Michael Steinberg, 1928-2009

In Memoriam
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  August 3, 2009

Michael Steinberg, who died of cancer last Sunday morning in Minneapolis, was one of the great voices raised in defense of high culture, and Boston was lucky that he was based here for so many years.

From 1964 to 1976, he was the Boston Globe's powerfully outspoken and phenomenally well-informed music critic. After a particularly scathing review of a 1969 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert led by the generally worshiped Carlo Maria Giulini — Steinberg wrote that if Danny Kaye and Victor Borge had conducted "with such crazed dislocation of tempo and with such prodigality in expression of tragic suffering and deep knee-bends, the audience would have been in stitches" — the BSO threatened to bar him from Symphony Hall. But the Globe stood by him, and he continued to hold musical performances and programming in Boston to the highest technical, interpretive, and musicological standards — until the BSO co-opted him. He then served as its director of publications and program annotator from 1976 to 1979.

The BSO continued to use his program notes even after he moved on to the San Francisco Symphony (where he was also artistic advisor), Minneapolis (Jorja Fleezanis, that orchestra's concertmaster, was his second wife), and New York Philharmonic orchestras. He maintained his BSO connection as its most popular pre-concert lecturer. His program notes are collected in three Oxford Press volumes (The Symphony, The Concerto, and Choral Masterworks), which are bibles of profoundly insightful and eloquent historical and musical information.

He was a significant mentor to the next generation of Boston critics. (Thank you, Michael! Former Globe and Phoenix critic Richard Buell told me, "He was the most important person in my life outside of my own family.") One could regret that he never completed a long-planned book on Elliott Carter or a collection of E.T.A. Hoffmann translations. But what a generously full and valuable life he has completed now.

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