With the Phoenix’s abrupt cessation of publication last week, Lloyd Schwartz’s 35-year run as the weekly’s Classical Music Editor ended. Other aspects of his life continue, including a book signing for his new volume, “Music in-and on-the Air,” a collection of most of the reviews the writer has done since becoming the classical music critic for “Fresh Air” 25 years ago. Everybody who wants to condole the veteran reviewer, editor, poet, essayist and Pulitzer Prize winner and talk with him about about classical music, poetry, or the state of the arts journalism world can get a chance at Porter Square Books, 25 White Street, in Cambridge, at 7 pm on March 26. Click here for an order form for the book. A lengthy discussion follows the break.
Lee Eiseman: Lloyd can you start our discussion by talking about the book?
Lloyd Schwartz: This book is a collection of my Fresh Air pieces. Mostly classical music but a lot of popular music and theater music and movies and comedy records. I selected the pieces and then did only the most minor editing such as taking out all the parts that said, “listen to this clip.” But it’s essentially exactly what I spoke on the air. The reviews are organized in three chronological sections; within each section the content goes in chronological order mainly. And there’s a section of recent recordings, there’s a section of great historic recordings, which is a passion of mine, and there’s a section in the middle that’s called pop culture and it’s all this, not classical music, but Spike Jones and Jonathan and Darlene Edwards…
The beautifully printed volume starts with a very sweet, generous introduction by Jan Swafford, the Beethoven, Brahms, and Ives biographer. I understand an e-book is in the works, that may be actually ready for circulation in a few weeks.
Is the press run sufficient to cover the demand now that we’re doing this article?
I hope not. [laughter]
Do you think that you’re going to do the same sort of thing ultimately with your 35 years of Phoenix reviews? How many would there be
I have officially done 26 reviews a year, but most years I’ve done a lot more than that. I was contracted to write a review every other week. But during the height of the season I was writing every week around Christmas. Summer I was not writing as often.
So the minimum has got to be 26 times 35.
Right, how much is that?
I don’t know, I’ll figure it out. [laughter] 
Right but it’s definitely more than that. The hard part about doing such a book, and there is some interest from my official publisher of having me do this, is that they want a 200-ish page book. I’ve been dragging my heels because there’s so much stuff to go over in making a selection.
As a reviewer have you every recanted? Do you offer retakes?
Oh sure, I’ve changed my opinion about things over the years. I’m not sure I could tell you, though, nothing particular comes to mind. I know there are things that I didn’t like at first that I’ve come round about and there are artists whom I admired, but I think I won’t mention any names, when I first heard them, who ended up really disappointing me. I think one of the sad things of the story about the arts in this country that these incredibly talented and brilliant young people come along and they have success and then they get taken up by some big-time agency and then they travel around the world playing the same thing over and over again. And whatever real energy and insight and freshness there was to begin with it gets lost. And it’s a very common story. I mean thinking about the late Van Cliburn as a kind of prime example of someone who really just had it all.
But some artists insist on doing more interesting repertoire and not getting in a rut. And those tend to be the greater artists.
Absolutely. And those are the ones I hadn’t changed my mind about.
And then there’s always Seiji. When Seiji came, everybody was so excited. After the ancient William Steinberg and the stodgy Erich Leinsdorf, suddenly we had this relative kid who was a genius. You were excited when he arrived, as were all of us.
I was excited. I thought this is really daring of the BSO to leap into a really new territory. You know one of my theories about Ozawa is that if he had been hired by the BSO say four or five years later, it might have been a completely different story. He had all this energy and technique and talent and he really needed to learn more about music and life. And then maybe in a few years he might have reached the level that his early celebrity didn’t allow him to reach. And that I thought he just stopped growing. You know, that it was not the music, it was the love beads, the turtleneck, it was the long hair.
But the odd thing is though that he would say the St. Matthew Passion was the greatest work in the Western canon. And then when he came to conduct it, he didn’t really seem to have any emotion. I mean there wasn’t any feeling for it. But he knew on some level that he should. But anyway, we all certainly have our favorite Seiji performances too.
For me it was probably his first performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder which he gave a at Tanglewood. I think that’s the best thing he ever did and he did two absolutely wonderful performances of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges some years apart.
Are you were going to use this hiatus as a period to collect your thoughts to give us another book, perhaps a Blair Tindall-esque “Critic in the Jungle?”
But I’m sure you could.
Were there memorable critic catfights where you absolutely outraged readers or performers?
No, not really.
You are always a gentleman even when you don’t like something; you don’t seem to take any Schadenfreude when you have to give a negative review. Of course it’s easier to write a bad review.
It’s tempting to just make fun of the things you hate. I did that a little bit in my first years. But you know, I’m also a teacher. I know that my students have to have some kind of constructive criticism and they flourish under constructive criticism. And that to just say to a student, “this is no good, you have no talent: go away” is not going to help anybody. And that in some way, writing reviews is, for me, a very kind of teacherly experience. I mean I don’t want to be didactic, I don’t want to be pedantic.
But if you write a negative review, do you try to do it in such a way that you could help the performer.
I don’t know if it ever has. But my negative reviews are written with the performer as well as the audience in mind. And I would love it if performers who didn’t live up to my expectations read my review and thought, maybe I could do this better.
Vance Koven of BMInt just wrote a review in which he went to great lengths to praise a young trio’s chops and its players’ good qualities. Yet he had to add that a certain Schubert trio is one of the most poignant things ever written and you don’t need to rush; you need to smell the roses. That’s something that you would think 20-something-year-olds perhaps could benefit from and it was delivered in a way that was meant to be helpful.
Yeah, I think criticism should be like that, but there are times when things are just so bad that you either want to laugh or cry.
And sometimes you would just not publish a review for something if you really felt horrible about it.
I have done that, I have suppressed reviews.
Do you think there are any qualifications necessary for music reviewers? When readers don’t like a BMInt piece they invariably question the reviewer’s qualifications even though most of our reviewers are performers or have advanced degrees in music, or both. Nobody’s ever mentioned the credentials of a reviewer who made a positive review of course, but to me as a publisher it is more important to present somebody who can write interestingly and vividly describe the event rather than somebody who can do merely a deep musicological analysis, although we have people who can do both. But do you think there are any credentials necessary?
Well, you’re looking at someone with no credentials whatsoever.
Besides a Pulitzer…
Well, you know the Pulitzer came 20 years after I started writing reviews. And it was, among other things, it was very confirming that what I had to say could be rewarded in some way.
Since you say you have no qualifications, what gave you the temerity to begin giving your opinions of performances?
Well, I was giving my opinions of performances long before I started writing reviews, and I do have a kind of critical attitude, in the sense of someone who spent his life evaluating his own experiences, I mean not everybody does that. I sometimes wish more people did that, not about the arts necessarily but in looking at their own lives.
How did your career start?
I was never anyone who had an ambition to be a classical music critic but I loved classical music from my childhood. I took music courses in college but I was not a musicologist, certainly not a music major. But I loved music, I appreciated it. I mean from the time I was in 3rd grade or earlier. I made my mother buy me my first opera when I was 11.
And your memory is pretty acute for performances of the past?
Maybe more acute for performances of the past than for recent performances [laughter].
It’s a very Boston story, and it’s a Boston newspaper story. In 1975, I think, the Herald and the Globe were actually competing. The Herald was trying to compete with the Globe, on every side, from every angle, including the arts. The BSO was going on a European tour and of course the Globe was going to send Richard Dyer on the tour to cover the BSO. So, the Herald decided that they were also going to send Ellen Pfeifer, who was their classical music critic in those days, to cover the BSO tour. Richard had a bunch of second-string critics who could cover the important events in Boston while Richard was away. The Herald didn’t. Nobody but Ellen.
So Ellen needed to find someone. There were going to be two big celebrity series concerts while they were away—Arthur Rubinstein and Beverly Sills—which really needed to be covered. Richard Dyer is a graduate school classmate of mine. He’s one of my oldest friends. I would often spend intermissions at concerts talking to Richard and he would spend intermissions talking to Ellen because they had become very good friends and colleagues. So I got to know Ellen also just from intermission talk. And I’m very opinionated and we would argue or just chat about the concerts during the intermission. Probably not very appropriate for me to be pushing my opinion but I nevertheless had opinions.
So, as I understand it, Ellen, who was desperate to find someone to cover these two concerts, asked Richard if I could write. I guess I seemed smart in some way and thoughtful. So she asked Richard if he thought if I, being a classmate of his in the English Department at Harvard, in the PhD program, could handle a writing assignment.
Richard had never seen anything I had written. But he probably thought that I was OK and responsible. And Ellen took a chance. The first thing I did was go to a concert and write a review of it just to get the hang of it. In those days, the daily papers were printing overnight reviews so you were on an 11:30 or midnight deadline.
So I did a kind of practice review and I showed it to Richard. I don’t remember what it was, a vocal recital I think. And Richard said I forgot to mention the accompanist. I got some very good tips from Richard and then I went to the events and I had a blast. It was great, I had free tickets and my byline in the paper.
Did you have a helpul editor at the Herald?
Are you kidding? The editing at the Herald, certainly in those days, and especially on weekends, was appalling. My first two pieces pretty much came out as I had written them. I had a very good time playing reporter, having my name in the paper, having an opinion about these two great artists which was a complicated opinion that I managed to get into a very short space in a very small amount of time to meet the deadline. And I got, I can’t remember if it was $30 or $35 for writing the review. I loved it. And when Ellen came back from the tour and read my reviews, she liked them and said, Would you be interested in doing more of this, because I can’t cover everything. And the Herald was really trying to compete with the Globe.
So, I was covering the things that Ellen Pfeiffer didn’t want to do or couldn’t do—everything from the international contemporary music festivals to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And I learned a lot about writing reviews in that time. All on overnight deadlines. Writing fast, thinking fast, taking notes. And I thought that I was adding something to the conversation, that my take on music was not like Ellen’s and it was not like Richard’s. I mean Richard and I had been arguing about music since we knew each other in graduate school. But I thought that I was a fresh voice, that I was not the voice of the professional music critic, I was not a musicologist, I was not a musician. God knows, not a musician. But I thought I had a good ear and I thought I had a way with metaphor that compensated for my being unqualified to talk about what I heard from a technical point of view. Because I didn’t understand music theory, which didn’t really interest me. But I was interested in the history of music and had a background in theater and performance. So I thought I added something.
One example of incompetent editing at the Herald came when I was reviewing a concert by Leonard Shure. In my first sentence I said “Leonard Shure, who had been a student of the great, legendary pianist Artur Schnabel, gave a great…” The headline of that review came out “Memorable Evening with Schnabel.” [laughter] Another of the Herald’s editorial blunders had interesting ramifications. Russell Sherman had started to resume his concertizing career and while he was in the process putting down his first recordings of Beethoven sonatas, he gave a Beethoven recital which I was covering. I remember this very well. He played the “Waldstein” sonata and I wrote that the last movement seemed very tense and too fast. I wish it had been more “spacious.” The paper printed, “I wish it had been more pious.” It was humiliating to have someone make that change. I did notice that many of the same letters were in both words.
Russell’s recording came out with a wonderful performance of the “Waldstein.” He always wrote his own liner notes and program notes. And he referred to a really strange review that wanted the last movement of the “Waldstein” to be more pious. He didn’t mention my name, thank goodness. I really loved him and admired his playing. And when I finally met him, I introduced myself: “I’m the critic you were quoting in your liner notes but it wasn’t what I wrote.” And I explained the story and he said something like, “You were right.” He was still very nervous about playing Beethoven in public in those days and agreed he could have opened up more. The recording, of course, was wonderful. And we’ve been friends ever since. But he thought there was some nutcase writing that review.
Then the Herald collapsed, again, and every freelancer was simply let go without any notification. It was Ellen who had to tell me, “I don’t have a budget for you anymore.”
But there was an opening at the Phoenix. And I applied for it and for various reasons, not all good ones especially but for various reasons I was the only one left in the pool. I was supposed to fill in for Richard Buell, who had been the Phoenix classical music critic for a decade and also writing for the Globe. At the time he was away because he got a fellowship to University of Michigan for a yearlong conference in critical writing. When he came back, the Globe wouldn’t allow him to write for both papers, though he had already been doing it for a decade.
So suddenly I have this job at the Phoenix, with almost unlimited space to write. There were no page restrictions in those days. Stephen Schiff, who was the movie critic at the time, was notorious for writing very long movie reviews. From time to time I would have long reviews. I really was writing essays.
Because I was not on a daily deadline, I had time actually to think and put a review together and maybe review more than one concert that had similar issues. All I had known about editing was from the Herald. But at the Phoenix, this was editing on the absolute highest level. And it involved some disagreements and some arguments. But the music editor at the Phoenix, who later became the arts editor and later the editor of the LA Weekly and the LA Times magazine, was Kit Rachlis. He was one of those very serious exploratory rock critics, but he really liked working with me. He knew a little about classical music and he knew everything about writing for a newspaper. And we would meet. I would go into the Phoenix (this was before the internet and before email), and I was actually sitting there with an editor who was going over every sentence saying, “Do you really mean this? Could you find a more interesting way of making this sentence, let alone making this point?” And sometimes I would disagree with him and we would have shouting matches, but I never learned so much about journalism and writing for a newspaper, writing to be read, as I did from Kit. He got that I was very consciously trying to write reviews that sounded like my half of a conversation with the reader. I was not lecturing the reader, I was not showing off how much I knew (because I didn’t know all that much), but I knew I was smart and I knew I could write.
I was also writing poems. My first book of poems came out in 1981 and I was working on poems, largely monologues, dramatic monologues in the voices of a lot of different characters. I was an actor and a storyteller. I had something in my head that I wanted to get across to someone who could read me and then say, Oh but what about this? Of course they couldn’t, though they could write a letter. But people didn’t write many letters.
Can you tell us why you think it’s important that concerts get reviewed? I started the Intelligencer because I felt a lot of concerts weren’t receiving notices. And I also thought it was important that there be more than one reviewer’s voice. Is it the historic record that’s important? Is it helping the artist and entertaining the readers?
Yes to both of those. But art, which means music and painting and literature and poetry, is what makes us human. And part of what humanizes us is that we can talk about it—and we have to talk about it. If it’s just, I go to a concert and I think there’s a beautiful piano performance and I come home and I think how beautiful, and there’s nothing further, no further discussion either with someone who was there (or not) and either didn’t agree with me or did. Or maybe I could tell someone who is reading me: you may have never have heard of this pianist but go to his or her next concert because something is really going on here and you’ll hear something in the music that you haven’t heard before. So there’s a kind of evangelism…I want people to love the things I love.
I think of concertgoers as votaries and the performers and the critics as proselytizers in a way.
That’s my religion. And I do think art has the power—or at least the possibility—to humanize those who love it and care about it.
But not every performance rises to that level. And some performers seem to be performing machines. And some never find a way to make such connections with their audiences.
Some hot young performers get ground into rote and become performing machines. How many times is a young violinist going to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto? Some of this limitation of repertoire is driven by marketing, and I agree with you that part of it is the irrational fear of giving an imperfect performance in an era of records, where we don’t hear or expect any mistakes. I’d rather have mistakes…and something alive.
But a performer who’s competing with his own recordings is going to play it safe all the time.
Well, that’s the sad thing about the commercial aspect of the performing world. One of the other problems is something that only some part of the public knows about. They’re going to go to a recital and think “Oh, here’s this famous star” and some people are going to think “Oh no, he’s back, he’s going to do exactly the same thing he did the last three times he was here.” What even the more sophisticated members of the audience don’t know is the relationship between the management agencies and the orchestra or the concert series that hire the celebrities, and that there are a lot of really not very good, not even particularly talented so-called “artists” who were performing because a management firm really insisted that their clients be used.
And do you think Seiji was aware of that pressure?
Deep down I have to say yes. He seemed such an innocent in so many ways that I couldn’t say for sure. You know I made a point of never meeting Seiji because I didn’t want to get caught up in a kind of personal affection. He’s charismatic and it’s hard to avoid that. I would argue with people who loved some performance and said, “Oh look at him on the podium.” I’d say, promise me that the next time you go to a Seiji Ozawa concert you will close your eyes and tell me what you’re hearing. But it was hard to do that.
Also, in terms of repertoire it’s not clear that the orchestras want interesting repertoire from artists who want to give it. I mean Mark Andre Hamelin, for instance, could ask for all sorts of unusual concerti but the orchestras wouldn’t agree.
I couldn’t agree with you more.
But anyway, here’s my parting question. Do you think we’re doing a good job at the Intelligencer at developing a useful conversation among performer, presenter, critic and audience? One recent post that I was particularly proud was our interview with Paul Lewis wherein we talked at length about whether Schubert’s three last sonatas were the works of a man who knew he was dying and if so, did he write something different than he would have as a twenty-eight year old in good health. The ensuing comments from musicologists, music historians and listener made me feel really good as a publisher.
Yeah, thank God BMInt’s there for that kind of conversation. I admire the breadth of the events that you’ve covered, no one else comes near. The Globe could come compete if they wanted to but they clearly don’t want to. At the Phoenix, I was always wishing I could go to three concerts at the same time. I haven’t always make the best decision on a given night.
We’re having fourteen reviews this weekend.
That’s amazing. That’s great for the community and it’s great for the performers.
Anything we could do better?
I wish you could pay people.
We all seem to be comfortable with the volunteer model at this point. But the writers at least get good free tickets to some of the events. That’s something, although it doesn’t professionalize it. I’m putting in twenty to thirty hours a week out of love. And I just can’t figure out, aside from begging, how to monetize it. I mean I get offers for $500 ads here and there but they’re from presenters and performers and I just won’t take an ad from a stakeholder because there’s an appearance of a quid pro quo even if it doesn’t exist.
One of the great things about working for the Phoenix is that nobody ever pressured me to review something because there was or might be an ad in the Phoenix.
Well a bigger paper can do that, but for a small journal/blog, it doesn’t look good if it has only few ads and it reviews those presenters or performers.
Right; no, it doesn’t.
So aside from finding some revenue to offer writers, is there any area where you think we should strive to improve?
No, I think it’s a very admirable and idealistic enterprise and I’m very glad it exists.
And we wish you all the best and hope to have the pleasure of publishing more of your words.