Lloyd Schwartz and Music In and On the Air

Lloyd Schwartz, Mensch and Music Critic Extraordinaire(Photo: K. Bonami)
Lloyd Schwartz, Mensch and Music Critic Extraordinaire(Photo: K. Bonami)

Music In and On the Air is a collection of musical commentary by NPR’s Classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz.

The book arrived today and I’m already devouring it. It’s like a huge glass bowl of M&Ms, irresistible and addictive. Music in and On the Air covers Gyorgy Kurtag, Busby Berkley, The Nicholas Brothers, Casals at Prades, Maria Callas and Car 54, Where Are You?

What’s not to love?

Lloyd has been with NPR since 1987. Until very recently he was Classical Music Critic for the Boston Phoenix. Lloyd won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1994.

I recently spoke about his new book, new beginnings and a sad ending.

CP: We’ve known each other for 35 years, and that’s pretty scary!

LS:   Ha!

CP: I want to ask you about your life as a listener. What kind of surprises have been in store for you, and what kind of disappointments?

LS:  I’m always eager for surprises. I love to go to a performance and hear something I didn’t expect. The disappointments are more often not that something I expect to be good is terrible — that’s rare! The disappointment is when something I’ve not been really looking forward to proves to be as bad as I expected — not even bad, but just dull.

CP: Do you remember the first concert you reviewed?

LS: Yes, I remember the first two. There were two concerts in the same week. A recital by Beverly Sills and a recital by Arthur Rubinstein.

CP: In those days, those two artists were like the Statue of Liberty. They were untouchable. It was hard to write a bad review of those two. You would get flak for it. So were you happy with those performances?

LS: Yes, I was largely happy. I had some reservations about each. I was more surprised by the Rubinstein, and it turned out to be his very last concert in Boston.

He played with a kind of inwardness that I didn’t always hear in his recordings. I think he played a Beethoven sonata, and Beethoven wasn’t my favorite composer for Rubinstein. I liked it and I was more moved by it than I expected to be.  And of course, nobody knew it was going to be the very last time he appeared. He was quite elderly at that point, and it was a surprisingly lovely concert.

Beverly Sills was less surprising. I had my reservations about her. Not about her voice.  She was in magnificent voice and this might have been at the beginning of her international career. It was one of her very first Boston Symphony Hall recitals. She was in sensational voice.

I remember saying that she treated the audience as if we were guests at her party and she was the hostess. That was both very appealing and also a limitation.  She was less of an actress than I would have liked. She was less really involved in presenting the characters in the arias as I would have liked.

CP: Have you encountered an artist of an ensemble at the very beginning of the career and thought “This is going to go all the way. This is going to a huge name” and have you been right?

LS: The person that leaps to mind is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The very first performance that I heard her sing I was impressed and I thought, hmmm…I’m not sure where this is going to go. Is she really going to get everything together? By the second time I heard her the answer was YES! What a profound loss that she didn’t live longer. (Note: LHL died in 2006 at 52)

CP: Was it difficult to review such an intense artist?

LS: Not at the beginning. There was something so uncanny about what she was doing that you could talk about the ravishing, rich tone of her voice. You could talk about her complete commitment to the characters she was playing, especially in the operas staged by Peter Sellars.

In Handel’s Julius Ceasar, her performance of Sesto is one the greatest things I’ve ever experienced, and  I saw it at least half a dozen times. So it wasn’t hard to talk about. Later on, when you knew she was ill and she was fighting, it was harder to talk about.

CP: The Boston Phoenix began years ago as two papers and then became one. It went really mainstream, which it had not been, and has just shut down. It was the paper we all read. It was the paper you would carry home just to irritate your parents.

Did you see it coming, the end of a paper like the Phoenix, and where does a music critic go from here?

LS: We lived in hope! About six months ago there was a really big change in the style of the Phoenix. It became more of a magazine. It was glossy. The idea was to get more ads. It seemed to be working for a while. The readership went up. The on-line hits went through the roof. More and more people were reading it. It was obviously geared to a younger audience and they were responding, but the advertisers were not.

I think everybody at the Phoenix was a little worried, but we thought we’d pull through. But suddenly, we were told it was closing. “Starting tomorrow!” That was a shock to everyone. I wish there had been one more issue, a big retrospective with some of the star reporters who went on to major national carriers, but we didn’t have that option.

CP: But we have your new book! A collection of your pieces from NPR. You’ve been the NPR Classical Music Critic since 1987, appearing as part of Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

You, Lloyd, have the natural story telling ability a broadcaster must have. You mentioned Beverly Sills as a hostess. Listening to you is like being in a smoky dive, what the smoke is from we can talk about, you have that directness and non-threatening demeanor. I imagine being trashed by you in print is relatively painless!

LS:  Well, I hope it would be informative. I try to be supportive. I’ve written my share of nasty reviews. Especially at the beginning of what I now think of as a career. I didn’t know it was going to be a career!

CP: Let’s mention also that you are a very highly regarded poet. You are a Pulitzer Prize winner and you’ve been teaching at UMass-Boston for many years. You’ll be busy enough.

LS: Yeah. And I do have very promising new gig for an online journal called New York Arts. I’ve just written my second piece for them. It’s a very promising relationship. I’ll be writing mostly about events in Boston, so at least I still have a venue to be a voice in the community. I think that is one of the great losses of the Phoenix. It was a community effort and about the community, a community of wide spread interests.  To have that shut down is a profound loss. At least I now have an opportunity to continue writing and speaking about what’s going on here.

CP: I think a marvelous gift for anyone even remotely interested in classical music is Lloyd Schwartz’s new book Music In and On the Air. I happen to know that this man has very eclectic tastes. You’re not getting a volume of only Haydn String Quartets, not that there’s anything wrong with that!

LS: Nope. You will get Spike Jones, and Car 54, Where Are You? and the original soundtrack of My Fair Lady, and two of my favorite performers which I leave it to listeners to investigate: Johnathan and Darlene Edwards.

CP: I gotta go. I’m running to the internet.