Friday, September 4, 2015

Robert Commanday

It's my first editor in musical criticism whom I must report is gone from us today.

Robert P. Commanday started out as a choral conductor and then became the San Francisco Chronicle's fearless and caustic chief music critic in 1965. After he retired in 1993, the decreasing coverage of classical music in newspapers prompted him to do something about it, so with financial and administrative help from his friend Gordon Getty (wealthy philanthropist and amateur composer) and others, he founded the online reviewzine San Francisco Classical Voice, one of the pioneering institutions of its kind.

I was an early reader of SFCV. Bob, though then in his early 80s, was still the editor when I sent in a review in September 2004 of Symphony Silicon Valley's first concert in the restored California Theatre, a notable local event which they'd announced but hadn't covered. He liked it, he published it, they paid me, and they started requesting me to cover other concerts, and that's how I became a reviewer. He was very kind about my work, and I knew he wouldn't merely flatter. He was very good at recruiting staff, and he signed up Lisa Hirsch at about the same time.

While Bob was still in charge, editing was all about the proper technical description of the music. I remember a hurried e-mail conference we had over what type of strings a cellist I'd reviewed had used and how best to describe that in the review. This stuff had to be correct, and I learned to be on my toes when writing reviews and to practice intense listening at the concerts. Stylistic matters got scanted, and while I didn't have much trouble, some of the prose, and the spelling, in the journal could be pretty bad.

Since Bob stepped down, SFCV has gone through several regimes and changes in style. The editing is much more journalistic and less technically learned now, for better or worse. The nature of our coverage has not always earned Bob's favor, and disapproving comments from him would sometimes appear at the bottom of articles. I'll miss that.

What he really knew was what criticism was for. Many who read this will remember something that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote. She was talking about literature, but she used music as her comparison. "In art, the best is the standard. When you hear a new violinist, you do not compare him to the kid next door; you compare him to Stern and Heifetz. If he falls short, you will not blame him for it, but you will know what he falls short of. And if he is a real violinist, he knows it too. In art, 'good enough' is not good enough."

Where Le Guin was talking of the responsibility of the artist, Robert Commanday said the same thing, only speaking of the responsibility of the critic. Looking over his work on his retirement from the Chronicle, he wrote,
The standards I had held to were not set by me but by the works and the art form first and then by the artists and performing institution themselves. They also are measured by what we have come to expect of them and what they claim and aim to be. In that sense, evaluating is an act of respect. ... If we're tough, it’s because we care, which serves as the same basis for our enthusiasm and praise. It's the caring we share, not any particular opinions.
This is a credo I can stand by, and I'm proud to have taken it from his hands.

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