Sunday, April 25, 2010

Alan Rich (1924-2010)

News of Alan Rich's death on Friday, at 85, was not unexpected — he'd been in poor health for a while, I gather — but it still came as a painful shock. Alan was an important, even indispensable figure for anyone writing or reading music criticism in this country over the last half-century and more, and as trite a cliche as this sounds, he leaves a gap that won't be filled.

He wrote with a passion, and an air of authority, and a ferocity of response, that few could match. Plus, of course, there is a little something extra that comes from sheer longevity — not for nothing did he let drop at every opportunity the fact that he had met Bartók in 1944, on the occasion of the world premiere of the Concerto for Orchestra. His love for music of all kinds, and the zeal with which he defended it against its various abusers, was an example. I can think of few writers on music who so thoroughly lived Shaw's maxim that "the true critic is the man who becomes your personal enemy on the sole provocation of a bad performance, and will only be appeased by good performances."

Which is to say, of course, that Alan was much easier to admire than to like, even from afar. We had an odd, sometimes testy relationship, friendly but not overly warm. He was not a particularly nice fellow even if you were in his good graces, and being in his good graces was at best a tentative dispensation. (At least, that was my experience and that of others. Perhaps Alex Ross and Mark Swed and others who, like him, had four letters in each of their names — a point on which his numerological fixation was as strange as Schoenberg's — found otherwise.) And as Marc Geelhoed points out in his admirable tribute, there was a savagery about him that found an outlet in regrettable directions.

Still, for all his personal and professional weaknesses, Alan remained a lodestar for me — largely because it was he who put the idea of being a music critic into my head in the first place, and showed me how it might be done. I wrote about all this — both the good and the bad — a couple of years ago, when the LA Weekly gave him the heave-ho, but I'm still struck today by the depth of his early influence on me, and the extent to which it shaped my own thinking.

Many of us, for instance, have had the experience of discovering, rather late in life, that something we always thought of as a fact was simply a firmly held opinion inherited from some parent or teacher. My music-critic's version of that phenomenon came the first time I saw someone refer in print to Alan's devotion to Carlo Maria Giulini. It was a revelation — without ever thinking about it, I'd always simply numbered Giulini (whom I never heard live) among the Great Conductors. Where did I get that idea? Because Alan liked him, nothing more.

But more than just the actual opinions — which, like anyone else's, could be on or off the money — there was the example he set, as an observant, engaged and thoughtful listener and thinker about music. People noticed, too. Steve Reich once told me about a concert very early in his career, at some gallery space in Manhattan, which Alan had reviewed with uncommon interest and sophistication, even to the point of grasping an arcane metrical detail on the fly. He could do that, and did.

I thought this might be the occasion to finally tell the yarn about how Alan and I first met, but the post is getting too long, so I'll leave it for another day (if at all). The last time I saw him was a couple of years ago, in a crowded men's room at the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz. I was at the far urinal when Alan walked in; he spotted me, and said — in a voice pitched to be heard clearly by everyone in the place — "Ah, Mr. Kosman, preparing your review for tomorrow's paper, I see."

I'm going to miss the old bastard. I think we all will.