April 25, 2010
Remembering Alan Rich, 1924-2010
Classical music has lost one of its most astute and beloved chroniclers. Alan Rich, former critic at the L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, died Friday. For over sixty years he covered and commented on concert life, from the Koussevitzky era at the Boston Symphony to the Dudamel era at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was respected and loved by legions of friends and colleagues.
I first spoke with Alan in 1972 when I interviewed him for Harvard’s undergraduate radio station, WHRB, of which he was an alumnus. He continued with radio after college, when he moved to Berkeley and broadcast over KPFA. Once, while reminiscing about those days, he asked me if I had ever heard of Philip K. Dick, the author of many now-classic science-fiction novels. I was dumbfounded when Alan told me, “He was my roommate.” Another friend of his from those days was KPFA’s film critic, the then-unknown Pauline Kael.
In 1984 I became Alan’s colleague at KUSC Radio, where his audio essays were a regular fixture. He also produced award-winning programs about the music of Kurt Weill and other twentieth-century music. Alan had come to Los Angeles to be part of New West Magazine after many years as the tastemaking music critic of its parent publication, New York. After the magazine’s demise he stayed in L.A. and became the music critic for Newsweek. His writing was always both plain-spoken and authoritative, a combination as rare then as it is now.
Later, when I worked at the former KFAC-AM-FM, I invited Alan to be a commentator on the station. In those pre-Internet days he would sometimes drive to the studio after a concert to write and record a review for broadcast the next morning. I’ll never forget watching him at work. He would sit down at a typewriter, insert a blank piece of paper, and proceed to type his complete 500-word script from beginning to end. He knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it.
Critics sometimes become bored with the routine of concertgoing. Alan never did. In his last years he was as eager to encounter a new work, hear a new soloist, or see a new opera production as he was when he went to Boston’s Symphony Hall as a student. He also never lost his unshakeable integrity. Besides speaking his mind about musical matters without fear or favor, Alan didn’t hesitate to puncture pomposity or pretension when he encountered them.
His artistic judgment was of course highly sophisticated. I sat with him at a performance at the Bing Auditorium of a new Pierre Boulez work, watching as he took in the highly complex music with rapt fascination and spontaneous delight. Yet he certainly was no snob. The film “Billy Elliot” moved him to tears, and he loved classic Hollywood films too. One day, over a sushi lunch, Alan shared with me his latest enthusiasm: the audio-book version of a Harry Potter novel. He was charmed by the story and dazzled by the British actor who impersonated all the many characters.
A few years ago I saw Alan, at the premiere in San Francisco of the John Adams opera “Dr. Atomic,” for what turned out to be the last time. I’m not sure why, but as we took our leave I was moved to tell him how much I had always liked and admired him. I am grateful to have been granted that chance. Most of all, I’m fortunate to have known Alan Rich, a gifted, dedicated, endearing, singular human being. May his memory be a blessing.