A Visionary Critic, Commanday Saw Future In The Web

Robert Commanday with San Francisco Conservatory faculty member Corey Jameson in 2014.
Robert Commanday with San Francisco Conservatory faculty member Corey Jamason in 2014.
By Paul Hertelendy

SAN FRANCISCO — We lost one of our most prominent San Francisco Bay Area residents last week with the death of Robert Commanday, 93, a nationally recognized critic of classical music. He served as music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1964 to 1993, and then, at the age of 75, created the website San Francisco Classical Voice. It became a model for numerous regional sites on the web.

In founding San Francisco Classical Voice in 1998, this visionary foresaw the decline in metropolitan newspaper space devoted to the medium and took bold action. Subsequent history has shown a continuing trend of lagging newspaper coverage of creativity and artistry new and old in this field.  Several years ago, Bob brought the idea of a national web journal to the Music Critics Association of North America, whose membership includes most of today’s leading critics, and which he served with distinction as president for two terms. The site was launched in 2013 as Classical Voice North America.

Bob was a remarkable dynamo, returning to Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., for recent reunions at an age when most of us will be, at best, in walkers or on canes. He continued writing occasional essays on the music scene — “think pieces,” in journalese — for San Francisco Classical Voice and Classical Voice North America.

Robert P. Commanday (BerkeleySymphony.org)All of this was worlds removed from his beginnings as a flutist and choral director, leading glee-club-type ensembles at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1950s. He moved on to lead the Oakland Symphony Chorus from 1961 to 1965. But his major mark was as music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. From that forum, he praised upcoming artists and evolving composers while denouncing excesses and missteps by conductors, players’ committees, and managers on the Bay Area scene.

Not just reviewing concerts, like most print activity remaining today, Bob delved into the management of the music world, pointing up foibles by administrators as well as inaction by “blue-ribbon” boards of directors, all known to lead to lower standards and neglect of music education. He cultivated “deep-throat” in-house sources of leaks to unearth crises often white-washed by shrewd news-control.

A quick wit, he could be scathing in deflating the egos and pretensions of divas and divos alike. But he saved the best quips  in private for friends and colleagues.

Bob pulled a sly fast one on us fellow critics in the 1960s, conducting one of his last choral concerts, with orchestra, in San Francisco. He selected a Mozart rarity, the cantata Davide Penitente, a mystery work to even the veteran music critics around — until the first notes, when we realized it was mostly the familiar Great Mass in C Minor, which Mozart had recycled with an unfamiliar Old-Testament text!

He chuckled over that for ages.

On leaving his newspaper career, Bob remarked, with tongue in cheek, “I flunked retirement.” He initially ran San Francisco Classical Voice with essential volunteer editing assistance from his cellist-wife Mary. After spurring the development of Classical Voice North America, he helped attract early support for it in the form of a seed grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, one of several donors that have helped ensure the site’s continued existence.

All this, in just one, long, amazingly fruitful lifetime.

Articles by Robert Commanday on Classical Voice North America:

A Piedmont resident, Paul Hertelendy was the music critic for the Oakland Tribune and San Jose Mercury News, and since 1999 has enjoyed a similar niche with the local arts-review web site www.artsSF.com.

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