Sooner or later prominent music critics often assemble their favorite columns into book form: my shelf holds collections by George Bernard Shaw, Andrew Porter, B. H. Haggin, and Virgil Thomson, for example. Now southern Californian Alan Rich joins their ranks, at age 81, with a welcome gathering called So I’ve Heard: Notes of a Migratory Music Critic.
Rich counts as something of a mentor to me. Our chance meeting one afternoon in Lincoln Center long ago inspired me to give serious writing about serious music a serious try: I have been at it ever since.
His arts writing is a model: forceful yet chuckling prose, strong opinions, and a mind that is always seeking new musical pleasures. He is not a gatekeeper type of old-fashioned critic. Indeed, most of these columns first appeared in LA Weekly, a hip alternative paper that has been his principal writing outlet since 1992.
You can open this collection anywhere and be challenged and gratified. Here he is on the role of the music critic: “Not to lead his readers by the nose into blindly accepting his truths, but to stimulate them, delight them, even irritate them into formulating truths that are completely their own.”
There is a superb lengthy article detailing conductor Carlo Maria Giulini’s rehearsals of Beethoven’s Fifth with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. An iconic, over-familiar work, but Rich spent a week watching its marvelous transformation at the hands of a philosopher-conductor.
Many columns are devoted to new music and new opera. Rich is a critic proud of the West Coast’s ability to absorb and reflect creative influences without concern for their pedigrees, and he has been very involved in the promotion of contemporary music.
Above all Alan Rich freely admits to remaining moved by music. “At the end of the slow movement there is a further miracle, tiny but unforgettable,” he writes about Mozart’s Sonata in D, K. 448 for Two Pianos. “The music draws to its close, and about four measures from the end the first pianist spins a bit of stardust, a tiny, quiet filigree. A similar thing happens at the end of the great Act 3 sextet in Figaro, as Susanna, reassured that Figaro still loves her, spins the same sort of radiant benediction, and we know that we’re in a better world.”