Sunday, September 6, 2015


by D. Kern Holoman

Robert Commanday
San Francisco Conservatory

To ponder the successive losses of Andrew Porter last April and, this week, of Bob Commanday is, necessarily, also to mourn their profession and to wonder anew what will become of us now.

Both were friends—in my bestiary a titan and a lovable bulldog respectively. They oozed, each in his own way, erudition and accomplishment at levels you could only dream about. You sought their company just to hear what was on their minds.

Lulu fever was in the air when we moved to California (George Perle, having been on the UC Davis faculty, was often in town), and I think Bob and I first met in person during the run-up to the great San Francisco Opera / Lotfi Mansouri production of the complete opera in September 1989. I had been at the dress rehearsal, in awe of what was to be heard and seen that afternoon, and looked forward to what Commanday would write about it. His summary seemed spot-on: “When it was over, there should have been no doubt that Berg’s ‘Lulu’ is the operatic masterpiece of this century.”

Earlier that year Commanday had written a full-page piece in the Sunday Chronicle about my orchestra’s role in the French bicentennial and its epic journey to French Polynesia and Australia to give concerts monstres, and we thus became mutual fans. We talked at length about Bob's post-Chron e-zine, San Francisco Classical Voice, before it was born, and about its future once he decided to leave. I delighted in writing for SFCV and for him—especially in his rules for contributors.  (“If the level of performance is beneath review, you can bail out.”) These later became “Commanday’s Commands” in Writing About Music. He read and contributed to the manuscripts of all three editions of Writing About Music; for The Orchestra: a Very Short Introduction he attached to his e-mail (“here are my comments”) many pages of provocative thoughts, and a paper on the subject he’d written as a Harvard undergraduate. (He also held an M.A. in musicology from Harvard.)

Up the river, we tended to think his personal best, at least as a blogger, was “Trouble in River City” (SFCV, 24 August 1999), an astute investigative piece on the outrageous shenanigans surrounding the now-defunct Sacramento Symphony Orchestra. Commanday was especially good when outraged.

In the small-world department, Bob’s step-daughter Anne came to UC Davis and played for a time in my orchestra and his step-son, Chris—J. Christopher Stevens, the United States Ambassador killed in Bengazi—had gone to school in Davis. Bob’s son David Commanday is, of course, a major figure in conducting and music education, having brought the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra to international prominence.

Commanday continued to keep his eye on Sacramento, by the way, writing about this time last year in ... outrage over the continuing misfortunes of the opera and orchestra. “This time it's desperate. Sacramento that lives between the shopping malls and the basketball arena, is a lost cause of course.” Just before, he had written, equally saltily: “I went to a Green Umbrella concert of contemporary music that was, craftwise, kidstuff and in one of the three cases, gratuitously offensive. It was in Disney Hall, and showing up for it, was an audience of 1400.” 

Andrew Porter
Andrew Porter’s omniscience—you subscribed to the New Yorker because otherwise you’d miss a whole week of what he had to say—was such that I wouldn’t have dared think of him as a pal. (Alex Ross shares a similar sentiment; see below.) Nevertheless we were on first-name basis and in correspondence about one thing and another by way of 19th-century topics. He was a traveling man, and you’d often realize he was sitting in the next row: at a college production of Alessandro Scarlatti’s La Griselda (Berkeley, 1976), for instance; and throughout the big Kennedy Center bash in May 1979 called “Paris and the Romantic Epoch”—the one where Daniel Barenboim pulled out a pistol and fired it at an (in)appropriate moment in the Hamlet funeral march of Berlioz. All the big Verdi events for nearly a generation. He trolled musicological meetings and was the only full-time music critic named Corresponding Member of the American Musicological Society (1995).

I thought I was probably opposed to opera-in-English (and even, pace Arthur Mendel, Bach in English), and with that predisposition studied Andrew’s singing translation of the Ring and then “covered” the Seattle Opera performance for an early issue of 19th-Century Music. But in performance  the cumulative, four-day effect of “Wagner’s Ring in Andrew Porter’s English” seemed  pretty powerful (with a few lines still fondly remembered). It would have been good to hear his Mozart-in-English, but then supertitles came along, and the moment, at least for Americans, passed.

We shared close mutual friends in Barry and Claire Brook: Andrew had just left, or was about to come round, or had had something clever to say about whatever was the subject of the day. We chatted for the last time, amiably, at the wrap party for the New Berlioz Edition. He was visibly older and seemed less engaged, mostly greeting old friends with a smile and for the rest unobtrusively observing things from a far corner of the room. When we talked, though, he seemed as proud of what had been accomplished as anyone there, citing chapter and verse of what he had learned from NBE.

Both Andrew Porter and Robert Commanday had worthy successors, and it’s not the least of their legacies that both the New Yorker and the Chron have so far retained commitments to serious music journalism. The stampede went the other way, for sure. But I like to think that the kind of erudition, passion, principled judgement, and involvement advanced by their ilk has its self-evident attractions. Good readers, I reckon, will seek it out, whatever media happen to survive.

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