For the Love of Michael
July 30, 2009
American Public Media's Vaughn Ormseth considers what Michael Steinberg's work meant to his readers and the artists he championed.
St. Paul, Minn. —
It might sound a little far-fetched, given all else that can affect the experience of live classical performance, but whenever I crack open a concert booklet and discover notes written by Michael Steinberg, I know I'm going to enjoy myself.
Whether or not the evening turns out to soar, there is then at least the chance to encounter its offerings through the humane, wonderfully engaged and responsive mind lighting up the program page. And when those offerings do soar, Michael's insights serve not just to hone our grasp of how and why they do, but more importantly to enhance our future openness to their pleasures and powers.
At the core of this great gift for communicating music is an unabashed love for it, and for the human beings behind it --- the musicians, composers, listeners, scholars, broadcasters, and others who bring its miracles to life.
Michael Steinbergs' last book, "For the Love of Music: Invitations to Listening," (co-authored by his friend and former colleague Larry Rothe), is peppered freely with the l-word alongside innumerable other expressions of affection and admiration (and occasional pardon).
Michael spent his last two decades in the radiant aura of his wife Jorja Fleezanis, concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, a musician's musician as well as a people's musician, whose spirit doubtless informed as much as it embodied his keen alertness to music as both earthy, deliciously grounded in time and space, and (perhaps in spite of his own exacting rationalism) infinite.
Love may anchor Michael's writing, but its distinctive way of pacing and deepening our encounter with what it treats springs from how music itself works its magic, including music broadly enough defined to encompass another of his great loves: poetry.
Even at their most analytical, there's a rhythm to his sentences and paragraphs, and a sonic awareness that lodges, as his voice could, in the inner ear. It's often more at one with its subjects than it first appears, and it draws continuously on deep reserves of knowledge about whatever he chose to take on.
Michael's grasp of music was so longstanding and essential that he could talk and write about it almost lightly, if never too lightly; he had the capacity to incorporate those technical specifics that to experts and laypersons alike often appear oblique in print --- keys and time signatures, dates and Kochel numbers --- into civilized, conversational narratives that grasped the whole without neglecting the parts.
It would probably do some injustice to Michael to gloss that he began as, and to some extent remained, a critic, and that his passion for what was great stemmed in part from a fundamental sense of what fell short. No doubt he scared and infuriated and likely bewildered some of the subjects of his reviews.
Yet as a critic, and in later roles, Michael seemed grounded in an earlier tradition of robust exchange among performers, audience members, and scholars, one that took for granted the authority of each through in-depth engagement.
With newspapers' increasing arts apathy and schools' weakening music education, that tradition has for some time seemed in peril, and Michael's death feels these days like another worrisome blow.
Until I read his Boston Globe and New York Times obituaries, I hadn't realized that his decision to "cross the footlights" and advise the orchestras he had once criticized caused any stir. It seemed consistent with both that earlier milieu and with the sweet-souled person I got to meet later in Minneapolis, whose love for great music and poetry lit up a room.
His critical spine never slouched, though. Once across the table at a beautiful dinner party hosted by him and Jorja, he dispatched through gentle but unswerving indifference a guest's and my favorite opera (Rosenkavalier), and a bit later also one of my favorite novelists (W.G. Sebald, whose references in Austerlitz to Michael's own early experience of the Kindertransport I assumed, wrongly, would have moved him). Alas, he had his well-founded reasons, if in Sebald's case just "a certain tone of voice" that didn't connect.
With Michael's passing, we lose another member of the illustrious wave of World War II refugees whose contributions and links to earlier European traditions and figures endlessly enriched this country's arts, humanities, and sciences. There are many hopeful signs that this influence for music continues, even as its original messengers leave us, by incorporating other voices and traditions.
Perhaps even the kind of culture-wide critical tradition we once had could re-emerge through the channels of new media, if the prophets of those same media don't kill it first. And we should not forget the spirit and optimism behind the fund set up after Michael's death: The Michael Steinberg & Jorja Fleezanis Fund to Spur Curiosity and Growth through the Performing Arts and the Written Word.
I wish I'd known Michael better personally, yet felt, like so many others, that I knew him intimately --- both the person and the splendidly literate scholar-critic --- through his books and readings, and the lively listening salons he would guide with Jorja.
Happily, we can speak of his work on the page in the present tense, a welcome comfort as we learn to accept what his loss means to those who loved him and to the artists and arts he championed.