Robert Commanday Oral History

We are pleased to share an in-depth interview with music critic Robert Commanday as the most recent addition to the Conservatory’s oral history collection. Conducted by Corey Jamason, the interview can be read and listened to by visiting our Oral History Project website. Below are some snippets. Enjoy!

Robert Commanday and Corey Jamason, November 2014

Robert Commanday and Corey Jamason, November 2014

Early Years
“I was very fortunate both because of my parents’ love for music, and because of the proximity to New York. When I was very young they would take me into New York for major recitals and performances of one kind or another. I was privileged to hear the great artists Josef Hofmann, and Brailowsky, and Fritz Kreisler and I remember my mother taking me to the D’Oyly Carte visiting performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and to musicals – Victor Herbert and the like. I remember attending the first production of Porgy and Bess, and things like that. I had a real early exposure to great musicians, and that was important for me.”

“Bess, You Is My Woman Now, and all those major pieces – they stuck with me. They got glued to my soul. Every time I’d hear it subsequently, it’d be like a reiteration of this experience, even though it was different singers.”

B Minor Mass with Koussevitzky
“The one Koussevitzky experience I had was strong. I couldn’t sing in the Glee Club because I was playing in the orchestra, which rehearsed in the evenings when the Glee Club rehearsed. I sang instead – I knew I wanted to sing, so I sang in the Chapel Choir, which was a better experience because it had Archibald Davison as the conductor. Really, I think, singing under him those years, is one of the things that got me involved in conducting in the Army when I was there. At one point the Harvard Glee Club was going to sing the B Minor Mass with Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, so I got into my tuxedo and sneaked on stage with the Harvard Glee Club, and sight-read it, just to have that experience. That was wonderful.”

Years as a music critic
“My first Datebook editor was the younger sister of a very famous journalist called I.F. Stone. I.F. Stone wrote a political weekly in the East, and he was a very sharp and progressive writer. He was very famous, and she was a very smart woman. Her specialty was film, and she did a certain amount of film reviewing herself. She was the Datebook editor. When I came on, it was a good thing for me, because she was something rare on a newspaper – she was a teacher. She could teach, and most of my colleagues who have gone into journalism from scratch, to become newspaper critics overnight, never get much coaching or teaching, they just have to do it and work it out themselves. She was tough on me, and in my initial months she would have me rewrite a lot. Rewrite articles and stories, and give me tips about, for example, how to do an interview, which I had never done before. What kind of words to use that were complimentary, and what insidious words I could use to characterize someone without actually criticizing the subject. It was fun. At first, she did make me rewrite a lot, and so I learned a lot from her, that was very important.”

“When I became a music critic I had wonderful fights with Kurt Adler. We’d go toe to toe, and it was wonderful because I knew what he knew that I knew, and he knew what I knew that he knew, and so they were wonderful battles.”

“All I can say about Herb Caen was that he spoke the way he wrote. People that got used to his kind of casual style – it was not a writing style, that’s the way he was. If you knew his writing, you knew him. It was charming.”

“Far and away the best critic was my predecessor, Al Frankenstein, who not only had a good ear, but his style of writing was absolutely superb. Even when one disagreed with him, he wrote very well. He had humor and an inventiveness that was special. He was for the same reason an excellent lecturer in both art and music. He covered art and music for the Chronicle.”

San Francisco Classical Voice
“As I mentioned in passing earlier, when I founded San Francisco Classical Voice, a principal initiating idea was the thought that these contemporary music ensembles needed a voice. I was thinking of them ahead of everybody else, because they were the only ones who were being ignored in the press!”

“The fundamental idea of San Francisco Classical Voice was that all the reviewers had to be musicians. I felt I could make a writer of a musician – I couldn’t make a musician of a writer.”

Personal Highlights
“The personal highlights of 60 years of music in the Bay Area … I can’t … Rubinstein, Heifetz, Toscanini … and opera performances, there are certain opera performances that will always remain with me. I remember for example when there was going to be a Tristan and Isolde, and Birgit Nilsson was the Isolde. For some reason or other, whoever the Tristan was supposed to be, he was sick or couldn’t make it, so they brought in Wolfgang Windgassen, who was very long in the tooth then. Well, the two of them together just did a magical performance. They inspired each other. Then there was the Die Frau ohne Schatten that was done here with Karl Böhm. That was a wonderful, unforgettable thing. And then there was the funniest Turandot – I dubbed the “Cab-Pav” Turandot of Caballe and Pavarotti. That was a special one. But there were these things, and someday … I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to go over my bylines because one set is here, and another set is at Cal, and who can go over that many things? But it’s an accumulative experience. I feel like I was blessed, I was so fortunate to have those thirty years at the Chronicle because A) they were the golden years of the Chronicle, and they were golden years in the city, and to be a part of that was just a blessing. And it’s the totality of it that I can just look back on and smile.”

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