I’ve waited five days to write about the death of Michael Steinberg, because this isn’t something you just dash off. Not when it’s someone who approaches hero status in your eyes.
I met Michael Steinberg only once, at a strategic management course run by the American Symphony Orchestra League in New York. He wasn’t actually teaching my course – he’d been brought in to teach a session in an introductory program for people just moving into orchestral administration. The teachers at these things have always been leading lights in the industry – experienced, accomplished and inspiring – but Michael seemed like an especially enlightened choice to speak to such a group.
Later, when I’d just begun working in the States, we corresponded and he kindly and helpfully gave me guidance on matters of American orchestral performance history. In our conversations he showed a genuine interest in the Australian orchestral scene. He had been to Australia. He’d given a Stuart Challender Lecture for the SSO and – in this I recognised a kindred spirit – had not only attended concerts at the time but the accompanying pre-concert talks, which he recalled with sufficient clarity to offer some perceptive assessments.
But really, I “met” Michael Steinberg when I first came across his program notes in the mid-1990s, which was also about the same time I began pursuing a career in orchestras.
Some might say that, in aspects of structure and style, his notes were slightly old-fashioned. But this is no worse a criticism than saying someone acts or dresses their age. And they are old-fashioned in the very best sense. You can imagine George Grove, the effective father of program annotations in the English-speaking world, looking on with approval at the way Michael wove together insight and information, reflection and response. He never lost sight of the central goal of a concert program note, which is to help the listener. (Not to inform the casual reader, although he does that too, but to guide the person who is at the concert, listening.)
There is so much to praise and to emulate in Michael Steinberg’s writing. Not simply the lucid expression and the musical insight, but the deft analogies and metaphors, so aptly chosen, so vivid and so original. But one of the things that inspired me the most was the way he injected his sheer love of music into everything he wrote.
The other thing which inspired me from the outset was the way his notes were written from the perspective of someone who had been there. He didn’t just know the music he wrote about, he hadn’t merely researched it – he’d helped plan performances of it, heard it in rehearsal, discussed it with conductors and soloists, experienced it in concert. And he wrote this way.
It’s no coincidence that when Michael Steinberg was hired by the San Francisco Symphony it was as Program Annotator, Lecturer and Artistic Advisor. Someone (Peter Pastreich, whose tribute ran in the subscription-only Musical America) was smart enough to see that programming concerts and then talking and writing about them for your audience are two functions that are best when they sit together, and not simply because the knowledge and skill-sets required involve a nearly complete overlap. It’s no secret that the best program annotators and pre-concert speakers are those who are or have been directly engaged with programming and putting on concerts. I’d also say that the best programmers are those who can really write (even if they don’t always have time to) and really talk. Michael was such a person.
Hearing of his death was incredibly sad. It was also surprising, as I seem to have entertained the irrational idea in the back of my mind that Michael Steinberg would live forever. Well, he does in a sense: as a writer he leaves a legacy that will continue to help listeners and inspire writers, and to remind us all of how and why we love music so much.
The sadness has been softened slightly by the obituaries, which in their different ways build on the Michael Steinberg I knew from a distance. Everyone, it seems, has their loving memory and, more important, everyone has their favourite quotation, from his writing or their interactions with him. All of these confirm him as lively, imaginative, thoughtful, astute, amazingly intelligent but never smug, and always good-humoured. The personality who emerged in the writing was the personality indeed.
I’ll leave you with the links…
Jeremy Eichler writing for the Boston Globe, with more on Michael Steinberg’s time there as critic and a fabulous photo of him from 1968.
In particular this: “If Mr. Steinberg’s criticism had a fierce bite, it also hewed to certain core values. He insisted that musical programs be curated with intelligence and insight and not slapped together willy-nilly, that Baroque performances reflect up-to-date research about how the music sounded in its time, and that contemporary music had an important, salutary place in concert life.”
Tom Huizenga publishes a short appreciation to accompany a repeat of a radio feature that Michael Steinberg gave on “The Symphony” (14 minutes).
Ronen Givony of the Wordless Music series, writes at length about working with Michael Steinberg on one of his last projects.
His publisher, Oxford University Press, has posted a short excerpt from his final book, For the Love of Music
Sam Bergman of the Minnesota Orchestra wrote a really lovely and heartfelt tribute for Inside the Classics, which includes an unforgettable description of an especially fine Scotch: “I don’t know whether you've sampled it yourselves, but the feeling of it is as if the Virgin Mary were sliding down your throat wearing velvet pantaloons.”
An older piece: Peter Jacobi interviews Michael Steinberg in a profile piece for WFIU Public Radio. (audio)
Another older piece from the Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune about Michael Steinberg and his wife Jorja Fleezanis, who was about to retire as concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra.
Finally, Peter Pastreich, former executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, has a tribute on MusicalAmerica.com. Since it’s subscription-only, I’ll offer a couple of excerpts:
“But Michael was much more than a writer and lecturer on music for us. Michael was for ten years the artistic conscience of the San Francisco Symphony – and he continued in that role after he left for Minneapolis – not only through his continuing lectures and notes, and the advice he gave to me and to three music directors – Edo De Waart, Herbert Blomstedt, and Michael Tilson Thomas – but by what I would call his looming spirit. For more than 20 years, no important decision on musical policy was made without our asking ourselves – what will Michael Steinberg think about this?”
And quoting Michael’s own words: “…That in the end the only study of music is music, that program notes and pre-concert lectures…can…be helpful ways of showing you the door in the wall and of turning on some extra lights, but that the only thing that matters is what happens privately between you and the music. That, as with any other form of falling in love, no one can do it for you… That listening to music is not like getting a haircut or a manicure, that it is something for you to do. That music, like any worthwhile partner in love, is demanding, sometimes exasperatingly, exhaustingly demanding…That its capacity to give is as near to infinite as anything in this world, and that what it offers us is always and inescapably in exact proportion to what we ourselves give.”
Speaking of giving, a characteristic invitation…
In Michael Steinberg's memory, donations may be sent to:
The Michael Steinberg & Jorja Fleezanis Fund to
Spur Curiosity and Growth through the Performing Arts and the Written Word,
Attn. Shelli Chase, Chase Financial, 7900 Xerxes Avenue South, Suite 910, Minneapolis MN 55431, USA.