Alan Rich was a music critic, and the last American critic to have heard Artur Schnabel, and who attended the premiere of Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1945, when he was a student at Harvard. The passing of that musical knowledge marks something in our nation’s musical life. There was no middle ground with Alan—a performance either moved him, or left him cold, and it was the same with performers, composers and their works. Music mattered deeply to him, and his standards for the writing about it were entirely as high, if not even more stringent, than what he expected of the people onstage.
Alan’s journalistic career serves as a convenient guide to the journalism profession in the back half of the twentieth century to the present. He moved to Los Angeles in the ’70s after writing for years in New York for the New York Herald-Examiner and then New York magazine. The original plan, as he told me one pre-concert evening, was that he was going out there to cover the city for a magazine to be spun off from New York. So he went west, liked it, and decided to stay. I’m pulling this all from the memory banks, so it may not be entirely accurate. But Alan did grow to love Los Angeles, and its people. With his black leather jacket, though, he never really left the pugnacious world of New York.
The magazine folded, Rich moved on to other publications, which folded, and the final blow was when he was fired in 2008 from his LA Weekly column, “A Lot of Night Music,” which summarized a week’s worth of concert activity. He started his blog So I’ve Heard, which took its name from a 2006 collection of his columns, and wrote the occasional piece for Variety. It couldn’t have been an easy existence, but he seemed to love it.
I think Alan exemplified more than any other critic, certainly any classical-music critic, Kenneth Tynan’s dictum that a critic’s job consists of “destroying the bad to make way for the good.” Alan could destroy a performer on the page, ditto a composer or a work. He had no patience at all for Sibelius’s Violin Concerto (“[t]hat wispy gray nagging tune for solo violin…awash in a thin orchestral gruel”), or for showboating stars. The negative opinions gave teeth to the positive notices, proof that this wasn’t someone who handed out gold stars week after week.
Just as he could be negative, so he could write a rave like few others. Los Angeles’ series of contemporary piano music, Piano Spheres, received immense support from him, and it’s partially due to Alan’s support that Gloria Cheng is now rightly viewed as a leading American pianist. Few were also as pleased as Alan with the announcement and appointment of Gustavo Dudamel to the head job with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (“He’s real; he’s ours”). You come with integrity and a good head on your shoulders; you’ll do ok by Alan.
Alan’s savagery found an unfortunate outlet through attacks on his colleagues in print, though. These were always younger writers, and he’d leap on the slightest misstep as proof of their not deserving to be in print. This pushed one of them to quit writing about classical music, and the others simply keep going and ignore him. Classical music operates on society’s margins, classical-music journalism is even farther afield, and these attacks served no real purpose, censuring people publicly in ways that would have been vastly more helpful done in private. Eisenhower’s injunction to “Praise in public; criticize in private,” seems especially relevant here.
We had a major falling out, he and I. I met Alan in 2005, when the Music Critics Association had its annual meeting in Los Angeles. I remember a fine Chinatown dinner with Alan and Russell Platt from the New Yorker, and Alan mentioned later on that he’d looked up some of my reviews and enjoyed them. I passed, I was in. This night was also notable for Alan nearly killing the three of us when he made a left turn into oncoming traffic. His blog says he passed the vision portion of the test just last year, and that seems frankly impossible.
We hung out again the next year when I was out there on vacation, and traded various war stories about colleagues. We shared a pleasant lunch with a record-industry friend at LA MOCA, who was worried that he would pick up the check if she wasn’t quick enough. He did excuse himself at one point, and we found out shortly after that he’d done just that. He could be very generous.
Then a couple months later I reviewed an opera for the Financial Times, and Alan wrote back one of his all-caps emails deriding it. Puzzled, I tweaked part of it and sent it back, since he was someone whose opinion I actually valued, and an even longer all-caps email came back that proved that obscenity can exist without profanity. It would’ve taken the paint off the walls if email had walls. The sign-off was that there was basically no future for classical criticism when people like me were allowed to write about it. Which seemed a tad harsh.
I never heard from Alan after that. I’d read his blog every now and then, and it took a while before that didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth. Despite all that, it’s a loss he won’t be writing anymore. Sibelius said no one ever built a statue to a critic, but a small memorial near that beautiful fountain outside Disney Hall wouldn’t be too much to ask. Los Angeles couldn’t have asked for a stronger partisan.
Photo from L.A. Places