find it.

He was a lovely writer, a lovely musician and a lovely critic. I know that sounds like an oxymoron. But Danny was not an oxymoron. He made it all work, because, above all, he was a lovely man.

mark.swed@latimes.com


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