Michael Steinberg: Salut d'Amour

August 17, 2009

Classical broadcaster Eric Friesen was host of "The Music Room" and the Minnesota Orchestra on Classical Minnesota Public Radio from 1991-97. He has also worked at Public Radio International and the CBC. He shares his thoughts on the passing of Michael Steinberg.

St. Paul, Minn. —

We enter the evening as we enter a quartet
Listening again for its particular note
Which is your note, perhaps, your special gift,
A detached joy that flowers and makes bloom
The longest silence in the silent room-
And there would be no music if you left.

- May Sarton, Evening Music

Napoleon once remarked with more than a touch of irony that "good generals are lucky generals." In that sense, Michael Steinberg was both good, very good, and lucky.

He had the great good fortune to live at exactly the right time, his professional life coinciding with the halcyon years of classical music in America.

If I think of his life as an arch, much like Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the city in which he grew up, then he came into his own as a teacher and critic just as high culture in America was rising majestically to its apex.

Like so many Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, Michael brought to America a brilliant, restless mind and a profound acquaintance with European culture.

Music was Michael's first passion, but he carried with him an encompassing love of literature, painting, cuisine and a desire for a life that is lived intently with all of the above.

Michael taught us so much when it came to classical music, and the eloquent tributes which have been written bear testimony to it. Not a day has gone by in my professional life that I haven't consulted his many books on music, and because I knew him as well as I did, I heard his voice speak to me, challenging me, chiding me, demanding I think again about something I was about to utter.

As with all our best teachers, Michael began as a tutor and has remained a conscience. His books and his voice will stay with me for the rest of my life.

As I wrote to him last Christmas, "You are our Tovey, Michael," meaning Michael is to our time in North America what Sir Donald Tovey was to Britain in the first half of the 20th century, a public man of music without equal.

But as I grieve for our loss of Michael the person, I want to remember the very human side of him. As a critic -- and when it came to music Michael was always a critic -- he could be as tough, as acerbic, as uncompromising as any I've ever known. When he hated something, say that species of conductor who always knows better than the composer, Michael could be devastatingly and dismissively eloquent.

With some critics, the acid of critique eventually seeps into and corrodes their very souls. This was decidedly not the case with Michael.

He and I had many disagreements about music, about particular works, about performers, about an approach to music. We once had a sharp exchange about the role of the conductor: Michael's view was that the conductor's only responsibility was in front of him, with the musicians.

I countered that a conductor also had to connect with the audience behind him, that the communication from the podium had to go both ways. For whom was the music being performed anyway, I asked? I felt that a conductor ignored the audience at his peril, for which I was rewarded a look usually reserved for philistines. Michael had a deep suspicion about showmanship in performance, while I had and have some regard for it.

Another memory I have: When still at MPR, I played Philip Glass' Violin Concerto, the recording with Gidon Kremer, and introduced it with some enthusiasm. Michael called me to say (and I wasn't entirely sure he was just kidding) that if I ever played it again he would revoke his MPR membership.

As a brilliant, deeply intellectual and learned musical combatant, Michael took no prisoners. Music was a serious business, as fiercely conceived and defended as our first-born.

And yet, for all our disagreements, we remained warm friends. It was never personal and he respected my own passion for music. I treasure the note he wrote when he signed my copy of The Symphony: A Listener's Guide:

"For Eric, companion on musical and poetic voyages -- your friendship would, all by itself, have been sufficient to make a move to Minnesota worthwhile. With all my love, Michael. Saint Cecilia's Day, 1995."

During the years we lived in Minnesota, Susan and I were guests countless times at Jorja and Michael's leafy retreat on Valley View Road in Edina. Dinner was a long, leisurely affair, beginning with bowls of Greek olives consumed with much wine in the kitchen, while either Jorja or Michael or both prepared dinner.

I remember particularly Michael's meat loaf (sans salt) and a paella-like dish, which came out of a much-used Greek cookbook. Somewhere I still have the recipe, which he translated into English and copied out by hand. I'm convinced theirs was the first house in Minnesota to serve the bitter Italian digestif Fernet-Branca at the end of dinner!

Sometimes the guest list would include Alfred Brendel or Alicia de Larrocha, or there would be a significant birthday dinner for Angela Hewitt; other times it was just the four of us, catching up.

There was an immense Old World courtesy about Michael. I would watch him charm my daughters when he and Jorja came to our house, the warmth and affection and humor flowing out of him as genuinely as if he were an Italian grandfather.

Whenever he came to dinner, Michael always brought a book as a gift. We bonded as much over poetry as over music, particularly poetry about music. In fact our friendship began as we traded poems by mail and then fax and finally e-mail -- urging favorites on each other.

Michael introduced me to Liesel Mueller and Wis?awa Szymborska, while I might suggest Jay Meek or Billy Collins or Irving Layton. We even worked on creating an anthology of poetry about music, but other projects and the years intervened and we never quite got it done.

Michael was a superb reader of poetry, with a rich baritone voice, a sly sense of humor and a deeply intuitive feel for the language and cadence of poetry.

We had another thing in common: we both had sons who were rock musicians. He and I would share the irony of it, and the agony of showing support for our kids, walking into clubs and enduring the blasts of noise, particularly the chest-pounding electric basses.

We were eons away from the world of Beethoven's late quartets, and perhaps rightly so. What better place to test our paternal love and our humanity than in an alien sonic land?

And that is what I come back to always in my remembering my friend Michael -- his warmth, his love, his deep humanity.

There would be many who have felt the sharp rapier of Michael's criticism over the years who would not believe an evening we had in the home of Philip and Carolyn Brunelle. It was in the last weeks of our time in Minnesota, and the Brunelles had organized an intimate farewell dinner for us. At the end of it, and as a complete surprise, Michael went to the piano and Jorja suddenly had her violin in hand, and they serenaded Susan and me with Elgar's "Salut d'Amour."

I will never forget Michael at the piano that evening. This was not the Michael who sat at the piano at Orchestra Hall to illustrate his talk on Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. This was our friend, as warmly sentimental and wistful as any friend could be, saying goodbye. And it is in the same spirit I say goodbye to him.

- Eric Friesen

August 17, 2009

Amherst Island

Ontario, Canada

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