Michael Steinberg, 1928-2009

By Sedgwick Clark

Michael Steinberg, one of America’s foremost writers about classical music, died last week (7/26) at age 80.  For nearly12 years, he was critic of the Boston Globe, holding the orchestra and three music directors to the highest standards. So when the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti, at that time the hottest orchestra team in America, performed on tour in Boston in the mid-1970s, many of Michael’s colleagues were eager to see what he would have to say. But he boycotted the concert because the originally announced Variations for Orchestra by Elliott Carter had been changed at the last minute to run-of-the-mill fare. (The CSO and Solti performed the Variations at Carnegie Hall, and it still resonates in my memory.  Carter, visibly thrilled, was called out five times for bows.)

By 1976, Michael was tired of reviewing and the BSO cannily engaged him to write its program notes.  Later, he wrote notes for the orchestras of San Francisco, Minneapolis, and New York—the most cultured, erudite notes in my concert-going experience. One can get a taste of them in three collections published by Oxford: The Symphony (1995), The Concerto (1998), and Choral Masterworks (2005). 

Times have changed.  Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the New York Philharmonic have decided that shorter, less challenging notes are better suited to today’s audiences.  You see, knowledge is intimidating.  “We’re not here to educate,” was a line I heard often from the station manager at WNCN in the 1980s when I was editing Keynote, the station’s music magazine and program guide. In my first issue Michael wrote an article about Elliott Carter, our composer of the month.  Unfortunately, it was the only time I had the pleasure of working with him.

Pulcinella at Mostly Mozart

I try to avoid concerts in the summer, but I came out of hiding last night (8/5) for a complete Pulcinella at Lincoln Center and was amply rewarded by Montreal-born conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s spiffy conducting, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s superb playing, and better than usual singing in this piece by mezzo Karen Cargill, tenor Toby Spence, and bass Matthew Rose. The crisp attacks, sharp rhythms, wit, and buoyancy cocked a snook at the logy Chicago/Boulez outing at Carnegie last March.  But then Boulez’s music-making has never really danced, and at least the Midwestern band was far superior to the early-’70s New York Philharmonic when he last conducted it here. A fairer comparison would be with David Robertson’s tightly sprung rendering of the Pulcinella Suite with the Juilliard Orchestra at the reopening concert of Alice Tully Hall in late February, although even here Nézet-Séguin’s relative relaxation in some of the dances had its points. The flawless brass, pungent woodwinds, and excellent string ensemble—ideal for Stravinsky (or just about any other composer, for that matter)—had me smiling throughout. The highlight, for me, in this 40-minute performance was the gavotte con due variazioni, played to thrilling perfection by orchestra principals Demarre McGill (flute), Marc Goldberg (bassoon), and Lawrence DiBello (horn).  After that, the Mozart piano concerto and Mendelssohn “Italian” Symphony in the second half would only have been anticlimactic, and I departed happily.

Comments are closed.