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.
Continue reading Happy Birthday, Martin Bernheimer …
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.”
Happy Birthday Martin! I assume that today a Good Time Will be Had by Some.
Great interview, Tim. What an interesting man!
As an older woman, Martin, I just wanted to say I learned a great deal from your writings at the LATimes. Thank you for the education.
Suzanne (75 + 3 1/2)
Happy Birthday, Martin!
News of your 75th comes to me via Tim Mangan on the penultimate day of a week spent in Vienna where I saw two excellent productions at the Staatsoper: Verdi’s Falstaff and Handel’s Alcina. When I hear and see works like this I think, “What would Martin say about this or that (fill in the blank)?” I think you would like both of these productions, by the way. Whatever modest contributions to music criticism I have made owe most to your mentoring.
Hope this finds you in good health and happy spirits and may you have many more good years.
I’m curious if Mr. Bernheimer, since his departure from the West Coast some time ago, has attended any performance — certainly within the past few years — of a group he once spent much time reviewing. I know when he still lived here he had to experience the LA Philharmonic performing in a location whose sonics didn’t exactly put a mix of both smiles and tears on one’s (or at least my) face.
I’m listening to a recording of yesterday’s season opener of that orchestra, and I notice a combination of smiles and tears forming on my face at certain moments. If one has to be a music reviewer in Los Angeles, now is a better time than in the past.
Well, there were plenty of compensations. For one, Giulini. For another, Sanderling. For another, Boulez. Also, a much livelier scene, music criticism-wise. When I worked for Bernheimer (as a freelance), he had four other classical music critics ON STAFF!
Four other classical music critics on staff — would that be Cariaga, Glass, Haithman and you? Or if you don’t count because you were freelance, maybe Pasles?
Random story: Daniel Cariaga’s son was in the same Jr. High choir as me. After one of our performances, he made a point of praising us for our German diction. From that point on, he became my favorite music critic. . . . and then I actually read some of the stuff he wrote, and I felt pretty good about my choice.
Mr. Bernheimer may not have been my absolute favorite, but I could (and still can) thoroughly respect and admire his writing and the opinions contained therein. The annual Beckmesser awards were always something I looked forward to. So Cal was lucky to have him here as long as we did. Happy Birthday to him.
Cariaga, Pasles, John Henken and another fellow who was a composer and who’s name escapes me at the moment were all on staff. Glass wrote regularly, but I believe he was a freelancer, technically. But remember, he had a record column just about every Sunday? Those were the days. (Haithman was never a critic; she was an arts reporter.) Donna Perlmutter was around then too.
It is somewhat amusing to me that among his desert island recordings, MB mentions Verdi with Giulini, because, if my memory is not deceiving me, his one and only (mostly) negative review of LA Phil concert with Giulini on the podium (and he reviewed virtually every program that the Maestro conducted in LA) was of the Manzoni Requiem in October of 1979 – he wrote that it was somewhat rushed and that Giulini was not as “poetic” (his favorite word in describing Giulini’s conducting) in that performance as he usually was in his other appearances with the orchestra.
Anyway, dear Martin, happy birthday to you (in Stravinsky’s arrangement, of course, to avoid annoying you with another warhorse) – and i look forward to reading many more of your consistently knowledgeable and eloquent reviews for a few more decades!
Well, there were plenty of compensations. For one, Giulini.
Yes, and also noting that the newspaper industry awhile back wasn’t in the rather sad condition it now finds itself in, meaning in this era of the world wide web.
However, I am puzzled when critics, or people in general, will be rather fussy or nitpicky about what I consider modest nuances in the way a piece is conducted by Person A or Person B (such as Giulini, etc) — actual flubs or miscues, of course, notwithstanding — and respond accordingly with either enthusiasm, indifference or even unhappiness. But those same people at the same time then not really responding to the sonic properties of where that performance took place.
I’ve listened to concerts of the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic and highly rated Concertgebouw, among others, but because their homes don’t have acoustics that truly wow me, I find my reaction to such concerts being less upbeat, regardless of who the conductor is, regardless of who the musicians are. That’s what I meant about the difference between listening to music in southern California today compared with over 8 years ago.
By the way, since I’m meandering into off-topic territory, allow me to wish happy birthday to the former music critic of the Los Angeles Times.
“However, I am puzzled…”
You obviously are. And other people are puzzled when someone considers acoustical quality of the sound more important than differences in interpretation. To me, for example, the tone quality is an element of music’s FORM while those details you call “modest nuances in the way a piece is conducted” affect its very CONTENT. Would you rather spend time with an average dull person dressed in a fine suit or with a better and more interesting person dressed in an average suit? For me the answer is obvious. The same content delivered in better form would be of course preferable, but when the choice is between advantages in form versus those in content, the latter – for me – are almost always more important. And additionally, when critics more or less regularly review performances at the same venue, mentioning acoustics every time would just be redundant because they don’t change every day, while everything else is worth talking about because no two performances – even of the same program – are ever identical.
when critics more or less regularly review performances at the same venue
Since you argue against the importance of acoustical quality in the appeal of a performance, and mention music critics and venues, I have to point to when the current main music critic of the New York Times reviewed the renovated auditorium of the Julliard School over 2 years ago. He pretty much gushed over its sound. His colleague, the second-tier music critic of the Times, wasn’t so enthusiastic, and was even disappointed by the hall’s acoustics. Two people, two very different reactions.
This wasn’t so much just a matter of varying tastes, but a case of split perceptions in clearly defined (or noticeable) technical qualities. That is, a room with a rather obvious lack of resonance. So when presumably very experienced, very knowledgeable people involved in music may not necessarily be too reliable regarding the fundamentals of sound, everything else can easily become a running argument—including your example of tone versus content.
Personally, I think the music critic of the New York Times is sort of analogous to a food critic (or connoisseur) who has stopped in at Denny’s and wants to praise the Grand Slam Breakfast. So from that moment onward, I can’t help but go “huh?,” and always wonder about the reliability and accuracy of someone or something.
Music criticism is not a science.
First, we need to correct two of Deborah’s latest misrepresentations (regardless of whether they were intentional or not) of my previous remarks: 1) i am not arguing “against the importance of acoustical quality in the appeal of a performance” but simply in favor of certain other aspects of a given classical music presentation being MORE important, and 2) my argument is not about “tone versus content” but quite literally about FORM versus content (this distinction should be made very clear because, in my understanding, the tone being produced by musicians becomes part of a performance’s content while acoustics delivering that tone to audience’s ears remains its form).
Second, if i understand Tim’s brief response immediately above here correctly, what he is saying – and i can certainly agree with that – is that judging acoustics, like just about everything else in music (as well as other arts), is a highly subjective endeavor. Good music critics do know what to say about acoustical properties of performing spaces. But they also know that, compared to crucial issues of the performance they are reviewing, such as interpretation and execution, not to mention the qualities of the music itself that is being performed, acoustics are of a decidedly secondary importance.
I notice the formatting of this message forum doesn’t allow a reply to a reply, so I’m inserting this under my previous post.
Tim and MarK, your remarks lead me to conclude that perhaps everyone’s response to music is very capricious and very subjective. I’ll accept that, but then I have to ask at what point is a person’s reaction not just subjective but also incorrect? Or is an opinion never incorrect? Of when is a response rather unreliable?
It was interesting that when the LA Philharmonic was touring throughout the eastern US last year, most of the criticism leveled at both Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra appeared to be based on technical imperfections in the playing. So were people in the audience (or at least members of the media) being overly subjective? Were they being unfairly scientific or unfairly non-scientific? Were such criticisms of things like so-called clams, etc, themselves incorrect?
Personally, at a certain point I find it difficult to say it’s all a matter of opinion when, as in the example I gave previously, a person apparently can’t even detect something as fundamental — as basic — as the reverberation (or lack of such) in a concert hall. But if the comments of the New York Times’ music critic can be excused — or given great latitude — because it’s all a matter of opinion, then when should a detection of missed notes or the playing of outright wrong notes be discounted because it too is a matter of opinion?
Growing up and studying music in LA, I always enjoyed reading your reviews. I wish you a happy birthday and many more to come.
Thanks to all for warming these old cockles.
Some of the technical aspects of a performance can indeed be described with a certain degree of objectivity. However, determining how much value to give to every technical detail as opposed to issues of interpretation and of projecting the character of the music is subjective and will naturally vary between different critics. Knowledgeable listeners with well-trained ears who are interested in detecting technical blemishes can find them in live performances by any human orchestra. Choosing how to evaluate such imperfections in context of an entire performance is a personal decision of each critic.
Similarly, certain aspects of acoustics such as basic parameters of reverberation can be measured objectively. But that tells us very little. How to determine what length of reverberation and what kind of reverberating curve are ideal? How to determine what should be the optimal relationship between projection of different frequencies? How to determine what should be the perfect balance between clarity and warmth? And what about the right “amounts” of timbral individualization as opposed to blending the sound into a unified whole? To each of these questions – and probably many others – different human ears will give different answers.
Reblogged this on classical life and commented:
Worth another read.