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April 26, 2010

Alan Rich, 'bellicose' and 'prejudiced' music critic, dead at 85

Alan Rich, one of the great classical music critics of the past 60 years, died Friday in Los Angeles. He was 85.

The Boston-born writer had the chance to prepare his own entry for the Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, and he made the most of it. The opening line still provides an ideal summation:

Rich, Alan, American music critic of an uncommonly bellicose disposition tempered by prejudice toward favorites.

During his long career -- he was still blogging in last year -- he wrote for a remarkable number of publications, some of them long gone (the New York World-Journal-Tribune, for one). Wherever his prose landed, it proved invariably entertaining and enlightening. Enraging, too, at times.

He must have been the most Brahms-resistant critic since G. B. Shaw. I still remember the shock of hearing Mr. Rich on a radio interview blasting the composer's technique and style. But you had to admire the strength of the man's convictions -- and his unstinting praise for things he loved. In a profession where blandness so often rules, Alan Rich was a breath of ever-fresh air. 

After reading of Mr. Rich's death, I called up his blog, "So I've Heard," and quickly found a couple of passages written in recent months that illustrate why his writing was so prized, and why he'll be missed. (Update 4/27 -- In my haste yesterday, I referenced the wrong Copland piece in one of the quotes below; eagle-eyed Sedge Clark set me straight and I've made the correction):


ON HAYDN SYMPHONIES: I love the mix, of humor and suspense, of the meticulous classical melody and the rudeness of the country dance. Take, to cite one of many instances, a C-major symphony numbered 90 (in the usual if shakily assembled chronological listing), with its finale a virtual compendium of orchestral tricks. At one point Haydn has his players come to a sudden and prolonged silence in mid-phrase; a few bars later they resume, but in the “wrong” key, D-flat instead of the expected C — a small distance on the keyboard but a jolt to the flesh!

The progression of themes, dramatic yet inevitable as idea begets idea; the play of memory as themes vanish, metamorphose and then stage glorious returns; the notion of symphony as grand design and as battlefield: Haydn’s glory lies in his appeal to our powers of memory and our willingness and our appetite for surprise. His music stands as a grand monument to process, the triumphant kind of process both clear and quirky; where you always know what’s happening… …Or think you do, at any rate.

ON COPLAND'S 'MUSIC FOR THE THEATER': It’s actually a fascinating piece, for the music and for its historical place: a young composer building his music kingdom from a base in Paris, the most thrilling location for an early-twenties American. I don’t know another piece so energized by its own time and place, discovering – in Jazz – a whole new language to go along with his reborn American conscience.

What’s amazing, too, is how much of this wide-eyed enthusiasm of Aaron Copland, circa 1924, achieves this throbbing, thrilling relationship with a Brave New World that he had so recently discovered and made his own.

ON A MANDOLIN CONCERTO COMPOSED AND PERFORMED BY CHRIS THILE IN JANUARY: Young, affable Mr. Thile, as it happens, also composes and plays one helluva Mandolin. From under his flying fingers, enchanted and airborne, emerge swirling clouds of musical tone as of a banjo strummed by angels. His four-movement Concerto bears the subtitle of maximum logic, “to the Stars On Pigs’ Wings.” It draws its inspirations from the breezes that blow though Locatelli and that gang; autrement dit,  he is one of us, to the manner born. In other words: his Concerto, which had its first-ever hearing at Royce at a exhilarating concert by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (lovable bunch, they) is a small masterwork instantly lovable, out of which he himself did play the veritable Hades.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:05 PM | | Comments (1)


Mr. Smith,

A lovely remembrance of critic Alan Rich. I grew up reading his classical reviews in the NY Times, and for reasons that escaped me then, felt that his observations were ''right' even when I was unfamiliar with the composer or music.

Thanks for this piece.

I'm sorry I didn't have time to write something really worthy of the subject, but many thanks for the comments. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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