The great Martin Bernheimer is 75 today. The hour has arrived, and though I intended to conduct a fresh interview, my schedule intervened. I have been in touch with him via email this morning, however, and he is his usual, lovable self. ( “I think one (interview) every 70 years is plenty,” he said, when I told him of my frustrated plans. “But thanks.”)
Below, I reprint my interview with him conducted upon the occasion of his 70th birthday. It remains mostly current. The ending is lost for all time (apologies) in the maw of my old blog:
UPDATE: The ending has now been been restored thanks to the Archives de Martin Bernheimer.
Martin Bernheimer is 70. Sept. 28 is the day. Everyone remembers the name. For 31 years at the Los Angeles Times, Bernheimer was the classical music critic you couldn’t ignore, a writer whose keen perceptions, vast knowledge and piquant prose won him a Pulitzer Prize and two Deems Taylor Awards. This writer was lucky enough to learn the precepts of music criticism from him (at USC in 1982) and then to call him boss from 1989-1996. These days, he lives in New York, writes for the Financial Times and Opera News, and serves on the editorial board of Opera Magazine. The following interview was conducted by e-mail a few days ago.
Q: 1. What are the necessary qualities, skills and talents that a good music critic should have?
A: He or she should know everything there is to know about music, and should be able to express his or her impressions clearly, poignantly, beautifully.
Q: Present company excluded, who are the critics working today that you enjoy reading most?
A: Richard Dyer, Peter G. Davis, Tim Mangan. …And that’s a nasty question. I can throw in some Brits if desired. Rodney Milnes. John Allison. Andrew Clark. Andrew Porter.
Q: Are you doing the Met Broadcasts again? I know you weren’t on for a while — why?
A: I don’t know about this year’s broadcasts. I don’t believe the new regime has finalized plans for the intermission features at this time. I did my first Met broadcast back in 1965 (!), and was a fairly regular participant (quiz panelist, moderator, essayist, interviewer, etc.), until Joseph Volpe, the general manager, fired me a couple of seasons ago. For some reason he didn’t seem to like my reviews.
Q: You have a reputation for, let’s say, tart criticism. Is that fair?
A: That depends on how you define “tart.” But it can be said, I think, that I
never went in much for artificial sweeteners.
Q: I’ve often wondered if you have almost created for yourself a persona de plume – I mean, you’re such a nice person in real life (but I won’t tell anyone).
A: I have not consciously created any persona. Anyone who writes frequently and copiously over a period of time establishes a certain style, a mode of expression, a set of standards, a degree of candor. The reader can, of course, interpret or label these efforts any way that seems appropriate.
Q: How do you feel about turning 70?
Q: Were there any writers that particularly influenced your style?
A: Hanslick. Shaw. Irving Kolodin (my first boss).
Q: Do you remember the first review you wrote?
A: Yes. I was 14, and wrote an obnoxiously precocious little piece on Strauss in Munich (where I was visiting) for Opera News. It was commissioned, but at the last minute it got bumped — or so the editor assured me — by a piece from a more mature correspondent.
Q: Do you still enjoy going to concerts and performances?
A: That’s like asking someone if he or she enjoys going to work. Of course I enjoy great performances of great works, especially the ones that I don’t experience too often. Of course I enjoy being surprised. Believe it or not, bad performances can be illuminating (for the wrong reasons), and interesting too. Not so enjoyable: dull, uninspired, dutiful, routine performances of war-horses.
Q: Five desert island recordings.
A: Won’t have time for music on the desert island. And doubt that I’ll find a CD player there anyway. But if you’re twisting my arm, give me some good Mozart (Bruno Walter), Beethoven (Furtwängler), Richard Strauss (Karajan), Wagner (Knappertsbusch) and Verdi (Giulini).
Q: Are there any interviews you’ve done over the years that stick in your mind, and if so why?
A: I once interviewed Pablo Casals at the Marlboro Festival in Vermont, and approached the meeting with terror. Not because he was a living legend, but because he was well in his 90s, and I thought he might break. He turned out to be robust, articulate, wise, funny and totally responsive. I turned out to be clumsy.
Q: What is your favorite movie?
A: “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”