Outside of their own snakepits, not many critics get honored for anything, much less for biting the hand that plies them with canapés, but miracles do transpire. So let us genuflect before Josh Kamensky, communications director for L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti, and before the councilman himself, for acknowledging the quarter-century-plus that Alan Rich has measured out appropriate doses of venom and balm while treating classical music in our city.
The Council modestly convenes in City Hall’s John Ferraro Chamber, which from all appearances used to be a chapel. And I don’t mean a cozy little wedding chapel – this room is more on the Vatican scale, complete with massive marble pillars, an altarlike podium and honest-to-gawd pews for the congregants. This morning, designated Mediation Day in Los Angeles, the Council was honoring the legal mediation process and several community activists as well as Mr. Rich, so maybe there was some kind of media/mediation/intermediary theme going on. A high-school basketball team – sporting jerseys – sat in attendance, and I left before finding out what they were doing there, though Alan (as his former editor, I get to call him that) in his speech thanked “the entire L.A. Philharmonic for showing up in uniform.”
In his years writing for the New York Times, the New York Herald-Tribune, Newsweek, the L.A. Herald-Examiner and L.A. Weekly among others, Alan has made a lot of people mad. I’ve heard him castigated for everything from arbitrariness to rudeness to poor grooming; a well-known singer, encountering him last year after an unkind column, seized him in a hammerlock. Never, though, have I heard Alan accused of ignorance. Whatever you think of his opinions – and I myself agree with him only three-quarters of the time, when I know enough to compare – they’re based on enormous knowledge, careful listening and even some musical training. And if an institution’s directors are screwing up on programming or publicity, he’ll let ‘em have it with both barrels, and reload. Repeatedly. Garcetti commented on the value of a critic who’s been given both freedom and column inches -- amen.
Among Alan’s best qualities are his writing style, which manages to be both substantial and conversational, and his love of a challenge. He’ll be glad to comment on the 500th rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth, but he has the musical brains to really hear new sounds and evaluate them not just for novelty, but for structure and emotional impact. New music is not an easy sell, but the classical arena will fill with dust unless contemporary works are performed and championed. It’s been one reason Alan and our Philharmonic, as led by Esa-Pekka Salonen, have made such a great team.
Alan loves Los Angeles and the music that can be heard here. Standing to receive his certificate, which was about the size of an unfolded newspaper, he recalled in his deep, amused grumble how, when he moved out to California, his friends warned how bored he’d be amid the provincial hicks. Well, he’s one New Yorker who knows the difference between intelligence and pretension, and the last laugh has been allotted to him, working in the sunshine of a place he calls one of the major creative centers in all the arts.
“I have another 82 years ahead of me,” said Alan (who is 82), “and I plan to fill them the same way as I have in the past.” Good.