When I was young and ambitious, I decided, after a little more than a year working as a freelance music critic at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, that I’d take a shot at working for the Los Angeles Times, the biggest game in town. I got the blessing of my Herald boss, Alan Rich — he knew that he couldn’t give me enough work, or at least not the amount I wanted — and I duly wrote a letter and sent some clips to Martin Bernheimer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic at the Times, asking for an interview. This was quickly granted.
On the appointed day I was escorted to Martin’s office on the newsroom floor. It had a glass wall facing the newsroom and in the middle of it he had plastered a large poster of Ronald Reagan’s head with a ballistic missile going in one ear and coming out the other, with no resistance. Inside the office was even more striking. On one side of his desk and behind it the walls were covered from top to bottom with photographs, most of them from opera productions, many of them flamboyant and many of them nudes. The display was obviously meant to shock, and did so rather easily.
Martin made an immediate impression as well. He was an imposing figure, big and burly of torso, a large, balding, and heavily bearded head on top of it that was nothing less than eminent, like that of a 2nd century Roman emperor. Behind his large glasses, his eyes sparkled impishly, and I realize just now, looking at a photo of him, they were always like that, for as long as I knew him. He quickly took charge of the interview (I don’t remember talking that much) and laid out the law of the land.
There was a pecking order in the Times’ music department, he explained, watching me closely, and it was based on, well, peckers. Since his was the largest, he got the best and biggest concerts to cover and the most column space. Next came Daniel Cariaga, whose slightly smaller, though still considerably-sized member entitled him to the next best concerts and next most column space. And so on down the line. There were several staff critics in those days, and many freelancers.
“Now, obviously, you have the smallest dick,” Martin said. “You will get the less important concerts to cover and the least amount of space.” I had the job, it seemed, but needless to say, Martin struck me as slightly crazy.
I had met him before, actually, though at the interview he said he didn’t remember me. I had taken his course in music criticism at USC six years before, the very semester that he had won the Pulitzer. Inspired by his teaching, I started writing music reviews for the school newspaper, the Daily Trojan, and thus began my long career in journalism. I showed Martin one of my Daily Trojan reviews at the time; I remember him not being very impressed. He gave me a B plus in the class.
Martin was the reason I had an interest in music criticism in the first place, and he was really my model for being a music critic, at least when I started. He was the music critic as star. I had first started reading him in my teens, when my interest in classical music was beginning to take off. He was indeed given prominent space in the Times and he wrote in a compelling, colorful, hard-hitting and often humorous style. My mother, a voice teacher and singer, was also a fan. His reviews were hard to ignore, and he was widely read. Loved and hated in probably equal measure, he made music criticism matter.
He was included in reference books. “As a critic,” wrote Nicholas Slonimsky in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, “he possesses a natural facility and not infrequently a beguiling felicity of literary style; he espouses noble musical causes with crusading fervor, but he can be aggressively opinionated and ruthlessly devastating to composers, performers and administrators whom he dislikes; as a polemicist he is a rara avis among contemporary critics, who rarely rise to the pitch of moral or musical indignation.” The critic Bernheimer probably most closely resembled was George Bernard Shaw, whom he revered.
Working for Bernheimer wasn’t always an easy thing, at least at first. As a freelancer, I didn’t go to the office much, but filed remotely (at first on a dial up modem, with that horrendous connecting buzz on the other end of the line.) I’d then call in on the phone and go over my review with an editor, often the ever gentle Cariaga, but never Martin. After the review was published, I’d get notes from Bernheimer on what I had done wrong, or ways I could improve. I took these rather hard, and even resented them. I looked to Bernheimer as a father figure, and all I wanted was approval.
I was getting that soon enough though, and my assignments increased in number and prestige. I remember being one of the few (or only?) freelancers allowed to review the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and early on I was thrilled to be able to weigh in on concerts led by André Previn and Esa-Pekka Salonen. It felt like I had arrived, and I knew that Martin was enjoying my work.
When the occasion provided the opportunity, and sometimes even when it didn’t, I attempted to be a little Bernheimer by eviscerating my critical prey with wit and sarcasm and general brattiness. Thus, when given what I felt was a huge opportunity to review Itzhak Perlman in 1995, I opened my Times review like this:
“It has been shown, under strict laboratory conditions, that rats fed large and consistent doses of margarine (in tandem with electrical stimuli to certain cerebral zones) actually come to prefer the taste of the oily substitute over the real thing.
“Similarly, Itzhak Perlman played a recital Saturday night at a packed Wadsworth Theater. He exhumed his usual shtick. He executed his usual violinistic tricks. He gave his usual lukewarm interpretations of serious music and genial interpretations of light music. Almost everyone was happy.”
That is almost embarrassingly Bernheimer-esque. I eventually learned to be my own man, but Bernheimer valued such pugilistic criticism and rewarded me for it. Despite letters objecting profusely to my rude Perlman critique, I got the assignment to review the violinist again just a few months later. And was rude once more.
As a boss, Martin always had your back. He didn’t like people criticizing his troupe of reviewers. He would show me letters he got objecting to a review I had written and never take the letter writer’s side. Assuring me that he didn’t take one particularly scalding letter seriously, he passed it along to me with a single comment written on the top of it in his own handwriting: “Zzzzzzzzzzz.”
In those days, the Times had an Orange County edition, with extra pages covering the area’s news, sports, arts. Early in my tenure, I was given many OC concerts to cover, including those presented by the Pacific Symphony in a year that the orchestra was trying out conductors for the empty music director position. (Partway through the season, I reviewed Carl St.Clair’s tryout concert for the Times.) I suppose I felt that Martin had given me a pretty choice assignment; at any rate, I showed up for the Pacific Symphony season-opener, in which Lawrence Foster conducted, ready to show everyone my best stuff.
I wrote a rather mean, negative review. Foster, I later found out, had been the orchestra’s top candidate for music director. My review spoiled that, apparently. The orchestra’s executive director sent a letter to Martin questioning my qualifications and demanding my immediate dismissal. Martin was having none of it, of course. He immediately assigned himself to the next Pacific Symphony concert and gave them what for way better than I could have done. When I showed up again to review the following concert, the executive director welcomed me with open arms, relieved that at least I wasn’t Martin.
Martin gave me one of the best pieces of critical advice I ever had. “Review the concert,” he said, “not the career.” It may not sound like much, but it had deeper implications. A critic’s job, in other words, is to review that night’s performance, and anyone, star or not, can have a good night, or a bad night. The result was, as a critic, you kept your ears open to the moment, and wrote about that moment and didn’t try to sum up a performer’s career based on one concert.
(I wonder if Martin’s advice had anything to do with my aversion for writing obituaries. I never liked the “summing up” of a life they required. I set about writing something about Martin the day after he died last year, but didn’t get very far.)
Martin’s own criticism was controversial. He could be very tart. He could be poetically ecstatic. He was rarely dull or routine. There were many times when I was angered by what he wrote; there were just as many or more when I was in awe. Yes, he could be wrong. All critics can be. You noticed it more in Martin perhaps because he did it so loudly and memorably. The writer Daniel Mendelsohn has said that a good critic has the ability to dramatize his reactions to art — this Martin did, superbly. Music criticism was warfare to him, you vanquished your foes and celebrated your heroes. Perhaps his most important contribution was that, at a time when L.A.’s music scene was growing by leaps and bounds, he wrote so well that everyone was reading about it, and discussing it.
Our relationship changed over the years. First, I was his student, then a young employee needing guidance. Gradually, he became impressed with my work and became a supporter, mentor, even fan. I would seek him out for career advice; I included him on my resume. I never saw him much, but for a few years I visited the Times’ office every Friday to put together the upcoming concert calendar for the paper. He’d often be in that office of his and we’d sit and talk for a bit.
At concerts, he was hard to find. Martin was never one to stand around and chat at intermission, and he usually darted for the exit the second the last note had been played. If you did happen to run across him and say, “How are you?”, he had a bit: “Handsome, fascinating, brilliant,” he would say.
After he left the Times, he moved to New York, but we kept in touch by email. We read each other’s stuff, and he became a cheerleader for me. I considered him a good friend, but there was always 24 years between us. It was never an even thing. I interviewed him a couple of times, once for my blog and another time for my 90th birthday piece on Carlo Maria Giulini, of whom Martin was a big fan. The last time I saw him was at Carnegie Hall in 2017, where for a selfie we took, he typically had a little fun.
In emails, we’d often commiserate about the declining newspaper business, bad editors and nasty readers, and how difficult it could be to pursue a career as a writer and music critic in this dumbed down culture of ours. But Martin had a succinct, and empowering, bit of advice, a neologism of his own making: “Fuckemall.”
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