A Critic’s Conversion

Did someone get to John von Rhein?

Oh no, he says. He decided on his own to stop beating up on Daniel Barenboim. He expects Barenboim to take over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from Georg Solti in 1991, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Robert Marsh disagrees. “My position,” Marsh tells us, “is I want to keep fighting as long as I think there’s anything to fight for.”

But then, Marsh and von Rhein disagree about nearly everything. The classical music critics of the Sun-Times and Tribune, respectively, they have the amazing ability to attend the same concert and hear entirely different music. Consider their reviews last week when the CSO introduced George Lloyd’s Seventh Symphony. “Surprisingly appealing,” wrote von Rhein. “Synthetic Sibelius . . . derivative, diffuse and dull,” ruled Marsh. Or the week before, when Italian conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli came to town. Marsh: “a musician of the stature and skill to deserve an instrument of the quality of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.” Von Rhein: “a serious, well-intentioned mediocrity.”

Von Rhein sits in the balcony and Marsh sits downstairs and maybe that accounts for it. Probably not. What matters here is that von Rhein and Marsh do not disagree about Daniel Barenboim. Both think he is not up to the CSO and that his appointment could turn out to be a civic disaster. For months, both men have said so in their newspapers. Their mutual candidate to fill Solti’s shoes is Claudio Abbado.

But each critic has it on good authority that the deal’s been cut. Barenboim’s the man, and his signed contract may rest already in the office safe of his friend Henry Fogel, who’s executive director of the CSO and–in Marsh’s words–“Barenboim’s greatest source of strength in town.” Fogel is saying nothing and pretending the search goes on, but nobody’s fooled.

Last month Barenboim arrived in Chicago to spend two weekends directing the CSO. Von Rhein and Marsh assessed the first week’s program in the usual way. “Barenboim has clearly learned much about showmanship,” wrote Marsh. “What he now needs to master is the art of conducting.” Von Rhein was incendiary. The Symphonie fantastique, he wrote, “was awash in pseudo-Furtwanglerisms, ‘interpreted’ to the nines. The conductor obviously felt that to hammer home Berlioz’s expressive points he had to exaggerate almost everything, and so we got swooning ritards and accelerandos, mannered phrasing, garish climaxes and messy playing to boot.”

Von Rhein was blunt. “If this is the future of the CSO,” he wrote, “this reviewer wants no part of it.”

That must have gone down nicely with Fogel. But a week later, von Rhein recanted.

Well, that’s not exactly what he did. He merely reviewed the second Barenboim concert so generously that a copy editor was inspired to write the sappy headline, “If Barenboim’s era with the CSO is beginning, it’s time to rejoice.”

The actual review was marginally more restrained. If a week ago von Rhein had tarred Barenboim for his “pseudo-Furtwanglerisms,” now the similarities cut in Barenboim’s favor. “Both conductors [Barenboim and Furtwangler] maintain a strong underlying pulse regardless of the rhythmic freedom that operates closer to the musical surface. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the sublime Adagio, which rested on rich pillars of vertical sonority that refused to tumble even when the conductor distended line and phrase to suit his–and, I am convinced, Bruckner’s–purposes.”

The piece under consideration here was Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, which Solti and the CSO had toured Europe with in 1985. “Solti is visceral; Barenboim is divinatory,” wrote von Rhein. “Both are valid as musical statements, but, for this listener, it is Barenboim who comes closest to penetrating the truth of the music.”


“It augurs well,” wrote von Rhein.

Meanwhile, Marsh was noncommittal. He said the Bruckner was a lot better than the Berlioz but why shouldn’t it be? The CSO already knew it backward and forward. “I disapprove of Barenboim as a Furtwangler imitator, and I don’t think any more highly of him as a Solti imitator,” wrote Marsh.

Von Rhein’s second review struck us as odd, and we weren’t the only one. “Dig out the facts,” a reader wrote to us. “This was not just a critic’s response to the difference between one week’s concert and the next! It was the awkward and embarrassing spectacle of a critic engaged in urgent back-pedalling and revisionism. . . . It would be fascinating to learn just who brought him on board and how.”

So we asked von Rhein.

“It wasn’t a miraculous, overnight conversion by any means. I called the two concerts as I heard them,” he said. “I’m my own man and I speak my own reaction to things.” We accept that. A Tribune colleague described von Rhein as a curmudgeon who would quit before yielding to any authority but his own.

“I perhaps overreacted, I think, to a performance I found grossly distorted and badly played,” von Rhein explained. He was speaking of the first Barenboim concert. “It was a strong reaction inspired by pretty strong feelings, but it came out as a blanket condemnation of the man generally as a musician. I didn’t intend it to be that.”

And the second week? “I was pretty well bowled over by his Bruckner. He does Bruckner pretty well. I think these two reviews indicate there’s a real up and down with the man. One seldom takes a middle ground.”

A week after Barenboim left town, von Rhein and Marsh published Sunday think pieces on him. Marsh was provocative as ever: “If the CSO trustees give Solti’s job to Barenboim without exhausting all possibilities of making an Abbado appointment, they will be remiss in their obligations to the orchestra, the subscribers and the community at large. . . . On the basis of his two recent weeks, the only road on which I see Barenboim leading the CSO is the road to mediocrity.”

But the prevailing tone of von Rhein’s Sunday piece was resignation. He went through the usual list of regrets–Barenboim’s youth, his lack of charisma, his narrow repertory–and then told Chicago to bite its lip: “As long as Barenboim’s ascendancy seems virtually assured, he deserves every chance to prove himself. . . . Patience is in order.”

“I thought it was time for a little bit of temperance,” von Rhein told us. “It was time to back up and say, OK, it looks like he’s our man. Now what? I didn’t feel that taking the low road was the way to go. My feeling right now is to put a little oil on the waters, so to speak, and look ahead.”

Is it really such a foregone conclusion? we wondered. “All the indications I’ve been able to gather say it’s a done deal,” von Rhein said. “We’re not going on flimsy information.”

We spoke with Richard Thomas, chairman of the CSO’s board of trustees (and president of the First National Bank of Chicago) and asked him about the press campaign against Barenboim. “I don’t know quite what to make of it,” Thomas said. “First of all, we haven’t announced our selection yet and won’t until 1989. And secondly, it seems to me it’s somewhat risky to go out on a limb one way or the other prior to the announcement. I think they limit a little bit their future flexibility, if you will, by getting a hardened position on anybody before an announcement is made.”

That sounded like tough talk gently phrased, and we asked Thomas if his sentiments had been communicated to von Rhein either directly or by diplomatic channels.

No, said Thomas. “I’ve learned that only gets you in deeper trouble.”

What Dukakis Should Have Said

Everyone’s doing it! The new national pastime is He Shoulda Said and it swept America right after the second presidential debate. Some of us play till our eyes are red.

The rules are easy. Someone names a question or an issue, and then everyone says what he shoulda said. It’s as much fun as you can have while you’re banging your head against a wall.

Each game always seems to begin with the query from Bernard Shaw of Cable News Network. The one where he asked, Let’s say someone rapes and murders your wife. Should he fry?

Don’t you wish you’d had a crack at that curveball? Wouldn’t you have knocked it out of the park? Oh boy! Our file of nifty retorts by famous pundits is bulging. Here’s a sample.

(1) “No, because I’d kill the SOB myself first, and then the question would be whether you want capital punishment for homicide.”

(2) “I’d lose all self-control just like this and slowly choke him to death with my bare hands” (said while crushing Shaw’s windpipe).

(3) “My wife? Kitty? Well, if you could guarantee we had the right man, I just might want to throw the switch myself.”

(4) “That is a disgusting, inappropriate question,”

(5) “God forbid. God forbid any harm should come to the person who is dearer to me than anyone or anything on earth. But I’d react the same as anyone. I’d want to kill the scum that did it. I’d want to rip him limb from limb. Now wait, wait [silencing the sharp applause]. Yes, I would want revenge in that situation. Of course I would. But you don’t run a government on that basis.”

(6) “Kitty is probably the most–is the most–precious thing, she and my family, that I have in the world. And obviously, if what happened to her was the kind of thing you described, I would have the same feelings as any loving husband and father.”

The first five sallies were coined by Willie Brown, who’s speaker of the California Assembly, and by Russell Baker, Clarence Page, Mike Royko, and Hendrik Hertzberg (in theNew Re public).

And what about the last one? Does that high pitch of aggression have a familiar ring? Yes, now we know what kind of snappy comeback Mike Dukakis had in him all the time.

Dukakis played his round of He Shoulda Said during a later interview with the very same Bernard Shaw. Then Shaw asked, “Would you kill him?” and Dukakis said, “I think I would have that kind of emotion.”

You cannot be president in this country if you cannot rouse up the feelings of grief and vengeance on a moment’s notice.