Marsh Gets a Message

“If I may start with the sin of pride,” said Robert C. Marsh. “Look in the tenth edition of Who’s Who in the World. You will find two American music critics–Andrew Porter of the New Yorker and myself.”

Robert Marsh felt hurt. For 35 years he’d been writing on classical music for the Sun-Times. His 1956 book on Toscanini had been translated into German. Twenty years later his series on Stravinsky for WFMT brought him a Peabody.

But last week, at the age of 66, Marsh blew a big story–Margaret Hillis announcing her retirement. The next day he was reassigned. Features editor Steve Duke called Marsh in and told him he was now an arts and entertainment writer.

Marsh told us, “I asked Duke, ‘Do you want me to retire? Is that the point of this? Do you want me to step down?’ He said, ‘Well, that’s your decision.’ It’s not my decision entirely. Taking my job away from me is a message of a kind, isn’t it?”

We’re afraid it is. And possibly Duke would have delivered the message earlier, but Marsh was too proud and his career too distinguished and age discrimination too much of a taboo in the workplace. But Marsh’s young colleagues had begun to think of him as a part of the paper’s past. They wearied of the ponderous lectures on the Sun-Times’s traditional values he’d deliver at staff meetings. They do not remember Marshall Field V, let alone Field’s father or grandfather.

Marsh had felt the ground crumbling under his feet for months. Duke wanted more stories. He wanted livelier copy. “I have felt distinct pressure for a number of years that my Sunday pieces should be personality pieces, entertainment pieces,” said Marsh. Even before Duke? we asked him. “This all began in the Murdoch era,” he said. “I have commented in meetings–and this has not been well received–in some ways we are still running the paper under Murdoch rules. There is a very clear stress to deemphasize serious issues.”

He said, “Steve’s model appears to be [Tribune critic] John von Rhein. It’s a pity John can’t come over and write for the Sun-Times. Steve feels he’s bright, lively, vivid. . . . I don’t try to describe music. I agree with Roger Sessions in his Harvard lectures that you can’t duplicate the musical experience in words. So I write about music in more general terms. John is more descriptive. John uses a lot of colorful adjectives. I don’t. They think I’m old and sober and dull, I guess. I don’t think my readers think I’m old and sober and dull. But the emphasis at the Sun-Times is on, ‘Will this sell papers?'”

What the Sun-Times clearly emphasizes is bright writing in a shrinking news hole. “I couldn’t develop ideas and explore large artistic concepts as I had in the past,” Marsh told us. “In a way, I’m quite sympathetic to them. I don’t like the kind of writing I’ve been doing the last couple of years.”

Aside from functioning as pundit, Marsh had a beat to cover. It is enormously difficult to cover any beat for 35 years without nodding off, and classical music is no exception. A couple of times lately, Duke complained that Marsh had bollixed stories. And this last one was unacceptable.

Margaret Hillis, who created the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1957 and has directed it ever since, announced at a rehearsal the night of Monday, April 1, that she will retire next year. That afternoon Chicago Symphony publicist Joyce Idema had called Marsh to give him the news; she told him the details were in a press release she was trying to fax him.

Marsh’s attention, however, was somewhere else. He was busy interviewing CSO trustees, with an eye to a vote they might be taking that Thursday night on whether to support a new cultural center. Without the CSO’s backing, there will be no center, so Marsh figured he was in pursuit of a much bigger story than Hillis’s ’92 retirement–which, he continues to insist, “was not spot news by any means” (news that has to be covered on the spot).

Marsh decided to hold off on Hillis until he had Idema’s fax in hand. He knew Idema was having trouble transmitting it, but he figured she’d get the press release to him some way–by messenger if she had to–and until she did he wouldn’t worry about it. On his way out the door at the end of the day, Marsh asked arts and entertainment writer Wynne Delacoma to keep an eye out for a fax from Orchestra Hall.

It never came.

“It was felt I should have told Lon Grahnke [the entertainment editor]. Well, perhaps I should,” said Marsh. “I was leaving the office in a hurry, and I thought telling Wynne was enough.”

This was a terrible blunder. A reporter doesn’t go home for the day without telling his editor what he’s left hanging. “It was a very characteristic case–where a reporter is concentrating on one story and another story in his field breaks, and he does not shift all his attention to the new story,” Marsh pondered. “It hardly justifies shifting someone who’s been covering the field for 35 years.”

On the other hand, he said grandly, “Maybe Solti and I should go out together. There have to be turning points–ends of chapters. Maybe as Solti makes his exit, I should make my exit too.”

Even before his demotion, Marsh had arranged to work a four-day week, so he could spend more time on a history of opera in Chicago that he’s been working on since 1983 for the Newberry Library. Now he may ask to drop down to three days at the paper.

He’s also talked to Ray Coffey, editor of the editorial pages, about leaving the features section altogether to write about government and politics. His education, Marsh reminded us, was not in music. Marsh majored in political science at Northwestern, did graduate work in government at Harvard and Oxford, and received a doctorate in social philosophy from Harvard.

“The point I’ve made repeatedly,” said Marsh, “is that covering Orchestra Hall and covering City Hall are not as different as you might imagine. Both are intensely political places.”

Marsh has no interest in retiring. Both his vigor and his desire to keep working at age 66 may be suggested by the fact that he has a four-year-old son. “I’m not going to stay forever,” he assured us, but went on, “I retain a very great sense of loyalty to Marshall Field the third and fourth and the kind of newspaper they wanted to create. It may be misplaced idealism or Celtic romanticism–call it what you will. But I don’t want to put myself in the position of having it said of me I betrayed that ideal. My conflict in this situation is with two or three individuals and not with the larger concept of the Sun-Times.”

And there Marsh stands–on a rock of virtue the youngsters around him can only marvel at.

Duke and editor Dennis Britton refused to discuss Marsh’s situation (Duke would not even come to the phone). The upshot is that the Sun-Times is now short two music critics. Don McLeese left for Texas last December, and thanks to a hiring freeze no one new has come in to take his place covering rock ‘n’ roll.

Fortunately, Wynne Delacoma (who wound up writing the Hillis article a day late) is qualified to step in for Marsh. Newspapers think of themselves as civic institutions on the order of the CSO and Lyric Opera, and it’s unimaginable that the Sun-Times would not quickly assign someone to cover them. Even so, for every one of Marsh’s readers, McLeese probably had two or three.

BAT ’91

Once again it’s the time of year to award the Golden BAT. And in 1991 this ceremony observes an important milestone.

The BAT (as in Baseball Accuracy Test, although over the years it’s also stood for Baseball Accountability Test and Baseball Aptitude Test, the custodians of this space never being ones to sweat the small stuff) is annually awarded the local scribe who least disgraced himself (or herself) the previous spring. For spring is when the papers put guns to the heads of their sportswriters and command them to pick the pennant races.

Amazingly, we have come to the tenth anniversary of the Golden BAT. And we must face facts: whatever BAT’s impact when our agitating predecessor Neil Tesser established the award in 1981, familiarity has reduced his sardonic spear to a tickling feather. Does this mean the Golden BAT has outlived its usefulness and must be retired? Far from it. Like the empty exercise in prognostication that our competition was created to deride, the Golden BAT has come of age! Only a few old-timers can remember it as an idea worth having, but on it goes. The BAT is now a true rite of spring: like all that’s best about baseball, it’s been hallowed by mindless repetition.

And the winner is . . .

Just 2 of the 11 pundits we surveyed–the Sun-Times’s Toni Ginnetti (who foresaw the Royals [75-86] beating the Cardinals [70-92] in the World Series) and the Reader’s own Ted Cox (who picked the Padres [75-87] over the Royals in the Autumn Classic]–blew every single division race (let’s hope for better from Alan Boomer). But just two scribes called more than one race right.

We hail these solons–the Tribune’s Alan Solomon and Andrew Bagnato. Each one picked the A’s (a virtual gimme) and the Reds, although neither saw the Reds getting as far as the series, let alone winning it.

But only one champion can wield the Golden BAT. In a really thrilling tiebreaker, Solomon and Bagnato agreed that the Pirates would finish third in the NL East, but Solomon saw the Red Sox just fourth in the AL East while Bagnato had the Crimson Hose placing second.

Bagnato was just as excited as you’d imagine a young sportswriter to be who’d won a Golden BAT the very first time he picked the pennant races.

“Does the award mean I never have to do them again?” he asked us.

We told Bagnato he’d prevailed because he believed more in the Red Sox. “That’s because I used to live in Boston,” he said. This year he’s picked them to go all the way.

Don’t look for Bagnato to repeat.

Marsh Picks a Winner

Robert C. Marsh just called. “Today Shulamit Ran won the Pulitzer Prize for her symphony, which I nominated,” he told us. He explained that he is one of several critics around the country who are asked to forward new music they’ve admired to the Pulitzer judges for consideration. “This is my first winner, I must confess,” said Marsh. “The point I’m making to you is that if I can pick a score which is of sufficient merit to win a Pulitzer, my musical judgment can’t be too bad.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Randolph.