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Alan Rich dies at 85; classical music critic and champion

Over a long career, he wrote for many newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and Newsweek. He helped promote several young composers and championed conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

April 26, 2010|By Keith Thursby, Los Angeles Times

Alan Rich, a longtime classical music critic for a variety of newspapers and magazines who wrote with such unabashed gusto that he helped create a major new music scene in Los Angeles, has died. He was 85.

Rich died Friday afternoon of natural causes in his sleep at his home in West Los Angeles, said longtime friend Vanessa Butler.

During his long career, Rich wrote for such newspapers as L.A. Weekly, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Variety, the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune, and magazines including Newsweek, New West and California. He also was the first music critic of New York magazine, which he helped to found.

"Alan was a hugely important force in American classical music. Decade after decade he kept bringing the conversation back to new music, even as he wrote brilliantly on canonical composers," Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker, said Sunday in an e-mail. "His experience as a concertgoer was vast, going back to the premiere of [Bela] Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra in 1944 (after which he shook Bartók's hand), yet he had ears for the freshest music being written by young composers today."

Rich championed Esa-Pekka Salonen's forward-looking music directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the building of Walt Disney Concert Hall, and he always found time to attend the concerts of emerging composers and to support smaller concert series that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Patrick Scott, artistic director of the new music series Jacaranda in Santa Monica, said Rich wrote with "a passion and a richness."

Rich came to Jacaranda's first concert in 2003 and wrote about it for L.A. Weekly.

"If he found a young artist with no name recognition that deserved attention, he would be their most ardent champion. And that happened with Jacaranda," Scott said.

"He was very clear. He was very enthusiastic when he was enthusiastic and very damning when he was unhappy," Scott said.

In the 1980s, Rich helped the late philanthropist Betty Freeman plan musicales in her Beverly Hills home. Freeman made more than 400 grants and commissions to help composers develop new works, pay living expenses or subsidize performances and recordings.

The salons, featuring such composers as Philip Glass, Pierre Boulez and John Cage, as well as young artists starting their careers, became "the Los Angeles Sunday afternoon hot ticket," Rich told The Times. The musicales ended after Freeman's husband died in 1991.

Rich was born June 17, 1924, in Boston. He had been a pre-med student at Harvard, graduating in 1945, but turned toward music, beginning his writing career as a secondary critic for the Boston Herald.

"A friend at college showed me Donald Tovey's ‘Essays in Musical Analysis' which, in spite of that academic title, described music in wonderfully imaginative, lively language that still related to the sounds themselves. I immediately decided that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," Rich explained in a post on his blog, soiveheard.com.

"A career in medicine, which was what I thought I had wanted to do, had become less interesting day by day, to my parents' horror."

He earned a master's degree from UC Berkeley in 1952 and worked at a Berkeley record store with science fiction author Philip K. Dick, Ross recalled. Rich spent a season in Vienna on a music fellowship, studying under the Austrian musicologist Otto Erich Deutsch.

When he returned to the United States, more work as a critic awaited.

"He was an extremely intelligent, sometimes cranky but lively critic. His impact was considerable," said John Rockwell, a longtime arts writer who worked primarily for the New York Times but also for the Los Angeles Times.

"He loved things or he hated them.... When he waxed enthusiastic, he was credible because it was enthusiasm linked with taste and intelligence."

He wrote several books, including "So I've Heard: Notes From a Migratory Music Critic" in 2006 and "Play by Play," a series of books with accompanying CDs that NPR's Linda Wertheimer in 1995 called "an impressive, informal, practically irresistible guide to classical composers."

He is survived by a sister, Sue Rice; a niece and a nephew. A memorial is being planned, Butler said.

keith.thursby@latimes.com

Times music critic Mark Swed contributed to this report.

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